How to Change the World on Less Than $1 a Day

Copyright 2020 by Seun Shokunbi. All rights reserved.

We’re afraid to die yet want something to live for. That’s the unofficial lesson I learned growing up in a Christian family. Our prayers were always asking God for a long, meaningful yet safe life that ends with us entering heaven.

And of course, we gave thanks for how lucky we were to have food and shelter while alive, and we would pray for those living with less.

But when I told my family I was coming here, to do a little bit more than pray for those in need, they begged me not to go. They couldn’t understand why I was putting myself in unnecessary discomfort or danger, coming to a place where (they believed) I could get kidnapped or killed because of how desperate the situation is for poor people in this region.

I’m not naive enough to think that poverty doesn’t SOMETIMES bring the worst out of us. But so does wealth & privilege. And so that conversation with my family was confirmation that I had to give this speech. 

Lately I’ve been obsessing over human nature – the ways we think about others, and how we decide when and how to help anyone else. And there’s a vital message for us to reflect on if we truly want to change the world, make it a better place. 

It’s a message about people in comfortable places and positions learning how to get uncomfortable.

Whether or not they realize it, most people talk about changing the world in ways that benefit them. They talk about big dreams they have to leave behind a legacy, so that when they die they will go to heaven, or people will throw huge parties celebrating their lives, and they’ll leave their mark in history. Some talk about a win-win situation, building a money-making social enterprise that is profitable yet provides jobs that improves the lives of people & their environment.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those thoughts – except when we’re not honest about how attitudes and actions we take for granted keep people in situations that make us have to become their heroes, saving others rather than empowering them to take care of themselves.

The road to doing good, as we like to say, is paved with good intentions. But we’re 20 years into this journey of doing “good” works in the name of Sustainable Development Goals, and we still haven’t reached our destination. 

20 years into the 21st Century, nearly 75% of people living in extreme poverty today are in Sub-Saharan Africa, even though the percent of people in the world living with poverty moved from 30 to 10%. 

These statistics hurt me because of what I still hear people say about my country Nigeria, and about black people across the diaspora. 

Africa, as recently as last year by some of the world’s most famous leaders, on the most prominent stages, is still described as a dark continent full of wayward people and “shithole” countries.

Many of the approaches we take to address Africa’s issues start from a scarcity mindset – describing people in “undeveloped” or “developing” nations as unable to figure it out, as if our ancestors in past centuries weren’t leading rich kingdoms that ran pretty well before being interrupted by, I don’t know, colonialism.

Scarcity mindset also shows up in the simple things, like when we think we can just drop a few dollars and cents into an offering plate and POOF, the money will travel all the way to Africa in magical fairy dust and end world hunger.

But we should ask ourselves: in a world where we have enough disposable income to spend billions of dollars creating robots that talk and look like people, why don’t we fully commit to preventing real humans from experiencing poverty and insecurity? 

And in a world where almost anybody with a computer can make up their own currency, why don’t we have enough money to stop 440 million people from going hungry every day?

If you asked me what I thought, I’d say it has more to do with the way we think about saving the world than it does with the resources we have to do it. 

We, the privileged, the rich 1%, the middle class families sitting in our living rooms sending $10/day to children’s charities, and the African diaspora “lucky enough” to be born or living outside of Africa need to admit we have a savior complex towards Africans. 

And it’s turning our beautiful dreams about a peaceful world into nightmares for others. 

This nightmare started with this man. Andrew Carnegie, considered the “father of modern philanthropy.” He literally wrote the book on the savior complex, called the Gospel of Wealth, creating this mindset that it’s better for us to have a few people – like 1% of the world’s population – making lots of money. Because by becoming rich, these people proved they’re the only ones we can trust with this responsibility to save people from poverty. 

People like Carnegie who are part of the rich 1% want to be honored as superheroes and saints, either with their names plastered on every project, or rewarded with a life of eternity in Heaven.

Carnegie gave money to remarkable initiatives, and people still do this today. Yes, the millions of dollars they donate may help a little bit in making the world a better place. The harsh truth, though, is that the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest is the main cause of the harm that they’re trying to fix in the first place through their charity.

This is data from a 2018 Harvard University report, and the picture is pretty clear and bleak: over the past 20 years the world has 4 times more millionaires and billionaires, and even as they give their money away there are still parts of the world where you are more likely to become or stay poor, rather than become rich or never experience poverty in the first place. 

Africa is where this happens the most.

And what about the charities that we donate our money to? How far does that go in stopping this from happening?

Not far enough. It cost around $6 million USD this year to run one of the most well-known charities for children. That’s almost double the amount it cost them to do this work 11 years ago. Yet the rate at which the poorest children around the world enroll in school hasn’t changed that much over those 11 years. 

So it’s costing us more to do the thing that we told the rich people we could do with their money, that we’re not actually doing…

In 2013 Peter Buffett, the son of one of the richest men on earth, described this as the charitable industrial complex. The CIC claims that poverty is big business and that rich people only donate to charity in a way that keeps them comfortably rich, while keeping poor people poorer. 

Poverty is VERY profitable for people and corporations getting tax breaks and positive publicity for donating relatively small amounts of their wealth. 

Based on the charitable industrial complex and this graph, the term “not-for-profit organization” is not that accurate.

This notion that it’s money that makes the world go round caused me lots of anxiety as someone from a middle class background dedicating her career to working with NGOs.

I started thinking about this during my Master’s degree program ten years ago, living in London and wondering what good I was going to do with my privileged life. 

