Tessy Ojo heads the Diana Award, a youth charity set up in 1999 in memory of the late Princess Diana to support the outstanding achievements of young people in their local communities, as well as to empower them to make a positive difference. A committed Christian, Tessy Ojo joined the Diana Award in 2000, and was appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Organisation in 2012. She spoke to Keep The Faith about the Diana Award’s work, her love for young people, and the role of faith in her life.
KEEP THE FAITH (KTF): The Diana Award, which you serve as CEO, has held its Royalty Rocks event. I heard it was a great success. Did it achieve the objectives you set for it?
TESSY OJO (TO): Yes, we did. The Royalty Rocks Party had two main aims: a) to celebrate the legacy of the late Princess Diana, which lives on through the Diana Award, and b) to celebrate what would have been the Princess’ 52nd birthday. We felt privileged to be able to do this. The atmosphere was electric, and everyone came ready to party in memory of a great woman!
KTF: You were appointed to the position of Chief Executive Officer of the Diana Award in September 2012. What does the Organisation do?
TO: The Diana Award was founded as a legacy to Diana, Princess of Wales’ belief that young people have the power to change the world for the better. The Diana Award recognises and celebrates young people who have made a positive difference to their community. But receiving a Diana Award is only the beginning. We encourage, empower and engage young people in social action through the Diana Network; the Diana Anti-bullying Ambassadors, and the Diana Training and Mentoring Programme. I love the Diana Award and the tangible impact we have on the lives of young people! I love seeing a young person come to us, a bit shy, and after only a couple of sessions through training and skills development, you witness that young person’s shoulders rise, and they are ready to take on any challenge. They begin to see challenges as an opportunity to make a difference, instead of what comes so naturally to us all: moan!
KTF: Part of your work involves maintaining relationships with the Royal Family, 10 Downing Street and celebrities. How do your achieve this and involve young people?
TO: I have regular meetings with Government and Clarence House, and keep them up to date with all we are doing from time to time. I also do the same with all our VIP supporters. We have regular breakfast sessions, as a way of keeping our patrons and ambassadors updated of our work. Young people are involved in all aspects of the Organisation, from being trustees to staff. In most cases, where appropriate, a young person accompanies me to meetings, as we believe in showing and not just telling about our impact!
KTF: This Organisation is one of the legacies of the late Princess Diana. What impact did her life have on you, and why do you think her legacy endures?
TO: I loved watching or following her and the way she always came across graciously. I also loved her as a mother, and how she was bringing up her sons to have as much normality as they could, given who they are. Most importantly, I loved how she stepped outside her comfort zone and defied the norms in so many ways. One that readily comes to mind is that of the AIDS patient, who she reached out and touched, in an era when there was so much stereotyping around AIDS and getting infected simply by a touch. She defied that norm, and redefined how society viewed AIDS patients, and that had a ripple effect across the world! AMAZING!
KTF: Your professional achievements are an inspiration. Can you tell me a little bit about your background and upbringing, and the role that faith played during your childhood?
TO: Wow, thank you! (*blushes*) I am British, born to Nigerian parents. My dad, until he retired, was an economist, who worked in various banks across Nigeria and Europe. My mum was a headteacher. I am one of seven children, yes, they still had that many children in those days! The only daughter sandwiched between six boys! Sadly, one of my younger siblings, Andrew, passed away at the young age of 18, which I think completely broke my mum’s heart, and which my dad still thinks she never really recovered from until she passed away in 2002, at the age of 59!
I gained my first degree in Biochemistry, in 1992 from Lagos State University, Nigeria, and left Nigeria shortly afterwards to live permanently in England, having spent all my holidays during University here in England either studying a short course, or gaining some valuable work experience. Once I finally moved, I continued studying whilst working, firstly doing a post-grad Diploma in Management Studies, and then a full MBA at the University of Greenwich/Hull in 2003.
My faith is everything to me. It keeps me grounded, and helps me find focus in a world that can sometimes be vain.
KTF: When and what made you decide to become a Christian?
TO: I was brought up in a Christian home all my life, and regularly went to church. However, whilst in my second year at Uni, I had a sudden feeling of emptiness and nothingness. I knew I wanted more meaning to my life, but didn’t know what or how. I knew of a Christian lady in my hall of residence then, so I went up to her, shared what I felt, and she read Romans 7:15 – ‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do.’ And that just described me! I haven’t looked back since.
KTF: Can you share some information about your career path, and the ways in which your faith has inspired you as you pursued your career goals?
TO: My desire to work with young people was something I grew up with. My late mum (Chief Mrs Veronica Nwadike), being a headteacher, was also instrumental in instilling in my siblings and I the ethos of volunteering. We took up various roles, including homework club help, library assistant, and other tasks in any school she headed. Seeing the impact on the kids, as a result of my involvement, gave me such a buzz that I was making a difference!
However, my career kicked off working in the City, with firms such as Balfour Beatty, Borders and IBM but, after a few years, I began to get restless and wanted to do something more worthwhile, beyond making profits for big City firms! This coincided with the birth of my youngest child in 2000; I had an unquenchable desire to work for something that would make a positive influence on this generation and generations to come. I finally narrowed down my next career option to either working for a not-for-profit organisation involving young people, or the Office of the Third Sector. Seven months into my maternity leave, I spotted a job advert for the Princess Diana Award for Young People; I knew that job was for me, although if I were successful, I would have to accept a £13,000 pay cut. I got the job…
Twelve years later, I am delighted to be the CEO of that amazing organisation, the Diana Award.
KTF: As a believer and a leader of a major charity, how can or should the Church support young people, particularly in this current climate where it’s difficult to get work?
TO: Wow…I have so much to say on this topic. This is an area I am hugely passionate about and would love to do more to help. It breaks my heart to see how a lot of young people lack direction, support and motivation. In some cases, this is because parents are too busy, not present, or don’t have enough understanding of the education system. Whatever the reason, the Church has the opportunity to be the bridge that fills the gap. But, unfortunately – I see this all the time – the offering is tokenistic, non-tangible and, in many ways, not relevant to the needs of the young people, thereby leaving the young people without some basic skills that will enhance their job chances. Every young person needs a ladder, and anyone/organisation can step in to provide that ladder. I think the Church has a huge role in being an effective ladder for our young people.
KTF: What are your plans for the Diana Award in forthcoming months?
TO: We continue our international expansion, and are seeking corporate supporters to fund the work in various countries. I am passionate to engage with more countries in the Caribbean, as we have already started the work in Jamaica, also with Africa, giving back to my roots. We are also expanding into Scotland and Northern Ireland. The coming months will see me travel a bit, to ensure the smooth set-up of our regional bases. My biggest priority is to secure corporate backers who will see the need to build up the next generation of young people.
KTF: How do you relax when you’re not working?
TO: I love going to the gym. It frees my mind up. I love running in open spaces. I also love cooking, and watch a lot of cookery shows, and then try it out on my family as my guinea pigs.
I also love socialising with my friends – they keep me sane and normal – so I love doing dinner dates, too. On holiday, I love lazy days!
KTF: Lastly, what message would you like to share with Keep The Faith readers, particularly those 25 and under?
TO: My message for young people is to keep busy. Find something to do; tap into those skills and passion that you have, and use it to make your dream or someone else’s dream come true. By reaching out to someone, you will inadvertently meet your needs, too. Get excited, and make change happen in your world!
For more information, visit www.diana-award.org.uk