Feature: It is a Great honour to be the first Nigerian and African Executive Director leading a U.S. Non-Profit- Damilola Akinyele

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Damilola Akinyele is the Executive Director at Princeton in Africa where she leads the organization that develops young leaders of tomorrow. An international training, development and education professional driven by quality education, social impact, inclusive and equitable projects, design, and innovation, she has spent her career cultivating strong leaders, strengthening institutions and developing high-impact programmes across the world.

Her professional experience spans a decade and her donor experiences include the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Embassies, state and Local Councils in Nigeria. In recent years, she has been providing vision and leadership on social justice, equity, and inclusion practices for dozens of faith-based non-profits in the U.S, U.K and Africa. During her career at World Learning, she co-chaired and pioneered the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion task force, which managed the vision, strategy and execution of the organization’s DEI efforts.

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Damilola received her BA in Sociology from Morgan State University and her MA in International Training and Education at American University, Washington, DC. As the founder of ETRAssociates, she applies her skills, knowledge and experiences to serve the Nigerian society by developing programmes that are relevant, context-specific, transformative and sustainable. In this exclusive interview with News Wings NG, she speaks on her journey to becoming the first African woman executive of a major non-profit organization, getting more women into executive positions, and how to improve education and the lives of Nigerian women.

News Wings: Tell us a bit about your growing up years, would you say it influenced your journey significantly?

DA: I attribute a significant part of my life and career trajectory to the values of empathy, integrity, and hard work I saw my parents exemplify growing up. I was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. My parents did business internationally and had unique opportunities to interact with the world and different cultures, which afforded us some of those experiences. My mother is an endless volunteer for social causes, and my father was an active social commentator on Nigerian institutions and leadership – I was always privy to some of these conversations with his friends and grew up fascinated by our institutions and the life of service.

My family also has a history of men who loved & practiced Law, so I naturally would become a lawyer (or so I thought). Instead, I ended up in the United States, where you have to get an undergraduate degree first before attending law school. Reminiscing on the first week of a course I took in my sophomore year of college, I recall the deep feeling of compulsion to actively fulfill the 2nd Millennium Development Goal: Achieving universal primary education. I also remember the sense of responsibility that consumed me and changed the course of my life forever. I had access to good schools growing up, but I was acutely aware that others did not always have the same or equal opportunities. For example, in my obsessive research and discovery in college, I learned that over 10 million Nigerian children were out of school. So, I started volunteering at education centers in the United States, during my holidays in Lagos, attending conferences around education, and engaging more intellectually with development issues.

After college, I worked at DLA Piper, one of the biggest global law firms, while studying for the LSAT, but I was now aware that this was not my purpose. I finally summoned the courage to tell my Nigerian parents that I was changing my career trajectory and going to graduate school for ‘International Training, Education, and Development instead of Law. My father didn’t understand or agree with why I chose this path for a long time, but he was supportive. Since then, I have spent my career cultivating strong leaders, strengthening institutions, and developing high-impact programs in Africa, the United States of America, the Middle East, and Asia.

Paradoxically, in 2017, I discovered a piece of history I never knew about my family- My Father’s Grandfather, whose picture hung/ still hangs in the house I grew up in and whom I knew as a lawyer, and the former Western Minister of Works in The Great Awolowo’s time was also an educator and academic- He was a teacher and a principal, to be exact. So, although I seemed a rebel who chose a non-profitable path for many years, the apple did not fall too far from the tree with my quest to be an educator.

News Wings: Take us a bit through your career and professional journey till date?

DA: That’s a bit hard to summarize, but I’ll try and take it from where I am currently to where I have been through the years.

I am an International Training, Development, and Education Professional driven by quality education, social impact, inclusive and equitable projects, design, and innovation. I have spent my career cultivating strong leaders, strengthening institutions, and developing high-impact programs in Africa, the United States of America, the Middle East, and Asia. My professional experience spans over the course of 10 years, and my donor experiences include the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Embassies, state and local governments in Nigeria, West Africa.

