Women In Music Awards 2023: Special Recognition winner Bola Abioye

Women In Music Awards 2023: Special Recognition winner Bola Abioye

At the Women In Music Awards 2023, we celebrated the achievements of 13 game changing executives and artists as the industry came together to honour their work. Music Week has spoken to all of the winners to tell their stories.

The winner of the inaugural Special Recognition Award is Bola Abioye, UK Group Company Secretary at Universal Music Group

The category was launched to celebrate those whose roles may not always take centre stage in the industry, yet who have excelled in their chosen field over a long period of time and who has made a critical and palpable difference to their company. Now in her 31st year at Universal Music, Abioye fits the bill and then some. 

Today she is a much-admired executive, a trusted adviser to all Universal Music’s businesses based in the UK, as well a mentor, but that only tells part of Bola Abioye’s story.

Staring her career in the registrar’s department at Barclays Bank of Nigeria before moving to the UK in 1981 to study, in 1990 she began working at DC Gardner Group in London supporting the company secretary. Following a brief period at Cadbury Schweppes she joined Universal Music (PolyGram) in 1992 as assistant company secretary. Thus began a remarkable run at Universal that continues to this day. Bola was promoted to group company secretary in 2004 and has held the role ever since.

In her role as group company secretary, Bola is responsible for the administration of more than – wait for it! – 120 companies within the group, and plays a crucial role in enforcing and promoting high standards of ethical behaviour, integrity and compliance. Until June this year, Bola was also an integral member of the board of trustees for the EMI Archive Trust, where she was part of the governance and equality diversity and inclusion committees. She remains secretary for the EMI Archive Trust

With Universal saying that, ‘See what Bola thinks’ has become a permanent phrase in the Universal offices, Music Week meets the Universal executive proudly described as "the ultimate problem solver”...

How does it feel to be the first ever winner of the Special Recognition Award? Has it given you an opportunity to pause and reflect on your own journey in the music industry? 
“Oh my God, it's such an honour, I'm still pinching myself. I never imagined this in my lifetime. I would like to take a moment to pay homage to all my fellow nominees who were put forward in this category – this win is for all of you. And yes, it takes me back to my own journey and reinforces my belief that nothing is impossible if you keep working hard and surround yourself with good people.”

The award was specifically designed to celebrate those whose roles don't always get to take centre stage in the music industry or at ceremonies but which are absolutely vital. You're responsible for the administration of over 120 companies within the group – what is the trick to keeping all of those plates spinning at once?
“It is incredible that Music Week, Women In Music and all those who have been instrumental in pushing to have this category added have made it happen. My job is about upholding the highest standards of governance and one must be meticulous and organised to do this. My background as a chartered secretary and, honestly, my role as mother armours me well.”

 Are there any misconceptions of what being a company secretary entails that you would like to address? 
“I often get asked if it involves shorthand and typing as the desired skill set. The funny thing though is I can do both, but it is important to emphasise that there's much more to the role, for example both governance of statutory and regulatory compliance. Company secretary is a vital aspect of a company’s infrastructure and crosses many areas from legal, tax, finance and everything in between and so requires a great measure of confidence, social awareness and of course, diplomatic skills… At Universal Music, I also oversee all UK insurance matters and all other regulatory compliance matters such as payment practices, packing waste compliance, data protection etc. I don’t think any part of my job would take some people by surprise anymore; they are just pleased if they know I am involved. I think!”

Take us back to the beginning, when you first got into the music industry...
“I honestly stumbled into the industry. As a qualified chartered secretary your training is not industry specific so you can work in any industry, but I was lucky to get my first job in the music business as assistant company secretary here at Universal Music in 1992.”

