In this episode of 'The Books That Made Me', Ben Keene (Co-founder of Rebel Book Club) talks to Elizabeth Uviebinené about 3 nonfiction books that have had a massive impact on her to date, including one that shaped how her twenties evolved and one that inspired the hugely successful, 'Slay In Your Lane', which went onto become a global movement.
Elizabeth also shares why we should all be WhatsApp-ing ourselves and her take on why personal stories in nonfiction matter so much.
Elizabeth Uviebinené is a multi-award-winning author, speaker, and columnist at the Financial Times. She is the author of 'The Reset: Ideas to Change How We Work and Live', and the co-author of 'Slay In Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible', the critically acclaimed bestseller which won the Groucho Maverick Award, the Marie Claire Future Shapers Award and was shortlisted for the Specsavers National Book Award. She is also co-editor of the anthology Loud Black Girls.
Elizabeth began her career in marketing and is now a brand strategist, working on campaigns for businesses such as Nike and Bumble. She grew up in South London where she still lives and studied Politics and International studies at the University of Warwick.
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[00:00:00] What I think non-fiction books do really well, and great non-fiction books do, is they start conversations, they make us think differently, and they make us think of new possibilities.
[00:00:20] Welcome to The Books That Made Me, a brand new podcast from Rebel Book Club, and today we are speaking with Elizabeth Uviebinene. Author of 'The Reset: Ideas to Change How We Work and Live', and co-author of the cultural shifting smash hit and award-winning 'Slay in Your Lane' with her great friend, Yomi Adegoke, who she tells us about their backstory and how they created this amazing book and movement.
Elizabeth also talks about The Books That Made Her, including a surprising choice, and her new entrepreneurial venture, which is helping people with daily habits. And she is a productive and impactful human. So listen in and enjoy the conversation.
Welcome to Rebel Book Club!
[00:01:04] Hi Ben. How are you? What an intro. Thank you.
[00:01:10] Ben K: There we go. It's all true so far, I'm sure. Now you are the author of five books, which we can't talk about them all this morning, but tell us how you met Yomi and how Slay in Your Lane came about?
[00:01:19] So I met Yomi at university, so way before Slay in Your Lane. So we were freshers, 18 years old, having a great time. And then years later, we were best friends, like from jump. And, so years later, when we both went into our respective fields, I in the more corporate setting and Yomi in the more media industry (she was at Channel 4), I was at, you know, one of the largest banks in the world.
So very different environments. We, I guess, realised that we were experiencing things that you would experience just being a young black woman in a workplace that's, you know, really large and it's your first time being somewhere like that.
And we teamed up to write Slay in Your Lane after a lunchtime where we had these conversations, as best friends do, in between meetings, during lunch breaks or whenever. I would call Yomi and she would call me, and we would have these sanity checks, where we discuss various aspects of life, from reality TV to boys.
Amongst our discussions and chats, I pitched to Yomi and said, "You know what? Someone needs to write a book that speaks to the experiences of being a young black woman. There are things going on in workplaces in this country that need to be spoken about, such as micro-aggressions and the feeling of working twice as hard and only getting half back.
And someone needs to kind of talk about this and someone needs to write about this. So we said we should both write it together because it wouldn't just be about the book, it would be a movement. And I was obviously working in marketing, and when you say movement, you know how companies throw millions of pounds at making people care about things.
And, um, so I was like, "Yeah, yeah, of course. Yeah, it'll be a movement." And then obviously it turned out to be a movement. So yeah, that's the kind of whistle-stop tour about how Slay in Your Lane came about. We went from talking about work to realising that nobody was talking about black women in health or in the media.
So it became the Black Girl Bible, which is our subtitle.
[00:03:42] It became a, a big thing and, and, you know, catching up with it a few years later. Um, and from a non-fiction perspective, one of the reasons, you know, I think it's traveled well, um, around our community is that it's the personal storytelling obviously that, that we've just heard from you, but also the mission and like this sort of commentary on society from from your perspective, that so many people connected to.
What happened off the back of it?
What didn't happen? That's probably a better question. Um, I would say, you know what? On your point, that's a really good question around the personal story element. Because when we first wrote the first draft, I remember our agent at the time, Juliet Pickering, she said to us, "This is great in terms of the facts and everything is in there. Like, it's, well, it's researched very well, but it's dry."
