#ConversationsWith Anna Ekeledo of AfriLabs

On another feature of the #AfricaWomenLeaderSeries we are speaking with Anna Ekeledo; an impact driven woman who believes that there is so much to give the world and continues to do so. She believes in Africa's potential, and has done direct and impactful work creating a strong support system for entrepreneurial technology ventures to thrive. She is an audacious and fearless dreamer and leader. Meet Ana Ekeledo, of AfriLabs.

Anna and i went to Covenant University together, and even after school it was so rewarding to see her growth from the sidelines. It was inspiring and infectious, and when we reconnected a few years ago, it was a natural conversation between two driven women. Anna is bright and positive, and when you meet her, her drive and enthusiasm is so palpable, it's downright infectious. You leave a conversation with Anna with not just renewed motivation, but also unique insight. It was only logical that i invite Anna to share her self, her story and her journey with me, and in turn all of you. Let's hear from her directly.

Maria: Anna, before we go right into it, will kick off by saying it is such a pleasure to have you on #GlossyWhitePumps. Thank you for agreeing to do this!

Anna: It is my pleasure!

Maria: Tell us. Who are you? I mean - who is Anna Ekeledo and what inspires you?

Anna: Let's see! Anna Ekeledo is a mum to a lovely daughter, a wife to an amazing man. I’m a daughter, a friend, a boss and a colleague to amazing people all trying to create an impact in this world. Most importantly though, I am who I am without being defined by my titles, my relationships or achievements. I am. I think it's important to emphasize that :)

What really inspires me is people. I am obsessively impact driven and I am committed to touch as many lives positively as possible. I also have a conviction that my country, Nigeria and the continent, Africa will rise to a place of prosperity, wealth and human dignity for all. When I see others working hard towards the same vision, young or old, I get inspired as well!

Maria: Amazing! I love the clarity of thought there. I like the impact focus, and i like that your story is congruent and aligned with this. Walk us through your journey. What's your story? How did you end up being the Executive Director of Afri-labs?

Anna: Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook in her book 'Lean In' describes how careers are - including hers these days. She said it's no longer about climbing career ladder but about being flexible enough to navigate what she called the Career Jungle Gym. Not following a straight path. That's basically how I can describe my journey. It most definitely was not a straight path.

I started out with a degree in Psychology and then International Marketing Management for my Masters Business Degree. Since then, I have transitioned into helping organizations grow, building systems, teams, services to deliver value. I've done this across industries as well, from Real Estate, Fin-tech and Digital Marketing to General Business Consulting. At my core i'm driven by the fact that people are first, without people you cannot do anything.

A few years prior to joining AfriLabs, i focused on promoting the adoption of technology in the deployment of financial services. I also built capacity leveraging on digital marketing and business tools to grow businesses and building of communities. So, when i joined AfriLabs, it all came together nicely. I joined in 2016 at a time the board decided to establish a Secretariat (Abuja, Nigeria) and scale the community of technology and innovation hubs across Africa. There was a need to improve our support and services to hubs as well as host our first Annual Gathering on the continent.

It was a lot, and i came on board to kick things off, to organize our first AfriLabs Annual gathering in Ghana as well as to grow the community and our impact in the tech ecosystem. My role has evolved over time, but so far it's been an exciting journey of growth.

Maria: What i find interesting about the journey of the women leaders we have had on, and yours inclusive, Anna - is that the experiences are always diverse, but then something brings it all together to utilize every single skill set honed. I can imagine that in the moment of the seemingly disparate experiences, it might be hard to understand exactly how it all might fit together. So, tell us Anna - for a young leader who wants to tow a similar path to yours. What words do you have for her?

Anna: I think i'll tell her a few things. Learn to adapt! Read a lot, and constantly learn new skills. The nature of work in today's world is constantly changing and what you'll learn in school is not necessarily what you'll need to grow your career. If it aligns however, great! But ensure you're constantly upgrading your skillset.

On the job, have a growth mindset and always think of how best you can add value even beyond your job description. Set your own career goals, not following anyone else's but yours (or mine). This will really require a lot of self reflection on what drives you, what you're good at or excited to learn about, and what's available out there. Then once you decide, go all in going for your goals. If there are organizations you want to work in, apply for roles available (even if you're only 40% qualified), apply for an internship if you can afford to and learn fast if it's a new sector for you.

Most importantly! Believe in yourself! I can't emphasize that enough. It's important to believe in yourself, your uniqueness and the value you bring to the table.

Maria: Phew! That was packed. Okay - so, i think one that stands out clearly is your advice of setting your own career goals. So important! Most of the time we seek advice, but we forget that our paths is unique, and you cannot replicate another person's story for your success. You have to find what works for you!

Anna: Yes! Constantly learning is key. Read a lot! Things are changing so rapidly. Take short practical courses online and immerse yourself as much as possible in whatever field you want to build an authority in. Speak to people a lot who are doing the work. One of the things I did when I started my role was take a tour around tech hubs across Africa and I listened. Getting first hand knowledge of their current work was much valuable than any information I could have gleaned from a book or article.

