How one single mom navigates her career to create opportunity for her son
Mari-Anne Chikerema Chiromo has built a dynamic career spanning big law firms, big tech, big 4 consultancy and also entrepreneurship. Her career path is fluid, but her mission is steadfast: as a single mom, to build a legacy and future opportunity for her son. Mari-Anne and I talk about her identity as a single mom, immigrant, and woman of color and its impact on her career and decision to launch entrepreneurial side hustles. Plus why the corporate world can be exhausting for people who are visually different and what advice she has for those who feel fed up.
You have made a number of pivots in your career. What motivated you to make changes?
I think it’s been a journey of discovering the things that actually make my soul sing. I had moments in my career where I thought, how am I turning up most authentically? For a while early in my career, I felt like I was doing a job. I was doing work. But I wasn’t feeling as if I was having any impact. I didn’t feel any attachment. I didn’t feel as if this is what I’m here — so far away from my home, my family, everything I know — to do. And because of that, I couldn’t bring all of myself to my career.
I have so many different experiences and things that actually excite me. My cultural heritage, my family background, ideas on how to improve things back home in Zimbabwe or more broadly in Africa. I couldn’t always bring this into my work. It made it very difficult to exist as a person because I was one person in the office building and a different person at home. I’ve been trying to find a way that my existence makes more sense, is more enjoyable, and frankly, more sustainable. Finding the thread of what makes me me — and then finding ways to manifest that in the work I do was the logical solution.
I made the switch from thinking about the job title and if it was a formal, serious career–to thinking about how the work made me feel…what it would enable me to do. If I was pivoting into an area or a field that no one had heard of, that didn’t matter anymore. I was thinking, that’s fine because I enjoy what I’m doing. It didn’t matter that I was moving from a big international law firm to a small social enterprise because the work that I was doing really satisfied me and gave me a chance and importantly, the room and many opportunities to grow.
So I guess my pivots came when I switched my career focus from what it looked like outside to what it felt like inside.
I love that. It’s a brilliant way to reframe your career view. What work did you do to get there? How did you get comfortable making career decisions based on how the work made you feel, rather than prestige and title?
I think like many immigrants, we were doing the flexing and adapting so early out of necessity, so we built those ‘agility’ muscles before agility became a buzz word or trendy skill. Because of socio-political unrest, my university degree that I was 1 year into at home in Zim was disrupted. Plan B was to study here then work in my dream law firm back home. I got the job and then economic implosion coincided with my graduation year, and suddenly, I found myself having to navigate a job market in the legal industry, which I never intended to or had the knowhow to tackle as a Black, female, African immigrant with no pre-existing network or understanding of just how significant my many visible differences would have on my career trajectory. I’ve been on my own, I’ve had to battle a lot, and I’m familiar with stuff going sideways. So, necessarily, agility has been built into me. Inadvertently I’ve been trained to change direction and just roll with it. I’ve learnt — maybe later than was ideal — how to embrace it, navigate it and get comfortable prioritizing how I feel and what I deserve.
From a diversity and inclusion perspective, when your options are limited because of things that are beyond your control, you have to find ways to identify opportunities and get into different spaces, to maneuver, to pivot but to keep laser focused on securing the best outcome for yourself based on the fundamentals that you know mean the most to you.
Life is really short. And unpredictable. I think we’ve all had a shocking immersion into that. I constantly check myself by imagining having to sit back with popcorn and watch the movie of my life. Is that a movie that I would actually enjoy? It’s something I do often! One day, my answer told me I needed to change the script, literally flip the script.
Also, I just got tired. I had the desire to not feel unfulfilled and unpurposeful — is that a word? — anymore. It’s not my nature to be miserable. I have a very happy countenance and it felt like I was losing myself. Someone said to me, you spend more of your waking hours at work than you do anywhere else. And I started thinking, how much of myself am I compromising? Why can’t I find a way of being me and bringing me to what I’m doing at work?
So that was the journey. And then I had to find the bravery to just push through putting myself into new, different, unfamiliar spaces despite all of my femaleness, Blackness and foreignness.
You recently shared a powerful story about diversity and inclusion. You wrote about the stark difference in traveling with a British passport versus a Zimbabwean passport–and how being visibly different impacts your experience navigating the world. How have your identities impacted your career path?
