Dr Doyin Atewologun, founder and CEO of Delta

Doyin Atewologun presenting in front of a room

Doyin is the CEO & Founder at Delta, a leadership and inclusion consultancy company. Coming from her background as a trained organisational psychologist, Doyin developed a passion for helping businesses get the best out of their employees. Delta helps organisations do just that, particularly assisting businesses and leaders get the most out of the diversity that they have. Her company believes that every single person at an organisation is valuable, and that, when their potential is unleashed, the business will flourish. Doyin also held a formal role at Oxford University as the Dean of the Rhodes Scholarship programme and is a Fellow at Trinity College. 

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur? 

It all started when I was working in a consultancy firm, as a business psychologist, following my MSc. in Occupational Psychology. A few years in, I started a PhD in Leadership and Identity. I had the opportunity to work flexibly, so I would work more or less, depending on what my PhD required. For my PhD, I was curious about how atypical or ‘non-prototypical’ leaders showed up as leaders in the workplace. I looked at the intersection of gender and ethnicity with leadership identity, to see how people made sense of these identities in combination. As I continued as a business psychologist and as someone who was developing expertise in leadership across difference, I had more and more opportunities to speak to clients who wanted support in building a diverse talent and leadership pipeline to improve various business outcomes. I was in a position where I was advising organisations on what they needed to think about to create teams and cultures in which different people could thrive and lead authentically. Increasingly, clients asked me to diagnose and provide support such as leadership coaching, talent programme design and culture change solutions. It then became increasingly clear that I actually could not deliver these pieces of work by myself. I needed to build a team around me to address these businesses’ needs. I found one person, then a second, then a third and before I knew it, I was a business owner!  

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?  
Delta logo (white text on purple background)

For me, entrepreneurship is about innovatively having impact. This is to say, finding an innovative way of having an impact through meeting an observed need. For me, this definition incorporates blending what society, a sector, or a business needs, with something you can offer, ideally underpinned by passion or wanting to make a difference.  

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why? 

First, being able to identify and respond to the ‘market’, the audience or your clients. Figuring out exactly what people want and need, whether it be clients, users, audience or customers. You also need adaptability, a degree of knowing what it is you are offering, but also being able to adjust if it needs changing. Third, and one that is particularly pertinent for me now, is duality of focus – having both an internal and external focus. Internal focus being what is going on with the business: what is happening with the team? Are they engaged, are they being challenged yet supported? Are our processes working optimally? At the same time, a successful entrepreneur needs to focus externally - what is happening in the environment, in the economy, with clients? Holding focus on both of these is really important.  

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur? 

I enjoy the fact that I am stimulated and challenged everyday, and I have to draw on and integrate different perspectives and points of view, data, and emotions to make decisions moving forward, which keeps me on my toes! 

What individual, company or organisation inspires you most? Why? 

As I progressed in my PhD, I became increasingly familiar with the academic literature on women, management and successful careers. One strand of research, particularly Professor Herminia Ibarra’s work, focuses on role models. Women and professionals who belong to other underrepresented groups are less likely to have many role models in their orbit. So, if you do not have those role models, you need to build a ‘composite’ role model. This means you need to tune into different facets, characteristics and attributes you admire from different people around you and use that to build your role model. I tend to do this because I am aware of only one or two other Black women in the UK who have set up professional service businesses and charted a similar journey to mine. So, there isn’t this Rolodex of people who have tread the same path that I could say ‘that is the person I want to be like’ and model myself against. But, I have collected many pieces from people who inspire me, to form a composite role model. For example, in my academic career, from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer to Reader, I would regularly approach a small number of White male Professors who generously shared their experiences and provided feedback on my draft articles to help me get published in the highest-ranking journals, a critical success criterion for promotion. And, I did my PhD at Cranfield School of Management, which has an excellent reputation for translating research into practice. During my doctorate, I worked with some phenomenal female academic trail-blazers who shaped the way I approach adding value to businesses and connecting academic insights with real-world applications. And, staying connected with Cranfield as a Visiting Fellow has meant I continue to work and learn alongside people who blend research with practice, with an institution that attracts businesses that value applying research to their practice.  

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business? 

I feel very privileged that I do work that I enjoy, lead a talented team to deliver this and build long-term relationships with businesses that value this work. For example, last month we launched a new cohort for an annual talent programme we have designed and delivered for a global law firm client over the last few years. For the 2-day in-person launch for this cohort, Partners had flown in from different parts of the world, as well as people who are aspiring to be Partners, who came from a wide range of different minoritised backgrounds.  We supported the senior leaders in being more open and vulnerable in their interactions with colleagues who typically wouldn't have direct access to them and created conditions for both groups to identify, and commit to, practical everyday changes for inclusion and excellence in the business.  The participants described the launch event using words like ‘inspiring’, ‘phenomenal’, ‘life-changing’. I was pleased and proud that the Delta team helped this global, culturally diverse, cross-level and cross-functional group deepen self-understanding, foster positive interactions with colleagues and collectively commit to action. The launch event set the stage excellently for the law firm to meet its goals for creating and nurturing a diverse leadership and talent pipeline for business success - this is the type of impact that brings me joy, and I’m excited to see what happens with this client in our work with them over the coming months.  

