How to Spread it: Mentor to Africa’s women

2014-12-07 15:00

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Gayle Edmunds reports on an outcome of a serendipitous set of events

Nigerian businesswoman Amina Oyagbola is the founder of Women in Successful Careers (Wiscar), an organisation that empowers and mentors women in Nigeria. She launched the nonprofit organisation in 2008.

Not only does Wiscar give entry-level professional women a leg up in business, it drives gender-sensitive policy-making across sectors.

Oyagbola has already put almost 100 young women through her rigorous 12-month training programme and helped thousands more through other programmes associated with Wiscar.

Oyagbola, the human resources executive for MTN in Nigeria, has a string of degrees to her name and has studied in Nigeria and at Cambridge University in England. She is a fellow and country director of The Africa Leadership Initiative: West Africa.

How did you conceptualise Wiscar?

Wiscar was the outcome of a serendipitous set of events and the growing realisation of a deep societal need.

I had often reflected on the extreme shortage of role modelling for women in Africa and Nigeria in particular. There were very few successful career women at every stage of my professional life and I had little or no access to them. All my mentors, apart from my mum and dad, were my supervisors and they were all male.

As part of the Aspen Institute’s Africa Leadership Initiative (west Africa), fellows are expected to set up public-serving initiatives to help build good societies.

I was able to call on a talented and selfless set of people to help me achieve my dream. These were people I had been to school with, worked with or met socially. I put all these ingredients together, stirred in my burning desire to help other women and I got Wiscar.

What were you least expecting when you launched Wiscar?

The spontaneous interest of so many young women. It showed there was a real and burning need for it.

What was also surprising was the number of successful women who came forward and were willing to sacrifice their time to mentor other women.

What are your favourite success stories?

It is difficult to isolate favourite success stories. The transformation of our mentees always reminds me of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of The Ugly Duckling.

When they start their mentorship, they are often unsure of themselves and what they want from life. Then, barely a year later, they emerge poised for success.

In the course of one year in the Wiscar programme, several mentees are promoted and acquire new skills and qualifications. Some even change careers entirely.

Last year, two Wiscar mentees were recipients of the Youth Enterprise with Innovation in Nigeria Award. There is a very active and self-organising Wiscar alumni making a difference in the lives of others. A Wiscar alumnus was selected as a global change leader and fellow by Canada’s Coady International Institute.

What is also most gratifying is that this year’s mentees have independently put together a short book on women in leadership to help Wiscar raise funds to sustain the programme.

What challenges faced by women were you most inspired to help them overcome?

I would say the challenge of insufficient self-esteem.

Society often tells young women their fundamental role in life is as homemakers and they are often told that other roads are not open to them.

It is, I believe, wrong for women to be made to believe that is their only option in life. Women should have the option to choose to pursue careers while also nurturing families.

There is a prevailing wisdom that women don’t empower other women. Would you discount this as a myth?

There is a similar belief that the poor do not cooperate with each other to banish their poverty. It is true that wherever there is a perception of scarcity, wherever people believe there is a limitation of opportunities, they tend to fight tooth and nail for the few perceived opportunities.

But an examination of the dynamics between women in our societies reveals that they cooperate better and are less selfish and self-serving in the attainment of goals.

How successful is gender parity in the workplace in Nigeria?

On a comparative basis, Nigeria has made tremendous progress in removing most forms of disparity for women in the workplace. Today, all the obvious forms of disparity have been removed.

Nevertheless, there are a few hidden forms of disparity such as family entitlements that certain organisations have refused to give to women.

The usual excuse is that women are not the heads of the family. Still, we must continue to fight for their eventual eradication.

And in society in general?

A lot of the discriminatory practices that persist are cultural or religious. When you remember that the most pernicious wars of the 21st century have these factors as causes, you will appreciate how difficult it can be to try to change cultural and religious mores.

What we must assiduously set out to achieve is the equality of opportunity. We must eliminate all forms of discrimination based on gender, religion, race or disability.

Would you call yourself a philanthropist and do you think Africans view philanthropy differently to the Western definition of it?

Yes, I would. To me philanthropy means loving and enabling humanity, helping build a good society, empowering people to enhance themselves and achieve their legitimate goals. If Africans view philanthropy differently from the West, it is because of the disparity in the wealth of their societies.

In a rich society, as in the West, philanthropy is often aimed at assisting those on the periphery of their societies.

Usually, it is people who have in some way fallen off the edge of society who are targeted for help and support.

In Africa, on the other hand, philanthropy often has to cater for very wide sections of our society. It has to provide amenities that are a given in the West such as schools and hospitals.

This series is developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust and the African Grantmakers Network. To support a cause, visit www.change4ever.org/donate

To find out more about Wiscar, visit www.Wiscar.org

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