Life and times of only black girl in her UK community; maltreated at home by wicked foster parents, beaten up in school because of her looks, labeled a thief just to humiliate her, toughened by racism, ‘deported’ to Nigeria for cultural orientation and now Woman of the Year 2018 in Black Business Woman of the Year Award and just last week named 2022 Emerging CEO Of The Year.
By Prisca Sam-Duru
Adeshola Cole-Alegbe is the CEO of Tritek Consulting Ltd, a London-based multi-award-winning IT company committed to assisting candidates in the African community secure roles within the IT sector.
Adeshola who is happily married to Dele Alegbe, with three adorable children, in this exclusive encounter, shares how she grew from a very traumatised child, suffering several forms of racism in the UK, to a multi-award-winning mentor, CEO and recipient of the Woman of the Year award, 2018.
Read on as she shares her heart- wrenching experiences.
“I was born in Hackney and my parents were Nigerian immigrants. At the time, it was just a common norm that while busy working, parents would put their children in foster care. So, I was in foster care with a family in Birmingham for good eight to 10 years of my upbringing. It was a very weird upbringing; I was subjected to a lot of racism. I was the only black person in my school and I was subjected to a lot of racism there as well. So, that’s where I believe my toughest area came out because I constantly had to speak up for myself and fend for myself and fight for myself. Again, as the only black person in my school, they called all types of names. And with my foster parents, it was a very strange upbringing, very weird and very strict upbringing. I was not allowed to sit down until I was told to sit down, I was not allowed to eat until I was told to do so. I was also not allowed to watch TV, until I was told to watch TV”.
Wait a minute! Was that normal with children in foster care or that’s how this couple decided to treat Adeshola?
“It wasn’t normal; that’s how they decided to treat me. And I think because I was with them for a very long time, I thought it was the normal way of living to some extent. So, it was in my later years that I discovered that wasn’t normal. With my foster parents, it was a very strict upbringing, it was like a military style upbringing and like I said, I was not allowed to sit, go upstairs, until I was told to do so. Sometimes I slept in the bathtubs and was not allowed to put on the light. You asked a question if that’s normal and I said no. I think they were just very wicked people and that’s just how they chose to bring me up”.
Fostered from the age of 2 to 11 years in the midst of many racial, physical and mental abuse, I know you might be wondering, where were her parents. Were they not checking up on her? For good ten years – the better part of her formative years – she was treated as an orphan, in fact, like trash.
“The agreement was that I would see my real parents. I think at that point, my parents would come to see me and what they used to do was that my foster parents would quickly dress me up in beautiful cloths just to make me look as if I was living a good life; that everything was fine. Usually, my parents would notify them about when they would be coming and they’d quickly make sure that everything was fine in preparation for their coming. There was also an arrangement that I would go and visit my parents every Christmas. Like I said, because I was so used to that weird upbringing, I just thought it was a normal way to live. I never challenged it!”
One question begging for answer at this juncture is, were her foster parents forced to take her in, that they had to treat her wickedly?.
“No, they got paid. As foster parents, you got paid because you’re rendering a service; you are looking after someone’s children. I guess they were naturally wicked people. They were very old people”.
Adeshola’s relationship with her parents was to some extent hindered by the relationship she had with her foster parents. That resulted in a complicated relationship with her mother during her teenage years.
“This is 2022 and I’m very close to my mum and I have been very close to my mum for many, many years. I think the challenge then was that we never lived together and I was very young, remember I was living with my foster parents and when I was 11, they made that decision to take me to Nigeria. Then, I was living with my grandparents and so, I never really got used to my mum.
“I was very used to a certain way of living because I lived with my foster parents for close to 10 years. I used to call them grandma and grandpa because I believed that they were my grandparents even though they were white. So, I think for me, I was so into that culture that if anyone had tried to enforce any other culture on me, I would rebel. So, I think my mum kind of faced that challenge and based on who I am today, that was a good decision she made to enable me go to Nigeria”.
She not only suffered racism in the hands of her foster parents, the school was another hell for young Adeshola.
