England born with a Nigerian heritage, Nekvapil never imagined writing was a job that would be available to her. In the 1960s and ’70s, countless middle-class Nigerian parents fostered their children out to have an English education, with the idea that they would return to Nigeria as doctors and lawyers. But it very rarely worked out that way. “I was fostered by five different white families growing up in England and as a black, young girl, the only literature I was exposed to was white literature. I didn’t see myself in any stories, and I never, ever, ever thought that writing was something someone like me did.”
Now, three successful books, and three decades later as one of Australia’s leading credentialed coaches for female executives, we’re talking about Power – a candid and captivating read that’s part-memoir, part-cultural commentary and guide for women on living and leading without apology. Here are just some of the remarkable things Nekvapil said during our conversation.
DRAW ON THE POWER IN YOUR PAST TO BE PRESENT IN YOUR FUTURE: “Think about some of the most challenging decisions you’ve made in your life and look for evidence when you’ve been your most powerful. Like, ‘I spoke up in that meeting 10 years ago – which led to A, B and C – so it means I can have that conversation with my partner today.’ We can always look back to see when we were brave when we stepped into our power. Even if it was scary or uncomfortable, you’ve done it before, which means you can do it again.”
IT’S NEVER BEEN A BETTER TIME TO SHARE OUR STORIES: “As women we’re realising we don’t have to know how to do everything and we don’t have to be connected to the right people. But if we are willing to share our stories, whatever they are – success, failure, abuse, misogyny, patriarchy, whatever it is – there are other people willing to say, ‘I stand with you, I believe you, and I’m happy to walk alongside you.’ The more women do that, we give each other permission to do it too. It’s a very exciting time.”
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OUR WORDS CREATE OUR WORLDS: “For many of us women, we have been socialised to diminish ourselves, particularly in our language. There’s a chapter in the book about the power of words – ‘you know, I was thinking that maybe, possibly the idea that I sort of had, but maybe I don’t have it, does that make sense?’ I hear very articulate, smart, professional women speaking, and at the end, they’ll say ‘does that make sense?’! There’s this incredible woman called Dani Donovan and, many years ago, she did this great graphic around emails and how to own your power in your emails. She suggested changing ‘does that make sense?’ to ‘do you have any questions?’ So small, but so big.”
NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE YOU SPEND TIME WITH: “If we’re on one trajectory, and there’s no one in our world who is supporting us, it is going to be very, very hard to maintain that path on your own. That’s why who we surround ourselves with is incredibly important, for our experience of ourselves, and also our experience of life. It’s very much dictated by who we spend our time with and where we put our energy.”
“The WORLD doesn’t need more BUSY women; it needs present and POWERFUL women.”
BUSY DOESN’T EQUAL SUCCESS: “I commit to very few things. People see what I do and they think I’m always busy, but I’m a non-busy advocate. After this conversation, I’m going into my garden to water my dahlias and maybe plant some other things. I know I’m not efficient or effective when I’m busy all the time. I have a quote in the book that says: ‘The world doesn’t need more busy women; it needs present and powerful women.’”
YOUR POWER CAN’T BE TAKEN AWAY: “I see it in my work coaching leaders – as women we still don’t think we’re worthy of all that we achieve. We can be given titles that are externally bestowed on us, but internally we don’t feel like we deserve them. We don’t think we’re worthy of them; that we’re smart enough, young enough, thin enough, whatever that is. We all need to know that we have a power within us that can’t be taken away – yes, it can be diminished – but it can never be taken away.”
ASK AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE: “I really believe in the practice of asking the universe a question – whether you ask it out loud or write it down – and the answer will come to you. I wanted an acronym for the title of my book, POWER. So, I simply wrote down ‘Power acronym’ – that was it. I went to bed that night, and I meditated the next morning, and all of them came to me – Presence, Ownership, Wisdom, Equality and Responsibility.”
TAKE IT ONE STEP AT A TIME: “I’m an endurance runner, and when I did my first half-marathon, I got to about 16 kilometres and my legs started to really hurt – I had never run that far in my life. I started to think, ‘I can’t do this’ and I wanted to give up. I even passed a cow in a field in rural Victoria who mooed at me as if to say, ‘c’mon, you can do this’. But before I was about to stop, I had this thought come into my head that said: ‘You have given birth to two children at home – you can run the kilometres that you need to. Just one step at a time, like one push at a time, you can do it.’ And I did.”
IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED, YOU DON’T ALWAYS NEED TO TRY, TRY AGAIN: “Meditation has definitely made me a kinder person. I was pretty intolerant before I started yoga and, 25 years on, I still have my moments. But it has allowed me to be with myself. It also means that I can be with other people and their humanness, but it’s not for everyone. My sister messaged me the other day and said she’s been trying to journal… for the last 14 years. I responded with, ‘Sis, maybe journaling is not for you. If you’ve been trying for 14 years, maybe the power comes from saying, you know what, I’ve given that a red-hot go and I’m not going to do it anymore.’ We have to be careful, especially as women, of seeing it as a failure if we don’t master these practises that ‘successful people’ do. And we then start to think that we’re not worthy enough, or good enough, but not everything works for everybody.”
“My inner VOICE said, ‘who do you think YOU are to write a book about POWER?’.”
DIG DEEP FOR THE ANSWERS: “I first thought about the word ‘growth’ as the title for my book because it’s one of my core values. My writing mentor said “Growth? That’s a beige title and you are not beige!” I thought, ‘okay, fair enough’. I began thinking about what I’ve been witnessing, experiencing and feeling working with my clients, and as a woman in midlife – I’m 47 now. What is the conversation that I keep hearing, seeing and I’m interested in exploring? And it’s power. When that word came to me, I actually got really emotional. It suddenly went against everything I had been told I was allowed to have. My inner voice said, ‘who do you think you are to write a book about power?’ But because I’ve been writing long enough, I knew. Aaah, this is the book. This is it.”
KNOW YOUR WORTH AND OWN IT: “The biggest challenge of my career to date is owning my worth. In business, as a woman, that can be challenging. But particularly as a woman who stands on global stages, where the highest-paid speakers are generally white men. Up until now – even though it is slowly changing – the people who come from diverse backgrounds have been told the story that they should just be grateful that they’ve been asked to speak. That it’s ‘good exposure’, so don’t expect to be paid as well. It’s about having those conversations around owning my worth, charging my fee and having really strong boundaries around that.”
ALIGN YOURSELF WITH THE RIGHT PEOPLE: “I’ve had so many successes, and they’re all linked to the people that I was with in those spaces. In terms of business, my biggest success was being able to create a successful business – which means doing what I want, with whom I want, where I want, for as long as I want. I think Tony Robbins originally said that. I actually don’t follow a lot of his work but that quote really resonated with me. I’m at a point in my career where I only say yes to the things that really align with me. That takes time and work, but I measure success in that I feel connected to the things and the people that are important to me. I did an event with Business Chicks in 2018, and there were 2,500 women in that room. At the end of my keynote speech, I asked everyone to stand up and then asked every single woman to hold hands. I delivered the end of my speech, and the energy in that room is something I will never, EVER forget.”
TAKE FIVE WITH KEMI NEKVAPIL
Describe yourself in three words: “Committed, focused and hilarious… I’m joking. No, what’s the word I’m always looking for to sum up joy, the light, reverence? I want to live in a world of beauty. I know the other world exists, but I know I’m a kinder person when I search for, and find, the beautiful, delightful things in life.”
If you could witness one moment in history, what would that be? “I would have said Woodstock, but I have just downloaded a documentary called Summer of Soul about the Harlem Cultural Festival. It happened at exactly the same time as Woodstock, and was filmed, but was never shown. It had Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder and obviously there are a lot of political reasons around why we do not know anything about that festival. But if I could be at both places – the Harlem Cultural Festival and Woodstock? Oh my goodness!”
How do you unwind? “I don’t work Fridays – I call them ‘inspiration days’. I’m actually an aspirational flower farmer – we bought a farm at the end of 2020 and I’m currently experimenting with David Austin roses, peonies and hydrangeas; what will be the crop that I want to grow in a few years when we move to the farm? Listening to flower farming podcasts while I’m farming is absolute bliss to me right now.”
How do you celebrate success? “Lots of different ways. I had some oven chips the other day. I did my signing of my books for Booktopia – it was a beautiful day full of so many magical, connected moments with Penguin and the team. I got home and my husband was in court online, and I thought, what do I really want? So I went to the supermarket, got some oven chips and a small bottle of Prosecco, and sat down to watch Monty Don’s Gardeners’ World. Yes, I’m hard core.”
How would you like to be remembered? “That my being here made a difference to women’s experiences of themselves.”
Power by Kemi Nekvapil is published by Penguin Random House Australia, A$34.99.
Like what you’ve read and want to read more? We recommend our exclusive interview with author Brooke Baldwin. The former CNN anchor talks about the power of the collective and why every woman needs a huddle. You can read it HERE.