For my thesis, I decided to tell another story, one not about the rich using their wealth to save Africa. 

My argument was that if we truly wanted to see Africa develop, we couldn’t sit in ivory towers, conference rooms or fancy cafes just talking about what needs to be done, or throwing money at the problem. 

We needed to adopt the relentless, guerilla mindset of people who create real change in the world every day while only making less than $1 a day.

Mohammed was one of them. 

Mohammed probably knew he was just one of a million other stories of young people trying to check every box they were told to if they wanted a better life. 

Study hard, chose the right subjects at university…thinking all of this would make them the next self-made millionaire or at least get a well-paid job that helped them take care of their families.

Instead Mohammad and many others graduated into barely making enough to survive. 

Instead they scrambled for small jobs from the kinds of people that donate to charity because they want to help people like Mohammad

Ironically some of those people would opt to pay people like Mohammad poverty wages.

While these people wrote songs about Africa and ran fundraisers to support the so-called helpless Africans, Mohammad took matters into his own hands, taking a different approach and making a statement.

He set himself on fire. 

This was probably the hardest decision, but I’m sure this was a completely selfless act, more selfless than sending $10 a month from your decent paycheck. Because if Mohammad simply wanted to end his life, he could have done it quietly, in the shadows. 

Instead he lit a match where the entire world could see, where it would force us to spark a more honest, deeper conversation about all the other Mohammads in Africa. 

I’m not telling everyone to leave here today and set yourself ablaze to make a statement. But what I’m saying is that there are so many other people in Africa, young and old, maybe in this room, living with little, fighting to free themselves and the world from the evil that is extreme poverty and oppression. I also know that many of you in the room today have more realistic dreams than others about making changes in your communities, but are afraid you don’t have the resources to carry them out. 

I hope the stories I tell today convince you that you’re underestimating how much more you can do than many of us to make the world a safer, better place. 

The title of my talk suggests we can save the world on less than $1 a day, but it requires some more context. 

I’m not ignorant to the fact that we need money to do much of this work. But there’s something in the way charities or people with privilege operate that makes us waste lots of time and money. And if we got rid of this thing, it would make the money and time we pour into ending poverty go a lot further.

That thing is entitlement.

I’ve been living in Nairobi, Kenya for four months now, and I nearly went crazy seeing this right in front of my eyes. 

On the one hand, you see places like this where sidewalks and paved roads are non-existent, in an area where over 2 million Kenyans live. On the other, you miraculously see meters of smooth paved roads and – surprise surprise – sidewalks in an area called the UN Crescent, an area of Nairobi County where diplomats, expatriates, and much wealthier individuals live.

I would call it coincidence maybe if I didn’t see the same thing comparing areas of mainland Lagos to Lagos Island in Nigeria. 

So for me, it has to be more than a coincidence. It’s a clear sign that for some of us, we want to save the world only when it’s comfortable and convenient for us. 

We somehow find a way to build better roads and houses for ourselves even while the people in the countries we’re coming to help don’t have it. Even when they’re the ones who need them the most.

Carnegie got one thing right. He told us that Heaven only comes when people start to get their happiness not from working for themselves, but for others. And he was also right when he said this requires us to change our mindsets…and that this work could take forever because, unfortunately, human nature defaults to selfishness. 

The cheapest and most effective way to save the world is to stop thinking we’re angels or superheroes, and be brave enough to go into the places and situations that aren’t so pretty 

to fight against systems that keep the poor poorer and the rich richer. And we need to look at the courage and sacrifices made by the people we claim we’re trying to save, the ones that give up something more precious than money to get us closer to Heaven on Earth. 

Last year, during the Year of the Return, I saw so many of us in the diaspora searching for a heritage we felt detached from. We were searching for purpose and wondering what influence we could have on the people we left behind to achieve our professional and financial goals. 

We, the diaspora, are in an entitled situation, where we get to travel to Accra for celebrity parties but fly back to the U.S. once we’ve had our fun or realize it’s too risky to dedicate our lives to living in and making changes in Africa.

Even if we don’t decide to move to Africa and roll up our sleeves to do the work that changes lives, we should at least admit that there are Africans, with less money than us and less fear than us, who deserve a seat at those elite tables to speak on the work they’re doing to save and change lives.

Think about women like Aisha Yesufu, who without cameras or famous people around her put her life on the line for years to end this abuse against women, while the rest of the world paid little attention. We barely hear about stories like hers even when the world became obsessed with finding and reporting on the Chibok girls kidnapped in Northern Nigeria. 

As we saw with Aisha, and Mohamed during the Arab Spring, those living on less than a dollar a day have brought down evil dictators and stopped atrocities without it costing them a thing – financially. 

But without our help, from those of us in the middle or higher echelons of wealth, it will cost a bit more – their lives. 

Those of us in the middle, in the diaspora, need to get uncomfortable, and one way is by demanding that we bring more people like Mohammad to these conferences to share their stories and their solutions for effective social change. 

We should demand that more donations go to grassroots organizations led by people who look like Aisha – those who have been sacrificing their lives on the ground in Africa, doing more than the international charities that spend billions of dollars every year just to cover operational costs. 

By 2050, the largest percent of children born into poverty will be born in Sub-Saharan Africa. And those children will be told the same thing we told children like Mohammad and me – that if you pray every day, get good grades in school and prove yourself worthy you’ll definitely escape a life of poverty.