“In the entire school, I was the only black person. Where we lived was like a village, it’s a very rural area and I was the only black person. I didn’t have any friends, but I was very brilliant. I remember there was a time that they moved me to another class for people that were more intelligent. And I remember so vividly, the parents of these other kids were coming to school to challenge why a Niga (at that time it was allowed to use those words), was being moved to a better class than their own children.
“I was constantly kicked on, sometimes they would steal things and put them in my drawer and say that I was a thief. But you know what? Regardless of that, I was still able to focus on my studies. I was very good at art; very good at drawing. So, I used to use that at that point to gather attention. Imagine playing in the play ground and not really having anyone to play with. And then they would all circle around me, calling me names; big nose, big lips. I was subject to a lot of abuse about the way that I looked because I had an afro at the time. I kind of looked like a boy because for some reasons my foster parents used to take my earrings away from me. So, every time I went to my mum for Christmas, she would buy me earrings but when I got back to my foster parents, they took them away. So I looked like a boy; a boy in an afro”.
Here is how it feels like remembering her challenging childhood. Asked whether it still hurts, she says, “Necessarily no! I’ll only say just a few things have affected me, like till now, I will not sleep alone in the dark because what they used to do is to force me to sleep alone in the dark and that was really scary. Till now, that has affected me because I’ll not sleep alone with all the lights off; I need the TV or lamp or something. That’s mainly the mental thing that I struggle with but I think in terms of positivity I think it helped me deal with a lot of things. It created that toughness in me that I feel like there’s nothing I cannot face, there’s no challenge I cannot face; it’s made me a very strong character”.
Did Mrs Cole-Alegbe’s parents ever learn about their daughter’s past traumatic experiences?
“I shared it with my mum and younger ones and they were so shocked. My mum felt really bad that her child was in the care of such wicked people. It took me a long time to understand that this whole life I’ve been living was not normal. It wasn’t a nice conversation to have with her”.
Her stepping into Nigeria for the first time was super dramatic. keep reading.
“When I was 11, and still staying with my foster parents, I think the relationship between them and my mum just became a bit frosty and I wasn’t getting to be with my mum like I used to. I can understand a mother’s pain that this her daughter and I’m not used to her. It was so bad that even if I came home for Christmas, I would cry that I wanted to go back to my foster parents; I used to call them grandma and grandpa. So, I think that was my mother’s pain and one day, they turned up unannounced at my foster parent’s house and I remember that normally, my mum would inform them of their coming so they would dress me up but this time, they came unannounced. I remember my foster parent was hanging some cloths outside in the garden, and she saw black people in the car. So, she knew automatically they were coming to see me because there were no black people in the area. She quickly rushed inside and made me wear a dress; I remember I was topless. It was a very weird upbringing. She quickly dressed me up, thinking that they were coming just to visit me but they had other plans. They said they wanted to take me for just two days. It was a very good strategy that worked because there was no question asked otherwise, if they had suspected anything, they would have gone to my social worker because anyone fostered had a social worker; it was the law. So, my foster parents said ‘ok, so she’s coming back?’ and they were like ‘yes, you don’t need to pack anything, no cloths or toys’. They even gave some money for transport and lo and behold, they also picked up my younger ones from their foster parents, from another location”.
So Adeshola had younger ones who were also fostered, but, had a much better experience. She continues with the story of how she was rescued from the devil’s pit.
“The whole plan was to leave for Nigeria. My younger ones were not the issue, I was the issue. I remember so vividly that we headed to the airport; obviously they had another strategy. If they told us we were going to Nigeria, all hell would break loose. There’s no way they would have got us on the plane; especially me because, at that point in time, the way the TV stations used to depict Africa was bad. So, they said oh!, we’re taking you to Paris for just two days. They pampered me, bought toys for me and everything I wanted at the airport just to keep me happy. They managed to get us through immigration, got us on the plane. At that time, Nigeria Airways was still operational, and I’m very observant. I noticed that Nigeria Airways was written on the seat. So, I quickly nudged my brother to bust the bubble but my mum just gave me a look like, if you talk, if you try it. By then, the plane had already taken off, so you could scream, shout but it was too late. That’s when it dawned on me that we were actually coming to Nigeria”.
Good a thing, she didn’t get to hear from her foster parents again.
“They were very old and my foster father passed away in his 80s. It’s so weird that I could still remember the address till now. One day, I will want to go around that area with my kids to see how much it changed”.
