Lord Simon Woolley was ‘made in Leicester’ – on the St Matthew’s estate to be precise.
Today he sits in London’s prestigious House of Lords, proving that you can still succeed and make a difference in the world, despite hailing from the most humble of beginnings…
A mainstay of The Black Powerlist, Lord Woolley is a passionate advocate for racial equality, who has enjoyed a decorated career in British politics.
He was elected into the House of Lords in 2019, and is known for founding Operation Black Vote – an initiative dedicated to encouraging ethic minority communities to participate in politics and democracy.
When it was first set up in 1996, there were four black and Asian MPs in the House of Commons. Today there are over 60.
“We have a brown Prime-Minister and a cabinet full of black and brown people,” says Simon proudly.
In 2019, he was knighted by Her late Majesty the Queen for his services to race equality, and earlier this year, received honorary Doctorates from both De Montfort University and the University of Leicester.
Although he left the city at 19, the now 61-year-old insists that growing up in Leicester played an important part in his extraordinary life. “It made me,” he says.
It was in Leicester where Lord Woolley first learned about politics while waiting in line at a barbers, and about racism as one of the few Black children growing up on the St Matthews estate. It was here where he learned resilience – how to assert himself and how to fight.
“The skinheads used to prowl the streets looking for black and brown people to beat up. Sometimes we had to physically fight those skinheads who tried to terrorise us,” he recalls.
“We had to be resilient. Racism was a big factor even if we never called it that at the time. We knew that people saw us as inferior. You knew you were different – you knew you were hated by some but you just got on with it,” he added.
“My character was forged on the St Matthews estate. It gave me a drive and a hunger to do more and to be more…”
As for his political interests, they were also born in Leicester – at a barbers in the Highfields area of the city to be precise.
It was here where Simon overheard his first political discussion as he waited in line with his brother at the age of nine.
The topic of inequality was debated and discussed between the adults, who were all of Afro-Caribbean heritage, and Simon listened with great interest.
“It was the first time I’d heard a political debate like this – that I saw people who looked like me, who lived where I lived talking about inequality,” he recalled.
“I didn’t know that I was listening, but clearly I was, as I still remember it vividly all these years later…”
The discussion sparked an interest in politics, and at 13, Simon was made head of the school council at Ellis Boys Comprehensive which he attended in Leicester.
He also excelled in sport, and was made captain of the football, athletics and basketball teams.
However, although he was bright, academic pursuits were not a priority for Simon at the time, and he left school at 16 without any A-levels.
Like most boys from the St Matthews estate, he took a manual job and became an apprentice car mechanic, before going into sales.
Going to university, was something which was not even an option. In fact, it was something which was never mentioned, he says.
“On paper, at best I was destined for a life of getting by, but at worst as a Black teenager coming up in the 1970s, far worst fates could lay ahead…” he says in his autobiography ‘Soar,’ which was released last year.
However, life had bigger plans for Simon. At the age of 19, he moved to London and enjoyed a successful career in sales and marketing.
But by aged 26, he found himself hungry for something more than just financial success. He wanted an education and a chance to find his true purpose – to really make a difference.
He found a way back into education via an online access course, which led him first to Middlesex University and then Queen Mary University of London, where he studied Spanish and Politics.
He sites an eye-opening trip to Columbia as the catalyst for founding Operation Black Vote.
“There I saw people who were prepared to die for their cause – I saw shootings and violence related to the cocaine trade, and when I came back to England, I came back really firing. My mantra was: ‘I’m not going to get kidnapped, I’m not going to get shot, what excuse do I have not to change the world?’”
Today Simon is not only a knight and a Lord of the Realm, but he is also the Principal of Homerton College, Cambridge – the first Black man to head an Oxbridge college.
It’s something that he describes as “daunting, but an incredible and humbling honour.”
“If I was to speak to my younger self and tell him that in the future, I’d be doing this – that I’d be in the House of Lords and that I’d be friends with King Charles, I’d have said you’d been smoking too much pot!” he told Pukaar.
“I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world. I’ve got 1,200 students, and every Tuesday during formal dinners, I get
to say a few words that will hopefully inspire a very talented generation to do extraordinary things in society.
“My advice to them is, ‘it’s not where you start, it’s where you go’ and more importantly how you go. Being academically brilliant is one thing, but it’s nothing unless you twin it with good character.
“I hope my story shows young men and women in this country, whatever their background or heritage, that they too can shot for the stars, take a chance, and become the person they dream of being.
“My life has been hard, complicated, rich, varied, exciting and filled with adventures. It hasn’t been easy but I can look back on what I’ve done with a sense of pride.”