And Yomi and I looked at each other and we were like, "Dry?" We are the most, if you know us, Ben. Ben, this is our second time kind of like, you know, doing the chat. You know, we're not dry people.
So, uh, it was very much like, uh, we are not dry people. How is this coming across in our writing? And Juliet was like, "We need your personal stories. This is how the reader is going to not just connect with what's going on from a social commentary point of view, the research, but also about how you guys see the world and you are taking on along this journey. And at the moment, it's not doing that. So, um, we need more of Elizabeth and your voice in the different chapters."
And that was a game changer that went from this book being what it was then, which was, you know, a very, I guess, a solid book to what I would describe now as, and what people describe as a cultural landmark.
Um, and I think that is all about how we brought our voices to the forefront and kind of walked the reader through some very, you know, harrowing stats, funny anecdotes, but, um, but yeah, a great non-fiction read for everyone.
[00:05:57] There you go. Not that it needs advertising again, but Slay in Your Lane, if you haven't picked it up, is for everybody in society, whatever your background. Yeah, I think what you described, which is a great insight for non-fiction authors there, Elizabeth, is this mix of head and heart in a good nonfiction book, which is like you've gotta put together a solid argument, which was obviously version one, but if you don't have the personal story, you often get, it does get a bit dry.
You've gotta be really into the subject, whereas, the other way round is like, personal stories are amazing, but they don't necessarily help move things for people who don't have a plan or don't have the context or the evidence behind the argument you're making. So yeah, you nailed it off the bat.
So what did that, in terms of your writing, how did that... join up the dots for us from 'Slay in Your Lane' to 'The Reset'?
[00:06:46] We turned Slay in Your Lane into a journal where people were able to do writing prompts based on some of the themes in our book. And then we had beautiful illustrations as well, so it was a really nice project as well, working with an illustrator who was just yeah, super, super talented. So that was fun and that was very fulfilling.
And then we had the opportunity to edit Loud Black Girls, which is our third book. So we commissioned 20 black British women and essentially asked them what they were thinking about in terms of the future and what was important to them. So we gave them a very open brief and we worked very closely with the editor at the time at Fourth State, Helen Garner Williams, who is honestly like one of the best editors around. And we were able to kind of have this collection of just amazing stories. Everything from the impact of Meghan Markle and the Royal Family, to the politics of African and Caribbean food, and through the lens of post-Brexit, post-Trump.. It was very much future-looking.
So whilst Slay in Your Lane was very much in the past and somewhat present, Loud Black Girls was very much future-looking. Then, after that, the pandemic hit. But before the pandemic, I had this I guess I wouldn't say sneaky suspicion because I think it was very obvious, but it was hiding in plain sight like most things. That work wasn't working for not just black women, which is what we spoke about in Slay in Your Lane, but work wasn't working for everyone. You know, people living with disabilities, white men who, you know, in the grand scheme of things are archetypal when it comes to success and leadership and things like that. From my experience of speaking to so many people, it felt like it wasn't working for everyone, not just the people who kind of occupied the intersections of identity. So black, being a woman, all of those things.
I started working on an audio project, which would become The Reset. And long story short, I wanted to kind of do like a six-part investigation on why work wasn't working. And the pandemic hit in March 2020, obviously. And the project went from being an audio project into a book because I just had much more time.
I would say, yeah, writing a book that was challenging to write because you're writing during a pandemic, obviously, was very hard. But also, it was my first time writing by myself, so it had that challenge. But I'm super proud of the concepts The Reset was able to bring out. I didn't want to write another kind of book for my generation that encouraged them to work harder and focus on work as a source of their identity. But write something that was a much more holistic view on the way we see work and the way we see life, and making sure that we're not bringing up a whole generation on very toxic work habits again.
So yeah, that's The Reset. And then a year later, we published a middle-grade children's fiction book called The Offline Diaries. And there we have it, five in five years.
[00:10:13] Just the five books on your belt already, Elizabeth. It's remarkable, and we could do lots more on all of them, but we're here to talk about the books that made you, of course, that you haven't written but have shaped you. But just before we do, I hear now you are working on a new venture, of course. This woman doesn't stop. That's actually beyond the world of books. Tell us briefly about Storia.
[00:10:37] So, Storia is a journaling app, essentially, and our big vision is to bring and make the world much more empathetic and understanding and help people do that through understanding themselves and cultivating different perspectives. Journaling has been transformative. Before I became an author, I was journaling when I was like 10 years old. Didn't know what it was, but I was journaling. I was writing on walls, I was writing on pieces of paper. I was just getting things out. And the only way I could do that was essentially through words.
