I Showed Up!

Tolu Agbelusi
10 min readMar 30, 2023
Florence Raja by Sean Thomas for British Vogue ( I do not own the copyrights to this picture)

I met Florence Kollie Raja by chance, over a conversation about rice water and Black hair, on a sunny afternoon in pandemic June 2020. We were both having lunch and waiting to be styled for a British Vogue shoot. That context made the conversation a little more surreal than it would otherwise have been. I was struck first by her openness and warmth and as the conversation progressed, by the seeming infiniteness and range of her abilities.

Florence has been a professional ballerina, a politician, an asset manager for the likes of Goldman Sachs and Price Waterhouse Cooper, CEO of lifestyle brand Buqa Life and she is currently a sustainability expert within the fashion industry and founder of Ethical Era. The more I learn, the more my interest peaks for the woman behind the titles and the kind of character that creates her drive.

What does it mean to be a strong woman?

Being a strong woman is returning to yourself and who you were meant to be before the world shaped, changed and pushed you around, demanding things that make us forget that much of true wisdom and strength comes from within.

Delving into the mechanics of ‘returning’, Florence recounts her childhood; born of a Russian mother and a Liberian father, she left Liberia at the age of three, lived with her grandmother in Russia for a few years before they moved to the UK and finally moving back in with her parents when they relocated to London. Coming from two cultures that take great pride in academic excellence, she carried the burden of those expectations and lived up to them. Nevertheless, at some point she began to question whether she was only worthy of love by virtue of delivering on a mandate of excellence as a child and then as an adult.

I questioned myself about who I was and realised that if I was going to be happy and if I was going to thrive, I had to learn to love myself for myself outside of the titles. So learning to love myself is what being a strong woman has become for me personally.

These life discoveries are obvious yields of a mind that has invested the time in listening to itself. It’s an aspirational maturity that invites a query into what was happening in the season of life when Florence stepped into her womanhood. Working around the question, she speaks about women as a collective making change happen as wella s the fact that every stage of her life has had its lessons and are equally important. Hoping for an answer that speaks more to personal transition into womanhood, I probe further but Florence is clear in communicating that she never really thought about it in those terms and so cannot answer the question. On some level, she had begun to answer it in earlier conversation in which she recalled younger days when she suppressed her own wishes in favour of a more palatable persona that favoured the expectations held by family and society. At some point, she chose to reconcile both personas and though some reacted by telling her she was changing, for her it wasn’t a change, she was simply becoming who she always was, embracing true authenticity. In a twist of surprise, when the question has paled in the rearview of other matters during the interview, Florence laughs at the sudden realisation that there was indeed a moment where she emphatically broke ranks with girlhood.

When I stood up to my mother and was able to tell her I am a woman in my own right and you don’t just get to tell me who to be, or what I should do or say. It was like cutting the umbilical cord and taking charge of my own life. Perhaps that’s when I came into my own womanhood.

Mothers always come up in these conversations, often at the intersections of admiration and conflict and always in a novel representation of those realities. When I ask who comes to mind for Florence as strong women, she doesn’t skip a bit before mentioning her mother and the maternal grandmother who raised her. Women whose characters appear to her to be polar opposites.

My grandmother was very gently spoken, undemanding, passive but also deeply loving and nurturing. She would listen to hours of our monologues on who we wanted to be when we grew up. She became this stoic presence in my life and she made a lot of sacrifices for her grandchildren without ever really chasing a solo variation of herself. My mother is completely different. She left the country and went across the world from the Soviet Union to Germany and then Liberia and engrossed herself in a culture she was unfamiliar with. She was brave. But she could also be very selfish because it was all about her all the time. I admire both of them and I am the product of both. I can be quite driven, quite self-centered, sometimes I have a need to go after things to show the world that it can be done and often that does require a certain single-mindedness. Equally I’m deeply loving, gentle and not quite as prickly as my mum was. When I think about the experiences they both went through in the Soviet Union and the lives they lived thereafter, these are the strongest women I know.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

It would be easy to place Florence’s trajectory within the context of a lineage of strong women that took care of things. This of course would only be a small fraction of the story which risks diminishing the challenges that she had to surmount and the dreams she had to let go to in her own journey.

Dancer, politician, asset manager, fashionista, what is the journey through what is a very broad professional portfolio?

‘It’s not as complicated as it sounds’, she laughs, putting it down to a combination of education and the impact of life throwing her around. With a Russian mother who was a classically trained pianist and a West African stepfather who was a journalist and a professional jazz trumpeter, there was never any question as to whether formal academic and artistic excellence was a requirement. In fact Florence had tried her hands on the piano under her mother’s tutelage but as is often the case when parents teach their children , this was a cause of friction. She learnt ballet instead and was brilliant enough to have been picked up by ballet company Ballet Black even before she left school at the age of sixteen. Florence continued to dance as she pursued a university degree in Politics and Economics at top universities in the UK and Moscow. By the time she had completed her degree, it was clear that there was not much progression possible for a black ballerina in the UK, especially one who wasn’t a singer, wasn’t modelling or doing the other side jobs she would need to survive if she pursued dance.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

At 22, I did not see a future in the arts. Our parents used to say you need to be twice as good but what does that actually mean? The doors were shut. It wasn’t good enough that I was as good as any of the dancers who were in the mainstream. I was overlooked because I was biracial or Black. This was a painful truth. Working twice, ten, two hundred times harder is a lie. Nothing could compare to ballet ever again. Ballet was the love of my life. So if I couldn’t do it, then I thought, it doesn’t really matter what I do, but I want to be paid well for it, enough to guarantee my own stability but also my parents and my brother. I fell back on my degree and as much as working in asset management is far from the arts in the sense that it is soulless, it gave me another joy — financial stability. When I began to return to myself, I had enough stability to pursue new avenues freely.