People hold perceptions and misconceptions about me based on what I look like, before I even open my mouth. That’s in every space, and naturally, will happen in the workplace too because the workplace is full of people with very different levels of exposure. Once I start talking and they hear the accent, there are more questions. Then they find out more — oh, she’s African — and you have to understand being foreign has different levels. Foreign American is okay, foreign Canadian is okay, foreign Australian is okay. But once you’re foreign African, there are a whole lot of other assumptions sometimes rooted in prejudice, sometimes just stemming from lack of knowledge.
When I first came here, so many people very casually and almost immediately said “oh you speak so well!” and delivered it like it was congratulatory. The idea of me being able to speak so well was at odds with the ideas they held about what I could or should be able to do. At first I said thanks — not realizing how problematic the assumptions were, let alone being alert enough to things like bias or prejudice to recognize or challenge it. If I’d joined the dots then and applied that to the outcomes I was having in various applications or interviews, I’d have been so much less confused by my outcomes in spite of top grades and academic achievement which till then, had always meant I got to where I needed to go. The mistake I made was proudly and excitedly disclosing my Zimbabweanness thinking it would make me stand out in a good way.
Based on the very lazy portrayals of Africa and Africans and particularly Black Africans, perpetuated even today by mainstream media, there are many people in positions of influence in organisations, who may well hear an accent, see a name, come across someone who celebrates their Afritude, and then based on their limited knowledge, assume that this person can’t speak well. Beyond being exasperating, if that person is in a position where they’re allocating assignments or any responsibilities where oral presentation is key, those opportunities may be unjustly denied. I found myself sitting back and both watching and hearing about opportunities being handed out where I was not even in the picture as an option to be picked for these opportunities. I’ve been at a table during a team dinner where it was clearly stated that a role I had aspirations for was going to be filled by someone else, and that the higher ups would love said person because they were White, male, middle class, spoke very well and was therefore, perfect. I couldn’t understand it because none of those things had to do with what I’d always thought counted most…competence. All that mattered was what I couldn’t and would never change. I should have known right then that my prospects were absolutely zero, especially where that was who would control my career trajectory. I was almost always the only Black person in the meeting, and definitely the only one from this African country a surprising number of people had never heard of. Or being in a team meeting and being the only one who hasn’t had the pre-reading sent to them, and then actually being called out for not being as participative as those who had the papers, even after explaining I hadn’t received the document everyone else was referencing. I was sitting looking over at someone else’s copy. And we’re talking about 6 or so people here, so not enough to accidentally miss out the one visibly different person on the team.
I’ve had to go over and above in my career — which kind of goes with the typical Zimbo work ethic (bit of positive stereotyping in there!) — just to establish my credibility and my ability while completely obliterating any misconceptions. It’s almost as if you have to say — look, look, I do speak English and I do have those “excellent written and spoken communication skills”. You’re safe to put me in front of people.
There is also a lot of pressure because in some cases I am the first Zimbabwean anyone has met. They base their whole perception of an entire country on their interaction with me. All other Zimbabwean women will be measured, for better or for worse, on me, and I become the reference point. It’s a lot of pressure to educate people and change some of the coding that’s come from often very lazy and inaccurate external forces. It’s exhausting because on top of all that, then you have to do your job. And you can’t make mistakes. You don’t have the luxury of making mistakes. We all do, but when your ethnicity and race come with built in horn vs halo effect, that mistake will be one you carry with you for the rest of your static career, because you’ve now justified the treatment you were probably going to get anyway. What’s worse is no one is harder on you than you will be on yourself, because while so many expect nothing from us, we come from backgrounds that demand that we achieve the highest standards. Which is why we need more Black people pivoting into the mental health profession! It’s just all so exhausting.
Exhausting is right. I recently wrote about the tax that women pay — especially women of color — to educate, evangelize, and monitor their surroundings in order to fit into a male-dominated work environment. Can women ever thrive in an environment that wasn’t designed for them? Or do women simply have to leave and create an alternative?
It depends on your appetite for the fight and whether it feels worth it, right? My first entrepreneurial endeavor I did while I was on maternity leave actually! There was a catalytic moment of thinking: I want to be able to be in control of my destiny. Do I have the energy to be a good mum AND keep fighting for a seat at the proverbial table? Why aren’t I diverting my energy into building my own table… and chairs…including one for my son? I wondered whether as a mum, especially a single mum, I’d manage to keep doing all the things required for a successful corporate job. And this was way before George Floyd’s murder and the slight changes that brought. I wanted to give myself a parachute. I needed a back up plan. I also wanted to do for myself what I kept waiting for others to do for me, which was to make me feel seen and give me the chance to really showcase what I could do and had learnt. Why not just do it for myself and get my validation from myself?
