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The Diana Award

Tessy Ojo is the Chief Executive of the Diana Award - a charity legacy to Diana, Princess of Wales’ belief in the power that young people have to change the world, with the right support. The charity’s mission is to foster and develop positive change in the lives of young people. The charity benefits from the support of The Royal Highnesses, Prince William and Prince Harry, as well as the UK Prime Minister as a Patron.

Your original degree was in biochemistry, so what made you want to make the move into charity?

It's such a long story! I think it started around the age of 13, when I decided I really wanted to study medicine. My best friend’s brother had sickle cell anaemia, which still to this day has no cure, and I really wanted to be the person who fought to find a cure for illnesses like this one. I suppose I couldn’t understand why something that was so life-limiting didn’t have a cure.

A few years down the line, I had a science teacher who was absolutely amazing, and I wanted to be just like her. She had told me she studied biochemistry, so I decided that, in fact, I wanted to study biochemistry too! I think at the time my plan was to study biochemistry and then to go back and study medicine to fulfil that loop.

After I'd finished my first degree, though, I realised I didn’t want to go back and spend forever studying again. I also got a job as a biochemist and realised that it just wasn’t for me. Kudos to all of the incredible scientists who have worked to produce vaccines during this pandemic and over the years, but it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I realised I wanted to work with people and have a front-facing role, rather than working in a laboratory. This sequence of events led me to think about what I really wanted to do, what it was that would give me the sense of purpose I was looking for. From there, I ended up in the tech industry after doing an MBA.

Really, though, the big change for me happened when I had my children. I felt so blessed to have them, and I knew I would be that mum who would light up shadows and dark alleys to make sure my kids found their path in life. At the same time, I was realising that sadly, not all children have advocates in their life; I call this the disadvantage of birth, because unfortunately life is very unequal, and the family you are born into can often determine your outcome. While that’s great for some, it’s not so great for others, and I wanted to work to create a system that was more equal.

That realisation was the beginning of my journey into the charity sector. Looking back, I think from day one I wanted to help people and help to fix problems, and that’s brought me to where I am today, not fixing problems as a doctor, but still fixing problems in some way.

Why is it so important for you to help young people change the world?

As a society, we’re aware of so many issues, like sustainability and that kind of thing, but when it comes to children and young people, we seem to automatically assume that a child will grow up to be the next prime minister without us needing to put much investment into them. The truth is that if we don’t invest in young people and help them to build their skills, then where does the magic happen? We're leaving the magic to self-perpetrate, meaning that only those with some level of privilege will ever be able to achieve those leadership roles.

We need to create a level playing field which allows every young person to realise their full potential. For me, that’s the key driver. If all young people are supported and are given the tools to become leaders, then we will all have a better future.

How did you become the only charity to bear the name of Diana, Princess of Wales?

I would love to take credit for that, but sadly I can’t! We were set up as the official memorial, it had nothing to do with me. I've been incredibly lucky to be able to build that legacy, but in terms of how we came to be, it was the response by the UK government to the princess’s death, it wasn’t down to us.

How does the Diana Award work to create positive change in the lives of young people?

The best way to describe it is as an incubator. It's about fostering the growth of young people within a safe space. The incubator is there to nurture their growth and give them the space and time to do it at their own pace, and then, when they’re ready, we let that change out into the world and amazing things happen.

What I love is that each young person’s journey is different. For one young person the journey might start at point A, while for another it might start at point E, and it’s our job to support them wherever their journey begins. We have a youth-centred approach which looks at achieving the best outcome for each young person.

We have a mentoring programme that helps young people to see that they have choices; sadly, if a child grows up in a workless family, where nobody has ever had a job, then that child will not be able to comprehend that they even have options, let alone what those options are. It's not about pushing all these young people to go to university or to achieve the same things, it’s just about allowing them to understand that they have options, and then helping them to explore those options. Everything we do is centred around the needs of each individual young person.

Clearly you’re having an impact on them, as it was the young people that you work with who nominated you for a CBE! How did it feel to know that they saw you as worthy of such an honour?

At the Diana Award, one of our key ethos is that we are all part of a big network, we are the Diana Award family. So, to know that some of them were being sneaky and plotting this behind my back was really wonderful - I had absolutely no idea! It was a humbling and overwhelming moment for me when I found out. I didn’t come here to get credit, I came here because I wanted to see change happen, I wanted every child to have someone to advocate for them. Every time I see that change happen, it gives me huge joy, so to know they appreciate our work was amazing.

What would you say is your proudest achievement to date?

I couldn’t possibly narrow it down to one thing! Every time we achieve something for a young person is an incredible moment. In life, there are some young people who are more impacted than others by events in their lives, and I'm really passionate about creating a level playing field and helping young people thrive. So, for me, every time we take a step closer to that goal is an achievement. I always say go big or go home, and we just keep going big!

When you first met Their Royal Highnesses Prince William and Prince Harry, were you nervous?

I genuinely can’t even remember! They're such incredible people, when you’re with them you forget you’re in the presence of the future king. Then you get back on the Tube and you think wow, I just had a meeting in the Palace and now I’m back on the Tube! It is quite surreal. But they’re incredible people. It's such a privilege to be able to run a charity that’s in their mother’s name and legacy. The interest they take in our work is really humbling, too.

What brings you the greatest joy in life?

Seeing change! Every so often I'll get a letter or an email from a young person telling me how our work with them changed their life, and that’s incredible for me. At the Diana Award we collect stories of change, because it’s important for us to recognise the impact we have had. Change doesn’t happen overnight so sometimes you don’t notice it until you look back and see the difference you’ve made in a young person’s life. Those stories of change remind me why I do what I do, and that brings me the greatest joy, along with my family, of course.

What has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced?

I think there have been a few. Change needs long-term investment, it doesn’t happen overnight, but sadly we live in a system that is so short-term. The government will change every four years or so, and suddenly you have new policies, so nobody ends up looking at long-term data. If you don’t look at data over a long period of time, then how can you see the trends? And if you can’t spot the trends, how are you going to fix the problems? So, for me, the biggest frustration is that lack of long-term planning by those in power. We need long-term investment in youth as a whole, but we’re not doing that right now, and it’s frustrating.

What do you want your lasting legacy to be?

I want to ensure that children and young people can have a future, regardless of the circumstance of their birth. I want to help create a system that allows everyone to thrive without their past holding them back, so I would love for that to be my ultimate legacy.