Committing to Change, with Afua Osei
Episode 138: Committing to Change, with Afua Osei
When Afua Osei, Co-founder of She Leads Africa, graduated from business school, she did not think she would end up in Lagos, Nigeria. After spending some time as a management consultant, Afua co-founded She Leads Africa, a community that helps young African women achieve their professional goals. On this episode, Afua talks about her career plan, how the “5 year plan” can sometimes stifle you, and importance of political action at an early age. She also shares her tips on using personal voice for change, creating a network in a new country, and finding the source of her own confidence.
00:12 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host Maricella Herrera. Hi Maricella.
00:22 Maricella Herrera: Hey Kristy.
00:23 KW: How are you doing?
00:24 MH: Good, how are you?
00:24 KW: You were very sick, so I'm excited that you're back and you're not sick.
00:28 MH: I was very, very sick. I hadn't been that sick in a really long time.
00:31 KW: Yes, this is... They say this is going to be a really tough winter for viruses. So, my little public service announcement to all of our listeners, I hope you get your flu shot. I know I'm gonna go get mine, so keep us all...
00:49 MH: Yeah. I kept saying I was not getting my flu shot and then that happened [chuckle] So, it was not good, it was not fun.
00:57 KW: Well, you were down and out at the same time my kids were as well, which is... The whole time I just kept thinking, "Please, please, please, don't get me sick." And kids... For any of our listeners that have children, you may experience this as well, which is they love to just breathe on you a lot when they're sick, they wanna be on top of you, I mean literally, non-stop and then they're just breathing on you. So, it starts to get a little hairy there, but I'm pretty sure my immune system can handle just about anything right now.
01:25 MH: Yeah, I used to say that about my immune system or my stomach digestive system when I used to live in Mexico [chuckle] Particularly 'cause there is no way you are not eating the dirty street tacos because those are the best tacos in the face of the earth. Not so much anymore [chuckle]
01:45 KW: Tacos, yum. Alright, so getting onto more serious matters, we have a pretty spectacular guest on the podcast today, her name is Afua Osei and she is the founder of She Leads Africa. She's great.
02:06 MH: Great. She is... She sounds amazing. I can't wait to hear what you guys talked about. I know you talked a lot about her work and sort of activism and politics and everything going on in the world.
02:17 KW: We've mentioned this a few times on the podcast and I have to say pretty much the best part of my job is having conversations with inspiring women. Afua is no different than that. When I say inspiring, to me, what inspires me, is individuals who advocate for change and for the greater good and who really put their whole selves, their passion, their drive, their creativity, their intelligence, behind developing solutions where they see problems and it's just exciting, right? We can very easily go about life and say, "Alright this doesn't work or this is bad or that's a problem or I don't like that," but when you go about life saying, "Okay there's a problem, how do I fix it? How do I solve for this? What do I do? Let's do it." It's such a mindset shift and it gets me excited, there's some unbelievable people doing really cool things and She Leads Africa is really creating change, specifically for millennial women in Africa. Afua's story is really interesting and powerful and something that got me energized, certainly left me at the end of the podcast wanting to know more, wanting to do more. And that is why we do this. That's why I have this podcast.
03:45 MH: I love it, I love it. Yeah, I love hearing people take action. It's one of our values. We... There's... Actually encompasses two of our values, working to make the world a better place and taking action. As I'm looking at the poster with our values behind you [chuckle], I can't help but mention that. So, it's exciting to see other people also taking action.
04:10 KW: Absolutely. Well, let's get to the interview I hope you all like it and we'll meet you back here next week for the Ellevate Podcast.
04:29 KW: Afua thank you so much for joining us today on the Ellevate Podcast. I'm incredibly interested to hear your story. I love She Leads Africa, I think you're doing some really inspiring and powerful work, but would love to know how this journey all started and what got you to where you are today?
