What I've Learnt: Nadya Powell, Co-founder at Utopia

Charlie Spargo's picture
by Charlie Spargo
Nadya Powell, Utopia

Nadya Powell is Co-founder of the culture change business Utopia, which works with companies to help build more purposeful, inclusive and entrepreneurial cultures.

The name clearly comes from the unattainable levels of greatness we all dream of - but it's Utopia's goal to never stop striving for it. In the "age of creativity", Nadya and her Co-founder Daniele realised the need for something to be done about the negative cultures that exist - inlcuding, but not restricted to, exclusivity, hierarchies, silos, and disengagement.

Both were also involved in the creation of The Great British Diversity Experiment, the So White Project, and Token Man. A value-driven organisation, they're motivated by inclusivity, curiosity, generosity and a propensity to be vulnerable.

We sat down with Nadya to hear what her career has taught her.

Which single daily habit or practice could you not live without?

Walking my daughters to school in the morning. If I know they’re going to school happy and confident, I can start my day the same way. Seeing them in the morning is reassuring, and sets me up perfectly.

What's your best failure?

Four years ago, I joined a brand and entertainment company. It’s a great company and I admire everyone who works there to this day, but after about eight months, we realised we weren’t a good fit for each other.

The skillset I had wasn’t what they needed, nor was the culture something I felt at home in. So we parted ways, which bought me time to think. 

I realised two things. In over 20 years, I’d worked for five different male founder-led businesses. It was time for me to take the reins and start something I believed in. Also, I found I was more interested in everything I was doing outside of work - inclusion, innovation, creativity - than anything in marketing, communications or branding.

Alongside my Co-founder, Daniele Fiandaca, we realised the business we wanted to work at didn’t exist. So Utopia was born - a culture change business, working with clients to help build more inclusive, entrepreneurial and purposeful workplaces. Thanks to that failure, I’m now a female founder.

What is the best investment you've ever made, either financial or time?

During the dot-com crash, I was working at an internet business… and to be honest, I wasn’t that busy! I remember wandering around Soho taking a very long lunch break, and realising I was bored.

So I decided to go back into education, and spent two years studying an MSc in Media and Communications at LSE, part-time. Work got busier, so I sacrificed a lot of weekends and evenings, but I developed a skillset that’s served me throughout my career.

The research skills I gained, both quantitative and qualitative, enable me to diagnose problems in workplace cultures as part of the services we offer at Utopia. For example, there's always a disconnect between how the managers perceive the happiness of the workplace, and the reality of the situation. Using the skills I used to stop me getting bored during the dot-com crash, I’m able to identify this disconnect and work with clients to fix it.

Hold on to learning and knowledge. You never know when it might be useful.

How would you describe your work/life balance?

Appalling! When you run your own business, you have to accept that your work ends up bleeding into every part of your life.

After about 12 months of running Utopia, I realised I need to set certain boundaries to maintain a level of sanity. I follow Pip Jamieson’s advice of having a three-day weekend every month: a ‘real’ break from work where you don’t think, “Oh, I’ll just do those couple of things over the weekend.”

By stepping away completely, even over this short space of time, you can return with a fresh energy and perspective to tackle the challenges facing your business.

I also don’t work between 6pm and 9pm - this time is reserved for my daughters, when we find out what the hell Eleven’s up to in Stranger Things. I’m a night owl, and would much rather pick up any remaining work after the kids have gone to bed. And because my brain’s had a rest, it means I’m recharged for work.

Which book would you recommend others to read and why?

When it comes to business books, 'The Culture Code' by Daniel Coyle is incredible, because it outlines the fundamental ingredients of what makes a healthy, productive culture. And it’s all clearly outlined and backed up by evidence and case studies.

When it comes to fiction, I’ve recently read an astonishingly powerful book from William Melvin Kelley, who’s often described as "the lost giant of American literature".

It’s called 'A Different Drummer'. Set in the 1950s deep south, it follows the reactions of 12 white townspeople after the entire black population ups sticks and leaves. It’s a fascinating portrait of the mixture of guilt, bigotry, and confusion that lingered in white people following the abolition of slavery.

What one piece of advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

I recently read a book where 21 people gave advice to their 21-year-old selves, and so much of it was "hang on kid - things get better". I would definitely repeat that but I would like to tell my younger self something I think would make a profound difference to my future.

So it would be: take a gap year, kid! I know you don’t have money, you’re timid and the prospect of going to places where you don’t know anyone terrifies you. But save up, or get a loan and just do it.

Running Utopia, I’ve learned the more cultures you expose yourself to, the more interesting, broad-minded and empathetic you become. So go do that, 21-year-old me! 

Tell us something about you that would surprise people.

When people first meet me, they think I’m incredibly confident - borderline obnoxious. I think it has something to do with my red hair, skull rings and a few too many opinions - so I do understand why people might get this impression... And you know what? It is partly true. But as with so many people, I suffer from a lack of confidence, from anxiety, from a gazillion phobias, and there's nothing I wouldn't do for friends and colleagues. 

Feeling yourself being judged - and honestly, you can feel it - is horrible. It’s trite but true: don’t judge a book by its cover.

Oh, and I’m terrified of crabs. In fact, any crustaceans. And I find orange vegetables deeply disturbing.  

Who or what has had the single biggest influence on your working life?

It’s a toss-up between my husband or Madonna.

My husband and I have always had this rule: we go 50/50 all the way, on everything from dinner to childcare. We respect and champion each other’s career choices, and have very high expectations for each other - we both want and expect the other to do their best. By ‘leaning in’, I’ve been able to make choices a lot of my female friends were denied.

However, growing up in the 80s, there was no role model quite like Madonna. She was the only female pop culture figure who was creative, brave and experimental without sacrificing her sexuality. She gave me the confidence to be challenging, brave and opinionated as a woman, rather than a woman modelling a man’s confidence.

So yeah… probably Madonna. Sorry, husband.  

What does success look like to you?

75% of the global workforce is unengaged. It’s an upsetting number, and I hate the thought of all those people in work just being miserable.

When you’re unhappy at work, it impacts every area of your life. Your sense of self, your relationships, your friendships, your children. They all suffer.

So at Utopia, it’s our goal to flip this statistic. When we work with businesses to help them deliver meaningful culture change, we do so with the aim of creating workplaces that engage their employees.

It goes without saying that when workers are happier and more engaged, they’re more productive. Creating engaging and inclusive cultures isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good for business as well.

In terms of personal success, I want my daughters to grow up and live lives that they love. I’m applying everything I do with Utopia now to help them navigate a future where work equals emotional wealth. 

What have you learnt?

Are you - or do you know - someone at the top of their game with loads to share? Let Charlie Spargo know.