I saw an article ages ago, which interestingly said that the greatest number of entrepreneurs had been among ethnic minorities, and especially women. We were the ones going off and starting our own businesses. And I think it is that exhaustion. Doing your job — and to a high level just to bust perceptions — but also doing this whole evangelizing, this convincing, this treading so carefully because you can’t make mistakes. Navigating landmines you don’t even fully understand. And when I became a mom, what became worse for me is the thought: Now I have my son, my brown son, and I’m the entire plan for him. I can’t afford to take my foot off the gas, and I definitely don’t want to hand him the same minefield I’ve had to negotiate.
So what fueled my entrepreneurial endeavors is a few things really. The first is needing to have hope. We all need hope. Like Desmond Tutu said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” It’s impossible to keep going without hope. Having something I knew I would put all the skills I’d acquired and experience I’d gained through hard work and tireless curiosity, renewed my hope. I didn’t have to put my whole reliance into a system and into changes that I couldn’t control or realistically hope would change in a way that would make the kind of difference that was needed for me and more importantly, for my son. We’ve had the same issues for decades and even with catalytic events like George Floyd’s murder, not much has materially changed. It’s a massive gamble to delegate securing your financial future and securing the career highs and achievement and that peak — whatever it looks like — to an organisation and systems you can’t control. The second thing is the thrill of freedom to explore and experiment in any and every direction. You can’t always get that satisfaction or independence in your formal role because you have a specific role to perform and it will necessarily come with its constraint. Having your own gigs and hustles means you can really go into a totally different space, explore different skills and importantly, unlock greater self awareness. It’s independence. There’s no one placing any limits on you and you can really have that space to fly! Third and finally, I imagine for a lot of people who’ve been unable to penetrate the levels they should have — not through lack of ability or because they didn’t deserve to — there are many years to catch up on, many of which will never be clawed back. Doing your own thing is a way to emotionally, mentally, and financially thrive and work hard but safe in the knowledge that your hard work will pay off for you. Most importantly for me and I imagine most entrepreneurs, I can secure my son’s financial well being and security and give him the luxury of not having to battle his way through systems that I worry (still) won’t be ready to receive and embrace him.
I don’t think entrepreneurialism is a bad thing at all. I’ve gained so much from a developmental and growth perspective on many, many levels! I’m better at my job because of it, and it would be great to see it encouraged and enabled more. It would be particularly helpful at the very early stage, recognising that many of those with the great ideas won’t have the ‘friends and family’ or legacy financing to support the first stages of getting their ideas off the ground. Maybe this is the movement that needs to happen. Maybe more underrepresented minorities need to create spaces that are fundamentally inclusive and diverse, and can demonstrate the success of that model. Maybe creating those spaces and challenging those that aren’t, is the change that we really need to be pushing for and spearheading.
Do you also want to create opportunities for your son within the corporate world? Or do you prefer that he have an option outside of corporate?
I want to make a change, but I’m realistic, right? I mean, look how long we’ve been doing this and look at the conversations we’re still having and the level we’re having them. It’s been crushing to see stories emerging post Brexit, and then when you think about the fact that George Floyd was murdered, on Africa Day no less, and see how peripheral the change has been in reality vs. rhetoric — it’s not sad, it’s scary. I’m extra terrified because of my son, because it breaks my heart to imagine him having to go through this as a Black man. I’ve been working so hard in the diversity and inclusion space for many, many, many, many years and it’s because I am wholly committed to making things different. I do this because I fully believe in it and I honestly want to be part of the solution, but I’m not naïve. I know the scale of the challenge and it’s not small. As a mum, I’m just not willing or able to take the risk. Maybe I’ve seen and heard too much from young men who make me think of my son.
While I’ll absolutely invest in achieving equality wherever I can, I also acknowledge the system has worked very well for a huge majority for a very long time, and that dominance is layers and legacies deep. Not everyone is in a big rush to upend the status quo. Not a lot of people are going to be on board with changing things. This has been around for a long time and a lot of the same things keep showing up over and over. 25th May was a watershed moment and if that wasn’t enough to really bring about the level of revolution we need to see, it’s hard to imagine what it would take to really drive home change. There’s still such public, overt racism and sexism on display from places that really ought to know better, and this is after and even during all the social activism in play.
