Making Africa Great Again!

Reflections on SEO London Annual Conference for Student Leaders of BME Origin hosted at Baker McKenzie.
by SEO London
13 Nov 2017

Previously published in The Voice Newspaper; part of 'SEO London Amplify the Voice', aimed at highlighting issues relating to workplace inclusion raised by young people.

Featured article: by Anita Makinde (Manchester University).   

In this commentary, I will attempt to unpack some crucial lessons which I took away from a conference for student leaders of BME origin brilliantly organised by Dumi Senda, Talent Manager and Media Lead at Sponsors for Educational opportunity (‘SEO’) London, and kindly hosted at Baker McKenzie on 30th August 2017.  

The conference was an opportunity for student leaders to learn about leadership from people of similar backgrounds to them. This included highly inspirational individuals such as Justina Mutale, a Global Human Rights leader who gave the keynote address, Nomalanga Nyamayaron, an Instinctive Chef and Motivational speaker who shared her experience of being on the BBC Master Chef Programme, and Francine Mukwaya, a Congolese Human Rights Activist.

During the conference, industry experts such as Stephen Turner, Yindi Gesinde, Nike Folayani, Melvin Mezue, and Shani Page-Muir shared practical as well as strategic insights on leadership. Other speakers included young people who have accomplished great strides in leadership such as Angelica Olawepo, Daniel Agbodza and Andrew Ologunebi.

I attended the conference as an executive of Manchester University’s Nigerian Society, and gained a wealth of knowledge which I can apply to my own life. I also got to meet many young black men and women aspiring to achieve great things in their lives, who inspire me to do the same.

Below are some of my key takeaways from the conference:

Why should we care?

Africa feeds the world, but the world ‘eats’ without Africa. Just one of the many hard-hitting messages that came out of the conference. Without Africa’s abundant human and material resources, modern innovation would be neither possible nor effective.

However, Africa continues to be characterised as ‘the dark continent’, in the process undermining the contribution of Africans in business and development. We, as part of the African Diaspora, can be part of the solution by helping to dispel outdated stereotypes on what an African is or is not.

Viewing our identity in a positive way

The conference opened with a poem titled 'I am an African' by conference host Dumi Senda, highlighting individual as well as collective identity as something to be valued and not shunned. This was followed by a short introduction from Stephen Turner, Partner at Baker Mackenzie, who gave a brief history of his humble beginnings. Turner’s story highlighted the power of self-belief and confidence, and illustrated the theme of the day: "I think, therefore I am".

From the mind, ideas are cultivated and planned; therefore, it is important to have a positive mindset because the mind moulds the lens through which we view ourselves. Such awareness can help us to avoid branding ourselves with negative stereotypes in spite of our backgrounds and present circumstances. The confidence we have tells others that we are not ashamed to be our true selves, which is a vital quality of a leader.

Succeeding in an ‘isolated’ environment

Through the conference, I got first-hand insight into how SEO London has helped many people such as Anand Shah, a hedge fund expert who was given the opportunity to enter the world of Investment Banking. Shah’s story illustrated that while it is not easy to navigate industries in which there are very few people that look like 'us', belonging to networks such as those provided by SEO London can help individuals from underserved communities to achieve their true career potential.

The model used by SEO London is holistic, providing ongoing career guidance which goes beyond affording internship opportunities. I learnt that SEO London does not only open doors to successful careers, it also helps you to thrive once you enter them.

Mastering self-presentation in your dream industry

When we enter our dream industry, how we present ourselves is the next thing we need to master. British-Nigerian lawyer at Baker Mackenzie, Yindi Gesinde advised that when we describe how grateful we are to be in a prestigious place of work, we must desist from using words such as ‘lucky’. Doing so devalues our hard work and the challenges we overcame to get there. We are where we are for a reason, and should never downplay our significance.

Dealing with cultural hold-backs

In most traditional cultures, respecting our elders is extremely important as it should be. However, this may lead to younger people failing to stand up for what they believe, fearing to be viewed as contradicting their elders. When we take such habits to places of work, people may perceive us as being ineffective and unable to contribute meaningfully to discussions. It is therefore important for younger generations of Africans to start contributing to society more assertively whilst being respectful of valuable African philosophies. We must make our positive contributions known in order to be valued as we should be.

So, bring your ideas to the table when you have them. Do not be afraid to challenge people when you feel it is necessary. Make yourself known for your good deeds because no one else will do it for you. This way, we can break the frameworks which were built to stifle us.

