Motherhood and charity work with Mari-Anne Chiromo

Mari-Anne Chiromo has a passion for her son, culture, charity work and business. Here she tells us more about how she's building a better working world.

Tell us a bit more about yourself and your hobbies.

I’m Zimbabwean and left home for university in the UK when I was 19. I had no family here at the time. Now, I’m mummy to an incredible three-nager (i.e., my very lively three-year old son). I’ve always been into sports and started boxing 12 years ago thanks to a charity white collar boxing event at my old law organization. We worked a lot with young people, and along with the support of my parents, school and youth group, I’ve always been into the whole corporate and social responsibility side of things.


Tell us a surprising fact about yourself.

Other than meeting Mike Tyson and also sparring with Julius Francis (who fought Mike Tyson) in a London boxing club, I guess the most surprising fact is that I’m currently setting up a sports academy in Zimbabwe (to be replicated across Africa), focusing initially on football, rugby and tennis.


If you were a movie character, who would it be and why?

Well this is going to sound super weird, but Jason Bourne — something about the fearlessness, strategy, the constant traveling, and finding ways to sort hectic challenges out using whatever you have handy.  

Who is the most important person in your life?

My son, Luca. 100%. He’s a three-year old little wonder and he’s the reason why I do what I do. When I was pregnant with him, I was like, I need to sort my stuff out and be the best version of myself as an example for him, because it’s this huge responsibility to try and give him that license to at least try to be and do whatever he wants to. I’ve never been as focused as I was when I was pregnant with him. I’ve achieved so much in the last three years and he’s been the driving force. Through EY, thanks to a nomination based on activities at and outside work, I was fortunate enough to be one of four people chosen to take part in the 2014 Commonwealth Games baton relay in Glasgow. Mind-blowing! I was eight months pregnant, and my son and I got to experience that plus the opening ceremony thanks to work and the voluntary work I’d done.  All of the stuff that I try and do is because I want him to be proud of his mum. I also do this because I want him to have options. He’s absolutely everything to me, and hands down, the most epic human being I’ve ever met.


Tell us a bit more about your background before EY. 

I have a background in law. Growing up in Zimbabwe, I always wanted to be a lawyer, but coming over here, the legal profession was very different; it was just not what I was expecting at all. I was lucky enough that the first law organization I worked for introduced me to the concept of professional support lawyers. At EY, we’d recognize that function as being closely aligned with what knowledge management (KM) and business development do. That was my first introduction into the world of KM, business efficiency and operational effectiveness, and it appealed massively because it played to so many of the areas that drew me to law, but also opened up the chance to learn so many skills I’d never even thought about, and also work closely with people across the business, not just in one practice area, but across the organization and all markets. I stayed within the law firm environment for a few years and learnt a lot about technology, training, strategy and so much more. I love learning, so after many years in legal, I moved to the third sector to lead on the introduction of KM at UnLtd, a charity that funds and mentors social entrepreneurs, and then made the move to EY.


What do you do at EY?

I currently work in knowledge management. Every time I say that, people go “what is that?” It’s basically something that everyone does in their day-to-day life, but the term throws people off. My poor parents were like “Ooooh wow! Sounds wonderful!” but with blank stares that said “yeah, we’re totally going to just stick with ‘lawyer’ if anyone asks because we have no idea what this KM thing is.”  If you were making a meal, or baking a cake, you’re not going to start from scratch and invent a chocolate cake.

You’ll either go google it or look through a recipe book, because someone has done it before you. After your research – checking out reviews from people who’ve done it before, maybe even chatting with some of them - you decide on the recipe that works best for your circumstances.  You have a tried and tested first cut.  Then,  you can confidently start freestyling, because instead of spending loads of time starting from scratch, you can just fine-tune what you know works – add a little vanilla, throw in a few chopped walnuts, substitute something with something else. Knowledge management is the same. It’s about enhancing what you know and what you do, through leveraging yours and others’ previous experience and learning. EY is massive! It’s full of very talented, energetic people with loads of ideas, doing exciting work for clients in different markets. The teams in each of the many countries we work in will often do similar work for similar types of clients locally, so it’s inevitable that there is experience, learning, strategies and even just materials or tools that we could share to maximize efficiency, time (and therefore cost) saving for us and clients, and quality.  Instead of everyone starting from scratch, part of my job is about connecting people and giving them a way of being able to having the mindset and then the mechanisms to see what’s been done before and leverage that information. Common sense really. It creates enough time and space for people to work effectively and save time they can reinvest in other things around their development.


Tell us the top three things that you love about your role.

