Sir Ken Olisa Talks Homelessness, Social Responsibility, and His Mother

Edmund Crawley 14 May 2018

Businessman, philanthropist and serial bow-tie wearer Kenneth Olisa comes across as extraordinarily down-to-earth. From humble beginnings in Nottingham he graduated from Cambridge’s very own Fitzwilliam college and became immersed in the world of technology and business; starting his own merchant bank and becoming the first British-born black persons to serve on the board of a UK public company, before being appointed the Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London in 2015. In this capacity, he serves as the Queen’s official representative for her visits within the capital. But it is a sense of social justice that seems to most deeply define him during the course of our conversation, and indeed he is president of a major homeless charity. I ask where his convictions came from.

“My mother affected my outlook because she had an extremely well-honed sense of justice. She would fight absolutely every wrong that she saw. I once said to her… ‘if you’d just decide what to prioritise, you’d find you live a lot longer’. Well, she ignored me and lived to 99.” Sir Kenneth divides the world into people who get a thrill out of harming people, and those who get a thrill out of helping people. “My mother had no concept of grey. And I’ve clearly inherited that; I’ve got this sense of justice, and I get cross when I see injustice.” He is acutely aware of society’s propensity to exclude certain people or groups. “And in so doing, you lose talent, capability and stability. And why can’t everyone be included? When I was growing up, it was impossible to be homosexual. In this country, if you were gay, you were excluded from almost everything, and if you weren’t excluded it was only because you pretended that you weren’t gay, so people had to live their lives pretending to be something that they weren’t.”

I raise the problem of homelessness in Cambridge, but he is quick to remind me that the issue is far more complex than it may appear. “There are all sorts of reasons why somebody ends up on the street. First of all, begging and homelessness are not synonyms. People who beg might beg because they are part of criminal gangs… or they might beg because they’ve got nothing, e.g. they come from a country where benefits aren’t allowed in the UK.” He runs through a number of scenarios. “There are lots of different forms of homelessness… someone who’s lived in a bus shelter in London for 16 years isn’t the same as someone who got into a row with his wife in Manchester and hitch-hiked to London and is on the streets for a night.” What then should students (or indeed colleges) be doing to tackle the problem? “Understanding the problem of an individual, working out their needs and trying to find a solution is a good thing to do. And you can do that best by working with established charities… what I’ve learned from 20 years working in the homeless world is that the person who stays on the streets the longest is the most dependent on other people. The person who gets off the quickest is the person who has the most independence. My wife is a literacy expert, and her and her colleagues run a class every week for ex-homeless people to learn to read and write. One problem for them is that they can’t get a job or access benefits because they’re illiterate. There are wonderful stories about people in their 40s or 50s who learn to read and write, and they regain their independence and with that their self-esteem.”

Our conversation ranges across a number of topics, including the role of businesses and even the monarchy, for all of which he holds an opinion. He tells me he firmly believes that businesses should be part of society, rather than existing in a bubble, and with that comes a responsibility to generate wealth that can be widely distributed, and he unsurprisingly believes the Royal Family are very much the “invisible glue” binding us together: “when the Queen went to Grenfell Tower… [she] gets out the car, and all these people living in this third-world environment, who’d had the biggest possible trauma, burst into spontaneous applause… if you don’t have that humanity gluing us together, the question is ‘how do we stay together?’ and the answer is ‘we don’t, we fracture’”.

We also discuss how he once crossed swords with House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, who has recently been accused of bullying. Sir Kenneth is sympathetic, but cautious: “the word ‘bullying’ is beginning to take on a life of its own. Bullying is when somebody cruelly supresses somebody else. So, slavery is an example of bullying, as is an abusive relationship. I think being foul-mouthed, losing your temper, and smashing your phone on the desk is doing exactly that: being foul-mouthed, losing your temper, and smashing your phone on the desk. As much as I’d like to be critical of John Bercow, and that sounds like the sort of behaviour I wouldn’t like to tolerate, it’s dangerous to put it in the same category as bullying.” Similarly, he is concerned that society (although he does not view it in generational terms) is putting far too much emphasis on emotions.

One of the most symbolic moments of his long career was being awarded the 2016 ‘Powerlist’ title of most influential black Briton. “It’s wonderful, but it comes with a big responsibility… one becomes a role model. Annoying though it is… I’ve discovered that some black people think that black people can’t get on in the country, which is a problem. So, the black people who do get on have an obligation to show other people that we can.”

Cambridge has become much more sensitive to racial issues since the 1970s, and I wonder whether he thinks he would have benefitted from a BME officer when he attended Fitzwilliam. “When I was at Fitzwilliam I wouldn’t have only been [the BME officer], I would have been the entire cohort! I think there’s a big debate that needs to be had about confusing lenses with labels. I think there is the absolutely legitimate lens of ethnicity, or gender, or sexual preference, or ability etc. You can look at history through one of those lenses. When it becomes a label, it’s then used to define people. And out of the 77 or so adjectives that can be used to define people, why pick one? From labelling comes stereotyping, from stereotyping comes prejudice, and from prejudice comes all sorts of negative things. So, I’m ok with the lens – I’m a patron of the ‘Black cultural archive’ – but the minute it becomes a label I think it becomes pejorative.”

He speaks eloquently on so many topics that it’s impossible to do justice to his answers. But my lasting impression was that he represents a perfect role-model for socially-aware students, and a living lesson that the high-flying success Cambridge student’s often aim for needn’t be, and shouldn’t be, one devoid of social responsibility.