Damilola Akinyele: ‘There is no shortage of qualified women to fill leadership roles’

Damilola Akinyele is the Executive Director at Princeton in Africa where she leads the organisation that develops young leaders of tomorrow. An international training, development and education professional driven by quality education, social impact, inclusive and equitable projects, design, and innovation, she has spent her career cultivating strong leaders, strengthening institutions and developing high-impact programmes across the world. Her professional experience spans a decade and her donor experiences include the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Embassies, state and Local Councils in Nigeria. In recent years, she has been providing vision and leadership on social justice, equity, and inclusion practices for dozens of faith-based non-profits in the U.S, U.K and Africa. During her career at World Learning, she co-chaired and pioneered the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion taskforce, which managed the vision, strategy and execution of the organisation’s DEI efforts. Damilola received her BA in Sociology from Morgan State University and her MA in International Training and Education at American University, Washington, DC. As the founder of ETRAssociates, she applies her skills, knowledge and experiences to serving the Nigerian society by developing programs that are relevant, context specific, transformative and sustainable. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she speaks on her journey to becoming the first African woman executive of a major non-profit organisation, getting more women into executive positions, and how to improve education and the lives of Nigerian women.

Tell us a bit about your growing up years, how has the influenced your journey so far?
I attribute a significant part of my life and career trajectory to the values of empathy, integrity, and hard work I saw my parents exemplify growing up. I was born and raised in Lagos. My parents did business internationally and had unique opportunities to interact with the world and different cultures, which afforded us some of those experiences.

My mother is an endless volunteer to social causes and my father was an active social commentator on Nigerian institutions and leadership. I was always privy to some of these conversations with his friends and grew up fascinated by our institutions and the life of service. My family also has a history of men who loved and practiced Law, so, I naturally would become a lawyer (or so I thought). Instead, I ended up in the United States, where you have to get an undergraduate degree first before attending law school.

Reminiscing on the first week of a course I took in my sophomore year of college, I recall the deep feeling of compulsion to actively fulfill the second millennium development goal, achieving universal primary education. I also remember the sense of responsibility that consumed me and changed the course of my life forever. I had access to good schools growing up, but I was acutely aware that others did not always have the same or equal opportunity.

For example, in my research and discovery in college, I learned that over 10 million Nigerian children were out of school. So, I started volunteering at education centers in the United States, during my holidays in Lagos, attending conferences around education, and engaging more intellectually with development issues. After college, I worked at DLA Piper, one of the biggest global law firms, while studying for the LSAT, but I was now aware that this was not my purpose.

I finally summoned the courage to tell my parents that I was changing my career trajectory and going to graduate school for International Training, Education, and Development instead of Law. My father didn’t understand or agree with why I chose this path, but was supportive. Since then, I have spent my career cultivating strong leaders, strengthening institutions, and developing high-impact programs in Africa, the United States of America, Middle East and Asia. Paradoxically, in 2017, I discovered a piece of history I never knew about my family; my father’s grandfather, whose picture hung and still hangs in the house I grew up in and whom I knew as a lawyer and the former Western Minister of Works in Sir Awolowo’s time was also an educator and academic, a teacher and principal, to be exact. So, although I seemed a rebel who chose a non-profitable path for many years, the apple did not fall too far from the tree with my quest to be an educator.

Take us a bit through your career and professional journey till date?
That’s a bit hard to summarise, but I’ll try and take it from where I am currently to where I have been through the years. I am an international training, development and education professional driven by quality education, social impact, inclusive and equitable projects, design, and innovation. I have spent my career cultivating strong leaders, strengthening institutions, and developing high-impact programs in Africa, the United States of America, Middle East and Asia. My professional experience spans over 10 years and my donor experiences include the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Embassies, state and local governments in Nigeria.

I am the Executive Director at Princeton in Africa where I lead the organisation that develops young leaders of tomorrow as they contribute to some of the most impactful organizations in Africa today.  In this role, I maintain a preeminent fellowship programme that aligns with the core values of ethical and responsible engagement on the African continent, management of Princeton in Africa Staff, financial oversight, donor relations, development and communications and board governance. Prior to this, I worked at a faith-based non-profit where I co-developed leadership structures, developed inclusion practices and organised sustainable community engagement and fundraising initiatives.

A significant part of my career was at a global non-profit based in Washington D.C. I held different roles at the organisation through the years, all of which can be summarised as designing and implementing youth, leadership, exchange, and developmental programmes funded by the U.S. Department of State. I have managed a special envoys programme that covered 160+ countries, designed and implemented educational learning experiences for Iraqi Young Leaders on peacebuilding and reconciliation, youth activism and civic engagement, reintegrating refugees and IDP’s, and managed continued professional development for a network of 2,000+ alumni.