So yes, I can’t take the risk. I’m not putting all of my eggs in one basket. I’m not going to control what my son does, but I would prefer that my son has options, even though unfortunately, his other passion involves football which is rife with overt racism as we all witnessed just a few months ago. I’m going to do everything in my power to try and fix it because it’s going to be part of the world he lives in. But I don’t want him to be forced into any single avenue, hence me putting energy into both the corporate arena but also into things that I can control.
And because I’m a single parent, I’m extra anxious. Because once I’m gone, if something happens to me — that’s it. No backup. So there’s an urgency that comes with it. And it’s why I’m happy to do two things concurrently. I try to fix as much as possible because if I suddenly vanish, I need to feel as if I’ve done enough to give him options…including running the empire his mum will have built, LOL!
We originally connected about single motherhood, when you noted that the single parent experience was missing from my interviews. Your son motivates you to be an entrepreneur and pass down a legacy. How else has being a single mom impacted your career path?
I had to move past feeling bad or feeling as if I needed to apologize or compensate for the fact that I was a single mom. And once I got okay with that, what was hard was explaining Oh I can’t make it to this event. Pre-COVID, there were heaps and heaps of events, training, and opportunities which could very easily have been done online. Even the Parent Teachers Association at my son’s school — the meetings would be in a pub at 7 o’clock on a weekday — I’m thinking, can we have an online option?
That was really tough. I felt like I was missing out on lots, especially with entrepreneurship where you’re trying to make key connections. There might be an event and this person is attending who you want to have time with, but it’s during the evening on a weekday. There was always that kind of thing that I had to say no to, and then I would feel as if those people don’t think I’m serious. Because that’s the thing people don’t appreciate; when you’re a single parent it’s not so simple to drop everything and go see people even when you want to. I don’t have family in London so it’s not as easy as dropping my son off with familiar people who he’s happy with, and that’s a must for me.
You start to think, am I failing on both fronts? I’m doing all of this for both me and my son, but at the same time there’s so many things that I can’t say yes to. My maneuvering has improved because now I’ll try to find alternative ways of connecting with people. I’ve tried to make sure that I’m writing more articles online. I’m building my brand on LinkedIn so that I become someone that is still visible and accessible so that not being in the room doesn’t equate to being unseen and unknown. I may not be at all these events, but I’m still putting myself out there and finding select opportunities to be present and loud in the most meaningful ways.
I had to be a lot more selective in which opportunities I take on. I do more research now, instead of just saying yes, yes, yes to all of the events. Now, I’ll find very select ones and in advance decide how I’m going to make the childcare work. And I’m very open and upfront. Now everyone I speak to I tell them I am a single parent. I bring other people in and assume this is not just my problem to solve. You want me to appear to speak? Here’s the situation. Let’s figure out a way to make this work.
And in many cases, they’ve just said, no problem, we can just do it like this. Solutions I could never have thought of. And there I was doing mental gymnastics trying to think of something.
The greater inclusion that’s come from COVID necessity has worked so well for other groups too and really opened up opportunities for people who were excluded before. I just hope it lasts beyond the in person restrictions.
What is your advice for other visually different people navigating their career?
The first for me is to be unapologetically you. It sounds like a ridiculous cliché, but honestly, trying to turn up as anyone but you robs everyone including you. For one, you have to maintain that performance because then you’ve set the expectation that this is who you are and how you show up. If it doesn’t work out, imagine wondering if being you would have been better? If you do turn up as you and it doesn’t work out, at least you know that wasn’t the place for you and you can pivot to somewhere where you CAN be you and be embraced for it.
The second is if you’re not happy, then as my dad says, you are not a tree — move. Everything is about choices, and you need to choose what’s best for you everyday. Constantly check in with yourself and see whether you’re enjoying the scenes of that movie of your life that you’re creating every day. You’ll eventually have to watch it back one day, and that day can be any day. You always deserve to be where you’re happy, enjoying what you’re doing and being celebrated and fairly compensated for it. If not, choose yourself and move. It’s all about that pivot, and there’s no shame at all in making switches. The days of picking a lane and staying in it are loooong gone!
And finally, just try. I wish I’d started trying different things WAY earlier! I wish I’d been brave enough to build my first website, start my first business, write my first article, give my first keynote presentation, organise my first big event much sooner. I’ve learnt so much and gained so much from the success and more so from the failures I’ve had, and they’ve given me the most awesome insight to fuel what came next. Just try! Fail fast, learn the lessons and then try again. You’re only here once, right?
Reclaim Your Career shares the stories of women who have made brave career pivots. They inspire and unlock what women always had the capacity to do: Break free from the traditional narrative of success to write your own story.