Image credit: Prue Aja Photography
Kemi Nekvapil is sitting out on her deck, on a couch in the sunshine when we chat for this interview. I can hear the birdsong as she confesses to me that she’s just impulse bought 200 bluebell bulbs; she has a serious new addiction. Kemi is an aspirational flower farmer among the many other titles she goes by – best-selling author, speaker and one of Australia’s leading credentialed coaches for female execs and entrepreneurs. But the flower farming isn’t as random as you might think – like most things in life aren’t random if you look hard enough – gardening feels like home to Kemi.
Kemi’s first set of foster parents, Mummy Olive and Daddy Brian, as she still affectionately calls them, loved kitchen gardening. And so did her fifth set of foster parents, Sue and Russell. She tells me, “when my social worker took me to Sue and Russell’s house for the first time, they were making jam from their homegrown berries and it felt like coming back to home in a way, after years of other foster families where there was not a lot of great stuff.”
Kemi was born in England to middle-class Nigerian parents in the 1970s. “I was one of the tens of thousands of Nigerian children who were fostered in England. Nigerian parents fostered their children to white families through a network of ‘unofficial’ carer families. My parents were like any others – they made decisions they thought would give their children the best opportunities in life,” she writes in her book POWER. The plan was that they would return to Nigeria and become English-educated doctors and lawyers. “I have never resented my parents for the decisions they made about my life … I knew why they did what they did, and I know their choices came from a sense of parental duty and wanting to give the best to their children. Plus a healthy dose of colonisation – a generation who were led to believe that British education was the best, no matter the sacrifice.”
For much of her life, Kemi felt the need to prove her worth, to prove her right to be there. “I was just constantly trying to prove worth because I had been told I had none; because of race, because of gender, because of being a foster child,” she shares. She learnt, as she notes many women have, how to live and lead ‘as an apology’. Some of the examples she includes in the book are, “I learnt how to make myself small by not sharing my opinions, for fear of not being liked, because we are led to believe that being liked is our most important value.” And, “I learnt how to be a ‘good girl’, to only do what was expected of me and toe the line. And, “I learnt how to apologise when speaking, diminishing the power of my words by smiling, or giggling ‘to soften my meaning’ or my voice, or by actually apologising before I spoke: I’m sorry to say this, but …”
Sound familiar? I bet you’re nodding your head.
I’ve known Kemi for a decade through Business Chicks, and yet each time I hear her speak, I discover another – always impressive – part of her story. She’s trained as a baker and won a lot of awards. Went to drama school and worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. Has been a yoga teacher. Worked as a chef at a fancy resort in Thailand. And is credited with bringing the raw food movement to Australia when she moved here after meeting her now husband in Thailand. Yes, it’s a lot of life for one person still only in their forties – an eat-pray-love of a career when you look at it in a paragraph like this.
When Kemi first moved to Australia she was referred to as The Raw Beauty Queen – I remember her coming to the Business Chicks office to launch her first book, Raw Beauty. “I was running workshops encouraging women to eat in a way that fuelled the lives they wanted to live. But I realised that many women were waiting to lose weight before they started to live their lives, followed their dreams or stepped into that leadership role and I became very passionate about having conversations that empowered women to live fully,” she told Dymocks in a recent interview. It was on the way home from holding her first Retreat that the penny dropped on what was next for her. “I’d spent three days with these women, I think the youngest person was 19 and the oldest was 68, and there were 12 of us on this retreat in the Yarra Valley,” she tells me. “I could not believe the energy of all of us being together. And I could not believe that this could be work, like to create a space of safety for women – that could be work! And as I drove home, I had to pull over because I was so overcome with emotion, of just like, ‘oh my God, this is it. I have just found the exact thing I want to do.’ I want to create spaces for women to be able to show up. And I did that.”
Kemi trained as a credentialed coach with the International Coach Federation and now works as a sought-after executive and personal coach. “If I’m honest, maybe at the time, I had this idea of ‘I need to make sure that I’m a worthy coach.’ But also, professionalism has always been important to me. And I just thought I would hire a coach that had a credentialing body behind them, so that’s what I need to do.”
If you’ve seen Kemi on the Business Chicks stage, read one of her books or listened to her podcast, The Shift Series – the version of Kemi that lived ‘as an apology’ couldn’t be the same Kemi, right? I mean, she’s literally written the book on the opposite – Power: A woman’s guide to living and leading without apology, which was released in March this year.
Kemi has always loved writing and when she started to write down the stories of her life and think about a possible title for another book (she’s also written The Gift of Asking), the word ‘power’ came to her. “I felt goosebumps and actually got emotional, because straightaway the inner critic was like, ‘who do you think you are to write a book about power?” she shares. But that is when she knew she needed to because it is the book she was scared to write.
