Updated: Mar 29, 2022
In celebration of Black History Month, LYP highlights Ibukun-Oluwa Abejirinde, an inspiring black woman leader and talented LYP program alumna. Ibukun was also the recipient of the 2019 LYP Scholarship.
Ibukun is an implementation and evaluation Scientist at Women’s College Hospital and an Assistant Professor (status) at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto. Her research focuses on digital innovation in healthcare, health systems solutions, and maternal health.
Read Part Two of Ibukun’s interview below where she shares her insights on uplifting other women, the lessons she has drawn from her experiences throughout the pandemic, and overcoming some of her biggest career challenges.
Over the last two years, how has your work and community been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? And how have you been adapting to uncertainty and change during this time?
The pandemic has impacted the world both positively and negatively. First I want to focus on the positives as it’s easy to be drowned in the doom and gloom of the pandemic. I’ll say the pandemic has allowed me to contribute and engage better. Career wise, I’ve had two new roles, more recently, a leadership position as a Scientist at Women’s College. On a community level within black academic and female leaders, I am more aware of the issues that these groups are facing, as well as the ongoing challenges back home in Nigeria.
There’s also been a positive impact in terms of community building and advocacy across the United States and Canada, coming from a place of pain, loss, and anger with the Black Lives Matter movement, vaccine inequities, and inequitable access to care. There’s a movement for change, and while it’s not perfect, I feel that it has gained speed during this time. I’m most grateful for the opportunity to have had my two wonderful daughters during this pandemic, so for me, it’s been quite the experience personally and professionally.
As for the negatives, there has been a higher burden of loss and burnout on the black community. I have personally lost people during this pandemic and I know friends whose relatives have passed. We are collectively mourning. Then, there’s the responsibility of care at home managing two young ones; my husband and I are tag-teaming through it.
There has also been the risk and very real experience of professional isolation. On one hand, I am grateful for not having to commute and the ability to work from home, but on the other hand, there is the need to connect and feel like a part of a team.
In terms of adapting to uncertainty and change, each day is different from the next, and I’m figuring it out as I go along. I’m someone who loves to have a work structure and schedule. It’s been impossible to know what each day will bring with all the uncertainty, so my strategy has been to lay down all my high expectations. I take each day as it comes, try not to be frustrated when things start spiraling out of control, deal with each task that shows up, and lean into others for support.
The ability to communicate virtually has been very helpful, it makes it possible to reach out to friends and family, having them check in on me. Having a very supportive partner has also played a role in lightening the additional pressures the pandemic has sprung on us all. All these have led me to be more aware of my privilege and wonder about those who do not have the same support and access as I do. It reminds me to stay grateful because I know that many are suffering from the pains of the pandemic.
What has been one of the biggest challenges throughout your career and how did you overcome it?
One of the biggest challenges I’ve had to deal with throughout my career is finding balance. I think I’ve finally come to accept that work-life balance is just a myth; it’s a moving target. I really love the work that I do and I work hard, but I also try not to let it define me. Finding that balance between work and life has been increasingly more difficult during the pandemic because your office is your home, so where do you draw the line?
One of my goals this year is self-care and rest and this requires being intentional. So I’m navigating hitting that target of a “balance”, juggling my day-to-day, and just being conscious of how much strain I’m putting on myself.
One of the most beautiful questions a mentor challenged me to reflect on is “Who is paying the price when I make one choice over the other?” That’s something I’ve been asking myself to guide if I say yes. If I say no to one thing, what am I gaining? What am I losing? It’s also not just about me, I have to think of those within my circle, who are going to be impacted by my decision.
Being intentional means doing my best at work, saving up energy to take care of myself, and being present when spending time with my daughters and my spouse.
How do you support and uplift other women in your communities?
I support through formal and informal mentorship. Sometimes it’s for specific short term situations such as applying to graduate school, negotiating a salary, or getting a new job. Oftentimes, especially in black communities, some of the barriers faced are financial. Where I can, I support others to get through a specific financial obstacle, which sets them up to continue their journey to success.
Another way I uplift others is by improving myself to be a better role model. I recognize the responsibility I have and that younger, black women look up to me and many other female leaders. One of the most powerful pictures that always stays at the back of my mind is the one of a young black girl looking up at a painting of Michelle Obama in a gallery.
I also give back to my tribe, which is constantly rooting for me. I make sure that I’m available to support and encourage them along their own journeys. I help people find new opportunities by either introducing them to target people who are a good fit or advertising open roles in my network.
I think part of the reason why black and female representation in STEM is low is due to weak targeted recruitment strategies. I try to do my part in bridging that gap by spreading the word about new opportunities to people from racialized communities.
Finally, I’m open and vulnerable, because that’s the only way you can learn. I try to minimize the idea that I’m perfect and have it together and instead show that you can be a leader, advance in your career, and still have challenging moments and moments of doubt.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I think I would change the question to “what advice would my younger self give to me?” Because I find that I’ve become more careful as an adult. With children, they just have no fear. If you throw them up in the air, they believe you’re going to catch them, and they are not second-guessing. As adults, we tend to overthink and overanalyze for the perfect moments. I think I’d like to hear my younger self say, “slow down and savour the process. Just take in the moment, don’t go too fast.”
I’d like to hear her tell me to bring all of myself to the table. Authenticity may not be popular, but it’s a very valuable and rare commodity.
And finally, for her to tell me not to let anyone or anything stifle my voice or drown it out. My voice is the most powerful gift I have.
Ibukun is a beautiful example of a strong, empowering woman who is creating a life of passion and fulfillment on her own terms through hard work and resilience. We can all learn a lot from her unique journey. Thank you, Ibukun, for sharing your strength and vulnerability with us.
About the Author: Tina Chow
Tina Chow is a visionary changemaker, avid traveler, and passionate writer. She empowers leadership, personal growth, and career development through her creative content. Follow her blog for more of her work.