We are in the second week of the #AfricanWomenLeaders at several stages in their leadership journey. These are women leaders, making things happen and sharing their experiences in conversational, down to earth style that connects with who they really are so we can connect to their motivations and learn from their experiences. So, grab your cup of warm tea and let's do this. Last week we spoke with two amazing women, catch up with Nichole and Esther's Story.
This week, we kick off with Oreoluwa Lesi (Pronounced "Le-shi"). She is a strong, resilient and tenacious social impact leader helping women learn the technology tools to be not just relevant, but to create value and achieve great things in this digital world. I have admired Ore since 2014, and it is an honor to share her story with you. Hear her story!
Maria: Ore, thank you so much for agreeing to this. Introduce us to Oreoluwa Somolu Lesi and tell us, what inspires you?
Ore: Thanks for having me, Maria. I am a Nigerian social entrepreneur. The eldest of three children, so leadership was thrust upon me. I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria and moved to England when i was eighteen for university. After eleven years out of the country, I moved back and a few years later, started my work with the Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC).
I always like to say that growing-up I had so many dreams for myself. I was a curious child and when I was interested in a topic, I would immerse myself in it learning all I could about it. And as I grew-up, I had many interests. So when I got to the stage of having to think about future careers, I was stuck. I had a lot of interests, but could not think how to align them with one career. This is also partly why I do what I do with W.TEC so that other girls can get real life access to career information and start to think and plan their career paths in a more deliberate way than I did.
Maria: You're our very first social impact focused feature, and one thing i've always wondered from afar was what drives you, and how your journey was charted. Not for profit work is hard, and it is often thankless but critical work. So Ore, what is your story, how did you get to the point where you become an Executive Director at a leading Not for Profit focusing on Technology education and empowerment for women. What led you here?
Ore: In the time between secondary school and university, I attended a computer school - like so many used to do back then. This was essentially to while away the time until university started and hopefully learn something while at it.
That was my formal introduction to computers and computing technology and I loved it. I realized how many things I could do with computers, from being able to type up the stories I used to write back then to creating records for all my books. I also learned to program and that was so exciting.
Although I studied economics as an undergraduate degree, I kept up my learning all through university. I even had a business typing essays for other students. I had an old laptop gifted to me by my father and so I was able to make money from the comfort of my room. I put posters all over campus advertising my services and students would seek me out to type up their essays and make them look professional.
This got me thinking about how others could use technology to generate incomes for themselves. I was especially interested in how women - who have extremely busy lives - could make money without even leaving their homes or work this into their schedules. Thinking about it now, these are the kinds of businesses, which are doing well in these COVID-19 times.
This spurred me on to study for a masters degree in Information Systems, where I started to see how few women are working in technology. This gave me the idea of a space where women could learn how to use technology more productively for their financial empowerment and social development. That was essentially the birth of the Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC).
Maria Ro: Technology is a powerful tool, an equalizer and that seems to be the core of what you are trying to achieve with W-TEC in lives of women, and young girls. Tell us, for those who aspire to do what you do, what does an average day for you look like as the Executive Director at W-TEC?
Ore: Each day is so varied and that’s what I love about my work. Somedays, I am meeting my team members in the office, planning upcoming programmes. Some days, we are reviewing ongoing and recently-completed programmes. I don’t do as much teaching and training as I used to in W.TEC’s early years.
As an Executive Director, a major part of my work is to ensure W.TEC’s financial sustainability and I do this by working on fundraising proposals, meeting potential partners, presenting our work to them. I participate in a lot of speaking engagements too. I supervise the team members who run the implementation of our programmes and activities and have a lot of strategy and review meetings.
Mari Ro: One funny thing about the concept of leadership is that it means different things to different people. When you think about leadership, what does it mean to you? Who would you consider a leader?
Ore: Leadership is the ability to step-up, inspire and motivate others towards a common goal. This does not need to be a tilted position, because very often, real leaders don’t have titles. Rather they are people who can communicate a vision to others in a way that people will support and work with them in realizing the vision. They might be the youngest person in a team or even outside the cadre of the formal “management team.”