We’d be telling them a very expensive lie.

The truth, the real solution, is not comfortable. When we start taking risks and say or do things that are uncomfortable, powerful people will get mad. Maybe only mad enough to make our jobs a living hell. Or maybe mad enough to go to the extreme, where we’re locked up, attacked, killed for challenging the status quo. 

But maybe, when we put all our chips on the table and we’re all in – financially, physically, intellectually, and emotionally – we’ll actually reach that utopian, pie-in-the-sky goal of saving the world a lot sooner than we think.

Self-Care for the Black Woman Entrepreneur

I joined the CareDeeply podcast, hosted by Wit & Grace Magazine, and I’d describe it as a form of radical self-care.

Recent events have me reconsidering what it takes to find peace and happiness as a black woman anywhere in this world. There may be safer spaces for us somewhere on the globe; if that’s so I hope I find that place sooner rather than later.

But until we can find peace geographically, we have to find it mentally and spiritually or else die. Unfortunately, that’s not hyperbolic at all. I wrote about the health impact on unique problems we face as black women, namely the microaggressions that also lead to a sub-optimal quality of life financially.

We still have a long way to go in getting black women professionals the same pay and resources that (white) men AND women get (although white women earn less than their male counterparts, their wealth far exceeds that of black women).

Speaking of microaggressions, it also takes the form of expecting black women to carry everyone else’s burdens. At the professional level, we sometimes feel our livelihood threatened if we refuse to take on the emotional labor of making our superiors comfortable and satisfied.

So becoming an entrepreneur can be are only escape, a way to produce something made for us by us. I talk about what it’s been like to rediscover myself through entrepreneurship, creating my own safe space and becoming more imaginative of how to invest in myself while creating value for others.

Click the link here to listen to the full podcast episode, and share your thoughts in the comments on this page.

If You Want The Protests to End (A #BlackoutTuesday Book List)

Read all the suggested books below with a free Amazon Kindle 30-day subscription.

Today is #blackouttuesday, a day for us to pause and reflect— black, white, and every other race/ethnicity globally.

But as you pause today, what exactly are you using to reflect? And when it’s time to speak up again, will you have the right words to use?

Almost a year ago today, I saw a comment on LinkedIn by a well-known influencer, using a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote to claim that everyone benefits from being privileged in America.

Normally I’d roll my eyes at this cliché and swallow my frustration. However, a whole year later, staying quiet cost us even more black lives. And the irony is that the quotes used by this white influencer represent the thoughts of people considered the most violent activists the world has ever seen.

The problem is that violence is given a different definition in a way that benefits people of privilege at that moment in time. Perhaps the broadest definition of violence for them is anything questioning their right to not be questioned. They don’t really fear riots or destruction of property as much as they fear our ability to see why they have so much more than those asking for just a fraction of the same.

Today’s blackout is pointless if we don’t change that narrative. If we continue to water down the legacy of MLK, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and other civil rights leaders, black people will continue to die at the hands of poverty, anxiety, depression, and police brutality. 

One year ago today, I told that influencer I’d put a reading list together for him, to question his notion of privilege in a racist society. But then I thought, why do I have to do this work for you? Why aren’t you capable of doing this research and self-reflection yourself?

For today, and the sake of putting this issue to rest, I put my pride aside. I’d regret it if I missed a chance to protect black lives from physical and emotional danger. On this designated day of meditation, I’m giving you an in-depth tool I pray will push you to rethink power and privilege, globally. I hope this will have to be the last time a resource like this is needed, and that this work isn’t in vain (because you’ll actually use it).

The list is broken down by three common assumptions you might have, and books that will push you to reconsider that assumption. The reading list can go on forever, but I’ll stick to the books I think do the best job. The books won’t always focus on black people, because my goal is to illustrate that privilege, white supremacy, and despotism by racial injustice is a universal, WORLDWIDE problem.

The first two recommendations I list will be, in my opinion, the most crucial texts. Each recommendation has information that can be fact-checked, so don’t read then gloss over anything you find hard to believe. 

DO THE WORK. As I told my 8th-grade students, use your ANEEY sources (almanac, newspapers, encyclopedias, and eyewitness accounts) to find the evidence used to corroborate the details you find, whether or not it’s not the first time you’ve heard them.

Let’s start.

Assumption 1: Education is the great equalizer.

All you have to do is “pull yourself up by the bootstraps”, study hard, and climb the social/corporate ladder out of poverty and into success, right?

Wrong. Several texts exist that are considered the canon of the political economy of education. They show and prove how the privileged in society use the idea of work ethic as a justification for their egregious wealth, and a way to blame others for living in poverty. Even worse, the privileged tell those they placed in poverty to simply copy what the rich do and poof, they’ll attain the same wealth and status.

I put it this way in a thesis I wrote about the topic: 

…the elite are in a precarious situation to maintain their ability to govern. On the one hand, they must provide the nonelites with a sufficient safety net in order to prevent social uprising; on the other, the elite aim to prevent the nonelites from entering their social realm and thus share their political power.

Here’s an easier way to say it— those aware of their privilege will never make it easy for anyone to take that privilege from them, and they’ll do anything to convince you that you have what you need to gain that same privilege.

Examples of readings that go into depth about this:

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire

The Political Economy of Education, by Martin Carnoy

Literacy and Racial Justice, by Catherine Prendergast

Inequality in the Promised Land, by R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy

First Class, by Alison Stewart

Despite the Best Intentions by Amanda E. Lewis

“As Higher Education Expands, Is It Contributing To Greater Inequality?”, by Martin Carnoy, published in the National Institute Economic Review, 215(1)

Assumption 2: Peaceful protests are just as, or more, effective than violent protests.