So, Storia is my next venture. It's an app where you are able to download and write your daily thoughts. And what's special about Storia is that I think a lot of journaling apps have the approach where it's about you, and they don't really realize that the things that make us who we are are the people around us.
So we have a very social lens in which we want to encourage people to pick up journaling and make it much more fun, gamified. We have guided prompts that are relevant to you. So if you're going through grief, if you're going through a reset in your work life, there are going to be prompts and things that help you and guide you in order to do that. So, yeah, that's Storia, and that's my next, sixth baby, basically.
[00:12:13] Yeah, and building an app is a whole another challenge. So good luck with that. And we know at Rebel Book Club that journaling is one of those habits that, like you've just explained, when people form it effectively, it's a superpower. So, I'm sure this is gonna have a positive impact on a huge, huge new audience.
But let's go back now to what shaped you. So we've heard briefly about this amazing journey you've been on, the ambition, the influence, the impact, channeling your pain and anger and your creativity into these projects and books and so on. Tell us about a book that earlier on in your life had a big, it shaped you as a person.
[00:13:01] Yeah. Um, so when you asked me this question, I had to, I really had to think because, but I didn't have to think really hard. And I think that's a testament to the book that I'm about to mention... "The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now" is a book by Meg Jay, and I read this after I graduated. And I would say this book had such a transformative impact on the way I would set up my twenties without even me knowing.
It was, I would say it was the guiding force. I turned 30 this year, a few months ago, and, um, yeah, I look back and I can't, I give a lot of credit to how that book helped me see my twenties, not just in work, but in terms of relationships, in people, in love, but also in health. And, um, yeah, I had my 30th, I had a really big birthday party, and I can credit that book to a lot of the things that I, um, yeah. So, for example, Meg Jay talks a lot about relationships, not just romantic, but friendships and how important networks are and all of these things. And I looked back at this party and I had so many people that I've met throughout the years, and I was like, "Oh wow, like this is so special, being able to have, you know, people in your life and have this community is, you know, invaluable".
So, um, that book very much shaped my twenties and I implore everyone to read it.
[00:14:41] And, and Elizabeth, when did you read "The Defining Decade"? Were you 20, 25? When did it come into your life?
[00:14:46] So I read it when I was like 19, no, not 19, sorry, 20, but about 20, 21. It was just because a friend recommended it to me and she was like 'oh, you should read it.' And she sent me the PDF copy. Um, but it was, I just was, I preferred to like buy it, so, because it, um, just, I preferred it physically at that time, so I bought it and I was, I was cynical, but what I really love about that, the way she writes the book, again, personal stories.
I believe she's a doctor and she puts, um, every chapter has a personal story at the start. And she talks about obviously like patients and talks through the case studies and it's so personable. It's, it's um, it's just way, yeah, I think it's just so well written. It's so easy and so clear and it just supercharged the way I would think about, like I said, work, love, and health, 'cause that's how the book is broken down.
[00:15:53] And you can see the influence on the in your own writing. And it's so interesting that, you know, the idea, I think we've talked about Rebel Book Club that of teenagers only being, what, 50 years old, the concept of 'a teenage stage of life' isn't very old as a sort of social or cultural construct.
And it's interesting now how, and I guess this book and the work you're doing is part of this next part of that conversation. It's like, what do the twenties mean? Because so many people are getting lost, understandably, in the chaos of modern life. Um, like how do we define them? So here's a great place to start.
Pairs well with The Reset I've heard...
[00:16:36] So it turns out you don't just need to be a published author to have had books change your life. We see this happen every month at Rebel Book Club, and we're also seeing our members reading habits shift as well towards listening to more books to fit around their busy digital lives on the move. So when we found out about a new audiobook service called xigxag, we were excited to give it a try.
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[00:17:52] So tell us, tell us about the second book that's had a big impact on you.
[00:17:57] The second book would have to be "Lean In" by Sheryl Sandberg. Um, for obvious reasons. But, um, and by that, I mean, and I know that there are people who have lots of opinions on the concepts of leaning and Sheryl Sandberg as a person.