04:49 Afua Osei: Great, well thank you so much for having me and I will be very honest and say that if you would have asked me five years ago, I definitely would not have thought that I would be an entrepreneur. I definitely would not have been living in Lagos, Nigeria. So, all of this, I kinda take as a bit of a surprise, but essentially all the experiences that I've had over the past 10 plus years have essentially gotten me to this point. So, my family is from Ghana, but I was born and raised in the Washington DC area and I always thought that that is where my home and my work would be. I had a passion for political organizing and I worked for EMILY's List right after college in helping to get women, Democratic female candidates, elected. And after my EMILY's List experience, I continued to work on campaigns, I continued to work on fundraising for different Congressional candidates and I thought that policy-making was going to be my thing. I thought I was gonna run for office at the age of 27, I was going to continue in that career.
05:56 AO: I went to Chicago, to the University of Chicago, for Public Policy School and while I was there a couple of things happened. One, I met this guy that was really, really smart and something that I've always done is if I see a smart person, I'm like, "I need to be with them because smart people they find their way around things, I just need to stay with people who have sense."
06:18 AO: And there were two interesting things about him. One, he was in the Policy School, but he was also doing a joint degree with the business school. And secondly, he was a consultant before he came to grad school. And I'd never thought about business school, I'd never thought about being a management consultant before hand, but this guy was so interesting and I liked the way that he approached problems that it immediately stuck in the back of my head.
06:40 AO: I think secondly, I had thought about my policy area of passion was Housing and Urban Development and I wanted to do affordable housing work in the Baltimore and DC area, but all of the companies I applied to work at said, "We only take MBA students." And I said, "But I'm taking the same economics classes. I'm taking the same finance classes." And they said, "No, you have to have an MBA." So those things kind of got me thinking about going to business school. And finally, I saw a lot of cute boys in suits at the business school pride.
07:12 AO: I said, "You know what? Let me just give it a try." Ended up studying for the GMAT, I took it over spring break. I applied third round, which nobody ever does and I got in to business school. And I say, "Wow, I guess I'm a business person now." And while I was in business school it just really opened my eyes to all of the possibilities and the other ways that you can make an impact. And beforehand I really thought that the best way to make an impact was through policy making, through government, through community organizing. And while I still definitely believe that, going to business school and seeing all of the different career options, all of the different opportunities that people from a business and an entrepreneurship and a finance mindset had, it definitely changed my perspective.
07:53 AO: And while I was in business school, I had the chance to do an internship in Lagos, I saw that some of the same issues that I was talking about when I was in political organizing and getting more women into leadership was the same thing when it came to getting more young women into business and entrepreneurship. And that's where the idea for She Leads Africa started and we grew it from there.
08:12 KW: That's great. I really am inspired by that story and particularly how you started, which is this is, if you asked me five years ago where I would be... And I like that because we can sometimes get so hampered down or so wrapped up in with my five-year plan, with my 10 year plan. And the reality is life happens and we evolve as human beings and careers and interests and we become exposed to new people and new ideas. And so, being open to changing that path along the way can create even more opportunity.
08:53 AO: I whole-heartedly agree with that and I absolutely love the work that I'm doing. My life is fantastic, it's so much fun, it's wonderful, but I know that if I would have sat down and really thought it through, I wouldn't be here. There's so many times in which I leaped. I was thoughtful, I was strategic because that's the kind of person that I am, but if I would have been stuck in making decision and really thinking through all the points and whether it made sense, I would not be here. I mean the first one is moving to Lagos, Nigeria. I have no family in Nigeria. I've never been there before. My mother was like, "No, don't go to that country." I think so many of us have heard so many negative stories and ideas, but the same way I grew up in an urban city in America, so many people think negative things about those communities. So I said, "Well it can't be too bad." But if I really sat down and read all those State Department warnings, I probably would not have taken the leap to go and have this wonderful experience.
09:56 AO: And then I was working at McKinsey & Company, one of the largest and the most prominent management consultant company all across the world, making a really good salary, having the chance to work in countries all across the globe and I decided to quit my job to work in the start-up and still live in this random foreign country.
10:14 AO: And if I would have sat and said, "Wow okay, you're not gonna make a salary for two years, you're gonna have to sell your car, downgrade here you live, not go out to eat with your friends." If I would have sat and gone through all of those things and really let the weight of those decisions affect me, I probably wouldn't have taken the leap. So, there's something powerful about, "Let's be smart and let's be strategic, but let's also have faith in ourselves, in our skills and what's got us here that it'll continue to propel us into more fantastic and wonderful opportunities."