I currently live and work in New Jersey. I am the Executive Director at Princeton in Africa where I lead the organization that develops young leaders of tomorrow as they contribute to some of the most impactful organizations in Africa today.  In this role, I maintain a preeminent fellowship program that aligns with the core values of ethical and responsible engagement on the African continent, Management of Princeton in Africa Staff, Financial Oversight, Donor Relations, Development and Communications, and Board Governance. Prior to this role, I worked at a church/ faith-based non-profit where I co-developed leadership structures, developed inclusion practices, and organized sustainable community engagement and fundraising initiatives.

A significant part of my career was at a global non-profit based in Washington D.C. I held different roles at the organization through the years, all of which can be summarized as designing and implementing youth, leadership, exchange, and developmental programs funded by the U.S. Department of State. I have managed a special envoys program that covered 160+ countries, designed and implemented educational learning experiences for Iraqi Young Leaders on peacebuilding and reconciliation, youth activism and civic engagement, reintegrating refugees and IDP’s, and managed continued professional development for a network of 2,000+ alumni. During my career at this global non-profit in Washington D.C., I also co-chaired and pioneered the Diversity, Equity, and inclusion Taskforce which managed the vision, strategy, and execution of the organization’s DEI efforts.

At the beginning of my professional journey, I had the opportunity to work as a TA/RA (research and teaching assistant) at Morgan State University in my final year of college. I started by going to graduate school at American University, Washington D.C. While in graduate school, I worked multiple internships at D.C. non-profits focused on International Development and Education.  In 2016, I co-founded ETRAssociatesng, where I apply my skills, knowledge and experiences to serve the Nigerian society by developing programmes that are relevant, context-specific, transformative, and sustainable. Through the years, I have also consulted with the ministry of education in a southwestern Nigerian state. I have hosted youth leadership and teacher training workshops, developed active learning strategy manuals.

My educational background has been diverse, as I attended a HBCU (Historically Black College and University) and PWI (Predominantly White Institution) which gave me a diverse outlook on racial, social, and political experiences.  My BA is in Sociology from Morgan State University, and my MA in International Training and Education at American University, Washington, DC.  My volunteer experiences vary from research institutions to tutoring and training Black youth and public-school students in Baltimore, Maryland and Lagos, Nigeria.

News Wings: As an immigrant and black woman, would you say you have faced profiling and discrimination in any way?

DA: That’s a fascinating question. Yes, I have been profiled and discriminated against in academic and professional settings in covert or overt ways. These are stories I would rather not recount on the pages of a newspaper as they do not diminish who I am or the experiences of freedom, opportunity, acceptance, and love I have also experienced in those spaces and the U.S. I very much resonate with Toni Morrison when she says, “The function, the very serious function of racism is a distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

Although I can choose not to give into despair sometimes, I do have to say that I have friends and acquaintances who have been stripped of life, dignity, opportunity, and property because of race. Daily, we see people dehumanized and disenfranchised due to race. Racism (structural or individual) kills. As an immigrant, you initially think that it doesn’t affect you- It does. You learn very quickly that no one distinguishes you by being Nigerian or Kenyan- you are identified and grouped by your race before your ethnicity.

However, America is not a static country. Daily, you see people acknowledging and embracing the history of racism but not becoming victims of it; you see people fighting for justice and equality in healthcare, education, and jobs and demanding more from the system, leaders, and the institutions. There is despair, but there is hope and progress. It’s getting easier and easier to say that people can write their destinies, which gives me hope.

NewsWings: What would you say has been the most challenging moment of your career till date?

DA: The most challenging moment of my career so far is not an exceptional story per se, but I think it speaks to the experiences of millennials and how we are redefining what success means to us separate from the expectations our parents set for us or how the boomer generation approached work and life. The most significant and most challenging times of my career have been when I asked myself: What is my purpose? What are my values? Where can I have an impact?

These questions have led me to take the risk and co-found, run, and attempt to grow my international development and education nonprofit in Nigeria. We have had successes with leadership, training, and education consultancy opportunities- it also comes with various challenges of bureaucracy in Nigeria and seeking local investors and partners. While running my nonprofit with my co-founders, I also must balance my full-time job in the United States, which I happen to be highly passionate about and keeps me functioning in a highly capitalistic society.