Maria: Amazing. Anna, tell us, - what was one defining moment/experience/relationship that shaped you into the leader you are today?

Anna: Interesting question! If I had answered this question five months ago, it probably would have been different. But, I can say that having a baby has been the most recent defining moment that has shaped me.

I have always been a driven woman but looking at my daughter fills me with an increased sense of urgency.

I want to create a better world she'll up grow in, if we aren't working for the next generation, then what are we doing anyway? This is the reason why issues such as Climate Change, and conversations around Economic Sustainability is so important. We will all leave someday, but we have to think of what generations after us will be left with. We certainly can't have them dealing with our mess!

Maria: I love how deliberate you are, and how your experiences further shape that. We would love to hear more about the Amaka Education Fund, tell us. What was the inspiration and how will it work?

Anna: My husband and I always spoke about how education was really important in changing the mindset of an entire generation. We believe that the most important gift one can give a child is quality education. It's a gift that keeps on giving and a great equalizer for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. Part of my work at AfriLabs entails being the Regional Innovation Lead for Africa at the EdTech Hub, a global group focused on identifying and supporting EdTech innovations to improve learning outcomes. You can keep up with that here:

And then my baby came and I just felt it! It was time! The Amaka Education Fund, named after my daughter - was set up with a mission to build a funding pathway for 'out-of-school' or economically disadvantaged children.We have designed the fund to be sustained by families who will make legacy pledges to fund the education of these children. It will focus on primary and secondary school education. We invite Africans looking to give back to the next generation to partner with us here: www.theamakaeducationfund.org.

This is what I spent my maternity leave cooking up! :-).

Maria : Oh i love this, and we definitely will be following the progress via the website, and supporting too! So, thanks for sharing that! Anna, transitioning into the troughs of leadership. I'm certain there have been times where it might have seemed so rough, quitting was tempting. How have you tackled the rough lows in your leadership journey?

Anna: Five words. Have a great support system!!! I cannot overestimate how important it has been to have family and friends who I can always speak to when times are hard. They constantly encourage me and help me keep my eyes on the goal. Being married to an amazing supportive spouse has been instrumental to my growth! He's my life partner in this journey. At every stage of growth and leadership, comes with challenges, distractions and push back. But it's important to remain focused no matter what. I have found that when I do things for the right reasons, I am more likely to stay on course and not give up.

Maria: Shout out to your husband! We stan a supportive spouse. One question that i'd love to hear your response to is on handling bias as a woman. What is your go-to response to those awkward situations when people might downplay your authority or competency just because you’re a woman?

Anna: I just focus on the work to be done, honestly. A lot of these biases come from either a misconstrued belief system of the role women should play in the society or in business. A few times I speak up when there's an obvious bias against me or other women, but most of the time, I just deliver on work to be done. Respect comes from delivering results!

Maria: ... and what is one leadership mistake/pitfall you see is very common from your experience, and how can one avoid it?

Anna: Getting comfortable! As strong leaders and builders, we are experienced in channeling through tough times, sourcing and wielding resources necessary to grow, whatever it takes. But what tends to happen is when we get to a place of organisation or market leadership, and then we relax. That is a mistake.

The environment is always changing, no matter how subtle. If you run a competitive business, there's always someone building and most importantly the community or customers you serve will always want more and expect you to innovate. It's important to develop a system where you are constantly listening, growing and innovating.

Maria: I love that you mention developing a "system" of continuous improvement. This definitely makes it scalable, and sustainable. If there is one leadership lesson, you wish you’d learnt sooner rather than later, what is it, and why?

Anna: Hmmm….I'll say don't sweat it. In my early leadership days, I felt every mistake made or challenge experienced was almost the end of the world, lol. Now I know, with time, dedication and the will to work out a problem, one would either always come out of it or learn to adapt/pivot to the new reality of the situation. I don't fret as much. Plus, it's not good for a leader's mental health anyway to constantly be on worry mode. A clear peaceful mind is needed to lead.

Maria: Anna, we are now nearing the end! What will you leave with us as your parting word, a favorite quote or something you find profound?

Anne: A quote from one of my favorite books 'The Alchemist',

"When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it... But you have to take the first step!"

Maria: Finally, tell us one fun fact not a lot of people know about you?

Anna: Hmm.. I am Nigerian and Senegalese and i was born in Russia lol

Maria: It was amazing to have you, Anna! if you want to catch up with Anna, and what she does at AfriLabs, you can keep up with their website here, and follow her work on instagram here!

Anna: It was my pleasure, thank you for having me, Maria!

P.s. On Afrilabs: AfriLabs is currently planning its AfriLabs Annual Gathering. In previous years, it's bene held in Ghana, Egypt, Tanzania and Ethiopia but this year, it will be virtual! It will be a great opportunity for those who are interested in the African entrepreneurship, innovation and technology ecosystem. You're absolutely welcome. Please visit www.afrilabs-gathering.com to sign up for regular updates.

Stay tuned for another interview in September, and if you want to read someone's story, please nominate them here!


Maria Ro


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