10:44 KW: Yeah, so true. I wanna ask you about political activism because you were initially talking about your passion for policy and the roles you played in DC in campaigns, EMILY's List. And I ask because what we hear about a lot today in the United States, particularly, is a lack of engagement with the political system, voting, understanding the health infrastructure, especially when it comes to younger generations. And there's just something... A few months ago Taylor Swift came out and posted on social media and suddenly 65,000 millennials went and registered to vote. And for me, I was like, "That is powerful, but, oh my gosh, there are 65,000 that aren't registered to vote?" What was it that really connected you to politics at an early age? And do you have thoughts on ways we can really make that connection for others?
11:49 AO: Yeah. I always thought it was so weird that young people thought that politics doesn't impact them because even from the smallest piece and perspective when we think about funding that goes to schools, right? And the fact that the US has the system that's based on where you live and the tax dollars for your local communities and that's why so many of the schools are either under-resourced because of that policy that someone decided. When we think about the rules and regulations around how you can start a business and how easy or difficult it is when we think about who's allowed to... When we talk about voting rights. I always thought there's such a direct correlation and I think that's the main challenge. And funny enough, that's actually what we see when it comes to getting women in tech because sometimes the way we communicate about politics, the same way we communicate about tech is that it does not resonate with people because they cannot see the direct impact on people's lives. We should just understand and admit that many people, most people are selfish. They only wanna get involved in something if it has an impact on them, their families, about what they care about. It's less about altruism, it's less about patriotism, it's about how are you going to impact me?
13:04 AO: So, when senior citizens go out there and vote, they know it's because this person will decide whether our Medicare will be expanded. This person will decide on tax rules and regulations that will affect their state. Rather the young person, sometimes it seems so far away, what this person is doing in DC or Sacramento or Annapolis seems so far away, that my everyday... From my everyday life that I can't see the connection.
13:29 AO: When we talk about getting more women into tech. Like, "Okay you want me to learn how to code, but how does this make my life easier? How does it make me less stressed? How does it make me healthier? How does it make me happier? And research has shown that when you create, when you position these issues as directly being connected to people's lives, you're saying you're gonna learn how to code so that you can create an app that helps women and children, that helps the environment, that helps job and social mobility, people are more interested in that because it seems more purposeful and it's not just a game or a sport.
14:05 AO: So I think we have to show those direct connections. Like this person voted for this legislation and this is why student loan rates are where they are. And this is why Sallie Mae can call you any single time of day, because of these student loan bills. Because this person voted on this, this is why health care is so expensive and I think that's really where the apathy comes from, is that disconnect. And so, as an organizer, as a policy maker, as someone who wants to increase political and social activism, we have to make it more relevant to people's everyday lives.
14:37 KW: And, on that point, there is this connection I'm gonna try and make, let's see if this works, which is... So you have quite a platform and not just as the founder of She Leads Africa, but you speak at a number of events, you have a lot of power. Your thought leadership has a lot of power and influence and we're talking about how many of the potential voters, particularly of a younger age, feel that their voice doesn't matter, it's not directly connected to them, I'm one person, what does that mean? But here you're one person and you're having a big influence for that platform. So, how do we make that connection? We all have a platform. If it's social media, if it's talking to our friends, if it's talking to our community, what are the ways in which we can start to take action, not just by voting, but starting to really get our voice out there because that's what becomes more powerful, particularly during these times because if you have someone who maybe cares about social security or Medicaid because that's what directly impacts them. Someone else may care about drug laws, someone else may care about taxes, someone else may care about socioeconomic policies impacting certain cities. There's so much out there and having that type of discourse and exposure to all of that can really shape how we vote and how we step up as citizens and as people within society.
