The International Leadership Association (ILA) 4th Women and Leadership Conference which held at 1440 Multiversity, Scotts Valley, CA, USA on 16-19th June, is probably the most unusual conference I have had the pleasure of attending. The theme of the conference was “Building Solution, Harmony and the Greater Good” and I was a part of the conference opening plenary.
The panel—which included myself; Karen Clark Cole (Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, Blink); Cindy Pace (Vice President, Global Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, MetLife); and Denise Raquel Dunning (Founder and Executive Director, Rise Up), moderated by Liza Howe-Walsh (Senior Lecturer, Department of Organisation Studies, University of Portsmouth)—was invited to share their personal experiences of leadership.
For twenty years ILA’s mission has been to advance leadership knowledge and practice for a better world. Through this platform, they organize events and conferences assembling talent across sectors, cultures, disciplines and generations.
For the 4th Women and Leadership conference, over 200 participants including teachers, scholars, researchers, students, consultants and coaches, gathered from over 14 countries and seven US states. A community of like-minded women and some men, young and old, spent three days discussing, debating, and reflecting on ways in which women’s leadership potential can be developed, energized and liberated for the ‘greater good’. It was a platform for sharing depth of knowledge, perspectives, ideas and good practices, building professional and academic connections with common values and a unifying belief that women in leadership positions matter.
The conference was extremely well curated, with papers/presentations (from scholars sharing their research findings on the study of women and leadership); roundtable discussions (where individuals shared their research projects with scholars who can support, challenge and collaborate); symposiums and workshops. In addition, there was screening of four remarkable documentary films— I will write more about the films in a separate article— including my own film, Algeria Women at War (1992).
In my keynote presentation, I shared my leadership journey and insights from a 40-year professional career dedicated to positively impacting and transforming lives through my work in philanthropy, entrepreneurship, film and television production, arts and culture, and investment funding. Throughout my multifaceted career, I have put my skills and expertise in the service of the work I care passionately about and the different voices and communities represented in my work.
The response from the audience gathered at the Women and Leadership conference was overwhelming to something I had taken for granted. People always remember how you made them feel and not what you said, and it was a privilege to be given the time to reflect and share my leadership journey learnt on the job with the gathering at the ILA conference.
Passion, vision, integrity, deliberate audacity, and enduring optimism are qualities that lie at the heart of my leadership style and achievements. My leadership character and qualities have been learnt through practice from my first job in 1979, at the age of 23—when I was sent to launch the Minority Arts Advisory Service regional office in the Midlands to support ethnic minority artists of Afro Caribbean and Asian descent.
The power of art as a force for political and social change ignited my passion and spurred me tospend the first decade of my professional career from 1979 to 1986, empowering Black and Asian creativity through funding, cultural programming, and policies to mainstream our creativity and our cultural contribution to Britain.
In 1982, as the Head the Race Equality Unit in the Arts and Recreation Department of the Greater London Council, I managed a grant aid programme, funding a wide range of ethnic minority artists and organisation, many of who are internationally renowned today. I established policy initiatives for the development of minority arts; created training schemes in arts administration for ethnic minorities; and ensured the representation of ethnic minorities on the bodies of the major arts organisations in the UK.
This period marked the start of my 40-year career of self-directed learning and defined my leadership style which is characterised by my willingness to take risks, initiative and self-discipline, embrace responsibility, persistence, learning from failure, intrinsic motivation to learn new skills, time management, and goal setting.
In 1986, I took all this learning as I pivoted into a career as film and television producer. The accepted wisdom in early 1980’s Britain was that it’s impossible for someone like me – a working class immigrant – to break into the film and television industry. The spark to make films was lit in 1982, when I organised a Festival of Black American Films in London. Watching these films and listening to the struggles of African American filmmakers to tell their stories fueled my imagination to do just that in the UK.
My desire to make films was born out of a passion for telling compelling untold stories from around the world. From 1986 to 2004, I generated a body of work that challenged the mainstream of film and broadcast media to open itself up to perspectives that emerge from the margins, where cultural innovation so often begins. As a storyteller, I believe there are many truths, just as there are many faiths and many voices. The role of film and media is to respond to these different voices. My work is to present the truth from places that are not recognized.
In addition to making films, I also led the campaign to reflect, represent, employ and develop ethnic talent on and behind the screen in British film and television. This led to the formation of the Cultural Diversity Network, an alliance of UK broadcasters and film industry committed to increasing the range and diversity of talent on and behind the screen.
As the founding Board Director of UK Film Council from 1999 to 2005, I contributed to the development and implementation of its international strategies which embraced the film industries of emerging markets through new co-production treaties with India, South Africa, Morocco, and China. I played a pivotal role in ensuring that equality and diversity commitments were fully integrated into every aspect of the organisation’s activities.
Working in the Arts and UK film and television industry for over three decades, I was never interested in positional equity or formal authority. What drove my passion was the need to use my position to bring about institutional and mindset change which in turn would fuel the influx of marginalized talent into the mainstream.
In April 2014, I made the move from film to philanthropy when I accepted the invitation from Tony O. Elumelu to join the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF), Africa’s leading philanthropic organisation based in Lagos, Nigeria. As the CEO, I brought my unique mix of skills, talent and imagination to design, develop, and launch one of the most ambitious entrepreneurship programmes on the continent – the TEF Entrepreneurship Programme, a 10-year, $100 million commitment to identify, train, mentor, and fund 10,000 entrepreneurs from across the continent.
Since 2015, the TEF Entrepreneurship Programme has empowered 4470 African entrepreneurs, across 54 countries to institutionalize luck and democratize opportunity. In 2019, the programme scaled to select 3050 African entrepreneurs!
To support them on their entrepreneurial journey, the Foundation has given them the tools, the networks, the mentors, and the funding to transform Africa.Today the Tony Elumelu Foundation is at the forefront of technology innovation and recognized as a thought leader on African Entrepreneurship around the world. Over the five years that I lived in Nigeria and travelled across 50 of the 54 African countries; I met Africa’s exceptional talent, pursuing incredible dreams, re-imagining history, entrepreneurial pursuits, and humanitarian work across the continent.
Under my five-year leadership, the Foundation cemented its role as the principal advocate for African entrepreneurship, empowering thousands on their path to economic and social transformation. In retrospect, I feel Africa was my destiny and everything I had learnt and achieved before in arts and culture, film and television production, film finance and business consulting was leading me to this.
I believe leadership begins with one’s self, at home. My most precious assets are my two amazing daughters. I have wanted nothing but the best for them; education, opportunities, experiences, challenges, to give them wings so they can fly. As a leader, I want to be judged by the quality and values of my children.
Over my 40-year professional career, I have endeavored to do the same in my working life. My business and personal values are transparent to the organisations and the people I work with, devoid of separation or duplicity.
Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank, role or a title; it is a responsibility. Leadership is about building trust with shared common values and beliefs. Great leaders work for the greater good. They are transformational. They shape and change cultures of the organisations they work with. They take risks, break rules, constantly tread new roads and meet new challenges. They embrace conflict as an asset because they recognize there is no movement without friction. They build trust with teams and give credit to those who made it happen. They sell the vision because they live the vision.
To the aspiring women leaders, I say always stay focused on the “why” and not the “what” of your chosen field. When you lose sight of the why, your passion for what you are doing will be diminished and it is impossible to inspire or to lead.Always remember the why, because it is the light that will be your energy and your guide to achieving the impossible. Leadership is a journey of life, just make sure you are making this journey with integrity.