First, I get to work with lots of different teams and I have to try and influence all of them to behave in a certain way. We have people from many different countries, all from different cultures speaking different languages. My brain is constantly switching to try and adjust to think “How do I land this message with this group?” And I absolutely LOVE that! I walk around different offices and hear so many different languages, and I smile to myself because it’s super awesome to be immersed in such a diverse organization, especially as a foreigner myself. 

Secondly, it’s the opportunities to push boundaries. I got to do a presentation in the Netherlands at a 3-day learning event, with people from all levels of the organization and from several different countries. My son is a huge fan of unicorns, so bringing my whole self to work, I used unicorns as a key theme in my presentation.  Everyone was looking at me like I was insane, but it made sense and I was able to translate what could otherwise have been inaccessible, abstract concepts, into something everyone was able to grasp on a level, unicorn-driven playing field! That freedom to bring my own flair and flavor to the execution of my job is brilliant!  I also get to take my little boy with me on work trips, something which was huge as I was settling back into full-time working after being full-time mummy.

Finally, and maybe along similar lines to the previous point, it’s the opportunities – if you care to dare —  to do something different.  From my experience at my previous law firm, I suggested organizing a Strictly Come Dancing type charity event at EY to fund-raise for 2 charities. Nothing whatsoever to do with my day job! People from across the organization, from partners to graduates, paired up and over ten weeks, we learnt how to do four different ballroom dances with a professional dance teacher.  They learnt about each other's part of the services, created relationships that I know are still very strong and even leverage, so arguably, it was kind of knowledge sharing … at a stretch … and skills development! We uncovered makeup artists, professional dancers and so much more within the organization, and it was such a great way for other people to bring and be celebrated for the other sides that make them who they are. On the main night, we had a black tie and all the couples performed in front of celebrity judges and one of our senior partners (who is a mega Strictly fan as it turns out!). We raised over £20,000 for charities which was incredible. I love working for an organization where nothing is too crazy, and my work day involves a delivery of sequinned numbers from Chrisanne.


Tell us about your work with charities and start-ups. 

There are so many amazing organizations out there trying to do really great stuff, and I really came face to face with that in my previous job before EY.  I learnt about social enterprise and as with all the things I learn and marvel away from home, i.e., Zimbabwe, I’m constantly thinking of how I can take this learning or structure or behavior back to Africa. 

I noticed that in my work with various grass roots, working on the ground, diaspora-led initiatives, there was so much replication and not enough collaboration. There’s also inefficiency around operating models, and not enough access and visibility. In Zimbabwe, we have people who make these incredible accessories and they sit on the side of the road or they walk long distances to get to the border to try and catch the tourist trade. They’re usually elderly women, often grandmas looking after grandkids, so it’s pretty dangerous and not the most reliable income source.  I wanted to make this easier for these women and also create a way for nostalgic people like me to access products from home. My start-up, Positive Afritude, is a mechanism for creating an online market place for these women and also for any entrepreneurs or artists back in Africa. I also promote and give support as far as marketing and brand strategy for small businesses, and organize events designed to raise awareness around issues like perception of Africa and Africans for example, or business opportunities in Africa.

I’ve done art exhibitions with huge organizations in London, whose support has helped me to tell the stories behind these people and to show people their creative and incredible work. My start-up is my big passion; it’s something I am so proud of and hope to continue to do.  It’s given me a chance to learn skills beyond my day job like website design, product placement, marketing, even photography and social selling!  EY is a very strong brand and has great relationships with many organizations, so being part of the family means that you can build relationships which benefit you in terms of your personal brand too.  That’s extremely powerful when you embark on your own ventures. 


What would be your three top tips for someone who’s about to start their career at EY?

Be yourself from day one. Be authentic. There’s nothing more difficult, soul destroying and counterproductive both for you and for the organization’s ambitions to inherently enable innovation through diversity, than trying to be someone else or like everyone else. The other is be brave and always open to learning. There are so many people who are so willing to help you, so be brave enough to talk to them, ask for help, ask questions and be honest to yourself and with others.

Finally, get involved beyond just your “day job”. The opportunities that I’ve had have come from getting involved in our different networks, e.g. UK & Africa network, being an ally in our EY Unity network, and also volunteering to fund-raise through our CR team including a life-changing expedition to Costa Rica. Also events like CharitEY Ballroom. EY is such a massive stage, and you can decide whether you just want to dance in one corner, or cover the whole stage including swinging from the curtains and rafters.

Did you miss Mari-Anne's Instagram takeover?

What's life like as a working mum at EY? Mari-Anne took part in an Instagram takeover during her week at our EMEIA Financial Services Performance Improvement Learning Event in Amsterdam.