And you are now in your 31st year at Universal, which is an incredible achievement! What is it about Universal that has kept you loyal to them when so many in this industry tend to move between companies? And what is the benefit of staying within one company?
“Thank you, it is indeed a remarkable achievement. I joined Universal Music at a time when I was at my lowest ebb, I came from working at a place where I was alienated as a person of colour, my work was scrutinised and marked like I was back in a classroom. People interacted with me only when others were not around. I was made to feel I didn’t belong. I was lacking in confidence as a result, but all that changed when I walked into PolyGram, as it was known then. It became my happy place, I loved it, loved the people, for once being a person of colour was not an issue and I was allowed to flourish, and all that self-doubt disappeared. I got my confidence and self-belief back. Universal Music listens to its people, so for me the benefit of staying and growing within one company is not one-sided, it helps give both the individual and company the consistency and stability. You build good professional relationships and trust.”

 My background as a chartered secretary and, honestly, my role as mother armours me well for this job

Bola Abioye, Universal Music UK

What do you consider to be your proudest achievement in your time at Universal?
“Oh boy! When you’ve been in a company for that long, there are so many memorable and proud achievements, but certainly the one that tops all achievements for me was when I was informed that Sir Lucian Grainge had approved my appointment to be the UK group company secretary. Who would have thought it possible that a young woman of colour would ever be in that position for the world’s No.1 music company?”

Music Week has been told that ‘See what Bola thinks’ is a phrase used all the time at Universal Music. How does it feel to hear that? 
“Wow! It fills me with great joy to hear. It means a lot to me knowing my Universal Music family think so highly of me and put so much trust and belief in me.”

You've also been hailed by your colleagues as “the ultimate problem solver”, with that in mind – what is the biggest problem you’ve ever had to solve in your role? 
“This is the highlight of my job, I love to find solutions to issues and I am never one to say, ‘That’s not my job’ or, ‘Nothing to do with me’. It’s difficult to give an example of the biggest problem I’ve ever had to solve as it varies from ‘people problems’ to sensitive business matters but the end result is everything works out at the end.”

What role has mentorship played in your career? Are there any people in the music industry who had a huge impact on you that you would like to shout out? 
“I wished I had [mentorship] in my early career, but my upbringing and my generation believing that you can do anything once you set your mind to it and that the world is your oyster has helped me. I do mentor other people informally, it’s a thing for me – I want to help whenever I can, especially with the young ones, and provide words of wisdom and encouragement and let them know my door is always open when they need guidance or just to talk. I am surrounded by many remarkable colleagues, women and men who have had a huge impact on me and without their support I wouldn’t be here today. I must give a shout out first and foremost to Sir Lucian Grainge, who saw something in me and believed in me and elevated me to this position, secondly to Michael Howle, who gave me my first opportunity in the music industry by hiring me. Of course, David Joseph and David Sharpe who have both been incredible supporters of mine. And finally, an amazing woman who supports and empowers other women, an advocate in ensuring that this recognition is on the agenda, Selina Webb, for your unwavering support.”

My biggest achievement was when Sir Lucian Grainge approved my appointment to be the UK group company secretary – who would have thought it possible that a young woman of colour would ever be in that position for the world’s No.1 music company?

Bola Abioye, Universal Music UK

Over the years the winners and honourees at the WIM Awards have spotlighted so many different obstacles that women face in the music industry. What are the issues close to your heart that you feel most urgently need to be addressed by the music industry at large and what would you like to see done to improve them? 
“In recent years there have been a lot of positive changes to the music industry. At Universal Music we have embraced lots of support initiatives from mentoring and training, menopausal support, mental health support, and creating safe spaces for different diversity, gender and cultural groups. These are all areas close to my heart as they help create a positive environment. It also encourages people to thrive knowing they have a safe and common group of people they can talk to when things get tough not only in their personal life but also in the work environment. One area where work continually needs to be done is making progress on closing the gender pay gap across the industry.”

Finally, what advice would you give to a young woman who is just starting their career in the music industry? 
“That there is nothing wrong in dreaming big. Work hard, stay humble and yes, dreams do come true and, most importantly, always stay true to yourself! These are philosophies that have guided me personally.”

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