In my employment journey, after working on programmes in regions in the Middle East and Southeast Asia for so long and taking a personal pivot to work in faith-based nonprofits, I am now back to fully running a nonprofit in the United States that focuses solely on Africa. Due to the magnitude of responsibility in this role, it is challenging to juggle with anything else, so my consultancy role in Nigeria has paused since 2021. I have found that very hard because of my personal life’s mission to the leadership and intuitions in Nigeria. However, I am also grateful that I can build systems and further African development in as many ways as they present themselves.

News Wings: As the first African Executive Director of a U.S non-profit working in Africa, what does this mean to you and other black women?

DA: My life’s mission is a commitment to the development of Africa by contributing to the leadership and institutions through my work. Which is why I am deeply honored and humbled to be Princeton in Africa’s Executive Director. Princeton in Africa has built a solid reputation across the United States and Africa over the last 23 years. In the last 23 years, this programme has placed over 600 Fellows with more than 100 organizations in 36 African countries where our Fellows, through their work, have made contributions to Africa’s institutions in Business and Economic Development, Education & Youth Capacity Building, Public & Community Health, Advocacy, Research, Civil Society, and so much more.

President Bill Clinton described us as a model: “Princeton in Africa’s mission to allow young leaders to serve in Africa is a model. . . Working in every field from public health to conservation to conflict resolution, PiAf Fellows improve the lives of everyday Africans in tangible and significant ways.”

As a Nigerian woman and an African, it is an absolute honor to lead the organization at a pivotal time in reshaping our organization where we recognize the importance of responsible and ethical engagement with the continent. I came on as the first African Executive Director of this organization last year, and one area of my strategic focus is centering African ingenuity, leadership, agency, and achievement as we foster equal and beneficial partnerships in both Africa and the United States. 

Let me tell you a bit about Black women in the United States. Black women were the unsung heroes of the suffrage movement, they led the way for civil rights in America, and they remain the most consistent group that shows up through their voting for the rights of marginalized people. Recent studies have also shown us as the most educated demographic in the United States. We are not underqualified or undereducated; we are under-selected for some high-level opportunities. For example, Judge Kentaji Brown Jackson is the first Black woman on the nation’s highest court in its 232-year history. How incredible, but also bizarre is that.

Women of color make up just 4% of C-suite executives, a percentage that hasn’t changed for several years. There are various barriers, such as double standards, lack of advocacy, and unconscious bias. In my career through the years, from entry-level to now, I try to do my work exceedingly well, so women of color can continue to have the opportunity and ensure that I am advocating for policies and systems that provide access for more Black women and people of color. In my career trajectory as a Black woman, it often feels like I have two jobs- my actual job description and the role of ensuring a more inclusive culture where I work. It’s never just about me. 

News Wings: How are you using your work to impact positively in the lives of people here?

DA: Africa, and Nigeria to be specific, is faced with the task of education, and nation-building, both formal and informal, as this plays a major role in the development of our continent. In a continent of rapid change, we have made tremendous progress in the field of education: the elementary population has doubled, over 60% of school-age children are now receiving education, and universities have sprung up in countries that previously had none.

However, Nigeria must stop playing catch-up in teacher education, elementary and secondary curriculum, in adult education, science, and technology. In the words of Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, “We must run while others walk.”

In 2016, my colleagues and I from graduate school combined our passion for Nigeria, Sub-Saharan Africa, training, and education to build an organization that is committed to providing quality education, and training programs for intrinsic and instrumental purposes, enabling individuals and institutions to function at their highest potential. We do youth development trainings, leadership and institutional development trainings, and education consultancy. We have worked with organizations, private schools, and state ministry of education since our founding.

News Wings: What is the importance of having black people in executive roles and how can we work towards achieving this?

