Features / woman of the year

Woman of the Year 2019: Mena Fombo

By ellie pipe, Monday Dec 2, 2019

Launching a company, receiving a doctorate, pioneering a trailblazing tech project and becoming a global ambassador for Bristol would be impressive achievements within a lifetime.

Mena Fombo has crammed them all into this year – and she’s not stopping there.

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“It has been a big year,” concedes the founder of Black Girl Convention (BGC), speaking to Bristol24/7 just days after another successful annual event that saw black womxn* from across the region convene inside Engine Shed for an inspirational, cross-generational day of talks, workshops, stalls and sisterhood.

Mena Fombo assisted in launching Black Girl Convention

The activist and entrepreneur whose campaign ‘No. You Cannot Touch My Hair’ become the subject of her highly-acclaimed TEDxBristol talk in 2017 has wasted no time in using her platform to fight for inclusion and diversity.

She was named an international ambassador for Bristol at mayor Marvin Rees’ State of the City Address in October and was made an honorary Doctorate of Business Administration by UWE Bristol in July in recognition of her work championing gender, black, Asian and minority ethnic equalities.

“I have accepted the ambassador title because I’m passionate about Bristol and I want it to be on the map,” says Mena, on the newly- created voluntary role.

“It is a brilliant opportunity to represent the city and I’m really going to be focused on diversity within the creative, digital and tech industries. My background includes leadership and coaching and one thing I’m very keen to do is continue to share the idea that Bristol should become the UK’s first ‘coaching’ city, where we have shared, cross-sector goals and ambitions for the city.

Mena is one of two international ambassadors appointed by mayor Marvin Rees

“I think, as a city, if we want to improve things for everyone, then we have to all be accountable. We say we want representation and diversity in the creative industries so I’m going to hold us to account, not just on a local scale but on a global scale.

“It’s about continuing to raise Bristol’s profile and celebrate the good things, but also hold us to account for the things that aren’t  so great. I’m not talking about politics but on a humanity level – we have a segregated city, and some of the highest levels of inequality. It is within our power to do something about that, and with such a thriving creative and tech sector I’m focussing my energy on championing inclusion there.”

The proud Bristolian, who grew up in Brislington and now lives in Southville, says it was when she moved back to the city after a few years away that she really felt its divisions.

“I moved back to Brexit Bristol and I felt blacker than I had ever felt,” she says. It was this feeling that inspired the launch of BGC, to ensure all black womxn of African and Caribbean heritage in Bristol and beyond can have a sense of home through sharing the ‘Black Girl Experience’. The movement has grown in strength  since its launch in 2017.

Then of course, there’s the small matter of running a television production company, Blak Wave, with co-founder Michael Jenkins.

The mission of the new company, which launched in October, is “to create content from a fresh perspective, giving a voice to those who are underrepresented on our screens and telling stories that reflect and resonate with today’s TV audiences”.

Mena Fombo and Michael Jenkins founded Blak Wave this year

Mena also heads up Eight, Knowle West Media Centre’s creative agency. She was nominated for two awards; the West Women’s Award and Techspark Sparkies Award for BGC’s Digi-Tech Retreat, this year and works with UWE’s award- winning Equity programme, which champions BAME students.

She has a hands-on role in each of her projects but admits there have been sacrifices along the way. Mena was an avid American
football player, but with her team based in Birmingham, it has been hard to keep up with on top of everything else.

“I played rugby for 11 years before that,” she says. “I would love to do some kind of martial arts, or something physical because I do miss having that time.”

What does the tireless equalities campaigner do to relax? “Sleep,” comes the deadpan reply.

“I body board in the summer, well, at least I try. It’s a way of stopping myself thinking about all the ventures. I love going to the theatre and spoken word.”

Casually dropping in a tantalising nugget at the end of the conversation, Mena adds: “I’ve got some other things going on that I can’t share at this stage, but it will blow people’s minds.”

*womxn are those identifying as women or non-binary

Main photo by Angela Dennis

Read more: Man of the Year: Judd Trump

 

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