Elleke Boehmer is Professor of World Literature in English in the English Faculty at the University of Oxford. She is not only the first woman but also the first professor to hold this inaugural position. Having held this post for a while, Elleke has worked tirelessly in her teaching and research to promote diversity and plurality in our understanding of World Literature in English. In 2017, she founded Writers Make Worlds, which is an open access educational resource hub for Black and Asian writing in Britain today. Its agenda is dual but interlocking: Writers Make Worlds advocates for more attention and publicity for Black and Asian British writers, while also creating awareness of the diversity of writing that exists for teachers, lecturers and students seeking to widen syllabuses. The small company is run by Elleke and Dr Erica Lombard, who is the web designer and co-responsible for how Elleke’s conceptual vision comes across to the audience. Writers Make Worlds connects writers with readers as well as teachers, featuring various contributions ranging from reviews and interviews with writers to schoolteachers’ commentaries on their classes. Elleke also teaches courses on Narrative and Intervention methodologies associated with the Accelerate Hub project based at the Universities of Oxford and Cape Town. She works with Professor Lucie Cluver, Dr Chris Desmond and others to take up interventions like parenting programmes in which narrative approaches are often helpful in bringing people together to identify problems they may have in common.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
Since coming to Oxford in the 1980s as a Rhodes Scholar and anti-apartheid campaigner from South Africa, I have been an advocate for equality and diversity in all institutions where I have worked, including through syllabus reforms. I strongly believe that literary studies provide a fundamental way through which we can achieve this widening and equalising. Reading, storytelling, and listening to stories take us into the heart of people’s experiences. Through literature, we can begin to empathise and understand other people from within – what it may feel like to, for example, be called out for looking different. To read and share stories is profoundly humanising, which has been my spark from the very beginning.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship is about spotting or creating a sense of possibility and finding ways to meet it and realise it.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
There was not a singular lightbulb moment for Writers Make Worlds, but there were a few moments when I realised how it could fufill a need. When I worked at the University of Leeds, the English department wanted to diversify the syllabus but wanted more resources and more knowhow. The library has many rich resources but we needed to construct a kind of conveyer belt for these books and magazines between writers and readers, between teachers, lecturers and students. At Oxford, we have also changed the syllabus, several times, most recently in 2012, with further discussions in 2020, at the time of the George Floyd murder, and each time it was a question of how to bring the amazing writings that exist to people’s attention. I realised that there is often a willingness to change but a lack of materials or simply of awareness. People sometimes are unwilling to diversify because they don’t know what’s out there; they’re uncertain and perhaps lacking in confidence. In spotting this gap, I became more convinced that Writers Make Worlds was worth developing as a resource.
With that being said, I try not to focus on the external ‘ask’ as much as trying to see things from another’s point of view. I try to ask: what would I do in that position? I often return to a quote by Steve Biko, the activist whose work I discovered in my 20s. His writing has since been profoundly important to everything I’ve done. He pointed out that racism is ultimately the racist’s problem, and not that of the person upon whom racism is projected. Our minds, through imagination, are powerful enough to think differently about the world and to try to move beyond injustice. Writers Make Worlds is a project dedicated to creating more justice in publishing, and it comes from within. If our ideas are powerful enough, if our choices are good enough, they’re going to create justice.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Imagination, courage, and the ability to work hard. Imagination is an incredible capacity that we all have, which allows us to think about the world differently. Courage fuels the imagination. Especially if other people subject you to negative thoughts, you’ll need courage to think and express yourself differently. To pick up on the title of Writers Make Worlds, how do we make or remake worlds? By building these worlds in the imagination. Like Biko was saying, others’ negative thoughts are not my business. Let me dream up something else. Lastly, you need to put in the time for what you believe in. I’m convinced by Malcolm Gladwell’s rule that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. If imagination is the spark, courage is the oxygen that blows onto the spark. The ability to work hard – the 10,000 hours – is the breath and the muscles.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
It still gives me a buzz when we get enthused feedback. I don’t think we’ve ever received negative feedback (touch wood!), and our feedback comes from all around the world. Writers Make Worlds was a REF case study, and I loved seeing the stats. We saw that there virtually isn’t a country in the world that hasn’t looked at and drawn upon Writers Make Worlds. It shows that the website is connecting us as creators and writers with those who are reading what we’re writing about. There is a link, and we see people learning more and being enabled. Similarly, with Accelerate Hub, I love seeing the amazing impact we have – people taking up our programmes, designs and interventions and responding to the core ideas.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I have long been excited by Zora Neale Hurston, who continues to inspire me today. She was a writer, anthropologist, and filmmaker, concerned with the African-American experience. In the 1930s, she recorded the voices of ordinary African-American women and pointed out that their stories were well-crafted, shapely and full of important wisdom drawn from their life experience. Her anthropology was pioneering at the time. It was unheard of to collect oral testimonies from marginalised African-American women like she did. The liveliness of her own literary voice inspires me too – it’s rich, bold, and courageous.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would ask her: how did you keep going? When you were feeling discouraged, what inspired you to keep going and go on the next day?
