It is a generally held view, with some justification, that Barbados and, by extension, Barbadians throughout the world punch above their weight.
There can be no finer example of such achievements than that of the Master Elect of Jesus College, Cambridge University, Sonita Alleyne.
Barbadian Sonita Alleyne was born in 1967 and is the daughter of the late Dennis Alleyne and Mrs Jewellene Alleyne of Chimbarazo, St Joseph. Sonita is the partner of 25 years of James and is the mother of a son, Miro.
The rise to the top, when one looks at her stellar career, could have been predicted without the aid of a crystal ball. Alleyne’s elevation to be the 42nd Head of Jesus College is a truly remarkable achievement. She is the first black person to head an Oxbridge College and more significantly, the first woman to be elected head of Jesus College. The college was founded in 1496 and is one of the most prestigious of the many Oxbridge seats of learning.
Her appointment has drawn universal attention and acclaim and I met her to get some insight into the path that has led her to a position where she will forever be held as an example of black and female excellence.
Sonita arrived from Barbados at the tender age of three and settled with her parents in Walthamstow, North London. She later attended Leyton Manor School and Leyton Senior High School before entering Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University. She successfully completed her studies and obtained an Honours Degree in Philosophy.
The young graduate was now eager and equipped to face a new world. She put a toe in the turbulent waters of Financial Planning and Advice but this seemed far away from her natural inclinations and abilities. She resigned after nine months and embarked on a new career in the music media industry that was inspired through an insatiable love for jazz.
However, mere employment with the famous and popular radio station Jazz FM was never likely to fully satisfy the progressively thinking young Barbadian. In a stroke of fearless entrepreneurship, Sonita founded a music production company at age 24. The company became one of the largest radio production units in the UK and she served as chief executive officer for 18 years before leaving the post about 10 years ago.
I sensed that Alleyne had tapped into the reserves of a tireless mind and her commitment to radio grew hand in hand with a wider interest in the field of media and other subjects. She said: “I became more deeply interested in things that impacted positively on people and society. I held a passion for cultural matters, social regeneration and private sector involvement.”
But, I wondered, how far would she spread her wings? Boundaries seemed limitless to this hard-working and strikingly modest daughter of the Rock. She had worked with the BBC Greater London Radio as a presenter and BBC Radio 4 as a reporter. The impact she made was enormous and sustained and it did not go unnoticed.
Alleyne was subsequently appointed to serve as a Trustee of the BBC with shared responsibility in overseeing the direction and standards of the corporation. Further acknowledgement of her work was recorded and Alleyne was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for Services to Broadcasting at age 36.
And I prodded, what other nuggets would be unearthed, what more could be given, were there other fields to explore? Sonita journeyed on, propelled by the teachings of her parents that she should be as good as she can be.
She moved into other fields and served on many boards and committees that addressed matters of national and regional importance. Some of the work in her non-executive roles will have made indelible marks on our society. It is worth noting some of her contributions:
A- Appointed by the Mayor of London to serve as a Member of the Skills for Business Partnership.
B- Appointed by the Mayor of London to serve as a member of the London Legacy Development Corporation. The board’s role and purpose is to promote and deliver physical, social and economic regeneration in the Olympic (2012) Park and surrounding areas.
C- Elected Chair of the Regeneration and Community Sub-Committee whose remit is to implement strategies to enable the fulfilment of main themes around education, health and economic progression.
D- Elected Chair – British Board of Film Classification
E- Governor of the London Museum
F- Director- The Cultural Capital Fund- Set up to allow individuals, families and corporations to invest in content across a portfolio of investments in film, theatre, television, music and digital projects.
There is no doubt that Alleyne is recognised as a person of great ability and versatility and in 2016, she was named the 10th most influential Black Professional in the Public Sector in the UK.
We returned to her appointment as Master Elect, Jesus College. What had prompted her to take a leap into the unknown, to knock on a door that to the naked eye and for centuries appeared to be a no-go area? The Master Elect said: “Is there ever a right time? I had been working in research with a good body of people, doing things to help young people and I felt quite contented. I was then persuaded to let my name go forward for consideration.”
But she must have felt some anxiety and nervousness as the process of election narrowed and gathered pace! Not at all. The cricket loving Bajan did not lack confidence and said she owed her stance in great part to her Barbadian roots, to hold steadfast at all times. She had gathered inspiration from the teachings and examples of her parents. She said: “ Their hard work, belief in the positive benefits of a good education and a commitment to always do one’s best were the core values that made me.”
In giving credit to her parents’ contribution through their guidance, Sonita was happy to note that her brother, Paul Alleyne, has made a highly successful career in the banking world in Zurich, Switzerland and not to be outdone, her sister Kelda Alleyne has also achieved a high career mark in the UK.
I was still not satisfied and was determined to prise open that innocent sense of humility that was the hallmark of my interview.
Finally, she relented: “I am happy and proud to be considered worthy to set a standard that other Barbadians might seek to emulate in the future and in their chosen fields of discipline. I hope it is right for family and makes for a good community.”
Finally, Alleyne, who is very passionate about Barbados and its people, said she was humbled and honoured to receive a letter of congratulations from the island’s Prime Minister, The Hon. Mia Amor Mottley.
Our congratulations to an outstanding citizen. One wonders how much further her career will go. Perhaps we ought to bring out the crystal ball.
Vincent ‘Boo’ Nurse is a Barbadian living in London who is a retired land Revenue Manager, Pensions and Investment Adviser. He is passionate about the development of his island home and disapora.