We are in the third week of June, and before we go into this, thank you to every single person who has read, shared, liked, and given feedback. Thank you, thank you! To catch up with the other four features, click here.
Now, this week we kick off the #AfricanWomenLeaders Series in a #ConversationWith with Uyoyo. Uyoyo and i went to school together and have known each other fifteen years. Yup, that is correct! Uyoyo is a force, and she is one of the most intelligent, and driven people i have ever met, and i'm so proud to have her in my circle. It's a pleasure to share her story with you today. Without further ado, find a comfortable spot and let's get right into it!
Maria Ro: Uyoyo, thanks for joining us today. Tell us, who is Uyoyo and what inspires you?
Uyoyo: I'm glad to be here, Maria. Who am i? I am Uyoyo, Innovation, and Human Capital Expert. Currently, I manage a multi-million dollar pan-African investment portfolio themed around education, innovation, and youth employment. In the past nine years, I've worked with several local and international companies both at “big four” consulting firms and Development Financing organizations in Europe and Africa.
At my core, I love to solve complex problems. I guess it’s all rooted in my computer science and programming foundation. I just love that feeling that -“I cracked It”, totally unexplainable satisfaction. When I think about my life and all my experiences, I can sum it up as: "I am a complex problem solver who is currently harnessing her depth of experience and diverse skills to support emerging African countries. I develop relevant institutions, tackle unemployment and build competitive skills for the labor market."
Maria Ro: Do you see what i mean? Isn't she amazing? One thing i find so fascinating about Uyoyo's journey is how she at her core is a developer (the girl is tech whiz!), and also did a lot of consulting even for development agencies. Uyoyo, Tell us your story. How did you get here?
Uyoyo: You know, now that I look back, it was never really a deliberate journey to work in a development organization. I always secretly wanted to be a full-blown programmer.
Like a lot of people, I started with my NYSC (National Youth Service Corporation), a mandatory one-year government service at a Bank. I was the customer service officer in a tiny branch in Ogun state. I felt my first-class brain was being wasted, but that one year built in me the art of people management and communication which is important in every area of our lives.
After this, I joined a big four firm. As at the time I started, the firm was the only Big four offering forensic technology services as consulting. I was the only technical person with a direct manager. You need to understand, this was a very new service at the time. Literally, in the whole country to be fair we were technically maybe three forensic tech experts. This was my first real job, and my perfectionist boss-would ensure that we did not local champion our way out of the solution. We created a system that was so structured, you would think we ran a whole battalion in the forensic team. Then, after a while, I received a scholarship to go abroad to study Management and Information Science.
In between my transition to school, I co-founded a tech startup called Techtouch. Those were fun times. We worked at a cc-hub, a leading innovation hub in Nigeria, on weekends because we couldn’t afford paid space. It was great being there but for the most part, being the only female programmer in the midst was interesting.
I would watch with great shock how startups spent their first seed financing with a total lack of programming knowledge. We all felt like the queens of code, after all, there was no other place in Nigeria you meet such a congregation of programmers. I would later get two jobs that enabled me to work in the United Kingdom and entered the field of innovation and deals advisory.
With this experience, I met many great minds. At first, I worked so hard to catch up. When I did catch up, I worked harder to carve my niche, and once I did, I realized that my work was valuable but I still wasn’t satisfied. That year, I remember writing in my journal that I want to be the voice of Technology in Africa, and I was happy- it was my new complex problem.
The thought of being a voice that we as Africans weren't at all inferior, and that there was a future with technology aiding that was unpopular at the time. Then, the AfDB called. I had applied the previous year and forgotten but the rest is history. It ended being the melting pot of all my experiences and fulfillment of me becoming a voice and a pen to some of the most defining digital economy intervention in the continent.
Maria Ro: I love your story, how it all just was like a state of flow, things shaping you and you not even knowing. Your desire, and how that tied in with your work at AfDB. Uyoyo, what does an average day for you look like as a Senior Innovation Officer at African Development Bank?
