Jamaican-born Heather Rabbatts went from being called a “half-caste” to shaping corporate Britain

BY Preta Peace Namasaba April 16, 2024 2:18 PM EDT
Heather Rabbatts. Photo credit: The FA

Heather Rabbatts has been exceptionally successful in breaking glass ceilings in the UK’s public and private sectors. She has been a pioneer for women and racial minorities across a breadth of industries, including local government, media, financial services, and football (soccer). Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Rabbatts has risen above and beyond the wildest dreams of her background.

“My father was English and my mum was Jamaican. I remember being bullied, called half-caste and all sorts of names when I was a kid on the playground. But, while the blood that runs through my veins represents both races, I get much more support actually in the African and Caribbean community than the white. I am lionised by the non-white community. When I go and do talks to groups of women or conferences of black and ethnic minority people, I get a sort of level of respect and admiration that always makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. Because we are still very few, we’re the people’s life raft,” Rabbatts said of her position as a Black trailblazer.

Rabbatts attributes her drive to overcome adversity to her mother who was one of the first Black women models on the New York catwalk. She learned how to be resilient from witnessing her mother’s experiences and struggles of being a Jamaican immigrant to Britain in the 1960s. Rabbatts left school at 16 with a handful of O-levels, later taking evening classes to complete her high school education. She was admitted into the London School of Economics, joined the bar, and became a barrister at age 26. Although she loved her job, she gave it up to take care of her young son.

Leaving her job was difficult and she intended to go back. But Rabbatts went into local government first. She became deputy chief executive of Hammersmith and Fulham in 1987 and chief executive of Merton. Rabbatts rose to prominence following her appointment as chief executive of the London Borough of Lambeth in 1995, becoming the youngest council chief in the UK. It is in this position that she gained a reputation for getting things done.

When Rabbatts took over Lambeth, the district was known as Britain’s most corrupt council. She spent the bulk of her first year firing people and became known as The Terminator after 1,000 redundancies. Lambeth saw significant improvements in housing, education, and council tax collection under her tenure. She became Chief executive of iMPOWER, a public sector consultancy which she both founded and was co-chair upon leaving Lambeth. She also served as Governor of the BBC and later as managing director of Channel 4’s education programs and business, 4Learning. Rabbatts was awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2000 New Year Honours list.

Rabbatts went on to spend five years as chief executive of Millwall Football Club. The South London soccer club was renowned for racism and hooliganism with fans once chanting “Nobody likes us, we don’t care”. Rabbatts is credited with turning around the club’s image, securing the involvement of an American investment banker and their sporting promotion. She went on to become Chairman of Shed Media, a publicly-listed media production and distribution company that was subsequently bought by Time Warner.

In 2011, Rabbatts became the first woman and first Black board member of the Football Association (FA) in its 150-year history. The sports minister had identified football as the worst-governed sport in Britain only two years before, following a six-month select committee inquiry into the FA. The governing body had an arcane structure, was too white, middle-class, and male, and needed a radical overhaul. As chair of the Inclusion Advisory Board, Rabbatts was at the forefront of strategies to increase the number of black and ethnic minorities in the national team, coaching and administration positions within English soccer.

“Each board goes through its own journey. On many of the boards I have sat on, I have been the only person of colour and the only woman – I became the first female Non-Executive Director on the board of the FA in 150 years and the first person of colour. We know from various reports that we still do not have gender parity on most boards. Every board I have been on is recognising that this is a matter they need to attend to,” Rabbatts said of her experience breaking glass ceilings in corporate Britain.

Additionally, Rabbatts has served as Chair of Malaria No More and Shed Media, the Enterprise Committee at the Royal Opera House, the Crossrail Audit Committee, and the UK Film Council Audit Committee. She has served as a Trustee of the British Council and Football League Trust and held a range of leadership positions on the boards of the Bank of England and the Department of Education and Employment. Rabbatts is currently the Chair of Women’s Sports Group, Vero Communications, Time’s Up UK, and Soho Theatre.