Shirah Z Mansaray

shirah mansaray

It was energising and awe inspiring chatting with Shirah. Packing into her life so many roles, she is without doubt a high achiever. She is currently studying the final year of her PhD at University College London, which involves a hundred thousand words thesis on how architecture can have a positive impact on our mental health. Things like adequate lighting, bringing nature indoors and curvature. We learned that curved walls have a positive impact on our mental wellbeing. 

Shirah loves learning and loves challenging herself. A trained lawyer, founder of the charity I am Somebody’s Child Soldier, Trustee and Non-Executive Director at Amnesty International, she is making a positive difference in the world. 


What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?

Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher. I love how it approaches spirituality in capitalism, and business as service to society. I believe we are all connected, and we need to lean into that connection to create purpose-led businesses.

The Little Black Book of Success by Elaine Meryl Brown, Marsha Haygood & Rhonda Joy McLean. Being a woman and being a black woman, I’ve often had a sense of being different when I step into a new environment (especially a board room). And this book gave me the confidence to make myself heard, to contribute, to add value and to be myself. I have re-read it often over the years.

Grit by Angela Duckworth. Grit teaches us that when we have big challenges, it’s not just intelligence or skill that gets us through them, it’s about effort, resilience and the determination to overcome those challenges.

Range by David Epstein. Sometimes we overspecialise, there is value in having a range of skills and expertise. One of my superpowers is the ability to use my range of experience across all my diverse leadership roles.


What purchase of £100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)? (Brand and model, where you found it?)

A fish tank! A BiOrb Halo round fish tank with tropical fish sits in my study room. I’m very aware, through my PHD, how important one’s environment is. How much difference contact with nature makes (and rounded lines).  It’s calming, it’s soothing and it’s captivating. It helps me feel mentally calm because the fish are calm and peaceful and have such beautiful colours. It helps me to be more present.


How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours?

I like the quote from Nelson Mandela: “I never lose, I either win or learn.” My attitude has always been to put myself forward, regardless of fear of failure.  

Early on in my career, I was passed over for a promotion, the feedback I got was that I needed to work on my softer skills with my colleagues. So, I did. I even started mentoring colleagues to get promoted themselves, but when the time came round again, I was passed over. 

One piece of advice in the Little Black Book was, if you get passed over for a promotion, look at yourself first, but then look at the space you’re in. Is it right for you? That inspired me to investigate whether or not there was an unconscious bias within the company and in doing so, I was able to help the leaders of that organisation to change the way they operated. It was a powerful lesson for me and for them .


If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it —metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?)

“Let your beliefs align with your actions and your actions align with your word.” 

This quote is my personal definition of integrity. You have to live by your core values and your word. A lack of integrity even in the small things matters.

If we’re going to have sustainable ecosystems in our work culture, we need to have integrity ourselves. 


What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)

There are a few things: 

Personal development; learning NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and how our subconscious is linked to our actions.

Investing in a sponsor, a coach or mentor at every stage of my career. It has served me well. Always seek out your tribe.

Eight years ago, I co-founded a charity with my husband. It is a core intervention for former child soldiers and child victims of war in Uganda, supporting their mental health and access to quality education. Something that is neglected at the moment. Investing my time and intellect in this charity has been one of my most treasured investments.


What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

I love looking at fire, so I light a candle in the afternoon when I’m working from home. I also light our fireplace even in the summer. Fire has huge significance to me; I remember being a scout during my childhood in Uganda, sitting outdoors and hearing the stories told around the fire.


In the last five years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?

Meditation has changed my life.

I have made a few significant career changes in my life so far, from being a trained lawyer to transitioning into engineering and now into architecture. These were hard decisions, but meditating has helped me to still my mind in order to work out my best next step.

I also have a very busy mind, and a busy life. If I need a break, I’ll take just 5 mins to meditate between one meeting and the next. It refocuses me and energises me.


What advice would you give to a smart, driven student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?

Your dreams are valid, pursue them relentlessly. Whatever you do, be true to yourself. Be your own cheerleader.

I’ve always wanted to be a lot of things, I’ve never known exactly what one thing I wanted to specialise in, but I knew my dream was to be of service to others and to advocate for their rights.


What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

Pursuing profits beyond purpose.

It frustrates me when businesses are focused only on the bottom line. People should be at the heart of decisions. We should be thinking about our supply chains and how we can empower all our stakeholders to have a better experience of our companies and profit making initiatives. I actually wrote a policy paper on this called “Understanding the Purpose and Impact Landscape” which evidences leading scholarly and policy arguments for  stakeholder capitalism and corporate purpose-beyond profit.  


What frustrates you the most about your industry and the way companies are run in it?