Uyoyo: This may sound so cliché but I have to start my day with a prioritization exercise quadrant. Urgent and important tasks, important but not urgent, not important but urgent and not important, not urgent. Then I rank the task in a descending order then I know where to start. I go old school here - I have an electronic board where I write it all. If I can't see it, it's as good as not done.
My work will usually center around a lot of meetings, writings/research, and email exchange. So, I will probably start my day with a quick read of a recent publication, World Economic Forum, McKinsey. I could also read publications from the African Development Bank and the World Bank. I must stay close to factual data points, you can't make policy recommendations on fake news.
Then I pick up on urgent emails from the day before. After which, from 10:00 AM it is usually meetings with various project portfolio teams I manage to understand progress, etc. For most meetings with my portfolio, I may need a corresponding meeting with other teams like legal, finance, and procurement teams to understand implications, before making decisions.
I will probably then set out on new business development projects and brainstorm with the team on some innovative new projects that can scale digital innovation and youth employment. It's an interesting field, our job primarily is to design and scale socially responsible and impactful development projects. We work with countries to achieve that desire for better lives. Most countries know what they want, very few have an idea of how to get there and at the same time, resources are scarce as ever with social inequalities widening every second.
I have to dedicate an ample portion of my time designing the strategic tone of projects. It’s a fine mix, of designing it at a macro level, You almost need to have an out of body experience, and walk yourself through this. Living through the eyes of all the key stakeholders of the project, designing it, knowing that you are only a funder, supporting the country in its thinking. It needs to be accepted by the countries and the Bank, it needs to be realistic and it needs to deliver on a specific social impact and be scalable. This is no easy feat.
Next, I would have to pause usually from 2:00 pm and attend to partnership calls, usually, like-minded organizations who are co-designing or implementing. We brainstorm how we can join forces to address critical issues. If I am lucky, the day would end with me responding to outstanding emails. If I am not, I would spend my evening writing, to contribute a research paper or points to policy dialogue, very important speech at high-level events, and general knowledge generation effort,
Maria Ro: It's interesting that a lot of work actually happens in meetings. I like your day in the sense that it seems like it is a lot of moving pieces. That definitely sounds challenging. Uyoyo, what does leadership mean to you?
Uyoyo: Leadership means the ability to inspire people towards achieving a goal. A leader is someone that can inspire people to pursue a vision - that in most cases was never theirs. She has to do this with a sense of ownership and responsibility as though she has seen the destination and the reward is at hand.
Maria Ro: Uyoyo, we are shaped by people and we never reach our potential alone. For you, who is that one person, what is that one experience or pivotal moment in your journey that you believe has shaped who you are as a leader?
Uyoyo: Oley Dibba-Wadda was my director for two years. I had never seen someone who understood life and valued people as she did. Her very unique and devastating life experiences had turned her into such a deep person, but yet so simple at the same time. She would elegantly walkthrough problems as though they didn’t exist understanding that life has many angles.
She stayed true to her core and always respected her inner voice. When she knew her time was done, she would gracefully bow out and pursue her next vision of becoming her country's first female president. Oley had resumed just one week and within that same week, I had made probably the biggest career mistake, and she sent for me.
She looked at me calmly and said don’t worry, you can fix this. I could not comprehend her stability or emotional disposition, I had never seen this in my life. Truly we fixed it. She never brought it up in a discussion nor told anyone. Overall, It was as though she saw through me, potential that I couldn’t recognize. She then gradually set me up to reach them.
It challenged every leadership style I had experienced and I wanted to be that. Centered in my truth and understanding that at the end of the day we are all humans before anything else. We cannot ignore empathy, emotions and showing vulnerability and that empowering your team frees you as a leader.
Maria Ro: My goodness, that is such a packed response. A few things stand out for me. "Respecting your inner voice" I'm not sure i've heard that expressed in that way before, and also empathy. Uyoyo - it is clear that we need to be kind to ourselves, because leadership can be rough. What is your go to activity of rest, and chill? How do you de-stress?
Uyoyo: I am a person of faith and that’s my first fall back mechanism. The world is uncertain and leadership is tough enough, my faith keeps me centered.