Hopefully, you’ve seen the hundreds of memes out about the infamous Boston Tea Party revolt that created the “greatest democracy on Earth”. If not, let the reading suggested below teach you this (in the words of Angela Y. Davis): freedom is a constant (violent) struggle. 

No significant movement against tyranny was won peacefully, be it the French Revolution, American Revolution, Haitian Revolution, or even the Protestant Reformation (there goes the argument that the Bible is for pacifists). 

And if your definition of violence is destruction or bodily harm, DO NOT flip the script and try to also label words or symbols against tyranny as violent. It’s not up to the oppressor to tell the oppressed how to resist their oppression. 

You CANNOT change your definition of violence simply to avoid dealing with any attack against your warped sense of entitlement.

And last, but certainly not least, please realize that your favorite peaceful and/or Christian protestor to quote was once your forefather’s sworn (violent) enemy. If you’re going to quote them, do your homework and get to know the full intent behind their words.

Examples of readings that go into depth about this:

Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community by Martin Luther King, Jr. (pay special attention to chapter 1, page 22)

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Y. Davis

Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

How Not to Get Shot by D.L. Hughley

Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman

Assumption 3: Slavery ended 400 years ago. We passed the Civil Rights Act. We shouldn’t be talking about this anymore. Blacks are in a much better place!

To an extent, it’s not entirely your fault for thinking this way. The elite— politicians, the wealthy, tenured professors at esteemed universities, and some in the media— are like the Wizard of Oz. They built a reality that fits their beliefs, one that revolves around them being in a position to tell us what is truth. 

The U.S. education system is designed to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as milestones leading to the end of racial injustice in America. You’ll rarely find a textbook drawing a clear line connecting data on Black Americans’ poverty, incarceration, and death rates to decisions made to perpetuate a system of inequity. That line, a literal timeline of Black American history, would clearly show a correlation between how blacks have been viewed since this country was founded and how they continue to receive the same treatment at large, despite the tokenism of a few black people with wealth and status.

U.S. textbooks conveniently leave out historical moments like the bombing of Black Wall Street, a clear sign that everything can be taken away from them even when Black Americans try to build something after given nothing. They also leave out discussions about the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement post-MLK, which includes the Black Panther Movement and a proven abuse of federal power when the FBI assassinated its members (look up Fred Hampton and watch this documentary to learn more). 

The question isn’t whether or not black people still suffer from social and political inequality. The question is why would anyone want to deny this, despite the evidence that says otherwise?

If you can’t understand why we ask for reparations, why some of us are smashing windows and why many of us feel the need to scream #blacklivesmatter at the top of our lungs, ask yourself where we find the urgency to do any of this, and examine whether or not you decide to come to that understanding.

Examples of readings that go into depth about this:

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Rest in Power by Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin

April 4, 1968 by Michael Eric Dyson

Coming of Age in the Other America by Stefanie DeLuca et al.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

The Souls of Black Folk and Other Writings by W.E.B. Du Bois

Root and Branch by Rawn James, Jr.

A Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes

This reading list is not comprehensive. You won’t finish reading them in one day. Even if you did, most of you will have to wrestle with the desire to keep your points of view the same for some time.

Just know that the longer it takes, the longer the pressure remains. Black people won’t stop demanding what’s fair and right just because it’s taking you a while to get used to their courage to speak out.

So the onus is on you. How much longer do you want this to go? How worse do things have to get? Don’t say we didn’t warn you, or give you the tools you need to speed things up.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf | Leading Like a Lady

Lesson: Look like a man, think like a woman.

(Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

You might call Ellen Johnson Sirleaf an “alpha female”, and that wouldn’t be your fault. Though you’d be wrong.

James Bond wishes his plots were as thick as Johnson Sirleaf’s life. Reading her memoir This Child Will Be Great is more than a thrill ride. But to call her an alpha female cheapens the magnitude of the events in her life and oversimplifies the purpose behind the choices we must make to lead.

Read the book using this link.

Have you ever wanted to be an alpha female, and did you ask yourself why? It’s one of those labels so overused that we say it without a strong sense of what it actually means. 

You probably said it because you want to be rich or successful, dominate anything you pursue, or to be the one in control. Psychologists say these tend to describe the alpha male, and that women wear these traits more often when they’re desperate. They want their boss to take them seriously, or they need that promotion to cover the extra childcare costs, for example.

Moreover, the alpha is his (or her) first priority. And that’s where the problem lies. Self-preservation is a natural instinct, so there’s nothing extraordinary about it. 

But, at least for the first 30 years of her career, Johnson Sirleaf proved herself extraordinary. It wouldn’t be a typical African politics story if Johnson Sirleaf’s legacy wasn’t mired in controversy. There isn’t a doubt, though, that she gave up several chances to put herself first for the sake of prioritizing others. 

In her book, she goes into elaborate details about the threats to her life. She was an activist under probably the most vicious political regimes in African history (don’t skip reading about it). Of course, she wasn’t the only one who did this in Liberia, male or female, during that time. It was especially abnormal for a woman to be in the position she was, or get the amount of attention she did for speaking against tyrants who didn’t make idle death threats. 