DA: I always tell people that I never struggle to see Black people in executive roles. This is because I have a unique layered experience of being born and raised in Nigeria, a predominantly Black country. I’ll give you an example; In the history of the Fortune 500 list in the United States, there have been only 19 Black CEOs out of 1,800 chiefs. Currently, there are only 4 Black Fortune 500 CEOsThasunda Brown Duckett of TIAA, Rosalind Brewer of Walgreens, Rene F. Jones of M & T, and Kenneth Frazier of Merck. In Nigeria, There’s Mike Adenuga, Segun Agbaje, Nneka Onyeali-Ikpe, Herbert Wigwe, Oluwatomi Somefun, Emeka Emuwa, Abubaker Suleiman, and so much more, and all these people are Black. The Black excellence, competence, professionalism, and adequacy are in abundance. It is also the same abroad, but Black people are under-selected for these opportunities. These things are interconnected to the systems of exclusion we talked about earlier in the interview. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, we saw the glaring lack of representation in Corporate America and organizations pledging to do better.

There must be a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Organizations must commit to a plan of action that includes bias training for managers and decision managers, clear standards for hiring and promoting, and hiring diverse decision-makers. I always tell people that a Pakistani-American man led one of the most diverse teams I ever worked on and it was reflected in hiring, language, communication, and compensation. In this same organization, he and I co-founded a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Taskforce that managed the vision, strategy, and execution of the organization’s DEI efforts. Companies have a duty to not have racial exclusivity at the top of the organization with black workers unable to rise through the ranks. It is important to have Black people in executive roles because people must have equal opportunity- to be treated similarly, unhampered by artificial barriers, prejudices, or preferences. Companies must look like the country they serve. There should be equal opportunity in the class and wealth divide in America. 

News Wings: With less than 20 percent of women in executive roles, what kind of support would you say is needed so that more women can get and thrive in these positions?

DA: First, I would like to establish that women bring different skills, imagination, creativity, strategic thinking, and effectiveness to the workforce. There is no shortage of qualified women to fill leadership roles either, and women are educated and makeup half of the labor force. However, some issues keep women out, such as stereotypes about our credibility and competence, our ability to have connections and mentors that help us rise, the bias and discriminations based on our sex, and workforces that lack flexibility in allowing women to balance their lives as wives or mothers with leadership roles. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, women belong in places where decisions are being made. For women to succeed in the workforce, we need mentors committed to us, leadership and skill-building training opportunities, employers and bosses committed to an equitable workforce, and clear growth opportunities that support our work-life balance and allow us to be flexible.

Through this pandemic, if there’s anything we learned, we saw those countries with women at the head, such as Denmark, Finland, Iceland, New Zealand, Germany, and Slovakia, had exceptional and effective responses to the pandemic. So, how’s that for women in leadership?

News Wings: Would you say that the Nigeria’s educational sector is living up to its rightful potential?

DA: This is a difficult conversation, and I often try to sugarcoat my answer to this question, but these are the facts. Although they are difficult to confront, we must confront them for the future of our nation. We have made significant progress as a nation, and Nigeria has a population of 200 million people, almost equally divided between Muslims and Christians. Our GDP is estimated at around $432.3 billion, making us the biggest economy in sub-Saharan Africa. We have the potential to truly build a prosperous economy, significantly reduce poverty, and provide good systems and structures that meet the needs of the population, including education. Unfortunately, our formal education system is not as strong because of our history of military rule, corrupt political systems, lack of accountability, and poor public sectors. We have made some strides in our education systems, but our education is still primarily a European-style system education that does not meet the needs of our society. The quality of education is poor in many schools, and there is still a low enrollment rate in our education systems. There are over 10 million Nigerian children out of school- the highest number in the world. There are dilapidated structures, a lack of basic education materials, a high rate of underqualified or underpaid teachers, and under-resourced schools.

I think our governments on the federal, state, and local levels have a duty to firstly, fund our schools and provide adequate learning tools for our students and teachers. Secondly, revise and update our curriculums to reflect the global society we live in and allow Nigerians access to knowledge, skills, and experiences to survive in today’s world. Thirdly, invest in training our teachers and creating basic standards on hiring them to ensure the quality gap for our students. Fourthly, eradicate corruption in our schools. Fifthly, ensure that our societies are safe for our children to learn- the majority of the children out of school are in the North and have been heavily impacted by the insurgency in that region.

