The First Black Woman In British Cabinet, Baroness Valerie Amos, Shares Her Secrets For Success

'Take the risk, have a bit of fun and learn along the way.'

To say that Valerie Amos has an impressive career history is an understatement.

"I was the first black woman in a British cabinet, I was Secretary of State for International Development and, subsequently, leader of the House of Lords," she says.

Amos went on to become Lord President of the Council, which she notes is a somewhat contradictory title given that she's a woman, and later became the UN's Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.

Now, in an interview for Makers UK, Baroness Amos reveals the things that helped her thrive in a male-dominated world.

Amos, who is now the director of SOAS, University of London, came over from Guyana with her parents as a nine-year-old.

Her parents encouraged her and her siblings to actively question things and to always stand up for what they believed to be right.

"We were encouraged to debate, to have an opinion, to argue your case," she explains.

Amos worked hard throughout her youth and, in 1989, she received her first senior appointment as chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the UK's sex discrimination agency.

In 1995, she co-founded the consultancy Amos Fraser Bernard and became an adviser to the South African government on public service reform, human rights and employment equality.

She says she has always been most inspired by the people she works with.

"I was a consultant to the government in South Africa when Nelson Mandela became president and that was a really exciting time," she explains.

"The huge changes that had to be brought about in the country and, of course, the leadership he showed - it was a huge inspiration for all of us."

Baroness Amos
Makers UK
Baroness Amos

In 2003, Amos became the first black woman in British cabinet when she was appointed as Secretary of State for International Development.

She later became leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council.

In 2010, she joined the United Nations as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, during which she witnessed the escalating crisis in Syria.

"It was a huge challenge," she says. "I saw the humanitarian crisis in Syria go from affecting about a million people in the country to affecting 12 million people."

Amos called for a UN resolution to allow access for aid to reach Syria, however she needed to get the UN Security Council on board.

"One of the things that I really wanted to do was to get the UN Security Council - and particularly the five permanent members of the Security Council - to recognise that we needed some kind of humanitarian resolution," she explains.

"We needed the most powerful countries in the world responsible for peace and security around the world, to come together any say 'this is a priority'."

On 22 February 2014, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2139, demanding that all parties allow humanitarian access across conflict lines.

"It was incredible when that resolution finally got passed. It took a huge amount of work," Amos recalls.

Her career achievements are plentiful, so what's the secret to her success?

"Take the risk, have a bit of fun and learn along the way," she says.

"Life is all about learning and I want to be learning every single day. It's important to be looking forward and be thinking about what you can learn from the things that didn't go right before."

Risk-taking is something which is also very important to her.

"I think that if you're risk averse you can't really get a sense of what you can achieve," she says.

"I've sometimes been asked to apply for jobs and I've initially thought, 'I couldn't possibly do that'.

"And then I think, 'well why not? Let's find out whether I can'."