I see myself in Johnson Sirleaf’s boldness not because she’s a woman, or because I imagine I’d be just as brave to call bullshit in that hostile environment. Instead, I see her life as a reprimand to me and everyone who shy away from this and needs to know that this is what it takes to stop injustice from happening, whatever your gender. Oppression’s oxygen is silence. We all have a moral obligation to speak up, even if it means neglecting our natural instincts to lay down our lives for others.

What’s powerful about learning this lesson from a woman like Johnson Sirleaf is knowing that, whether she lived or died, her story would no doubt push others to not let her sacrifice go in vain. Her “alpha” traits didn’t just force greater international pressure to stop one of Africa’s worst civil wars. It told African women, specifically, that their voices were an existential threat to the status quo.

This couldn’t be clearer than when Johnson Sirleaf writes about a clash between her and then U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who didn’t appreciate her strong opposition to Charles Taylor, the notorious blood diamond dictator:

I was astonished. There was no way in the world I would work with Charles Taylor after all the death and destruction he had caused…and I told President Carter as much, in no uncertain terms…. 

“Do you really think I’m going to identify myself with that?” I asked Mr. Carter…I think the president got a little miffed with me because of that.

It took another six years before Johnson Sirleaf would be heard. One can only wonder why Carter or anyone else would be annoyed more by her resistance than by the blatant evidence of Taylor’s despotism. Regardless, Johnson Sirleaf’s persistence signaled to Liberian women that they couldn’t risk letting another dangerous man get the benefit of the international community’s doubt.

Let’s be clear: we shouldn’t hate men. We should hate what they get away with —which is, at best, demanding more for mediocre effort, or at worst giving them full reign despite how their actions harm others. 

In a world where a proven murderer (a man) leads a country into years of senseless massacre, while a political prisoner turned first woman president in Africa is immediately harassed when accused of a fraction (nepotism and counterfeiting) of that chaos, introspection once again helps us understand what’s best when leading like a lady.

Unlike Okonjo-Iweala’s book, I was inundated (in a good way) with Johnson Sirleaf’s honest self-reflection. If there were one tip I’d give to the wannabe alpha females, based on her life, it would be this: you can try to look like a man, but at least have the sense to think like a woman.

Let’s say “looking like a man” includes the tough exterior, the no-bullshit attitude, and the fearlessness in demanding what you want, nothing less. Embodying that put Johnson Sirleaf’s life at risk countless times. And her shrewdness in wielding it ultimately saved her.

Too many close calls make it impossible to believe she’s still here at 81 years old. From coercing assassins to jail her instead of killing her, then watching other men in the same prison executed while she’s released the next day, she’s lucky to be alive, let alone be an elder. All of this even after standing her ground and refusing to bend to the will of then Liberian dictator Samuel Doe. 

Her quiet confidence was the trick. Calm and sensible defiance —which, by the way, is NOT usually an alpha trait— was the ironic, stronger counterbalance to the braggadocio and violent threats of her enemies. “They sicken of the calm who know the storm,” is how Dorothy Parker once described it. Several times Johnson Sirleaf recounts how reminding her assigned assassins of their mothers, or treating them like sons by bringing them water or just talking to them, were the little things that meant the difference between being left alone or raped, beaten, or murdered.

Listen, women— better yet, black women— are asked to be the voice of reason in unfair and unsafe environments constantly. I get that and even spoke about that here. It may sound like this is another plea for us to be the bigger person and execute sound leadership at the risk of losing ourselves or our lives.

I can’t help thinking about the amount of carnage we’ve seen in Africa, and how in the midst of so many dying for no reason we need leaders to make themselves a purposeful sacrifice so that something worthwhile comes out of it. 

I wish I could tell you that you can have it all— the kids, the husband, the corporate office, the smooth-sailing peace of mind and wealth. That’s what the alpha female probably wants to hear. But maybe the greatest thing you could give to prove your worth is not in what you gain by living, but what your life inspires others to do.


Subscribe to the blog for updates on the books for the Leading Like a Lady series.

Listen to the new Leading Podcast, with real-life stories of ordinary women learning how to lead.

The Leading Podcast

For those who like to listen more than read, I’ll post some conversations I’m having with women learning how to lead in different parts of life.

Introducing the Leading Podcast!

Honestly, I’m not sure how consistent it will be. But when I can, I will share the miraculous stories of black and African women overcoming the most extraordinary challenges.

The first episode features Fatima Brown, a young woman who at the age of 30 beat lung cancer and started her own business in holistic health.

Click here to listen to the episode, sponsored by Amazon.

Charlotte Seck & the New Feminist Normal | Leading Like a Lady

My Leading Like a Lady series was inspired by an article I originally read in Forbes. The article pointed out that, in the middle of the worst global pandemic in modern history, countries with the least number of deaths from the COVID-19 crisis had women as heads of state.

Ironically, that article is now a perfect example of the new normal I hoped we’d avoid if we learned the right lessons in leadership.

Charlotte Seck, a Senegalese writer, claims the Forbes article was ripped off of her piece published in the francophone African magazine AMINA:

Finding the “receipts” (see below) that support Charlotte Seck’s claim was frustrating because it looks like it would make “leading like a lady” sound like a joke. But there’s an opportunity here to address the other elephant in the room of gender politics: feminism.

Amina’s article, published 3 days before Forbes.

Seck’s article, posted on Amina Magazine’s Facebook page 3 days before the Forbes article.

The Forbes article.