On why she was not allowed to go to London until she graduated in a Nigerian University, she says, “I think what my parents did was a good choice. They wanted to see that I have changed. Imagine if they had left me to go back during the early stages when I was still getting accustomed to the culture of Nigeria, I would not want to go back to Nigeria. They had to be sure that if we let this girl back into the UK, she’s gonna happily want to go back to Nigeria. They had to wait for a couple of years to ensure that I would mature and embrace the Nigerian culture. I think I changed for the better”.
Does that mean coming to Nigeria reshaped who she became? “A million percent, a million times. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I stayed in the hands of my foster parents. It was zero Nigerian culture and a very weird upbringing. I don’t know who I might have become”.
Adeshola’s rise to excellence was more of a divine arrangement according to her. “Even now I’m feeling shocked; like I do not understand what is happening. So, I came back to the UK, I did jobs like everybody else; working in hotels and various bakery shops, cleaning rooms and then I worked in a gambling company. My final break into professional environment came while I was working in the bank; and that’s for 10 years. I just became very observant of how things were being done. You know there was a lot of work politics and you are not really given the voice to speak; overshadowed by who you know instead of what you know. That got me discouraged”.
Even in the UK? This is another form of racism and one would have thought such work politics is exclusive to Nigeria, but no. “So, I became very demotivated because I knew I wanted more. The pay was not great. It was not just a happy environment for me because I knew that I had so much to give and I wasn’t given the opportunity to do so. My husband always said ‘I know you could do so much better than what you’re doing, and I know you could do more’. I used to doubt myself; I lacked confidence because of how I was in the bank. You know, you go to meetings and just sit there, you can’t talk, even if you have an idea it’s not like they’ll take it seriously. I lacked confidence and didn’t believe in myself. A friend of mine talked to me about getting into the world of IT. That’s how it started. I got into project management and business analysis. It’s very weird that, as I just started to mentor people they started to get jobs. Even till now, I don’t know why I’m doing this but I just know that people are getting jobs. Then in 2017, I started Tritek. I remember I was pregnant with my third child and I’m quite a religious and spiritual person. I believe God is the one that connects you to the right person. When God says this is your calling, there’s nothing you can do about it. So, I tell people that when I started Tritek, I did not have the vision, I did not have a strategy, I did not think yes, this is going to be one of the best IT companies, I want to take over, no! I was just like; let me see how I get on. I started with less than a thousand pounds, I didn’t go for a loan. The success story…, Tritek now boasts of a plethora of highly skilled mentors and trainers who are equipped with knowledge, skills and experience to train and coach candidates towards achieving their goals. And my strategy has been, give them too much rather than too less of what they paid for”.
It’s been a rewarding effort as according to her, “The awards started coming in 2016 (Mentor of the year), I got recognised as ‘Woman of the Year’ 2018, in the Black Women In Business Award, and that really helped my profile and my business a lot. We were also nominated for IT training Company of the year, 2020 by Southern Enterprise award. We got recognition for youth empowerment 2020 by BLine. I also got an award from Rotary Club for my philanthropy in 2022. And just on Tuesday, 31st May, I got an award as Emerging CEO of the Year, 2022 at the Annual Business Summit Global Honours London”.
Adeshola got married in Nigeria in 2015 to her heartthrob although as she hints, “I’ve known my partner for 20 years. We met when I was in the university in Nigeria and then I came back”.
She has few words of encouragement to those hurting or abused while growing up. “Never despise humble beginnings. The way that you are is not the way that you are going to turn out. You know, I didn’t have the best upbringing, I was a challenging child until they made decisions; they could have written me off and say this child is rebellious, she’s bad, nothing good is going to come out of her. But God turned that around.
“Also, don’t be afraid to start something; when I started Tritek, I was nervous, apprehensive and scared but it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. So, never be afraid to make sacrifices, it’s better to strive than not to try at all; whether it’s successful or not at least you know that you’ve tried. Lastly, do something you are passionate about. Like me, I like the fact that people are getting jobs. It’s so motivating to me, knowing that I’m helping my community get jobs in technology. It’s a passion and because of that, I will give it 200% of my time”.