News Wings: With hindsight to the ENDSARS saga and youth restiveness all across the country, what should the government do to foster peace building and reconciliation and civic engagement?

DA: Nigeria is a very political nation encompassing 350 to 400 ethnic groups of varied beliefs, cultures, practices, and social attitudes. Nigeria faces the challenge of nation-building. Many years of postcolonialism, several events like the Nigerian Civil War, Conflict in the Niger Delta, Boko Haram, Herdsmen’s killings and attacks, ENDSARS, and hundreds of thousands of ethnical, tribal, and religiously charged terrorism, community disputes, and neighbor to neighbor distrust, It is crucial to build a safe space and community of trust, respect and shared values amongst Nigerians.

We can all collectively agree that the ENDSARS movement was a manifestation of the dissatisfaction with systems and leaders that are failing our society- even if we disagree on how citizens should have expressed that dissatisfaction. Various academic research findings from across the world show that education and civic engagement activities and initiatives play a role in helping us find expressions of collaboration between each other for a more stable, democratic, and peaceful future. I have professional experience designing and implementing civic engagement programmes. The most notable and challenging, I will say, has been developing educational learning experiences for Young Iraqi Leaders on peacebuilding and reconciliation, youth activism, and civic engagement.

I will tell you for free that you cannot only build intervention programs to address deep-seated issues that holistic policy changes and adequate systems and processes should fix. For example, the efforts of civil rights movements and protests in the United States brought about legislation to end segregation, Black voter suppression, and discriminatory employment and housing practices. Although professionals like me can help build programs that can be structured around civic engagement and peacebuilding, very tangible legislative demands and results must also be addressed by the government.

News Wings: Living the busy life you do; how do you strike a perfect work-life balance?

DA: To be honest, my work and faith have taken precedence in my life through the years. My work and faith are a significant part of how I make meaning of my life, so I never stop. My well-being and some of my relationships have taken the backseat due to this. The pandemic taught me a great lesson in slowing down and prioritizing my well-being. Although my routine is not set in stone because my work through the years has often involved travel, I dedicate my mornings to praying, journaling, and catching up with my family in Nigeria or England. I get dressed every day because that makes me feel powerful. I work exceedingly long hours beyond my 9-5, but I make up for it by visiting my family in Nigeria as often as I can, traveling to new cities on vacation when I have time off, sitting at a local bookstore, or hiking a new trail at least once a week, going to the theatre monthly, kayaking/canoeing when the weather is warm, and finding moments of joy daily. This year, I am committing to working less on weekends and scheduling more activities that take me out of my comfort zone in my daily routine.

News Wings: What advice do you have for younger women looking to walk down this path which you’re on?

DA: I was fortunate to grow up with a mother who has an entrepreneurial, never give up spirit. An astute businesswoman, she always tries something new even if she fails- she doesn’t give up. From her, I learned the value of hard work. So, I will say this- Beautiful Girl, you can do hard things. My path has not always felt easy as an immigrant navigating a new continent as an international student. However, I committed to focusing on college and graduate school, finding my tribe of like-minded people, charting a new course different from the one my parents imagined for me, and building the skills, knowledge, and experiences required to thrive in professional spaces.

I learned to be humble enough to learn from others, work hard, find mentors in the workplace, do my work exceedingly well, maintain my integrity, and exercise my stickability even when many of the roles or experiences I did not seem profitable. Purpose can feel uncomfortable. I’ve found myself in different, challenging, and unusual places, but a defined purpose gave me hope through those experiences and enhanced the meaning of those stages. It may not look like it at the moment, but the courage to take meaningful action and lead meaningful lives is always rewarded. I do not have my journey all figured out yet, but I know that women deserve the same rights, power, and opportunities as men, and I hope you never give up in your quest for self-actualization even if you feel an imposter syndrome.

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