In the old normal, lifting material from lesser-known content creators was happening too often. What’s fascinating is that celebrities or influencers doing this thought that they could get away with in, in the internet age where everything is Google-able and screenshots/timestamps is all too easy to find as proof you did wrong.

What’s incredible is how this seems to happen more to black/African women. Sadly, it’s other women who are guilty of doing this to them. Even the black women who coined the academic term for this behavior have their names conveniently left out of work that never cites them as the source of their research.

I wasn’t one of those who worried about using the word feminism as a black woman. Unfortunately, this Forbes issue is forcing me to reconsider this or frankly any other word that tries to generalize women empowerment.

It’s clear now that the word feminism stressed the rights and value of white women without paying enough attention to the double whammy women of any other race experience. Bluntly, black women didn’t think feminism fully described the situation of being hated or ignored not just because you’re not a man, but because you aren’t white. Speaking from the American perspective, there’s clear evidence that black women suffer the most inequities when you compare data on our net worth, annual salaries, mortality rates, and investment opportunities to the data on white men. In a speech I gave almost a year ago, I brought up how African women fare even worse because speaking up on gender rights is a literal threat to their lives.

Leading like a lady won’t lead us anywhere until we grapple with this. More reason for the introspection I talked about in my last post. Nothing in the new normal will be revolutionary if we don’t deal with the weakness inside of us that finds it more convenient to cheat and steal than to build and let grow.

There’s no reason why Ms. Wittenberg-Cox couldn’t give a few words of encouragement (or thanks) towards Ms. Seck for starting a conversation, while building on that conversation with the experiences that shape her opinions on the matter. As someone who touts herself as a successful CEO with mentions in some of the most prominent platforms, she would lose nothing and gain more by sharing her stage with someone who’s clearly her equal in mindset.

At this rate, the new normal is looking extra cannibalistic. I personally don’t have a taste for eating people alive. But with situations like these, I’m worried I’ll have to build up that appetite in order to survive wherever we’re heading to next.

Or (and I pray this is the case), we can use the collective pause we’re on to do the transformative work we didn’t feel we needed or had time to do when the old normal consumed us.

To build our attitudes from scratch, looking at how our old normal got us into this mess and building a new framework that gets us out of it while preventing it from ever happening again.

To let new thought leaders grow and share their ideas, especially when we see enough value in them to adopt (or forge) as our own.

I only heard about Charlotte Seck was because someone in my women’s professional group found Seck’s Facebook screenshots and shared it with us. At the time I’m writing this, there’s no statement (apology or otherwise) from Forbes or from the women alleged to have copied Seck’s work while trying to promote women’s integrity in positions of power.

Thankfully, this controversy isn’t in the examples of women leaders recognized in Seck’s article. If there’s going to be any value in recognizing them and the differences between women and men in leading under pressure, the new feminists also need to call BS on the women that make this work harder than it already is.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala | Lessons on Leading Like a Lady

Lesson 1: Finding Yourself.

The proudest moment of my life was when I decided to go to therapy.

One of the transformational things I learned in therapy was the power of being vulnerable. In most cultures, men are taught to hide their feelings, while women are expected to show them more freely. At the same time, society would tell you that women are hysterical, exaggerated, and tough to deal with whenever they do express their feelings. 

Therapy helped me unlearn this. It took a lot of work to convince myself I wasn’t “crazy” for sharing how I felt. 

Learning more constructive ways to express emotion was a game-changer. I could show up as the same person in both my personal and professional interactions with people, in my authentic skin. Sometimes I felt taken advantage of. Yet ironically, I’m told this is the main reason I gained the loyalty and trust of my students, clients and friends.

Purchase This Book on Amazon

I thought about all of this as I read Fighting Corruption is Dangerous. I admire ambitious women, and having a role model like Dr. Okonjo-Iweala who goes above and beyond in her career is undoubtedly inspiring. 

The book would be a great read for a political science class, as it was less about Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and more of a window into the recklessness of Nigerian politics. While I can appreciate that, I’m hoping one day we get a book focused less on her explaining herself and more on how she became aware of herself.

My therapy sessions involved a lot of self-awareness exercises, and that produced the greatest gains for me. Confronting the trauma, the insecurities, and the circumstances surrounding my decisions and how I processed people’s behaviors towards me built enormous strength. I still have a lot to learn, but this newfound strength made it easier for me to talk about my experiences with a lot less bias, and use that neutral viewpoint to tell the truth about myself and others, mentoring them through sharing both the good and the bad about my life decisions.

I desperately searched for that in Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s book. To me, she’s in the heavyweight championships and I’m still on the high school wrestling team. I wanted to be mentored, to hear what someone like her does to stay emotionally and mentally fit at that undeniably stressful level.

We have so few (African) women breaking through the barriers Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has been able to, so their workout routine for vulnerable leadership is vital. We may not know them personally, and as major public figures, they may feel they want to keep some piece of themselves private from the world. 

But if Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is asking future leaders to take on the dangerous work of fighting corruption, we need her and leaders like her to be raw, transparent, and honest in their introspection. That was a missed opportunity in Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s book, leaving me with more questions than answers about her role in transforming Nigerian politics. So I tried reading between the lines to see what lessons I could pull from her experience. 

Lesson 2: Credible over Exceptional.

To be exceptional is to be rare, above average, a symbol of what’s considered peak greatness. Being credible is leaving no room for any reasonable person to doubt or mistrust you.

Ideally, great leaders could be both. But from Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s book, it seems the more power you go after, the more difficult it gets to be both. 

