On this episode, we speak with Chidiogo Akunyili, Founder of She Roars, Future Awards Awardee and World Economic Forum’s Global Leadership Fellow.
She talks about her passion for empowering women, the need for women to be more supportive of one another and the importance of the Ubuntu philosophy. She let us in on a “secret!” She is writing a book about her famous mother, Dora Akunyili.
Listen to the full podcast below:
Ada: Hello everyone, I’m speaking with Chidiogo Akunyili. She’s the founder of She Roars Africa, an organization empowering women to unleash their full potential and that of the continent. She was named one of the 100 most influential Nigerians by the Avance Media, Young Professional of the year by the Future Awards and World Economic Forum’s Global Leadership Fellow. She speaks seven languages including Chinese, German, Igbo and Spanish.
We’re very glad to be speaking with her.
Chidiogo: Happy to be here. Thank you for that introduction, Adaora.
On Her Passion for Women
Ada: My first question for you ma is what makes you so passionate about women empowerment?
Chidiogo: I suppose for me it’s really what makes me passionate about my own journey as a woman. I’m passionate on my journey by the support that I’ve received and how important that support has been for me in getting to where I am and daily pushing my edges and my limits. That interest and that passion is a version of really just understanding that that’s the way we can move forward, by working together, by supporting each other.
What I’ve learned on that journey, I can then bring other women the same with other women and other people have supported me in their own way they can support me. My passion is that for life and that of this Ubuntu philosophy of life that I am because you are on that we support each other. In this case I see women as an extension of myself, understanding the struggles and the challenges and at the same time the opportunities that exist in this world and how we occupy it and how we show up.
Explaining the Ubuntu Philosophy
Ada: About this Ubuntu philosophy, Can you explain a little bit more?
Chidiogo: Absolutely, Ubuntu comes from southern Africa.
Ubuntu literally translates into, often translated into, “I am because you are and you are because we are.” This philosophy is a very important one because it must not only speaks to the connection between us as humans because ultimately we’re really interconnected.
My success is another’s success and my suffering is shared as opposed to maybe that we live a little bit more individually. Beyond the human connection, it also speaks of the connection with everything. We see Ubuntu manifest in let’s say in the impacts we’re having on the environment, how our actions have a reaction. It’s the interconnectedness of humanity of humans with each other and the humans with the environment. I use it in this context in talking about if there is indeed that interconnectedness as I experience it to be then imagine when I contribute in a positive way to the circle, how that contributes to everybody and vice versa.
It’s a philosophy of understanding that we have a role to play in each other’s lives and in the life of this planet of ours.
Ada: It is really deep, what you just said. I guess what you’re trying to say is that Ubuntu has a lot to do with how we connect through the world around us and the people around us, community and with nature, something of the sort?
Chidiogo: Correct but even more so, it’s just knowing that you have a role to play and that you matter, you are a piece of the puzzle whatever it is your contribution can be as is because we all have talents, we all have gifts. Show up with that contribution because that would impact someone else in a way that you might not even understand. Ubuntu is first recognition that you matter.
Everything matters because everything is connected. Take away one piece and the rest can fall apart, add one piece and the rest can stand.
How Women Can Be More Supportive of Eachother
Ada: That’s definitely something to think about and research more on later so far. For our next question, in what ways do you feel women can be more supportive of each other?
Chidiogo: I think it really begins with women making space, time and energy and effort to be more supportive of their own selves. I’m a very firm believer in that we can give what we don’t have. When we are struggling in our own selves and we are depleted perhaps by virtue of the struggles of just daily life then it’s very difficult to support anybody else. Be it man woman or your child. It’s really important that you first give to yourself.
Often, if you look at the story of the women who don’t support each other, you often find that it’s a toxic environment where the women have an opinion that maybe there’s not enough to go around. There’s a little bit of a competitive lens where there is a fear ultimately that, “I need to take care of my own self and that I have to watch out for myself and I don’t care for anybody else.” That’s why you see this alternative scenario playing out.
I believe that when women come from a place not a fear but of knowing that there is that they are enough by also having a place to replenish their energy reserves that we all work from, then they can give. I believe that every human has a natural inclination to give themselves, give their talents, to share their talents with the world.
If you don’t have any energy and if you are not in an environment that supports you, it’s very easy for that to be misaligned and ultimately not to support other people in the community that could otherwise use your support.