During the years in the financial sector, I was restless. I began to seek out work in the community on environmental issues, working with the elderly, etc. and somehow this catapulted me into politics. I was approached by the conservatives but at that time, everyone was very much in the centre. All my friends were in the Labour party and it was them I went to for advice to counterbalance my views. I ran locally, nationally and also for the European parliament. I loved it in the beginning but the higher up you go, the more you give up on your authenticity. They start telling you what to say and the less you are actually able to do things for everyday people.

Thoughtfully picking apart her experiences, Florence shows a refreshing honesty in acknowledging what she enjoyed and what was regrettable. As is the norm with these interviews I ask whether there were any women or personalities that opened the sphere of possibility for who Florence gets to be, especially as none of the industries she’s been engaged in have been easy especially for a Black woman. It’s hard to hear when she says there was no one. She did it alone and felt lonely for most of her trajectory because either no one looked like her or was falling over themself to guide or assist in the professions she chose. I ask then of sisterhood.

What does sisterhood mean to you if anything?

My sisters are the women that I got to pick to be my family and who have been with me along the journey. With them I get to shed that skin of hardship and the loneliness. I relax and get to be vulnerable and naked away from the world. These women are all different to me but they are also little pieces of me. One human being like a husband or a partner cannot encompass everything that you need. That’s the brilliance of female friendship. They bring different things into my life and when they came into my life I knew they had been missing from it and I had somehow been searching for them. They light me up.

Florence’s face reflects the joy she speaks of and it warms me up and chases away the slight fear that I must admit creeped into my thoughts when she shared her account of not having anyone who she considers as having opened doors for her. Often we hold onto a persona of strength that blocks us from letting our guards down enough to ask for help or to see it as such when it is offered. Having a sisterhood where vulnerability and love is commonplace, is as much a good antidote for this mask of strength, as it is a good ground to unlearn versions of ourselves that do not actually assist us. Unlearning is always an integral part of these conversations and Florence without my prompting has serendipitously used the word a number of times. I choose then to focus on the act and ask:

what have you had to unlearn to become more yourself?

I learnt that women have to be either really aggressive or borderline non-existent. This is reminiscent of my mother and grandmother. I had to unlearn that because I have more to give to the world than those two templates allow. I haven’t had to destroy anyone to get ahead. I have sometimes had to ask people to step aside or to overtly disagree and that might sever a relationship, but it won’t be because I was aggressive. I’ve always maintained my kindness and my empathy. I feel like I can be strong without clawing at people or leaving a trail of bodies. But I am also not soft or shrinking.

What armour do you wear to go out in the world?

Fashion. I love makeup. This is Russian conditioning that I have not dropped — women don’t leave the house without makeup, you always appear collected. I have so many identities. My Russian, Ukrainian, Eastern European side likes a lot of embroidery and print and headscarves and it reminds me of ancestry and my grandmother. I also like African prints.

Certain garments make me feel a certain way — I don’t like wearing dresses when I want to feel powerful. If I’m walking into a room where I’m going to be the only woman or only woman of colour, a trouser suit makes me feel feminine and powerful.

Women’s relationship with fashion is infinitely interesting because it’s always more than the clothes and the reasoning between individuals is rarely consistent. For example, in the same way as Florence wouldn’t wear a dress into an all male boardroom, I’m more inclined to select a killer power dress suit for exactly the same reasons as she won’t. And this of course is the gift of individuality. As someone who works towards sustainability, Florence’s love for fashion doesn’t end with the fabric, the style or even the occasion. She’s emphatic in stating that for her, there is no true empowerment of women, whether as a concept or when we dress, if we can’t account for where those clothes came from and if we can’t be certain that those clothes were not made by modern day slaves. More than just talking about it, she works within the fashion industry to spread awareness about sustainability, how it can become reality and beyond that, how human beings actively work towards better climate care.

Do you ever think of legacy and what do you want yours to be?

I think of it as accountability. If in X years time, my children, grandchildren, future generations ask why we allowed our environment, safety, etc to deteriorate, if they ask mommy what did you do? I don’t want to shuffle my feet and give a wishy-washy answer. Too many people don’t participate in communities. I want to be able to say I showed up and I did my best.

What scares you?

On a personal level, not giving the world all the love I have to give. When I show up somewhere in whatever capacity, it’s not just because I want to but because I have something to give that I want to share so that it can make something better somewhere.

A woman who wants to make change happen and who is committed to living authentically as herself is a representation if strength I can get behind on any day. I come away from this conversation with a question as much from Florence, for Florence and for myself and whoever is reading— how do we learn to listen better, when we have embarked on that all important journey back to ourselves?

To find out more about Florence Kollie Raja, visit www.ethicalera.co.uk

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Tolu Agbelusi

Nigerian British poet, playwright, producer, educator and lawyer, I write stories that focus on the unperformed self, Blackness and womanhood.