During my time there, I also co-chaired and pioneered the Diversity, Equity, and inclusion Taskforce, which managed the vision, strategy, and execution of the organisation’s DEI efforts. At the beginning of my professional journey, I had the opportunity to work as a TA/RA (research and teaching assistant) at Morgan State University in my final year of college. Following college and studying for the LSAT, I worked for some of the top lawyers in the country at DLA Piper. It was in this role that I changed my career trajectory to focus more on International Education and Development.

In 2016, I co-founded ETRAssociatesng, where I apply my skills, knowledge and experiences to serving the Nigerian society by developing programs that are relevant, context specific, transformative, and sustainable. Through the years, I have also consulted with the ministry of education, hosted youth leadership and teacher training workshops and developed active learning strategy manuals.

As an immigrant and black woman, would you say you have faced profiling and discrimination in any way?
That’s a fascinating question. Yes, I have been profiled and discriminated against in academic and professional settings in covert or overt ways. These are stories I would rather not recount here as they do not diminish who I am or the experiences of freedom, opportunity, acceptance and love I have also experienced in those spaces and the U.S. I very much resonate with Toni Morrison when she says, ‘The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.’

Although I can choose not to give in to despair sometimes, I do have to say that I have friends and acquaintances that have been stripped of life, dignity, opportunity and property because of race. Daily, we see people dehumanised and disenfranchised due to race. Racism (structural or individual) kills. As an immigrant, you initially think that it doesn’t affect you, but it does. You learn very quickly that no one distinguishes you by being Nigerian or Kenyan; you’re identified and grouped by your race.

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However, America is not a static country. Daily, you see people acknowledging and embracing the history of racism, but not becoming victims of it; you see people fighting for justice and equality in healthcare, education, and jobs and demanding more from the system, leaders, and the institutions. There is despair, but there is hope and progress. It’s getting easier and easier to say that people can write their destinies, which gives me hope.

What would you say has been the most challenging moment of your career till date?
It’s not an exceptional story per se, but I think it speaks to the experiences of millennials and how we are redefining what success means to us separate from the expectations our parents set for us or how the boomer generation approached work and life. The most significant and most challenging times of my career have been when I asked myself: What is my purpose? What are my values? Where can I have an impact? These questions have led me to take the risk and co-found, run, and attempt to grow my international development and education nonprofit in Nigeria. We have had successes with leadership, training, and education consultancy opportunities; it also comes with various challenges of bureaucracy in Nigeria and seeking local investors and partners.

While running my nonprofit with my co-founders, I also must balance my full-time job in the United States, which I happen to be highly passionate about and keeps me functioning in a highly capitalistic society. In my employment journey, after working on programmes in regions in the Middle East and Southeast Asia for so long and taking a personal pivot to work in faith-based nonprofits, I am now back to fully running a nonprofit in the US that focuses solely on Africa. Due to the magnitude of responsibility in this role, it is challenging to juggle with anything else, so my consultancy role in Nigeria has paused since 2021. I have found that very hard, because of my personal life’s mission to the leadership and intuitions in Nigeria. However, I am also grateful that I can build systems and further African development in as many ways as they present themselves.

As the first African Executive Director of a U.S non-profit working in Africa, what does this mean to you and other African women?
My life’s mission is a commitment to the development of Africa by contributing to the leadership and institutions through my work. Which is why I am deeply honored and humbled to be Princeton in Africa’s Executive Director. Princeton in Africa has built a solid reputation across the US and Africa over the last 23 years and in this program has placed over 600 Fellows with over 100 organisations in 36 African countries where our fellows, through their work, have made contributions to Africa’s institutions in business and economic development, education and youth capacity building, public and community health, advocacy, research, civil society and so much more.

Working in every field from public health to conservation to conflict resolution, PiAf Fellows improve the lives of everyday Africans in tangible and significant ways and as a Nigerian woman and an African, it is an absolute honor to lead the organisation at a pivotal time in reshaping our organisation where we recognise the importance of responsible and ethical engagement with the continent. I came on as the first African Executive Director of this organisation last year, and one area of my strategic focus is centering African ingenuity, leadership, agency, and achievement as we foster equal and beneficial partnerships in both Africa and the U.S.

Let me tell you a bit about black women in the U.S; black women were the unsung heroes of the suffrage movement; they led the way for civil rights in America and they remain the most consistent group that shows up through their voting for the rights of marginalised people. Recent studies have also shown us as the most educated demographic in the US. We are not underqualified or undereducated; we are under-selected for some high-level opportunities.