Ultimate Goal of She Roars
Ada: What do you hope to achieve with your work?
Chidiogo: What did I hope to achieve or what we’re working on is the togetherness that I mentioned. One is: let’s start from the macro level of the work that is at hand. We’re talking of a continent of well over a billion people that will only keep growing in numbers and a lot of challenges. We’ve seen these challenges our whole lifetimes and we’ve seen how little the needle has moved.
Within that equation, I see that the missing piece that we’ve had for the same amount of time has been the women stepping into positions of leadership. In that conversation of “Let’s give women more positions of leadership. Let’s create space” and all of that, the work that I do, that we do at She Roars, realizing that there’s two sides of that equation. Yes, of course, the system level we must empower women. We must create and all that.
We have also had many many decades of a narrative told to these women of, “Boys go to school first, Heads of State are men. Governors, leaders, business leaders, CEOs, entrepreneurs, these are men’s jobs.” Some of these are explicit and sometimes implicit message of the role, of the place of a woman in society.
The work that I hope to achieve is for us to break through all these narratives that often form these layers of limiting beliefs over time that tell us who we’re meant to be in ways that do not support who we are and really take women in the thousands and millions on a journey of themselves, discovering and connecting to who they are, who are you? That’s the best that you can give in that piece into that puzzle of humanity that I mentioned earlier.
The best you can offer is yourself. When you live in a self that is masked by stories of who you are meant to be that is not true to who you actually can be, then you’re doing everybody and the whole ecosystem a disservice. What we hope to achieve is work with women to achieve that truth of their intuition of who they are, of what they can do without the layers of doubt, without the layers of message in that says otherwise. And within that usher in a generation of women that will change the future of the continent.
Challenges She Has Faced
Ada: You’re saying that you hope to empower women to be leaders, to move into more leadership positions? I believe that’s a very important conversation because when you’re talking about women empowerment, gender equality, I believe that you can’t talk about it without bringing in leadership.
That’s a narrative that I believe it will take time to achieve because there isn’t enough focus on leadership really. There are other things, “Let women learn skills. Let women do this- but then there isn’t enough focus on getting women into leadership positions, getting women to be policy makers. That’s a good goal.
The last question we’re going to ask is, what are the challenges you face in your work, in trying to create the change that you’re trying to create? What are the challenges you faced? Obstacles, maybe with logistics, maybe with the women themselves, maybe with passing across your message. What are the challenges?
Chidiogo: There are definitely challenges that are faced. The core is, the work that we’re trying to do, it’s quite new in terms of, you mentioned emphasis on female leaders from a traditional perspective. Let’s say in terms of let’s make sure that the system works. The work that She Roars is doing is actually going a level deeper.
How can we support these women on their journey into leadership knowing that there’s a lot of stories that have formed us in ways that are not elevating us to the truth of actually what we have to contribute? That’s a space that is quite new. It’s inviting people to be vulnerable, to really connect to the parts of them that they need to let go of, that need to be strengthened, that need to heal from past trauma from pain, or just connect to where you are and just know that power of your roar. That in itself, to get that to connect, to have that such a new space and to explain to people in a way that that they can connect with then partake in our workshops and events has been an interesting journey. At the same time a massive learning on what it is to get the message to a point that others can really understand it as well.
Within that is also pieces. We do workshops. We do conferences. We plug into conferences. We do one on one coaching and mentoring and we we work with volunteers. It’s like managing all the pieces of something of this business model- let’s call it that- and how to make it more efficient in a way that allows for the work to truly scale helps to get that scalability.
Within that, I’m also writing a novel and at the stories and the power of a woman that was my mother and telling her story, how the stories of the women that came before her and before me and the women that we come from and the strength and resilience that we come from. That’s one layer as well of that work, of making time to write a story because I know the power of stories and I know that a story in this novel can reach even more women in this message than this dialogue that we are fostering.
Of course, it’s like the thing that every entrepreneur experiences is how do you get the right partners? How do you get the right sponsorship model? How do you know. How do you make sure, as I mentioned earlier scale, how it can sustain itself? We’ve been on a journey of really identifying with the partners that connect to this vision, connect the work and want to support us.
Just be with clarity on the African proverb that if you want to go fast, you go alone and if you want to go far you go together.