So I say all of this to say that book had that book changed the game in terms of women in a corporate space because if I didn't read Lean In when I was about 22, Slay In Your Lane wouldn't exist. That's just the fact because Sheryl Sandberg opened up the conversation around what it is to be a woman in the workplace.
And I saw that as like, wow, this is super, this is great. I wasn't hearing this before. And she opened up a conversation around what it is to be a woman in the workplace, yes, in the corporate workspace. But what is so special about that book is what I think non-fiction books do really well, and great non-fiction books do, is they start conversations.
You may not necessarily agree all the time with a book, but the books that, for me, are landmarks - they capture the zeitgeist, they make us think differently, and they make us think of new possibilities. And you may not always agree with everything in there, but they elicit some sort of opinion.
And I think that Lean In did that really well because I saw that she was talking about what it is to be a woman in the workplace, and a particular kind of woman. Yes, somewhat privileged, but it gave me the inspiration to think, "Why isn't anybody talking about what it is to be a young black woman in a workplace?"
So without that jump-off, I don't believe Slay In Your Lane would exist as it is right now. For sure.
[00:19:54] It's great to hear that version of the story of Lean In because especially in recent years, it has become much more, well, Sheryl Sandberg has become a much more controversial leader, I guess, in the modern workplace.
Right. And so how do you respond to friends or peers who say, "Well, hold on, Sheryl Sandberg hasn't, you know, has had a negative impact through whatever it might be, you know, leadership at Facebook?" Do you just go back to that context of what Lean In meant to you at that moment in time?
[00:20:23] I think that if I'm being so honest, I think... How do I say this? If I'm being honest, I think that we hold women to a very, very unrealistic standard as well. I think that's sometimes part of the narrative and the vitriol in which people speak about Sheryl. And I don't know her personally. She did email us a few years ago when Slay In Your Lane came out, saying that she thought it was a great book and she's proud of what we've created and written and the movement behind that. It was a very surreal moment and a full-circle moment.
So I guess to answer your question directly, I believe that, you know, what's the saying? If you live long enough, you become the... I think the saying is, if you live long enough, you become the villain. And I think that's just how I see a lot of things. You see the Girl Boss movement with Sophia Amoruso, you see it with so many different female businesswomen. And we have to ask ourselves, why are we always scrutinising women? And I'm not saying that women can't have flaws. I'm not saying these women don't have flaws. But I think that the lens in which we see these flaws is much more pronounced than if they were men. And that's, that, for me, is what I believe fundamentally.
[00:22:01] That's fascinating. Oh, we could dive into that so much more. Well, we're actually reading a book this month, an anthology, at Rebel Book Club called "All We Can Save," which is written by 50 female leaders in the climate movement. And what's fascinating is how they've kind of taken not just the anthology approach to storytelling, but also they've built this amazing community of people having circles around the themes in the book, off the back of reading it, to help people through it, which is a lot of that kind of Lean In strategy, like, how do we learn together and build a movement? So it's a real theme in powerful non-fiction like this.
So we've got one more, you can squeeze in one more book that shaped you. I know there's a big shout out from "Invisible Women" in your collection, which we've read as well, but there's one other book that you mentioned that had a big impact on you. What was it?
[00:22:52] So right now, I'm reading Bernardine Evaristo's "Manifesto: On Never Given Up." And yeah, I don't know if everyone has read into Bernardine's story, even if you haven't read her nonfiction book "Manifesto." Bernardine is just super, super inspiring for so many reasons. Yes, because she won the Booker Prize a few years ago, which catapulted her into, I guess, our consciousness a lot more.
Um, and this book just details her upbringing and just her resilience, and I just find it, you know, the word inspiring is kind of, you know, it's used, it's overused. But Bernardine's story is just what that is. It's inspiring personified.
And I guess right now I'm going through a change in my own personal life. Going from being an author for the last five years writing books into now being a founder of a startup and building something from scratch. The sentiment around never giving up and the sentiment around good things take time. And it's okay to not have it all figured out and trust in the process. All of these themes have just really been speaking to me at the moment. And reading Bernardine's book has really helped me, especially when I'm a solo founder as well. And again, personal stories matter. Bottom line, like, you know, this book, the way it's written is so simple. And I don't mean that in a negative sense, I mean that in a great sense because being able to have words that are clarifying to your own personal life and to have stories in there that just feel like she's speaking directly to you, that's magic, that's alchemy. That does not come easy.