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur? 

I’ve learnt the importance of ongoing short- and long-term horizon scanning. It is so tempting to have a short-term focus, and I think in the world of entrepreneurship you can so easily be sucked in by the endorphin hits from this. It can feel more rewarding to focus on the immediate, often at the cost of the longer, term. With regards to the long-term, it I don't mean just one dimension - it’s not just about focusing on the commercials (for example, ‘revenue target of X amount by Y date’), but also to think today about the culture you want to nurture long term, what the company feels and looks like, and what it will be known for. Holding in your mind the present state of your enterprise as well as your desired future state across multiple dimensions or measures, is crucial.  

How have you funded your ideas? 

It has all been from personal investment and profits.  

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?

I would have 0 resources to pass on! There are probably communities, networks or other initiatives like IDEA available to tap into, but, unfortunately, I am not so familiar with them. My contact with IDEA came about through a personal contact at Oxford inviting me to an IDEA dinner - this has been my only contact with any sort of entrepreneurial communities in Oxford. This is partly because I moved to Oxford during the pandemic, and a lot of my work is London-based, requires travel overseas or is virtual. Even so, I would like to be more connected into Oxford’s entrepreneurial environment. I had assumed that most of these opportunities in Oxford were only open to students. If I’d realised they were open to all, I almost certainly would have wandered in at some point. I think it would be helpful to see more events and support promoted as not exclusively or solely for students.  

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them? 

First, I would like to say that you often may not be aware if you are being treated differently based on given characteristics. At Delta, we do a lot of research with UK, European or North American HQ’d client organisations; usually, but not exclusively, qualitative. In these projects, we typically ask different groups of professionals (for example minority ethnic employees compared to their White counterparts) about their work-related experiences. It is not uncommon to find majority group, or White, colleagues speaking positively and enthusiastically about the camaraderie and support they have at work and have this absent in the narratives of their Asian and Black colleagues. You often don't know of all those times you have not been invited to the pub, or not been asked for tips about the best time to visit a give ski resort. So, I may not be aware that experiences I have had constitute challenges from being a woman and/or Black entrepreneur. However, research indicates for example that Black women entrepreneurs are much less likely to gain access to VC-funded capital. Personally, working in a professional services business, I often find myself caught up in conversations about day rates and speaker fees and getting push back in terms of the value I bring. There are men who I know I am as good as, some of whom I have trained myself, whose rates are higher than mine – and I am being questioned and receiving push back, needing to justify mine. You do also get those moments when you’re in a room, no one really knows who you are, and certain assumptions are made about you – I’ve been asked ‘Can you tell me where the toilets are?’ and ‘Where is the coffee served?’ too often for it to be random! Although, as my career has progressed, this has tended to happen less frequently. Overcoming challenges such as these, for me, is a combination of resilience, taking time out as needed to recharge, regroup and recentre.  And certainly, as appropriate, letting people who can change this know that it happens so they can influence things so it happens less frequently to other people. 

How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs? 

Whilst things are changing for the better, there is still across the board, not just in Oxford, institutional-level push back against taking differentiated approaches to achieve a desired outcome. I would encourage universities to continue to be curious about what gets in the way of entrepreneurs from different backgrounds or identities meeting their goals, and to use this data to inform the ways in which different forms of support are conceived and developed. It’s important to understand from an evidence-based perspective, what are the most effective strategies to facilitate innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit across genders, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc, rather than assume a homogenous approach (because we live in a world where these differences do count, although we wish they didn't). Especially, Oxford with its pulling power, status and privilege, could spearhead research and develop varied, targeted solutions to unleash entrepreneurial talent and potential within different types of people. I would especially encourage an intersectional perspective, for example, asking what kinds of solutions will enable different types of women entrepreneurs (e.g. across religious, ethnic, socioeconomic and disability status) to excel? 

Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs? 

Concentrate on finding, and building, community. Members of your community don't have to be in the exact same business as you are, but perhaps broadly similar in terms of size or maturity or business type (e.g. services, retail, tech or manufacturing). Find your people so that you can use them, even if just someone to trust as a shoulder to cry on! Also, although I should be making more use of them myself, there are so many resources out there for personal development for example on platforms like Udemy, LinkedIn, and lists of recommended business books to read. Some people are fortunate to have wisdom and guidance passed down from parents’ generation or an extensive network of mentors, but if you are the first in your family to tread this path, upskill yourself by taking advantage of the free resources out there. Finally, remember and remind yourself, in the darkest days, that the world values what you are bringing to it. Hold on to your ‘why’ when things get tough.