Bernadette Ijeh

Bernadette Ijeh

My name is Bernadette Ijeh and I am delighted to be invited once again by Mr & Mrs. Pannell to the Georgia Minority Business Awards celebration. This is a magnificent occasion in which I am both grateful and honoured to take part.

I am a fashion designer from London, England. I have been married for 41 years and have raised three grown-up children. I first moved to London from Nigeria, the country of my birth, in 1972. I was a young, inexperienced woman in a strange, foreign country but I was determined to fulfil my childhood ambition of working as a designer in the fashion industry I had always loved.

I eventually graduated from the London College of Fashion in 1974, the same year as my marriage, before proceeding to start my own business whilst raising my young family with my husband. There were multiple barriers. But through hard work, determination and confidence and grounded by the support of my husband and an upbringing that had instilled in me confidence and self-belief, I was not only to persevere but succeed.

I eventually established my own fashion company La Bernimure Elegance which grew to be one of east London’s most successful small businesses throughout the 1980s and 1990s. As a result I was able to expand my workforce and premises, promote my designs internationally and was invited to the 1992 Royal Garden Party where I was lucky enough to meet senior members of the British royal family including Her Majesty the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, The late Queen mother and Her Royal Highness Princess Diana, the late Princess of Wales and other members of the Royal family.

During this period I also won several awards including the 1994 National Black Women’s Achievement Award, the 1996 Breaking the Barriers, Entering the International Business Arena and Successful Business Leadership awards and the 1998 Outstanding Woman of the Year award by the by North London Business Development Agency and the Golden Award at the Nigeria Business Gala. I was also lucky enough to appear in several magazine and TV features, including a 1994 article in Georgia-based upscale magazine where I was featured with several other American black designers. It was on one of the international trade tours I undertook during this period that I met the Pannell’s, thus starting the close business relationship and personal friendship that has been so dear to my husband and I ever since.

By the start of the last decade, with my children grown-up and in university and my fashion career established, I decided to also explore another very different sector in which I had always harboured a long-standing interest, community social care for young people. After spending several years researching conventional structures and procedures within this area, in 2012 I set up Touching Lives Forever, a community interest company dedicated to improving the lives of vulnerable youngsters through education and empowerment.

As director I work directly within the community performing consultancy work and delivering training to public and private organisations as well as voluntary sectors. I am also a safeguarding champion with the London Borough of Hackney Community Voluntary Services. In February this year I was privileged to represent Touching Lives Forever by being invited by the British Council, a UK government organisation promoting closer international cultural ties, to an international study visit  (ISV) to Morocco.

Hackney Community Voluntary Services is a not-for-profit umbrella organization that provides hundreds of local community and voluntary organizations with key skills, knowledge, grants and resources to respond to the needs of local people. HCVS also offers a wide range of corporate services, including fundraising consortia, media and communications and policy and leadership.

It therefore shares the same social ambitions as Touching Lives Forever in that it aims to play a critical role in tackling poverty and disadvantage by working with key stakeholders to address local inequalities, promote diversity and challenge oppression and prejudice. As such, our projects have included training and empowerment initiatives for both the young and the old as well as local business awards.
Kristine Wellington, director of safeguarding children and families, was due to attend tonight but was sadly unable to do so due to work commitments and sends her sincere apologies.

I am grateful for the opportunities that my life in London and England has given me and I am proud to call London my home. London is a wonderful city whose sense of history, diversity and tolerance makes it one of the most exciting and accessible big cities in the world. But my work with Touching Lives Forever and HCVS also enables me to give something back to my homeland by making an active social contribution to Nigeria. The social care problems experienced in rich, Western countries the U.K. and U.S. may sometimes be pronounced but they are nothing compared to the chronic inadequacies suffered by countries like Nigeria where the concept of a welfare state simply does not exist.

It is no secret that in Nigeria and many African cultures there is absolutely no welfare provision for the elderly poor and those with disabilities and as a result these sections of society suffer horrendous hardship and injustice. Whilst the reverence and respect generally afforded to older people in African society is generally greater than in Western countries, there is growing and alarming evidence that the traditional cultural practice of families housing and caring for elderly parents is being eroded by the harsh economic conditions experienced in urban areas.

Even in rural Nigeria, where it is still largely the tradition for older people to be cared for by their children, grandchildren, spouses, siblings, or even ex-spouses, growing numbers of elderly family members are being abandoned by relatives who have moved to urban areas to for economic or employment reasons.

Several years ago I established a London-based Nigerian women’s organization that aimed to harness the skills and energies of the diaspora to raise funds to help improve conditions back home. In 2014 we started visiting Nigeria to support the elderly and vulnerable by various means. This involved buying food for disabled and mental patients, supporting destitute widows and orphans and arranging discharge for patients being held against their will in hospital after being unable to pay their medical bills.

Impressed and encouraged by our actions, a generous Nigerian benefactor couple, Sir/prince and Dame Ewohime, kindly donated a plot of land to us in order for us to build a community drop in center for the elderly and for other connected social care purposes. We are now on course to start fundraising for this project and look forward to starting construction in due course.

For me personally, this latest venture is the culmination of a life that has been blessed with family, variety and success. I am now grateful for the opportunity to put my extensive business and networking experience to help some of the most underprivileged in society. At this stage of my life I still feel as driven and ambitious as I was when I first came to London.I feel blessed and privileged to have been on a journey that has led me to lead such a full and active life and, God willing, will enable me to continue doing so for a long time to come.