A Q & A with Iyabo Onipede, a life coach


Ryan Brohm/Iowa State Daily

Iyabo Onipede gives a speech about diversity in the Howe Hall Alliant-Lee Liu Auditorium on March 7, 2018. Onipede is a graduate of the Georgetown University Law School and practiced for 20 years before becoming a life coach. She works with leaders to help identify and develop leadership skills. 

Ashtyn Perrin

Iyabo Onipede is a former lawyer turned life coach. She came to Iowa State March 7 to deliver a lecture titled “Why Leadership Equity and Diversity Matters.”

Afterward, the Iowa State Daily had the opportunity to sit down with Onipede and ask her questions about her life and work.

Q: Do you often work with college students?

Onipede: I’ve done work at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, and I’ve worked with third-year divinity students there and women of color at the institution. At Candler School of Theology, I’ve done some work since I’ve graduated. I love working with institutions because I love young people.

Q: What do you think college students think about having a “coach” talk to them?

Onipede: I remember when I first started coaching, I never wanted to call myself a life coach because I thought “Oh my God, that sounds like not good, not cool, no.” It sounds ridiculous coming from lawyer to life coach.

Q: You work specifically as a “leadership development” coach. How does that differ from other coaching?

Onipede: At one point I called myself an executive coach, but then faith leaders didn’t want to work with me, or they wouldn’t seek me out automatically. Then that’s how I finally fell into saying it’s leadership development. But all coaching is life coaching. I’ve come to a place of being very proud of it. I can articulate it to any group of people anywhere and at any time, so that’s important to me.

Q: You mention that you only take certain clients that are “primed” for coaching. What does that mean?

Onipede: Being primed usually means, when you think of the cycle of liberation or the cycle of socialization, there is an event that has happened. Something’s going on. It’s like bringing a horse to the water. You can’t force the horse to drink, the horse has to be thirsty. The person has to want to explore because this stuff gets deep, it gets emotional. You’re changing mental models. You have to be ready, and your boss can’t force you to do. Nobody is going to just show up to do this if they’re not willing to invest the time and money in it. So that’s what I mean by saying “are you ready?” I want people to be thinking “am I really ready for change?” Like if you just had a baby last week, that’s not a time do this.

Q: Do you have a lot of diversity within your clients?

Onipede: Yes, and I take that as a huge compliment especially when white Americans want to talk to me. Not that we necessarily talk about race, not every client is dealing with issues around race. Most of my work has to do with helping people. The prototype of my client is usually a very successful person who is feeling very disgruntled but they really don’t know why. They think it’s “oh, that person at my job is getting on my nerves, and I’m going to snap.” When they come to me, what ends up happening is those incidents are indications that it’s time to shift how they’re doing leadership. I would say over 90% of my clients go from thriving careers when they work with me they formulate their life work. But you have to get to a certain point before you can formulate your life work. I help them begin to see that, and usually the life work involves creating greater community. Going out into the community and influencing the community beyond the institution they’re in, and that’s where the social justice and the racial stuff comes in.

Q: You refer to one’s “core” a lot: connecting to core values, core issues, etc. What is one’s core?

Onipede: I’m a theologenic heart, so I’m always going to talk about the soul of a person, or the spirit of a person. I work with the soul of the leader. That’s the part of you that transcends your job. That’s your identity, your personality, your value system, your strengths, beyond your resume. What you’re good at, how you look at the world, your world view. Those are all factors that influence our soul. I think we neglect that. This is probably because I neglected it when I was a lawyer from my own self. I went through horrendous life changes, and now when I look back, I realize that there was nobody saying “Tend to your soul. You know, you like to cook. Spend more time cooking even though you’re busy. Spend time with your mom and dad before they pass away. Spend time in the garden.” Nobody was telling me that. It was “work work work work work work work.” So nobody was teaching me as a woman, as a professional woman, self care, tending my soul, nurturing, self-nurturing, like celebrating that I’m enough as I am. I don’t have anything to prove. And I think women need to hear that, especially women.

Q: What was it like for you coming to the United States at 16?

Onipede: I’m the youngest of three. My sister left when she was 15, she was the oldest. She went to Boston when she was 15, and that same year my brother went to boarding school in Nigeria. All of a sudden I was an only child, and I looked forward to coming to America. When I came, I loved the imagined freedom I had. I thought “I’m free!” But I was so lost, like I remember I couldn’t tell white people apart. When African Americans get mad at white people, saying “oh, they think we all look alike,” I tell them of this story. A friend in my dorm made me watch “Days of Our Lives” every day, so I could understand Americanisms and humor. I’ve lived in America 37 years. I don’t get American jokes. They don’t click — like 80 percent of them. I’m sure in time I would’ve understood. I’m talking my first year, I was like “they look alike.” I wasn’t trying to be offensive, but nobody taught me how. Whereas in Nigeria I can tell the tribe of a person from afar from how they look because I grew up with it. It’s things like that that I think we don’t understand what cultural difference really is. The food was so bland I walked around with a bottle of tabasco sauce. And the cold, oh my god, I’ve never seen snow. And my roommate, she was from California, she had never seen snow. They put us in the same room. We’re both 16 years old, and then like overnight one time in October it snowed, and the radiators were clanking and the room was steaming. We looked out the window and the sun was brilliant shining, and we ran out in our pajamas. Somehow both of us had this cognitive dissonance thinking it’s warm because it looked like it was warm. The whole dorm came out and pelted us with snowballs, and I’ve hated snow ever since. I was so cold I thought I was going to die. Those things were hard in forming community. Not just relationships, but community. That was hard for me. Now that I can think about it, when I look back, it has been a constant issue for me. Now I feel like I’m well entrenched in a community. For many years I was floundering.

Q: Why have you made the decision to not talk about your work as a lawyer?

Onipede: I had a crisis. I had a personal crisis, and I had to shut it down and I did. I no longer practice. I don’t talk too much about it because it involved my personal life a lot. It was painful. Marriage ended, my desire for a family came to an end, all of that. I screwed up along the way. I made quite a few horrible mistakes. In the process of evaluating how I got to where I got to, I had to ask myself some really hard questions. Why did I end up making these poor decisions that put me in this position? It was because I was so disconnected from who I am and my core. Have you ever heard of someone who had a heart attack and it’s because they’re A type personality? Well, the heart attack is not the issue, the heart attack is the emergency. But the lifestyle stuff that led to the heart attack needs to be tended to. And that’s what I had to do with myself. The lifestyle things, the way I thought of myself, the way I related to my community, the work I was doing. Law is very adversarial and I’m not an adversarial person. I’m a hope peddler. I’m a people-builder, I build up people. You cannot be in my presence and bully yourself. If you said “how could I do something so stupid?” I’d say “you can’t talk about my friend like that.”

Q: What are three tips you’d give Iowa State students?


1. As the end of the semester looms near, take a lot of deep breaths, enjoy the warmer weather and anticipate your summer. Give it your best shot. This too shall pass!

2. Remember you are leaders. Your world is bigger than the stressful thing that is in front of you like finals. I would love for each Iowa State student to cultivate the deep sense of responsibility to the larger world that leaders have. This helps you keep things in perspective.

3. As leaders, it is your responsibility to make sure that the world is an equitable and just place for everyone, not just the select few.