Growing up in absolute poverty in 1950s Nottingham, the black child of a single white mum, Sir Kenneth Olisa’s life chances were pretty bleak.
His playgrounds were Second World War bomb sites, their bath was a tin thing hung on the wall outside.
And yet here he is at 71, the first British-born black person to be the Lord Lieutenant of Greater London (formerly the Queen’s, now the King’s representative in 32 boroughs). He was also the first British-born black director of a FTSE-100 company (Reuters).
He has so many gongs and achievements to his name I’d need pages and pages to cover them all.
But asked what he is most proud of he says: “The success of our children. They are both wonderful.”
Sir Ken spends as much time as he can at his second home in Briantspuddle: “Sitting by the River Piddle is my idea of heaven,” he says.
His father was a Nigerian law student, who left soon after he was born in 1951. He felt no urge to find him and make contact. His mum Barbara had little to do with her side of the family. They were a team of two, with no resources.
But what Barbara instilled in her son was an unbending sense of right and wrong and a work ethic that has seen him juggle multiple roles in business, numerous charities and more, into his 70s.
He puts much of his success down to lucky breaks. Actually, he simply has the ability to make the most of any opportunities, to make wine from water.
In this industrial heartland of Nottingham, where factories turned out Players cigarettes and Raleigh bicycles, and people were even dubious about people from Derby let alone a kid with Nigerian heritage, there were people who strived to raise the aspirations of youngsters, much as Sir Ken does today.
At his state primary school, the headteacher would play the kids classical music on a gramophone, teaching them about the composers and the stories behind their creation. This same man once fed the children caviar, so they would have the experience of eating rich people’s food, to break down the barrier between the haves and the have-nots.
Ken said: “The headmaster told us: ‘You are too young for Champagne. But there is no reason why you shouldn’t try caviar’. On the count of one, two three… we all bit into the caviar and we all went, ‘bleargh!’.
“I still hate caviar.”
Ken and his wife Julia became vegetarians in 1986, long before it was commonplace, after visiting the Anne Frank Museum. “I saw the bookcase they hid behind and instead of the big, heavy bookcase of my imagination it was three planks,” he said. The thought of the Frank family being hunted in this way, “reduced to having to scuttle out of this hole like rodents,” simply because of their race, made him consider why he would eat cows, but not horses and he resolved to live “without killing anything”.
The year after, the family moved to America – vegetarian options were limited. “Pasta primavera and I are no longer friends,” he grins.
Sir Ken has been an early adopter of so many things, starting with writing his first computer program in 1968 during a gap year job with IBM. His energy, curiosity and intelligence has since propelled him to the highest echelons of business and society. In 2015 he was named the most influential black person in the UK.
However he refuses to consider his genetics a reason for extra kudos.
He once told the Telegraph: “Black people can do everything. There can no longer be an argument that if you can’t get on because you are black. “There are lots of other reasons you can’t get on – you’re incompetent, you can’t speak properly, you can’t spell, you don’t get to work on time. But it’s not because you are black.”
Sir Ken leapt all the barriers of race, class and money, passing his Eleven Plus and excelling in education, ending up at Cambridge studying natural sciences on a scholarship awarded by IBM.
It was here he met Julia, now a dyslexia specialist who runs her own charity, Literacy100.
The pair spearhead a number of initiatives to help the homeless and Julia aims to encourage literacy classes to improve the prospects of those finding themselves on the street, as there’s a strong link between poor literacy and homelessness.
“Julia is my spark,” he says.
From his gap year job with IBM, when personal computers were far into the future, stemmed his future career.
There he learned a huge amount – not only in how to program, but how to sell. He went on to establish the first technology merchant bank.
The couple had two daughters and spent several years living in America and Belgium before returning to the UK, where Ken served on the boards of major companies including Open Text, ENRC, Huawei (UK) and Nigeria’s Interswitch.
In 2010 he was awarded an OBE for his work as president of London homeless charity Thames Reach.
He has also chaired the welfare to work charity Shaw Trust, and was the founding chair of the Aleto Foundation, supporting future leaders from tough backgrounds, among many other charitable and philanthropic pursuits. He funded a £2m library at his alma mater, which bears his name.
He is also a member of the Windrush Commemoration Committee. He was knighted in 2018 for services to business and philanthropy.
Happily, his high profile has made it easy for ‘long lost’ family members to find him, and the connection has been surprisingly welcome after years of believing he had no need to find out about them.
In recent years he has connected with both his father’s family in Nigeria and his mother’s family after relatives made contact. “My older half brother got in touch and I went there to meet him,” he said. “It was all very lovely, with many gifts exchanged. It wasn’t what I was expecting.”