A definition I have always thought particularly apt is “a leader is someone who would tell you to go to hell and you would actually look forward to the journey.”
Leadership is the ability to step-up, inspire and motivate others towards a common goal. This does not need to be a tilted position, because very often, real leaders don’t have titles.
Maria: Powerful. A quick time travel trivia for you - If you had a time capsule and you could go back to the beginning of your leadership journey, what would you tell yourself, and why did you need to hear that at the time?
Ore: I would tell myself to identify and embrace my own unique style of leadership. From the books and films I watched growing-up and from the people I observed in society who were described as leaders, leaders were usually men. If they weren’t men, they were almost always authoritarian, hardly smiling and frequently shouting at or instilling fear in their subordinates. In the books in particular, leaders were capable of double-crossing their opponents and causing a lot of pain and it didn’t matter to them, as long as they got their way.
I knew I wasn’t that kind of person, but even tried to be that serious, unsmiling leader for a while. However it was not natural to me and really quite stressful. As I learned more about leadership, I realized that there are different types of leaders. And sometimes, different circumstances call for different types of leaders.
But at the end of the day, I started to realize that I did not need to conform to a popular notion of who a leader is. Had I been aware of this, I would have acknowledged my own style and instead worked to develop it.
I would tell myself to identify and embrace my own unique style of leadership.
Maria Ro: Doing what works for you is so important on the journey of leadership, and i just want to say i've seen your authenticity shine through what you do, as a leader, as a woman. Tell us, how do you handle other people’s biases on you, as a woman in authority? What is your go-to response to those awkward situations when people might downplay your authority or competency just because you’re a woman?
Ore: There might have been a time that those biases might have bothered me, but not any longer. I have realized that other people’s biases speak more about them and it does about me. We are all shaped to an extent to what we have been exposed to and experiences we have had. And perhaps they had toxic images of women passed on them.
Either way, I don’t make it my problem. I really don’t try to educate everyone either, because not everyone wants to be enlightened.
Instead, I focus on bringing my A-game to any situation I am in. In many cases, competency speaks louder than anything else.
I have realized that other people’s biases speak more about them and it does about me.
Maria: Love that response. Graceful! So, for that African Woman on her leadership journey, who is ambitious and hungry for impact, struggles with believing that these big goals are possible, what do you say to her?
Ore: I would say that small drops make a mighty ocean. So try not to get impatient to have the big impact today, but recognize that leadership and achieving big goals is an ongoing journey.
It is very useful to learn from those who have gone before. You learn about how to become a more effective leader and communicator, you learn about pitfalls to avoid, you learn different ways of handling difficult situations. So, you can either identify the person in real life or read about them. I also listen to a lot of podcasts with interviews with pioneers in different fields.
This also helps, like it did for me, to identify different leadership styles and start to figure out what type of leader I wanted to be.
So try not to get impatient to have the big impact today, but recognize that leadership and achieving big goals is an ongoing journey.
Maria: You're absolutely right! Building proficiency takes time, and it is so important as a leader. You have to know your onions. We have young leaders, who want to build competencies, perhaps in technology or a vocation. How does one go from novice to expert. How have you done it, and what will you advise anyone looking to build skills in an area of passion, while they are still beginners?
Ore: Even experts are always looking to become even more so. But start from a topic you are interested in and start to learn all you can about it. Thankfully, today we have so many options for learning from books, magazines, websites, online communities, podcasts and YouTube shows. Attending workshops, training, conferences and meet-ups are great too, to get connected to people who can help you along your journey.
With the lockdown, the physical events aren’t feasible but there is so much available online, including free and paid-for training. You might speak with a leader in your field and ask about the key things you need to know to advance as a leader in your field and pay attention to what they say.
However, the bodies of knowledge in different fields are constantly evolving, so just try to learn about the newest developments in your sector and I would say online communities, subject-specific websites and podcasts are one of the best ways to do that.
But start from a topic you are interested in and start to learn all you can about it.