Understanding true leadership

One of the sessions during the day focused on what we personally believe a true leader is. We were presented with quotations on leadership and its various attributes. The quote which stood out the most for me was: “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

This quotation helped me to understand that meaningful success cannot be achieved in isolation, and the journey to success may be delayed if you try to do everything by yourself. Teams are vital, and being a leader entails helping your team to help you. When your team grows and develops, they are better positioned to help you to execute your vision and mission.

Finding our greatness from our gifts/talents

Nomalanga Nyamayaro. Nomalanga. The one who radiates the sun’s energy: a Zimbabwean woman who gave a talk about 'the law of attraction and self-belief', and how she used it to transform her life. Nomalanga described her upbringing from Zimbabwe to East London. From being surrounded by ‘her people’ all the time to being in an environment where she was constantly made aware of her ‘blackness’.

Then, Nomalanga felt that her light and gift was in the shadows of people who achieved more than her academically. However, she had a gift that was hers and hers alone, passed down from generations. She could cook like no other, and had grown up with scents and aromas from Zimbabwe. She transformed her love for food into a successful business, and it all started with a change of mind-set - the shift from thinking that she did not deserve good opportunities to believing that she was destined for greatness.

Nomalanga’s biggest challenge would come in the form of a nationwide household programme; BBC's MasterChef. She had to believe the whole way through that a young Zimbabwean woman deserved to occupy a space that thousands had applied for. It was not merely luck that she represented an African country in a competition known for ‘fancy French meals’. She believed that she could go far in the competition, and did, reaching the quarter-finals.

What is more, this was Nomalanga’s first ever time to apply while those around her had applied at least twice to be on the show. Her story taught me that it is okay to do things slightly differently from others; your difference will set you apart and help you to stand out. I also learnt that while having belief is key, once an opportunity comes your way, you must work hard to bring your aspirations to fruition. An opportunity can vanish just as quickly as it comes.

Viewing ourselves as part of the solution

Her Excellency Ambassador Dr Justina Mutale was the keynote speaker at the conference. I was deeply moved and inspired on hearing the great work she had done in her life to help others, from winning numerous awards for her charity work to completing university after having a child. She truly is the embodiment of the word humanitarian. From her, I learnt that while I am still here on earth, I should do what is in my power to help others. I do not need to have a big platform or following to start. Rather, all I need is to have a solution to a problem which resonates with me.

Another crucial message from Dr Mutale was that we need to change the narrative about Africa and the 54 countries that it is made up of. How many movies have been made about the slave trade and the horrifying mistreatment and dehumanisation of millions of Africans? Now, how many movies and documentaries are made about our warriors? About those who fought for independence from European colonists? About the numerous rich cultures and history which stem from our people?

Negative portrayals of Africans far outweigh positive ones. Yet, as I have stated in my introduction, Africa keeps the world working. So why should we let persistent stereotypes of us being weak and uneducated speak the loudest in mainstream media when the truth is different? The simple answer is we should not. We cannot allow people who do not understand us, who have never faced the challenges that we face, to tell our stories. No one can tell an African’s story like an African can.

We bring diversity into the workplace with a different set of eyes and another way of thinking. Studies have shown that the more diverse a team is, the more successful and productive it is likely to be. So, it is up to us to diversify places of work and represent the Africa we know and love, that is vibrant and full of life, hope and intelligence.

It begins with you, where you are!

Congolese human rights activist Francine Mukwaya gave a passionate speech on what we can do about social injustice as the African Diaspora, urging that we need to make use of our human resources. After all, a country is made up of its people. All our university degrees, experiences, passions and hopes for our individual countries can be translated in one way or another to helping those who need to be helped. This can only be achieved by the efforts of numerous people working together to make change.

However, we need to understand those who we wish to help, their struggles, joys, pains, and fears. Taking time to learn their and your history, visiting your country even though that may not happen regularly. We should be dedicated to taking some type of action wherever we are.

In conclusion

I would like to end by urging my fellow Africans to be proud of their identities. Today, more than ever, it is important to dare to stand out. Now is not the time to dull our shine. While it may take time, we as young people must start contributing towards making Africa great.

I would like to thank Dumi Senda for taking on the task of organising a brilliant event, and all the speakers who inspired me to continue on my journey of self-development in order to develop those around me and my country and continent.

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