It’s easy to see when you examine her boss, President Johnathan, someone clearly not as exceptional as she was.  His own political party admitted he was average at best. Nothing about his career before and in politics overwhelmingly proves he was qualified for the highest office in Nigeria.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s close friends warned her that Johnathan appointed her to give him the credibility he lacked, according to Chapter 2 of her book. That’s too obvious even for someone looking from the outside to ignore. But she wrote that the personal attacks she received in the media, and the warning from her friends, still pushed her to leave her prestigious role at the World Bank to return to Nigeria:

I would not be easily intimidated. In fact, attacks had the effect of tilting me toward accepting the job [as Finance Minister]. To some extent, it was defiance.

I can name too many examples of more educated and experienced women settling to work in environments or with people nowhere near their level of qualifications. Maybe Dr. Okonjo-Iweala felt she could steal the show, taking all the (deserved) credit for transforming a government that the international community gave up on. But it was a miscalculated risk, one that led her to try to redeem herself by writing this book.

The book ends by asking more young, rising leaders to take the same risk as her to put an end to corruption in African politics. But with the lack of introspection and the clear examples of her lending her exceptional reputation casually to people who misused it several times, I wondered how inspired anyone could be to take on that challenge.  

I say this with a lot of reservations because, as I said before, very few women break down the barriers Dr. Okonjo-Iweala broke through in her career. I don’t mean that fewer women should pursue leadership roles, or that they shouldn’t aim for the highest levels. We clearly need more women on prominent stages so that the world sees the value we bring as level-headed leaders.

I’ve been in so many situations where I was asked to join a team or take on a project where I would clearly have to take responsibility for the outcomes. And several times I’ve seen people try to sabotage me by spreading rumors or trying to force me into situations where it would seem I was culpable for something I didn’t do. Just write this instead of that in the report, so we don’t lose our donors. Don’t share this or that with the auditors. I’ve been asked to say things I knew were false or promote agendas I knew would hurt people unnecessarily. When I knew doing this would keep me in a job, or even get me a promotion, I still opted to say no.

That wasn’t easy, and I felt I’ve paid the price for that longer than I should. And it made me question if I’d ever rise to levels I aspired to, to become exceptional, without having to give up doing what I knew was right.

But I’d rather give up an opportunity to prove myself exceptional if it meant I didn’t sacrifice my credibility. And before I find myself making that choice again, I desperately want to hear more examples of other women in similar situations who found a way to achieve greatness in spite of the pressures around them.

I don’t believe Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was involved in any of the things she’s been accused of during her tenure as Finance Minister. I also can see how her critics make it easy for some people to think otherwise. After reading the book twice, I couldn’t ignore multiple examples of unkept promises by President Johnathan that were the conditions Dr. Okonjo-Iweala asked for, at minimum, before she’d decide to join his team. Then there were blatant examples of his closest officials blocking Dr. Okonjo-Iweala from getting any work done. Worse of all, it was clear that she was meant to take the fallout for any missteps from the administration, leading to her reputation being tainted and her family’s life put at risk (see Chapter 1 of her book).

Ultimately, I’m thankful for her service and think the work she’s doing now on the board of amazing organizations is far more fruitful than what she did or could have done as Finance Minister. In hindsight, I wonder if she would still take the job based on early red flags that were so glaring. And I wonder if she felt having to defend herself constantly in murky situations ended up being worth the violence she experienced trying to serve her country.

But most of all, her book is evidence to me that being emotionally aware means noticing when we’ve been tricked or pressured to go against our gut feelings. Even if Dr. Okonjo-Iweala doesn’t say it explicitly, I suspect that’s what she needed to but didn’t do when she agreed to join Goodluck Johnathan’s administration. 

Being emotionally transparent means willing to share what you noticed about yourself honestly, so that those looking up to you know the warning signs to search for within themselves to avoid the same fate. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala ends her book suggesting we give future “corruption fighters” the data and think-tank fellowships to build their skill, but also get the “needed breathing space away from their adversaries” and “financial support for their families.” But what good does data or a fellowship program do if those future corruption fighters don’t build the emotional intelligence they need to cope with threats to their integrity? How do we encourage fewer people to give in to temptation without baring our souls and sharing our journeys to overcome it?

Fighting corruption is indeed dangerous, and emotional awareness and transparency is the most powerful weapon we have against it. Now more than ever, we need more leaders with the courage to show us how to wield it.

In Awe…First Stop on #GenVolution Conference Tour

October 11th and 12th became monumental days for my journey with Karfi. I had a chance to speak about my vision for a pan-African, democratized entrepreneurial ecosystem AND got to inspire young women to join this movement.


The GenVolution Conference was birthed about 8 months ago, and I almost killed that dream. But thankfully, 2019 has been a year of “just say it, just do it” for me, and is taking me on a trip I literally have only dreamed about for my 9+ professional career.

Every interaction with someone was confirmation I had to keep this work going, either after my talk at Columbia University’s Social Enterprise Conference or at the GenVolution College Tour stop in Rutgers University. If you’re reading this, let me know if you agree after watching the video above. I need all the encouragement I can get. I only look tough on the outside :-).

And if you’d want to be a part of this journey, supporting as an intern, advisor, or strategic partner, email me at info@karfi.org. Please come prepared with a plan, a hunger to take risks, the humility to work in harmony, and a insatiable desire to empower/inspire.