Maria: I hear interest, and building on that with consistency. Thanks for sharing that. Many want to be leaders, but it brings its own difficulties. I'm sure certain you have faced challenges. There are times where it might have seemed so rough, quitting was tempting. How have you tackled the rough lows in your leadership journey?
Ore: Yes, the challenges are certain to come. There are times that you need to make decisions that are unpopular with your team. The leader has to think about the entire organisation and what is going to benefit it. Individual team members don’t have that luxury and may think more narrowly on project activities. So, for instance, you need to say we cannot spend X amount on this because we have Y and Z to take care of too. As a leader, you can’t let yourself get too bothered about being thought of as mean.
With W.TEC, there were times that funding was so scarce and I was running it on my personal funds. I would lay awake at night wondering how we would make the next round of salaries or run our programmes. It was very tempting then to throw in the towel and look for a job with a nice, steady income.
This is where it is important to be clear about what you want in life. In the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey advocates for crafting your personal mission statement. Knowing what your overarching goal in life is, helps to give clarity when faced with tough decisions.
For me, I knew that the work that W.TEC was doing was incredibly important to me and that the impact it would have on the girls and women’s lives would be huge. I recognized that this could not come without some challenges and so this gave me the confidence and ability to hang in there until things got better financially.
If my mission in life was to have a financially comfortable life, then the choice would have been very easy for me to make.
Maria: Gosh, that's powerful. I like the fact that you identified what mattered to you from the onset, and it isn't always about financial comfort. This tells me it's important to know up front what is important to you. But Ore, being a leader can be tough. What will we catch you doing during the weekend? What is your go to activity of rest, and chill? How do you de-stress?
Ore: I loove to read. I love being transported to other worlds and times, so reading is my favorite hobby of all. I also love watching films and TV shows and with all the online platforms available now, I can watch so much from the comfort of my bed (maybe my second favorite de-stressing activity).
I love to walk. I can walk for Africa! Aside from the health benefits, this helps me clear my head and figure out any nagging problems and challenges. I love to spend time with my family (my husband and two children). The wonderful thing about really young children is that they don’t care about your work. They just want you to play with them and being able to lose yourself in play is a skill we lose as adults, but I find it so important for maintaining mental wellness.
Maria: Thanks for sharing that. If a young leader were to ask, what is one leadership mistake/pitfall should i try to avoid. One is very common from your experience, and how can one avoid it?
Ore: Don’t try to please everyone. It is tempting to want to have very happy team members, but frankly if everyone is happy about what you are doing all the time, you might not be pushing the boundaries or your team enough to create really impactful work.
Don’t try to model other people’s leadership styles or copy what other people say works best. For instance, some people say that the only way to get Nigerians to be productive in the workplace is to raise your voice. If that is not you, then you will be stressing yourself out and it likely won’t increase your effectiveness as a leader.
but frankly if everyone is happy about what you are doing all the time, you might not be pushing the boundaries or your team enough to create really impactful work.
Maria Ro: I also struggled with that one for a bit, trying to please everyone. This is such a common leadership pitfall, but at some point you realize it is pretty much impossible, and actually oftentimes unproductive. Ore, what will you leave with us as your parting word, a favorite quote or something you find profound?
Ore: I found this quote by a Ghanian artist called Prince Gyasi that I really liked and saved on my desktop. He said “Seeds take time to grow. Whatever you’re creating, don’t give up. Keep going, and you’ll reach your potential.”
Seeds take time to grow. Whatever you’re creating, don’t give up. Keep going, and you’ll reach your potential.
This speaks to the patience, endurance and hard work you need to out in for most worthwhile things in life. With W.TEC, I could not have imagined when I started twelve years ago, where we would be now. And the journey wasn’t easy. But keep putting one step in front of another, commit to it and do the work.
Maria Ro: I really enjoyed this! It was amazing to have you, Ore! If you want to catch up with Ore, and what she does at W-TEC, you can keep up with their website here, and follow her work on instagram here!
W.TEC is constantly fundraising for important programmes for women (She Creates Camp, technology clubs, mentoring programmes for female STEM undergraduates), so please consider a donation here, and you can express interest to be a volunteer here.
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