Short termism. When we take a closer look at the way businesses operate these days, we’re too often firefighting. We’re not forecasting enough. We need to ask; what does this action do to impact the future and how will the future impact this decision? 

Leaders need to be aware of wicked problems; this is where fixing one problem leads to more complex problems, and because we’re not mapping out the future or approaching problems with a systems thinking approach, the problem persists. We must plan now so that we’re not ill-prepared for the future or creating more problems down the road. 


In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)? What new realisations and/or approaches helped? Any other tips?

Projects that don’t align with my values, which are: Integrity, Justice and Service, and my purpose which is to create a world that works for everybody.

The more I go through life, the more I have a powerful, “NO” for things that don’t fit my values or purpose.

However, it is a balancing act, as I do want to empower others, so if I say no, I try to create other opportunities for them instead. Either by extending this opportunity to my network or giving them one hour of my time to discuss or advise on a particular problem. I am no longer accepting of people or organisations monopolising my time or expertise.


When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

When I’m unfocused, I meditate, or I step into another space, or I go for a short walk, “motion equals emotion”. It generates a different state of mind for me..

When I’m overwhelmed. I have a power nap, just 15 to 20 minutes, it works wonders for me.

If things are hazy to me, or out of sync, having a good night’s sleep can help a lot.


What does a balanced life look like to you? Has a work or a project you have been focused on caused you to neglect other areas of your life?

During the first lockdown the world stopped. Everything was put on pause and it was an opportunity for me to put measures in place to get more balance. So now I don’t work on the weekends and each weekday evening, I leave two hours to focus on my family and kids. It might not be a lot of hours but for me, this intentional family time in my calendar is precious and I guard it as such.

Michelle Obama in her book, talked about blocking out a few hours of time a day for herself and she inspired me. Being in integrity with my need for balance is important because I juggle multiple leadership roles and responsibilities. Practising acts of wellbeing and mindfulness is equally important; I enjoy swimming and yoga and I’m continuously learning how to prioritise my needs so I can better serve others. 


What does leadership mean to you?

For me leadership is to step into a space and bring people with you.

On a personal level it’s about having deep empathy and supporting others. This is one of my superpowers. I can read people, make connections, create expansions and use these positively through my experiences.  The more I show empathy, the more it grows my relationships. If I don’t like something, I look at myself first because we are all connected.

As a teenager I went to boarding school in Uganda for a few years. One day the teacher said that everybody was going to get the cane. I knew that was against my human rights and it was my body and that he shouldn’t hurt children.  With the utmost fear and trepidation I knew I needed to speak up and it was uncomfortable but I did so and I told him I would not allow him to hurt me or others. He never caned me or others in my class. That is when I found my voice and learned the importance of speaking truth to power. From that moment on, I’ve always been an advocate for the rights of children.


Which people have most inspired you in your life and why?

Nelson Mandel and Malcolm X. Since I was a child, I’ve thought about how much strength and humility they had.

Oprah Winfrey for overcoming her physical abuse. Michelle Obama as a mum, lawyer and humanitarian breaking down barriers for other women of colour. 

These people have inspired me tremendously, and when I face any difficult moment, I think about how they have overcome much more significant circumstances and ask myself, how would they respond to whatever I’m going through. 

I find my sense of purpose whilst advocating and empowering others, and I’m able to translate that into the organisations and movements I’ve founded.

Earl Nightingale said “our attitudes towards others determines their attitude towards us”. I believe that we owe it to ourselves to be kind to each other. 


What do the words principles and values mean to you?

Principles for me are my truth, they guide the way I show up in the world, and the way others perceive me. Whereas my values are more personally held convictions that I have acquired over time and through various experiences. My principles are my beliefs, my values are my standards.


If you had a forum to speak to 50 leaders, what question would you pose to them, to get them thinking about and being better leaders?

How are you embedding inclusivity and sustainability into your organisation?

Take race for example, we should be seeking out a range of different ethnicities because these bring differences in experience and wisdom, which will in turn improve businesses. 


What one thing could you do that you aren’t doing now, that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?  What one thing in your business or professional life would bring similar results?

I need to sleep more. I go to bed at one or two o’clock in the morning. I’m up for the kids at 7am.  I am trying to be more intentional about my sleep patterns. If I don’t get enough sleep for prolonged periods of time, I’m not as efficient and I’m also not able to show up with my intellect. The value that I bring is in my critique, in my deep thinking, so I have to listen to my body and realign with it.


Have you ever engaged with self-help, mentoring or coaching? If so, how?

Yes, definitely. The first time was just after law school. One of my mentors told me to work on my  communication skills and introduced me to NLP.

Now, every year I put a financial budget aside towards personal development and coaching. I need to understand what I can change to advance and this is a big part of how I experience life.


Donate to I Am Somebody’s Child Soldier 

Donate to Amnesty International

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