For example, now confirmed, Judge Kentaji Brown Jackson is the first black woman on the nation’s highest court in its 232-year history. How incredible, but also bizarre is that? Women of color make up just four per cent of C-suite executives, a percentage that hasn’t changed over time. There are various barriers, such as double standards, lack of advocacy, and unconscious bias.

In my career through the years, from entry-level to now, I try to do my work exceedingly well, so black women can continue to have the opportunity and ensure that I am advocating for policies and systems that provide access for more black women and people of color. In my career trajectory as a black woman, it often feels like I have two jobs; my actual job description and the role of ensuring a more inclusive culture where I work. It’s never just about me. 

How are you using your work to impact positively in the lives of people here?
Africa and Nigeria to be specific, is faced with the task of education and nation building, both formal and informal, as this plays a major role in the development of our continent. A continent of rapid change, we have made tremendous progress in the field of education: the elementary population has doubled, over 60 per cent of school age children are now receiving education, and universities have sprung up in countries that previously had none.

However, Nigeria must stop playing catch-up in teacher education, elementary and secondary curriculum, adult education and science and technology. In the words of Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, ‘We must run while others walk.’ In 2016, my colleagues and I from graduate school combined our passion for Nigeria, Sub-Saharan Africa, training, and education to build an organisation that is committed to providing quality education, and training programmes for intrinsic and instrumental purposes, enabling individuals and institutions to function at their highest potential. We do youth development trainings, leadership and institutional development trainings, and education consultancy. We have worked with organisations, private schools and state ministry of education since our founding.

What is the importance of having black people in executive roles and how can we work towards achieving this?
I always tell people that I never struggle to see black people in executive roles. This is because I have a unique layered experience of being born and raised in Nigeria, a predominantly black country. In the history of the Fortune 500 list in the U.S, there have been only 19 Black CEOs out of 1,800. Currently, there are only four Black Fortune 500 CEOs, Thasunda Brown Duckett of TIAA, Rosalind Brewer of Walgreens, Rene F. Jones of M & T, and Kenneth Frazier of Merck. In Nigeria, there’s Mike Adenuga, Segun Agbaje, Nneka Onyeali-Ikpe, Herbert Wigwe, Oluwatomi Somefun, Emeka Emuwa, Abubaker Suleiman, and so much more. The black excellence, competence, professionalism and adequacy are in abundance. It is also the same abroad, but black people are under-selected for these opportunities.

These things are interconnected to the systems of exclusion I talked about earlier. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, we saw the glaring lack of representation in corporate America and organisations pledging to do better. There must be a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Organisations must commit to a plan of action that includes bias training for managers and decision managers, clear standards for hiring and promoting, and hiring diverse decision-makers. I always tell people that a Pakistani-American led one of the most diverse teams I ever worked on and it was reflected in hiring, language, communication, and compensation. In this same organisation, he and I co-founded a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Taskforce that managed the vision, strategy, and execution of the organisation’s DEI efforts. Companies have a duty to not have racial exclusivity at the top of the organisation with black workers unable to rise through the ranks.

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It is important to have black people in executive roles, because people must have equal opportunity- to be treated similarly, unhampered by artificial barriers, prejudices, or preferences. Companies must look like the country they serve. There should be equal opportunity in the class and wealth divide.

With less than 20 per cent of women in executive roles, what kind of support would you say is needed so that more women can get and thrive in these positions?
First, I would like to establish that women bring different skills, imagination, creativity, strategic thinking, and effectiveness to the workforce. There is no shortage of qualified women to fill leadership roles either, and women are educated and makeup half of the labor force. However, some issues keep women out, such as stereotypes about our credibility and competence, our ability to have connections and mentors that help us rise, bias and discriminations based on our sex and workforces that lack flexibility in allowing women to balance their lives as wives or mothers with leadership roles.

As Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, women belong in places where decisions are being made. For women to succeed in the workforce, we need mentors committed to us, leadership and skill-building training opportunities, employers and bosses committed to an equitable workforce, and clear growth opportunities that support our work-life balance and allow us be flexible. Through this pandemic, if there’s anything we learned, we saw those countries with women at the head had exceptional and effective responses to the pandemic.

