Supporting gender diversity – Interview with Hanna Afolabi, Mood and Space

Supporting gender diversity and encouraging conversations to support the growth of women across the industry, David Phillips talks to Hanna Afolabi, Managing Director and Founder, Mood and Space.

Hanna Afolabi, Managing Director and Founder, Mood and Space | BTR News
Hanna Afolabi, Managing Director and Founder, Mood and Space.

Before founding ESG real estate business Mood and Space, Hanna was Development Director at Balfour Beatty Investments, leading on the 1,900-home Eastwick and Sweetwater regeneration project at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Prior to this role, she worked on other notable London projects, including at Canning Town and Elephant and Castle. Hanna set up Mood and Space to create better places for people by embedding social value and community focus into developments. She also founded Black Women in Real Estate, which brings together black women in property.

Have you ever struggled to progress in your career?

The time I struggled most was while studying architecture, where I found it difficult to adapt to the culture. As a black woman from a low socioeconomic background, I was in a minority. However, I had an opportunity to work in Lagos, Nigeria for about a year, where I had amazing opportunities and support from management. I came back from that with a different perspective.

Have you felt that being a woman has given you an advantage in the industry?

Yes. After working in Nigeria, I felt that my difference and diversity was a superpower. As a ‘double minority’, I’m often the only person with those perspectives in the room. So, as a Development Manager, I can see and suggest things that others may not have seen. Also, I’ll get remembered.

Given the industry’s gender gap in leadership, how did you reach your level of success?

I was fortunate to have had a moment of adjustment early in my career. From this, I     learned to connect with people on a human level: in work environments, I always looked for who could be a sponsor, mentor or champion. I built relationships with senior people and leaned in to work events and socialising. Men spend more time networking: it’s a relationship-focused industry that we work in. So, as women, we need to commit to building up work relationships in the same way. Men are also more audacious and likely ask for what they want, and I learned to do that, too.

What needs to change to inform the next generation of female leaders about the industry and the roles available to them? Do we need more support for women at school level to understand the opportunity?

Retention is a much bigger challenge than bringing people in, because the industry’s culture hasn’t changed in a way that makes people want to stay. To attract the next generation of leaders, the culture needs to adapt so people stay and thrive. This might be around more inclusive language and policies, or creating spaces where people can feel safe and included. Once representation is there and the shift has happened, we may see people wanting to sidestep into the industry. At school level, we need to show women working in property and construction, so it’s clear that it’s a possibility for them.

What does the future look like for women in property and what advice would you give the next generation of female leaders joining the industry?

I hope it’s the removal of barriers and glass ceilings. Women should be given the opportunity to thrive in the workplace. And I hope to see women as lobbyists and decisionmakers, and a rallying of confidence around women being able to do jobs that tend only to be taken up by men. To the next generation of women leaders I’d say: don’t stop fighting for equality. Take up space and take up positions. It’s good to say we want to kick down the door, but we have to make sure that people occupy spaces. It’s about being audacious.

Who inspired you/are your role models and who do you admire in the industry?

Michelle Obama’s book Becoming was a big influence on me, in its discussion of having it all at different stages of life. More recently, the first two episodes of Kanye West’s jeen-yuhs documentary were a great illustration of tenacity and the drive to do something that you want to do. In property, Caroline Pillay at AireyMiller is one of the few black women at partner level in property: she’s big on mentoring and supporting others. Sam McClary at Estates Gazette works to champion diversity, which can be hard to do as a white woman.