About Her New Book
Ada: You’re writing a book? Could you tell us a little bit more about your book? It sounds interesting.
Chidiogo: Correct, it should be done in like the next month. It started off as a story of my mother. Her name was Dora Akunyili and she was a woman whose life touched many millions of Nigerians in such a profound way and as a believer in the power of stories, I wad inspired to explore her story, to tell her stories, shortly after she passed away in 2014. The book started off as a story of my mother.
Now, it’s grown to become a story of all of us, a story of women, a story of strength, a story of resilience, struggles, perseverance and all the things that we don’t talk about but are such important parts of our life stories. We often focus maybe on just one side of it be that as a mother, as a career professional, as a politician. But there’s a story of a woman and with that of women some I’m telling that story.
Ada: We look forward to reading your book. Do you have a name for it yet?
Chidiogo: No, it’s still working title. Well, one of the titles that I like the most is, “If you think that you can’t- hold on one second- “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, wait until you spend the night with a mosquito” or something like that. Clearly, that’s too long but basically I’m in the market for really interesting and funny and captivating titles
Ada: Something really out there?
Chidiogo: Absolutely, if you have any ideas, please share with me.
Ada: I’m personally looking forward to it.
Chidiogo: Thank you, Adaora, it’s been a journey. I’ve been working on it for two years now and it’s so good to see that I’m almost done.
Ada: We’re sure it will definitely be interesting because like you said: your mom and also you. Your mom was someone very inspiring and her work still impacts a lot of people even today in Nigeria. I’m sure a lot of people are definitely looking forward to reading her story. then anything else, any other stories that you add.
Like you said, storytelling is really important, the way that our message gets out into the world. I believe even the interview we’re having right now is part of storytelling. Telling the story of your work and getting it out there so thank you.
Chidiogo: Thank you so much Adaora. I appreciate that. I appreciate you reaching out. You’re absolutely right, how important it is that we share stories and that you’re helping so many do this is not something that any of us can take lightly. Well done, thank you for inviting me and thanks for the words of encouragement for the book.
Advice to Young Women
Ada: Any advice for young ladies in Nigeria? Hustlers, business women, professionals, any advice?
Chidiogo: Any advice? I’ll give you an advice a mentor at the World Economic Forum gave to me which is that- He was sharing how for many years he spent his energy trying to improve upon his weaknesses but he would learn later that it’s still much more important to improve upon your strengths. For me, how I live this is also realizing like for example my math is not very strong.
I’ve worked as a management consultant, strategy consultant using work in a lot of numbers and this was the path I was on. But the truth is that math is not my strength. I can do it because I’ve worked on it and can push myself. But ultimately it’s not where I can shine a light. No one can. I can only do that in the space that is my strength and then I’m adding the “jara”. Then I’m going the extra mile. Then I’m working hard.
I believe that’s my advice. It’s a big group because I don’t know where you’re at but what I do know that applies to everybody, whatever your hustle, is find what it is that you’re good at. We all know it somehow. It could be something that you don’t even think is a skill because often the things that we’re good at we don’t value. It because it comes so naturally.
Ada: That’s so true.
Chidiogo: I know. It’s a skill. Not everybody is alike. Then grow that. Grow it and grow it and that will make you the best in that space because nobody was as good as you in that space to begin with. Now, you’re consciously growing yourself in that space.
That would be some advice that I got and I’ve lived and I’ve incorporated life. I see how true it’s been for me and I follow now as a natural way of living, to constantly growing all aspects of life. Why not? Because we want to expand but most importantly focus on honing on strengths that you have. That’s where the magic is.
Focus on your skills. Focus on what you’re good at, your gifts. Thank you very much, ma. I wish you good luck, the rest of your book. Like I said, we look forward to it. I hope you have a great day.
Ada: That was great advice. Anybody out there, you heard it here first from a Nigerian leader at the forefront.
Chidiogo: Thank you so much, Adaora. You too.
This is an installment of SDG Factory #100AfricanChangemakers series which consists of interviews and podcasts with the most outstanding young people achieving remarkable feats in the field of social entrepreneurship in Africa. The work of a featured changemaker has, in proven ways, led to the advancement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in Africa.
The aim of the project is to inspire hopeful non-profit leaders, social entrepreneurs, and activists and reveal tips for success in the social impact sector.