A composite image of Laura Okafor-Withers as a teenager and as an adult.

Letter to my younger self: Laura Okafor-Withers

18 October 2023

Writing to her “bright young self” in our series of letters from senior leaders, Laura Okafor-Withers, Head of Trade and Working Capital Operations at Barclays, talks about being part of one of the only Black families in her 1980s English suburb, changing her hair early in her career to fit into a corporate setting – and succeeding against the odds.

Dear Laura,

I know growing up as one of the only Black students in your school is tough. I won’t lie ­– the mental scars inflicted there will be with you for the rest of your life. They will manifest in many different ways – some good, some less good and some actually great.

When you are young, you will question why you are treated differently and why your potential is being curtailed. But through your determination, you will surpass everyone’s expectations.

Your Nigerian mother will forever continue to be your inspiration. The battles she faces head-on surviving an abusive arranged marriage – putting herself through university, earning her master’s degree and eventually becoming a successful entrepreneur – will show you that no obstacle is too big. The wisdom from your mother and other relatives will give you a level of self-belief and pride, and your amazing older sisters will equip you with everything else you need in life.

Growing up in 1980s suburban England means that you will regularly face ignorance and discrimination, even from those in positions of authority, who you are supposed to trust. Some teachers will be encouraging but others will try to restrict your potential. One teacher will try to make you take the lower maths General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), where the highest grade possible is a C. But you will end up achieving 10 A grades – including in maths! You’ll go on to sit four A-level exams as well as one AS-level exam, attain a 2:1 Banking and Finance (Honours) degree and qualify as a Chartered Management Accountant, eventually becoming a Fellow.

After the fantastic haze that is university, where you revel in meeting like-minded individuals and enjoy freedom of self-expression, you will join the workforce and replace your long trademark braids with a straight bob to fit in. It’s sad to realise that will be the only way you’ll be accepted in the corporate world. As of 2023, this has only very recently changed. Know that when your daughter starts her career, she will not carry such a burden.

Laura Okafor-Withers, Head of Trade and Working Capital Operations

Laura Okafor-Withers, Head of Trade and Working Capital Operations

Eventually, you’ll buck the pressure to not speak ‘too’ loudly, not be ‘too’ passionate or be perceived as radically different- giving permission for others to also bring their whole authentic selves to work.

Laura Okafor-Withers

Head of Trade Working Capital Operations, Barclays

Throughout your career, rising from an Assistant Management Accountant to a Director, you will learn how to hold true to your vision within the teams you lead. You’ll realise that when people try to tear you down, it’s often due to their own fears. These moments will make you wobble, but don’t let them discourage you. Hold your head high.

Best of all will be the amazing people that you meet on your journey, such as your supportive colleagues, allies, mentors and sponsors, as well as your husband – and the two children you have together. So, take every opportunity presented to you: each one opens the next door in your career.

For now, though, you deserve to be celebrated – my bright young self who knows the world is her oyster. I raise a glass to the optimism and energy that still powers you through the occasional dark days. Despite everything I have discovered over the years, you are still my best asset and my greatest source of pride, radiating a hard-won resilience that no one can take away – ever!


Need to know

Laura Okafor-Withers started her career as an Assistant Management Accountant in the National Health Service, then quickly progressed to Senior Management Accountant at TSO. She qualified as an Accountant with Michelin Tyres, and went on to become the organisation’s European peer-to-peer lead. With her now-husband, she moved to Vancouver, Canada, and worked as a Property Accountant for the ski and snowboarding hospitality corporation Intrawest. On returning to the UK, she joined Deloitte Consulting for seven years before leading large teams as Head of Finance, then Finance Director, for the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance and Worldpay from FIS.  She is now Head of Trade and Working Capital Operations at Barclays.