Would you say that Nigeria’s educational sector is living up to its rightful potentials?
This is a difficult conversation, and I often try to sugarcoat my answer to this question, but these are the facts. Although they are difficult to confront, we must confront them for the future of our nation. We have the potential to truly build a prosperous economy, significantly reduce poverty and provide good systems and structures that meet the needs of the population, including education. Unfortunately, our formal education system is not as strong, because of our history of military rule; corrupt political systems, lack of accountability, and poor public sectors. We have made some strides in our education systems, but our education is still primarily a European-style system of education that does not meet the needs of our society. The quality of education is poor in many schools, and there is still a low enrollment rate in our education systems. There are over 10 million Nigerian children out of school, the highest in the world. There are dilapidated structures, a lack of basic education materials, high rate of underqualified or underpaid teachers, and under-resourced schools.

I think our governments on all levels have a duty to 1) fund our schools and provide adequate learning tools for our students and teachers, 2) revise and update our curriculums to reflect the global society we live in and allow Nigerians access to knowledge, skills, and experiences to survive in today’s world, 3) invest in training our teachers and creating basic standards on hiring them to ensure the quality gap for our students, 4) eradicate corruption in our schools 5) ensure that our societies are safe for our children to learn- the majority of the children out of school are in the North and have been heavily impacted by the insurgency in that region.

With hindsight to EndSARS and youth restiveness all across the country, what should the government do to foster peace building, reconciliation and civic engagement?
Nigeria is a very political nation encompassing hundreds of ethnic groups of varied beliefs, cultures, practices, and social attitudes. Nigeria faces the challenge of nation building. Many years post colonialism, events like the Nigerian civil war, conflict in the Niger Delta, Boko Haram, herdsmen’s killings and attacks, EndSARS and hundreds of thousands of ethnical, tribal, and religiously charged terrorism, community disputes, and neighbor to neighbor distrust, it is crucial to build a safe space and community of trust, respect, and shared values amongst Nigerians.

We can all collectively agree that the EndSARS movement was a manifestation of the dissatisfaction with systems and leaders that are failing our society- even if we disagree on how citizens should have expressed that dissatisfaction. Various academic research findings from across the world show that education and civic engagement activities and initiatives play a role in helping us find expressions of collaboration between each other for a more stable, democratic, and peaceful future. I have professional experience designing and implementing civic engagement programmes. The most notable and challenging, I will say, has been developing educational learning experiences for young Iraqi leaders on peacebuilding and reconciliation, youth activism, and civic engagement. I will tell you for free that you cannot only build intervention programmes to address deep-seated issues that holistic policy changes and adequate systems and processes should fix.

For example, the efforts of civil rights movements and protests in the US brought about legislation to end segregation, black voter suppression, and discriminatory employment and housing practices. Although professionals like me can help build programmes that can be structured around civic engagement and peacebuilding, the government must also address very tangible legislative demands and results.

Living the busy life you do, how do you strike a perfect work-life balance?
To be honest, my work and faith have taken precedence in my life through the years; they are a significant part of how I make meaning of my life, so I never stop. My wellbeing and some of my relationships have taken the backseat due to this.

The pandemic taught me a great lesson in slowing down and prioritising my wellbeing. Although my routine is not set in stone, because my work through the years has often involved travel, I dedicate my mornings to praying, journaling, and catching up with my family. I get dressed every day, because that makes me feel powerful. I work exceedingly long hours beyond my 9-5, but I make up for it by visiting my family in Nigeria as often as I can, traveling to new cities on vacation when I have time off, sitting at a local bookstore, or hiking a new trail at least once a week, going to the theatre monthly, kayaking/canoeing when the weather is warm, and finding moments of joy daily. This year, I am committing to working less on weekends and scheduling more activities that take me out of my comfort zone in my daily routine.

What advice do you have for younger women looking to walk down this path that you’re on?
I was fortunate to grow up with a mother who has an entrepreneurial, never give up spirit. An astute businesswoman, she always tries something new even if she fails- she doesn’t give up. From her, I learned the value of hard work. So, I will say this, beautiful girl, you can do hard things.

My path has not always felt easy as an immigrant navigating a new continent as an international student. However, I committed to focusing in college and graduate school, finding my tribe of like-minded people, charting a new course different from the one my parents imagined for me, and building the skills, knowledge, and experiences required to thrive in professional spaces. I learned to be humble enough to learn from others, work hard, find mentors in the workplace, do my work exceedingly well, maintain my integrity, and exercise my stickability even when many of the roles or experiences I had did not seem profitable.

Purpose can feel uncomfortable. I’ve found myself in different, challenging, and unusual places, but a defined purpose gave me hope through those experiences and enhanced the meaning of those stages. It may not look like it at the moment, but the courage to take meaningful action and lead meaningful lives is always rewarded. I do not have my journey all figured out yet, but I know that women deserve the same rights, power, and opportunities as men, and I hope you never give up in your quest for self-actualisation even if you feel an imposter syndrome.

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