16:13 AO: I think that's such an important question and a topic and something that I'm actually gonna host a workshop on in a couple of weeks. What does it mean to be an influencer? So many of us when we think about influencers we think, "Oh, it's just beauty, it's this fashion, it's food, people who just feel themselves all the time." But an influencer is just really anybody who's able to share their stories, share their perspective and build a community around that. And what we found is that... What we've found is that so many people have been able to do that, but not do it in ways that are constructive or helpful for others. And so, thinking about if you do have an issue or a perspective or your life has been affected by it, instead of seeing it as something that you need to hide or be ashamed of, think about how you can use your voice and your story to inspire and encourage others, but also to learn about... To teach others about it as well.
17:10 AO: So, I think that point around that people feeling as if they have no power, that powerlessness, keeps people very quiet about their issues, about their perspectives, but really encouraging people to say no, take that issue that you're passionate about and tell your story. Utilize all these platforms that we have, whether it's social media, whether it's video, whether it's writing, whether it's just WhatsApp and SMS groups to tell people stories, but also be able to channel that into action. Saying I face this issue and this is what I learned, and this is how I would like to help prevent other people from dealing with the same issue. And understanding that you don't have to be a politician, you don't have to have millions of followers, you don't have to be a public speaker in order to use your voice and your perspective to make a difference. And I hope that the way that digital tools have really given more people more opportunities to distribute and create content will also inspire and encourage people that it doesn't just have to be about the fun stuff, it can also be about the serious stuff. It can be about education, it can be about policy, it can be about laws, it can be about social justice as well.
18:15 KW: Yeah, I wouldn't have thought a few years ago about policy around education in my community, but now I've got three kids in school and it directly affects me, but if I hadn't been as in tune to those issues then today I'd have less control over the direction. So, there's just... There's just so many ways for us to get more engaged and find the things you care about. Sometimes I think the notion of politics and policy can feel overwhelming because there's so many topics that are covered. And back to your examples, it's like finding the things that are most meaningful to you and then finding ways to really help make sure that your voice is heard and that you're directing that in a way that that makes sense for your needs.
19:10 AO: Definitely. And so, the idea behind She Leads Africa... I don't think the vision was as big as it is now when we were first starting out, but part of it was just saying that they are so many young women who are trying to navigate this space and they don't feel as if they have any place to turn to. They don't feel as if there's anyone who really understands their issues and there's no place for them to get advice and guidance. And so we're saying, okay, let's just create our own space and our own community to help those young women and then it turns out that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of women who are facing that same issue. And so, if everyone had the perspective of, let's not wait for someone else to figure it out, let's not wait for someone else to do it, it's what can I do in my own little space, in my own little community or part of the world to share a story, to bring people together and help other people do better, I think that we'd see a lot of positive community action and hopefully positive legislative and political change as well.
20:13 KW: Yeah. And so when you created the community, She Leads Africa, there's the obvious women supporting women and building those connections. There's a lot of education and skills building that happens within the community, but what is the ultimate impact? 20, 50, 100 years from now? What is that legacy that you see stemming from She Leads Africa?
20:39 AO: Yeah, there's a quantitative and there's a qualitative part there. So I'll start with the quantitative. Yes, we would love to see increased earning potential amongst young African women. Financial independence is really important to us and we know that with greater financial independence, whether that comes from being more successful in your chosen career path or starting and growing a successful business, that financial independence has such significant impact and ripple effects in communities; that that really is important to us. Is helping people make more money. And we hope that by helping people improve their networking skills, helping them get more leadership opportunities, helping them monetize their skills, that, at the end of the day, it's gonna result in greater earning potential.
21:27 AO: But from a qualitative perspective, it's really about confidence and self-belief as we want more young women to believe that they can design the life of their choosing. To believe that they have options, to believe that they have the skills and the know how to go out there and achieve their dreams and lead to encourage and inspire people. That motivation part is really hard to measure, but seeing more people believe that yes, I can go out there and do it. Yes, I can live this life, I'm not stuck in someone else's ideas or beliefs about what a young woman is supposed to do or the kind of role that she's supposed to play at home or in her society and really seeing that kind of empowered generation of women that will hopefully impact our community through civil society, through politics, through education, through the environment, through so many other ways. It's also what we'd like to see at the end of the day. We have this media brand, we have this platform and it's important to us that we are creating content and we're putting out stories that have a positive impact and effects on our communities.