License to Be…(Poem, Reflections & Pageantry)

READ MY POEM, “SUGARCANE”

This weekend sparked celebrations, debates, and many questions. From my viewpoint, they centered around Nigeria, black lives/respectability politics, and pageantry.

For one, it was Nigeria’s week to “celebrate” 59 years of independence. On my social media timelines, most people decided it was less of something to celebrate and more something to realize and reflect on: a) realize it’s been 59 years since we became a sovereign country, and b) reflect on why we’re at where we’re at as a country after “all this time”.

It’s an interesting debate to juxtapose with a different conversation had among black Americans and the systemic issue of race relations in governance (i.e. police brutality and killings of unarmed black people). There’s a lot I could write about that (which I will, in a separate post) but I bring this up mostly to say that the tug of war within my identity -both as a person of direct Nigerian descent and as someone born in the U.S. – felt particularly strained this time around.

And what I noticed I’ve been missing is the therapy of my pen. I entered into my first even pageant competition this week also, and as part of my platform and talent I decided to recite poetry. I can’t remember the last time I wrote creatively. For as long as I can remember, I was a writer (wrote and published my first short story at the age of six). Somewhere along life and responsibilities, I decided that deserved less of my attention.

Then frankly, a lot of frustrating events happened in both my personal and professional life. And as a spiritual person, I started to see patterns that I strongly believe were delivering a message. I not only needed to write again, but I had a very specific call to write about the battle to be as a woman.

More specifically, I find myself in a position that a significant number of other women find themselves in. I’m a first-generation daughter of African immigrants, raised predominately in a community of American descents of slaves/black Americans, finding myself marginalized on both ends of this identity. From both perspectives, it’s very clear that women of darker complexion (particularly on the African ancestry side) will always have the least license to be their full selves.

I’ve seen this in my journey as a friend, romantic & business partner, student, child and even a stranger walking down the street.

And what came to my mind during my pageant experience is how we’re imprisoned by this marginalization in our minds before it can manifest as physical, economic, political or emotional abuse. For example, I tried to talk myself into dropping out of the pageant SEVERAL times, even up to the 15 minutes before the show. Why? I thought I was too old. But what I really think is that I was “too old” for a woman. The day after the pageant, I started looking up age requirements for the most famous pageant competitions (i.e. Miss USA, Miss Universe) and I realized this is indoctrinated into us. The most prominent competitions require contestants to be younger than 28 years old, and they usually expect you to come with a wide breadth of accomplishments to the competition by (or before) that age.

So I don’t have any issue with opportunities to celebrate women, especially hard-working, underserved women. But it’s interesting that when we decide to celebrate us, it still costs so much. Literally financially (the money it costs for the hair, makeup and outfits to look like you belong) but also a lot of emotional labor and striving. It’s almost as if there’s two choices:

  1. being outstanding according to our standards so that we can at least commodify you/earn a ROI on celebrating your womanhood;
  2. be invisible otherwise.

I joined my pageant this week mainly to get my head out of all the stress coming from my job and figuring out the next stage of my professional journey. So it was my choice to put myself out there – no one forced me, and I didn’t think it was something I had to do. However, I watched my younger contestants during the show and while a lot of them were smart, bright and had amazing personalities, I’d think all of us thought we’d had to be there. Or risk being overlooked, outdated, left out, unaccomplished, meaningless…

Luckily we were able to turn what could have escalated into a stressful situation into a chance to build friendships. I was a lot older than most of the young women but I can still see myself connecting with them, whether as a mentor or a friend. In the midst of chaos and pressures to be the best, we found it best to plant the seeds for a sincere sisterhood. For that I’m so proud.

I’m also proud I found the courage to stick through the experience, because it taught me something. I’m letting something outside of myself convince me to self-inflict limitations on myself. I’m convinced it comes from being a woman and believing “I have to” do certain things in order to be seen or taken seriously. The only thing I had to do, in hindsight, was put myself in a situation that would force me to have the cathartic release I needed to let go of past hurt and shame (personal and professional) in order to move into a very important chapter in my life.

Long story short, you’ll be hearing a lot more from me moving forward about the woman – the black/African woman – setting herself free from the handcuffs society convinced her to clasp on herself. My work with Karfi will still continue, and I’m still extremely passionate about economic opportunities through entrepreneurship in the African diaspora. But as a believer in signs, I see my North star shining brighter over an area not explored deeply or honestly enough. It also sits over a place that has nothing to do with purpose at all, and everything to do with just being a whole person. That includes using my platforms, time and energy to get involved in things that make me happy just…because. So you’ll also see more poetry from me, but I’m not limiting myself again to ways I decide to express myself from different angles.

In other words, there won’t always seem to be a direct line between what I decide to share and how I decide to share it, but I will promise that the message will always be clear. So bear with me as I tune in to what that message will be and how to communicate it effectively, creatively, in a way that sparks a real shift in the way we present ourselves as woman to the world.

For starters, here’s the poem that brought me out of my 20+ years of repressed creativity. It’s titled “Sugarcane”. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

DECISIONS DECISIONS (FULL VIDEO – LAMBE TV)

I post a series on Instagram (IGTV) Wednesday evenings. The videos focus on the life of a millennial black entrepreneur (that’s me) – my coping mechanisms, strategies for productivity, and general musings from the perspective of a BLACK WOMAN doing this work.

The most recent video I posted on decision fatigue went over the IGTV time limit, but I felt every minute counted. So watch the full video below, but follow me on Instagram (@adeoluwaolori) for videos moving forward ;-).