Beyond Representation is an exciting event championing women of colour who are breaking new ground in Irish media, arts, and business.

Hosted by broadcasters Ola Majekodunmi and Zainab Boladale in Dublin's Huckletree, the sold-out affair acted as a platform, to highlight and connect for women of colour across various industries.

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Following the event, we caught up with Ntsoaki Phakoe who is a career coach, a podcast blogger, a mentor and an aspiring life coach. She's involved in initiatives that raise cultural awareness and empower women from all walks of life.

Her podcast series, SheWolfe - Pathway to a Goddess, focuses on raising mental health awareness in a conversational setting and giving people who’ve dealt with mental health issues a platform to share their stories. She wants to empower others who have faced or are facing similar challenges. 

Q1. You wear a lot of hats! How do you find the energy and will to do so much?

"Ambitious" and "determined" have always been the words used to describe me, even when I was completing my Masters I held down two jobs because I just wouldn't allow myself to get a loan to pay for my studies.

I also used this to drive my focus on building a successful career in HR and ensuring that I reached the pinnacle within that industry and I found that left me with no time to pursue anything I was truly passionate about. I got to a stage in my life where I had to ask myself, "What is it that you want? What do want to accomplish outside of your 9-5?"

Guilty of not taking my own advice, I decided that I was going to begin pursuing my passion the exact same way I encourage everyone I meet. Last year, I decided that I was going to start, I was finally going to begin pursuing the things that made me happy. Whilst I would love to say I have huge amounts of energy all the time I am also extremely organised, so much so that my wife makes fun of me because I enjoy buying things to help me be more organised, that's really how I manage my energy.

I set time aside every evening to focus on what it is that I really want to achieve not just for my career but my personal life. My passion is the source of my energy and my desire to have my podcast Shewolfe - Pathway to a Goddess succeed helps me to stay committed to continue working towards it.

I also just love being busy!

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Q2. You're interested in raising cultural awareness and empowering women - tell us more. 

I’ve always been passionate about diversity because I felt that people of colour never had real representation, especially women within the workplace. When you are trying to build a successful career and find that many of the people you look up to might never have faced the same challenges as you, it becomes a little disheartening. It leaves you questioning if there really is a place for you or if you will ever actually make it in Ireland. 

I’m currently a part of the D&I champions community, I’ve also previously been a member of APNI, I have attended different events that are aimed at empowering women in the technology, and raising diversity issues within the workplace, mentor and coach those with confidence issues as English is not their first language. I have also shared my story and my experience growing up in Ireland at EPIC, an organisation that supports immigrants with integrating into Irish society. I incorporate cultural awareness and empower in my day-to-day job as a Career Coach.

My passion for empowering women stems from my own personal experience. I grew up in Ireland around the time where I was always "the only black girl" in most educational and social settings and I knew my friends would also recognise this and would bring attention to it. I would laugh it off but sometimes it hit hard because I always felt like... "why don’t you see me as one of you?"

I learned not to shy away from places because I may be "the only black girl". Instead I should go and embrace that I was the only one who stood out and stand with my head held high and a big smile on my face. I was no longer known for the colour of my skin, rather people remembered my height (I'm not event 5ft), my bubbly persona and I was often told that I had the "gift of the gab". If I can help even one woman get to where I am now, then I am making a move in the right direction.

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Q3. Your podcast discusses mental health, why is this so important to you? What do you want to see change? 

When I was growing up I always wanted to work in healthcare. Unfortunately, I did not get the points in my Leaving Cert to pursue Medicine as I had hoped but I didn’t allow this to hold me back. I decided that I was going to enroll in a Psychology course before I could apply as a Mature Student but I ended up falling in love with the course and abandoning medicine all together.

I particularly enjoyed learning about the different aspects of mental health and the various treatments used back then, I knew that no matter what I pursued after my degree that it would need to involve mental health.

I did not feel mentally strong enough to pursue a Masters in Clinical Psychology like I first thought. The challenge with overcoming mental health issues is not only the individual - there are so many additional factors to it. My fear was "what do I do, if I can’t help someone?" and I saw this as a personal failure. I had to ask myself if I could cope working in this environment like I had hoped and the honest answer was "No".  It was a hard pill to swallow and I pursued a career in Human Resources where I thought, "Hey, I could advocate for the people in a business environment instead."

During the beginning of my career, I suffered with my mental health, in addition to "coming out" to my friends and family. I remember feeling so lost and I truly felt that no one understood what I was going through. It wasn’t until my manager asked me "what are your coping mechanisms" and I stared at her like, "I cry and then I just get on with it". This is where my journey really began and I had to learn a completely different way of coping with not only my mental health but also how things affect me and those around me.

This was one of my most challenging journey’s and this is when I started looking at mental health within our community, the fear of speaking out about these issues, the fear of facing judgment from the community, did it mean that you had lost your "faith" if you continued to suffer no matter how hard you prayed. I wanted to change the narrative; I wanted to help people understand that even those with the biggest smiles could be suffering mentally but they would be too ashamed to voice it. Those who attended church each Sunday, prayed every night were also suffering and felt like they were the only ones.

I wanted to help young people especially by firstly just talking about our mental health struggles and becoming comfortable with the topic. If I can go to counselling and I was brought up in, a culture that felt "why are you telling strangers you and your family’s business" then it shouldn’t hinder anyone.  

I want to change the way mental health is viewed within our community, it doesn’t only affect those from poor/hostile backgrounds and not talking about it creates this false sense of reality and feeling "weak" and ashamed.  I think we can change it to reflect that you are stronger because you have overcome all these challenges and continue to do so on a daily basis.

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Q4. What has your experience of being a professional in Ireland been - what have the biggest roadblocks been?

My professional experience has been positive but like anyone else, it has also been accompanied with its own challenges. I have been fortunate not to experience severe discrimination in any of my working environments but I also remember how challenging it was to get a job after college.

My biggest roadblock was trying to get a job once I had completed my studies and I sent hundreds of applications with no response, even after I had spent time sourcing my own internship where I worked part-time.

I also remember changing my name from "Ntsoaki" to "CK" to see if this would help me to get a better chance at my CV. It was disheartening because I never saw a problem with my name. Yes, I had a nickname given when I arrived but my name was my name. This taught me to put my best foot forward especially when I was called for interviews because the next time they saw my name, they would remember the impression I left.

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Q5. What does an event like Beyond Representation do to help?

Beyond Representation helps to raise awareness, promote women of colour (WOC) in any setting from industry to media and helps us connect with other women who have broken new ground in Ireland. There are so many amazing things being done by people of colour and unless you’re 'in the know' it is hard to engage and celebrate this. 

I have been living in Ireland for over 17 years and sometimes I feel like the community is like a small pond, however, events like these bring people together. There were so many woman I had not heard of and left wondering, "wow, she does amazing things and how have I not heard of her."

There is a shortage of representation in Ireland for WOC and Beyond Representation not only celebrate WOC, but also reaffirms that Ireland is our home now and you can be just as successful while keeping true to our roots.