[00:24:58] I'm sure she does. And I think it's a great example of when you fall in love with an author of novels. I mean, "Girl, Woman, Other" is obviously a cultural landmark. I'll take your phrase from earlier.
It is, you know, so many people, it's like gone fully mainstream, hasn't it? And you are kind of like, "Oh, who's the person behind this? Where do they get all these ideas and stories from?" And so to have a book that does that, gives that version of her actual story, is fantastic.
I wanted to ask Elizabeth, on that point of resilience, like inspiration, it's a word that's just battered around a million times a day, isn't it? What do you draw on in those moments when you come up against the structural inequalities in society, which you've written so much about, and you feel beaten down by it and you feel like, "Oh, how are we ever gonna change this because we haven't got without a full revolution?"
Like, what do you draw on in those moments to get you through to the next moment, to the next day, to the next project?
That's such a good question.
People. So I have such amazing people around me. I don't believe I've, you know, no man's an island. I firmly believe in that. So being able to have people who are invested in who I am, in my journey, has been very transformative, and comforting. Because all of these structural things can feel really, really deliberate, it can feel very suffocating and make you feel like you can't progress or all of these things. And so people have been a real big outlet.
And journaling, and I hate to just be like, "Oh my God, like journaling again." But writing, and I'm not saying writing from a professional point of view, I just... sometimes I just feel like I wanna scream, because just life, you just wanna scream into a pillow. Other times, I just wanna basically write to myself, and that's what I do. So I will just write to myself, and I do that on WhatsApp.
So sometimes, on WhatsApp. I know it sounds so weird, but what I do. So this is, oh my god, let me let you into my secret. And this has become this source of inspiration, but so since the last 10, 10 years, even before I had my phone, I had a Blackberry, obviously, like most people did.
I would, I, I text, so before I would BBM myself, and obviously now I WhatsApp myself. And what you do is you save your number, and then you can just WhatsApp yourself. So it's almost as if... so my WhatsApp is crazy because it's got like random quotes in there. It's almost 'cause it's got, you know, voice notes where I just sometimes voice note myself.
I remember the day I decided, I was like, "Oh my gosh. Like, I, I, I wanna build this app. Like, I think it's gonna change the world. Like, I really wanna do this." And before I could tell my friends about it, which can be quite, you know, quite vulnerable, you tell people about something and it feels, you know, very different. I had to tell myself about it. So I voice noted myself, in, you know, coming out the station, almost as if I was talking to, like, talking to somebody, and I was just talking to myself, and I was voice noting myself about this thing I wanted to do. And I still have the voicemail to this day 'cause it's obviously on my WhatsApp.
So to answer your question, people and being able to kind of let it out. So all of these things, these structural inequalities, all of these things, you know, that we kind of go through on a day-to-day basis, but, um, we go through heartbreak, all of these things, like I, I have to... I have to let it go. If I cannot dump it somewhere, it then follows me everywhere, and that will make me feel stuck. And the worst thing we need as humans is to feel stuck.
So that has been transformative, being able to, over the last 10 years, go through so much change and things like that, but have a catalog of experiences or things that I can look back on. And I think that's what's also empowering about journaling.
You can, you look back and you go, "Wow, I was really down bad at that point," or "Wow, I really thought that." And it makes you think, "Okay, cool. You know what, it's not that deep. I got this." And sometimes in life, that's all you need. You just need that self-information that you've got this. And, um, yeah, that's what helps me.
[00:29:48] It's so powerful, uh, to listen to you talk about that, Elizabeth, but also just the habits and tactics from turning your frustrations and, um, you know, probably a lot of stronger emotions into this kind of positive force using this life hack, which you're now turning into an actual app around building a journal that has a positive impact on people and yourself, and it's just so - there are just some great reminders there. So thank you.
And thank you for sharing the books that made you. I know there'll be dozens more. And 'the defining decade' is the phrase that's gonna stick in my mind from this conversation because not just the book so much, but the phrase of thinking about that really challenging but exciting opportunity of your twenties, um, being able to do that at the start rather than at the end and then to have that big party and just to reflect back on what's happened in the last 10 years for you. It's amazing.
So, um, thank you. I can't wait to see what happens in your thirties and, um, and the books that flow and everything else.
[00:30:50] Thank you so much. This has been so much fun.
[00:30:52] Thanks, Elizabeth. Good luck with Storia.
[00:30:54] Appreciate it. Have a good one.