22:35 KW: I love that. How was it when you moved to Africa in terms of... And this applies to anyone moving to a new city and I know many of the women in the Ellevate community and our listeners talk about how isolating it can be to be in a new place geographically or even just being in a new company or a place where you feel like you don't fit in or belong, but particularly that geographic move, how did you start to build those connections? How did you manage with that change and what could be isolation? I'm not sure what your experience was, but do you have tips or ideas for our community?
23:18 AO: Yes, it is very challenging. I have to be honest with you. And I think part of the challenge is around expectations and people just thinking, "Okay, well, I thought it was gonna be like this. And it's not like that", so they get disappointed. I think the best thing that someone can do is not to come in with any preconceived ideas. It's really hard, but if you've never lived there before, if you're moving to a new space, you actually have no clue and it can take time. It can definitely take time to acclimate and get yourself used to the society. So for me, yes, I could have come in there, I have a bunch of degrees, I've worked in all these different places, I could have acted like I knew what I was doing and I was a big girl. No, that that would have had a lot of people being like, "Who is she? What is she doing? She doesn't know what's happening here." So, sometimes you have to sit back and listen, not have any ideas about how things are supposed to work out, just sit and listen and learn and be as respectful and open-minded as you can.
24:19 AO: Secondly, you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone. That's challenging for me because I'm an introvert, I love being in the house, I love being in my pajamas. I don't wanna go out and meet new people, but if you don't push yourself, then you will literally have no friends. You'll have no new connections.
24:36 AO: So, what I did is I did research groups and organizations and events that I thought would be interesting to me and I learned and I signed up. So, that was tech meet ups, that was conferences, that was networking events, that was new gym classes. And so, just anything that I could do to go out and meet people and try and make friends, but then also, I also made sure to... I had people that I went to school with who ended up moving to Nigeria or who were from Nigeria and so just reaching out to old networks and saying, "Hey guys, I'm here. Can you make any recommendations? Can you make any connections for people that I can connect to?" And that was also helpful as well.
25:20 AO: So, first is just going in with very limited expectations, just being really open-minded. Second, not being afraid to put yourself out there, stepping outside of your comfort zone. And then three, relying on your old network and hopefully asking them to make some connections of people that you might be able to speak to.
25:37 KW: That's great, excellent. You have such great advice. I'm always impressed when I speak to our guests, that just seem like they know it all in the most respectful, amazing way possible. Just such confidence in how we can solve these problems, start businesses, create change and I'm inspired by that. I just wanna listen to everything that you say. Where does that confidence come from?
26:06 AO: Part of it is I have been living in Nigeria for five years. And at this point, I do feel like, Okay I've been here, I've done a good job. I took a step back to think, "Wow, I moved to this country not having any connections, not knowing anyone and here I am with a company or with a really good network." So, I took like a step back to congratulate myself for a job well done and a hard work. But I also tried to be as reflective as possible to say, "Okay, you've been here for this time, what work? What didn't work? What did you learn? What's been helpful and how can you continue to do better?" 'cause there's still so much work to do. So, I think that's where the knowledge comes from. Just trying to be self-aware and trying to be helpful and just kind of thinking about how can I always just improve and take it to the next level.
27:01 KW: That's great. Well, thank you so much for joining us today on the Ellevate podcast. I loved this discussion and have just learned so much from you and applaud all of the work that you're doing through your company and beyond to create that change and to inspire others to be leaders as well. So, thank you so much.
27:24 AO: Thank you so much for the opportunity. I'm so grateful, I love all the fantastic work that Ellevate is doing and really just about telling stories and letting people know that you're not the only one going through this issue. I think it's so powerful. So, thank you all so much for the platform as well.
27:40 KW: Yey! Women supporting women, I love it! All the love [chuckle] Alright, well have a great day.
27:48 AO: Thank you.
27:52 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out, subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also don't forget to follow us on Twitter at EllevateNTWK, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, www.ellevatenetwork.com, that's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E network.com. And special thanks to our producer Catherine Heller, she rocks. And to our voice-over artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much and join us next week.
Join Ellevate Now
In our community of experts, you’ll meet professional women committed to helping you succeed. We use the power of community to help you take the next step in your career.
Already a Member?