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
It was a very special moment when Bernardine Evaristo won the Booker prize in 2019. We’ve been talking about her work for two decades, but in some places she hadn’t always had the attention that she deserves. When she won, it was so gratifying! Though in a small way, I’d like to believe that we contributed to readers becoming more aware of her work, giving more attention to her writing as well as her amazing advocacy for diversity and other writers.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
When I’ve allowed the negative thoughts of others to wear on my mind – especially when I think of all the good advice I’ve drawn from my ‘gurus’ like Steve Biko and Zora Neale Hurston, as I was saying. A related issue is overcompensating as a professional for being female. Women of my generation often talk about how we’ve done far too much work, after hours, at the weekend, to make up for a sense of lack in ourselves that we’re not good enough. We’ve definitely not been supported enough by our male peers and the generation above us (both male and female). But I’ve learnt that we don’t need to overcompensate in this way, and we don’t have to do twice as much work as our male peers to be taken seriously.
How have you funded your ideas?
Writers Make Worlds has been wonderfully supported by the OUP John Fell Fund, for which we are very grateful. The Oxford English Faculty have also contributed, but I’m very proactive and ceaselessly applying for funding here and there.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
The Mellon Foundation is amazing and has funded a lot of projects for TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities), such as the Global South Visiting Professor Scheme, which was set up when I was the Director at TORCH (2015-18). Mellon is great for supporting important social justice programmes and projects. I’ve also had different projects awarded and funded by funding councils in the UK. Accelerate Hub has received UK government funding through The UKRI Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), and other schemes like the Oak Foundation.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
It’s a fantastic university with great people. The collegiate nature of the university means that there are lots of great spaces within which to innovate, test ideas, and to be encouraged by peers. But sometimes, it’s overwhelming how many different colleges and facilities there are. While working on one of my projects with TORCH, I now and then ran into similar programmes that were elsewhere in the University. Different parts of the University can operate as silos; sometimes we’re not as good at collaborating as we could be. We need to make sure to keep talking and consulting with one another.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
Within the University, I would recommend the John Fell Fund, which has helped support Writers Make Worlds.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Yes, I’ve experienced not being listened to in committees in both overt and less overt ways, such as people taking the time allotted to me. When I first started out, I was quite bold in trying to say what I wanted to say. Then, one day, I overheard a male professor saying something along the lines of ‘gosh, isn’t she fulsome and fearsome’. That shook me up for quite some time; I still think about it fifteen or more years on. Now, it helps to be older and more senior, to have been around for longer, and to see another generation of women coming up who seem to be similarly overwhelmed. They need support and mentorship; we need to share these experiences. I used to care so much about being criticized, especially covertly, like being called fearsome. Now I don’t care as much. I’m in a better space to be able to say: ‘You’re in my face, you’re taking up my time.’
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I think it would be useful to have workshops where women at different career stages can share the challenges they’ve faced and talk about the different ways of overcoming them. I was embarrassed when I was called fearsome because I thought it reflected badly on me. I wish I’d told someone about it at the time. It’d be good to have spaces where women can share these moments as a way of overcoming that embarrassment. An embarrassment shared is an embarrassment halved. I also think leadership courses would be good, as well as diversity and equality, or ‘check your privilege’ workshops for both women and men together.
Any last words of advice?
Always make sure to collaborate. Competitive relationships, especially with someone doing something similar to what you’re doing, are rarely constructive. Build bridges instead. I believe collaboration is better than competition.