In the book, Kemi breaks down power into a five-step framework which she calls the power principles, a way to guide all of us to build our own power through:
Presence – to understand what is and isn’t working in our life.
Ownership – of our personal narratives, especially our power stories.
Wisdom – about our needs, boundaries, and growth.
Equality – as part of the diverse human family, all of us are worthy.
Responsibility – for our choices, healing, and happiness.
When Kemi spoke for Business Chicks at our International Women’s Day events around the country, one of the first things she did was to ask the audience what they thought when they heard the word power. Most agreed that what came to mind first was a white man in a suit. I ask Kemi what comes to mind for her when she hears the word now that she’s spent months and months interrogating it. “For me now, the dictionary definition comes to mind – power is about the ability to do something in a particular way – it is no more and no less, it does not belong to one particular kind, or group of person, which to me is incredibly exciting, because then we can all learn and own our power in the various ways that we can.”
Kemi’s words are obviously resonating because POWER became the number one non-fiction book on Booktopia when it launched. Dymocks, a bookshop on George St in Sydney’s CBD, is one of my favourite places and I’ll never forget walking up to it and seeing POWER adorn its huge front window display – a big deal in the book world. I wanted to tell people, “I know her!” as they walked past and checked it out.
Of the five power principles, Kemi tells me ‘presence’ is the one that she’s had the most feedback on. Perhaps, because largely (and sadly) so many of us just aren’t present most of the time. “I think being present underpins everything else,” she says. “I think having a sense of presence and having a practice that allows you to be present, makes everything else sustainable.” The word is one I’d certainly use to describe Kemi – she’s one of those people that holds space for you, even in the briefest of interactions. “My ability to be present is one of my most treasured disciplines,” she writes in POWER. “Presence is not about meadows filled with flowers or a serene experience of blissed-out enlightenment. Being present can be confronting, uncomfortable, confusing, and challenging.”
Developing presence, Kemi says, takes constant practice. A few of the things Kemi does to help her to develop and practice presence are yoga, meditation, journaling, and gardening. But don’t expect her to dish out her daily routine minute by minute to cultivate presence – she thinks prescriptive advice like that sets women up to fail. Which I agree with, despite the A-type personality in me that just wants her to tell me exactly what to do – how long do I need to meditate for? Does hot yoga count? Ha!
Kemi thinks that many women don’t just not know how to be present but fear being present too. “I get a lot of feedback from women that say, ‘I know I’m busy, but I’m’ scared about what will happen in my head if I stop. Being busy is tied to my worth’.” Kemi does not subscribe to that. “I’ve always known that I’m a better person when I look after myself,” she shares. “I think it probably comes from the trauma response of needing to look after myself because no one else was going to, but then when I got into yoga in my early 20s, it was about a sense of connection.”
She tells me, “If our currency is always to be available to others, there’s no space to be available to ourselves.” She’s the poster girl for pausing and just doing things for the beauty of it, for the feel-good factor. “You know when women justify doing something for themselves? Like, ‘I went for a beautiful walk this morning, but then I came home and did all the laundry’. Why? Why was it not OK that you just ate the cake and had a walk? I think a lot of women still feel very guilty about nourishing themselves, delighting themselves, not understanding that in nourishing and delighting themselves, they actually have more to offer the people around them, not less.”
Kemi is my all-time inspiration when it comes to setting boundaries – an imperative if we’re to give ourselves the time and space to look after ourselves. “Every woman I have ever met who has put strong boundaries in place has done so because the cost of not having boundaries became too great,” she writes. “I believe that one of the reasons women struggle to set boundaries is that it flies in the face of what we are told we should be as good girls … good girls do not say no.” There is no point having boundaries though if you’re not clear on what’s important to you, “what do you most need to protect?” she asks.
As well as all the things, Kemi is also a mum of two teenagers – how lucky are those kids?! When I try and get some free parenting advice, Kemi tells me she doesn’t necessarily teach her kids about power, but she lives it and models it every day. “My son came up to me at my private book launch here in Melbourne and he was incredibly emotional. He’s 18 and he’s six foot five and he put his hands on my shoulders – he’s taller than me – and with tears in his eyes, he said, ‘you are the most powerful person that I know’. And I said to him, and you are a powerful young man because of this emotion and because of these things. Do you understand that? And we just had a massive hug and were just crying in the middle of the room,” she laughs fondly. I suggest her next book should be on parenting.
Kemi sees herself coaching and writing and speaking for a long time yet – when she has time, of course – between the flower farming. “The more that I’ve been planting flowers, I just realise every time you plant, you’re planting hope,” she smiles with the sun on her face. And it’s with that that I wrap up our conversation – there are 200 new bluebells she needs to plant!