I also have practiced long enough to separate my work from my person, and my identity. I do not work on the weekends and before the lockdown rarely took work home. When I am home, I am a total mummy head, dancing off to hours of “baby shark”, homeschooling, etc. I also keep a small knit of friends who I have known for about fifteen years, we rarely discuss work, we have created a safe space to discuss life in general. Lastly, I try to exercise regularly, at least thrice a week.
Maria: *wide smile*, i knowww how important friends are to keep you sane. One thing i also love about Uyoyo, is that she is very vocal about her faith, and i love that about her. Uyoyo, you're a mother to a little amazing boy. To me, every mother is a leader. How would you say motherhood influenced you and your decisions as a leader.
Uyoyo: I now understand better what empathy means. Some people, like kids, genuinely are struggling to grasp what may be considered as obvious.
It doesn’t undermine their future potential. It takes empathy to see beyond the now and work with them on their path to success without crushing their spirit.
Maria Ro: Gosh, that's deep. I love the kindness in that statement. Uyoyo, how do you handle other people’s biases on you, as a woman in authority? I'm sure it has happened to you. What is your go-to response to those awkward situations when people might downplay your authority or competency just because you’re a woman?
Uyoyo: Floor them with competence first, you must make sure you have no loose ends-unfortunately they are unforgiving at first. Arm yourself with a full understanding of your role. Then do your job. Take decisive but well-informed actions. This is important as I have realized that people of such nature expect you to give in to their biases, become timid and cower away. Do not give them that pleasure.
Use your authority to its fullest, do not apologize or seek reinforcement or validation. When you have all these in order, have an open and honest conversation with them, using very clear professional language. Point out perceived biases (showing evidence), how you tackled it and agree on a more conducive working relationship.
Maria Ro: 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?
Uyoyo: There is no shortcut here. You have to study and exert yourself a lot. It was so hard as a former technical person, coming into development. It was not one or zero, like in programming. I had to build technical skills by getting extra degrees and courses to help me understand the field. I read a lot.
Beyond the technical angle, you must also understand what goes on in the mind of people in your field. For instance: how/why/when/who do they communicate? Address the problem and make decisions. It is almost like hacking the design thinking of that profession, because you must speak their language eloquently to be heard if at all.
When you have built both technical and non-technical, then add your spice, your differentiating factor. Figure out where your unique experiences can differentiate you from everyone.
Maria Ro: Love that you explored that from a design thinking perspective, i have never heard anyone put it like that before! Uyoyo, being a leader is hard. I'm 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?
Uyoyo: I cry! I pray about it. I call my inner circle -usually, starting with my husband to rant. I clean my eyes, dust my knees, strategize and act. Then I repeat the same thing. I tell myself, I pick my battles wisely after all, somethings are better accepted as a lesson learnt. However, whenever I pick a battle, I must fight to win or get to the end.
Maria Ro: Hmm. We are getting to the end of this (i don't want it to end!). Uyoyo, what is one leadership mistake/pitfall you see is very common from your experience, and how can one avoid it?
Uyoyo: Dealing with failure. Most leaders struggle to objectively seek out the root causes of failure, take lessons learned from the failed scenario and move forward.
Rather, what happens is a frantic fear of failure, which ripples into distrust to the team. The inability to take decisive actions make it difficult for the leader and team to innovate. They end up destroying a potentially promising team and stifling growth due to their fear-based leadership style.
Maria Ro: I love it, and what is one fun-fact, not a lot of people know about you?
Uyoyo: I don't watch a lot of TV. I play the violin and was in an orchestra. I do not own any jeans that are not ripped.
Maria Ro: ...and your final thoughts/words for us?
Uyoyo: In leadership sometimes the ideal action may not be logical and the logical may not be ideal.
Sometimes you won’t be able to explain some moves logically, but then that’s what has to be done.
Maria Ro: Thanks for sharing your story with us, Uyoyo! It was so good to have you on. If you want to catch up with Uyoyo, and what she does at AfDB you can keep up with her Linkedin here!
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Notice: We have decided to move the series to once a week to give you lovely readers some time to read one post every week. I'm excited for next week. See you soon!