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Folorunso Alakija: Let’s Learn From Each Other

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Folorunso Alakija needs no introduction. As one of only two female billionaires in Africa, she has become an icon of enterprise. Alakija, through her philanthropic work with the Rose of Sharon Foundation, a movement she pioneered to help the plight of women and orphans in Nigeria, has been an advocate of women’s rights and the vital role women play in socioeconomic development. She recently launched her women’s empowerment platform, Flourish Africa, to galvanize women in Nigeria and across Africa to gain access to life-changing tools and advice. In an exclusive interview with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA, she sat down after the launch of the Flourish Africa conference to tell us how she plans to impact millennial African women:

What do you hope to accomplish with Flourish Africa?

I am sure we all remember the interview of Indra K. Nooyi, CEO of Pepsico, at the Aspen Ideas festival in 2014, where she gave her very honest take on the growing debate on women and work-life balance. She described the need to have sacrifices and that having it all was just an illusion. Over the years, I have had a great deal of engagement with a lot of young women both in Africa and all over the world and the one thing they ask me is ‘Can a woman have it all’? I realized that a lot of young women are desperate to understand the keys they need to achieve their fullest potential and become what I believe God has ordained for them to become. So I thought to myself, how can we develop a platform that not only helps young women with practical steps and guidance to help them in their career, relationships and all aspects of their lives, but also provide mentorship from women who have achieved the levels of success they aspire to achieve also. Flourish Africa was created to serve that purpose. We have an online platform, an app and we hold biannual conferences that bring female thought leaders from all over the world together under one roof with young millennials in a day of idea-sharing and life-changing messages that will help them grow.

What do you think is the most important management skill necessary for women to become leaders?

I believe that leadership happens when you are able to empower and inspire others to achieve a set of goals. I think the responsibility lies with the individual to be able to employ all their skills and abilities to help bring others up in order to ensure they contribute to the overall growth of the organization. I believe women have the ability to show great leadership skills and those at the top need to tap into their sense of purpose and effectively communicate that purpose so everybody within the organization clearly understands what is needed from them in order to achieve their common goal.

How can women break free from the cultural stereotypes that have led to greater gender disparity in Nigeria?

A lot of work needs to be done on that front. For years, women have been told what type of roles they are supposed to play in society, the types of jobs they are supposed to do and so on. I was and still am one of the only prominent women in the Nigerian oil sector and I know the stigma and the challenges I had to overcome in order to succeed in that sector. I believe the problem requires a change in mindset for women in Africa. I believe that change will require support from all women in order to come together and set our own standards. Gender stereotypes have been one of the main barriers to women achieving leadership positions in Africa. These stereotypes are usually predicated on what many believe are the capabilities of women and that needs to be addressed before women can break free. At Flourish Africa, we showcase in our inspirational section, women who have been able to change that narrative and the impact they have been able to make through that change to hopefully inspire more women to break free and achieve their fullest potential.

How will you address the issue of financial literacy for African women?

I think women in Africa are amongst one of the most enterprising and entrepreneurial in the world. We are hard-working and our ability to multi-task makes us natural born entrepreneurs. For years, women could not receive bank loans and other facilities readily available to men and until we get the same level of financial freedom, women will continue to remain marginalized. I am a firm believer that women need to be financially empowered to possess the right knowledge and understanding of financial matters. That is an aspect we take very seriously and with the help of our partners, many of whom are leaders in some of the largest financial institutions in Africa, we help shape policies that will enable our young female entrepreneurs to gain access to sound financial principles in areas like investment advice, compound interest and the advantages of savings as well as real estate and tax. The Flourish Africa woman is a well-grounded woman who thrives in all aspects of her life and that includes having access to the right financial tools as well.

Do you think there is anything African women can teach other women in the world?

I think no matter where we are all from, we can all learn from each other. I think there is a great sense of community in Africa. We are natural homemakers as well as entrepreneurial but that’s not to say women from other parts of the world aren’t. I think our sense of culture and our rich African heritage is something we need to be proud of and share with the rest of the world. It is time for people to see how wonderful our continent is and I believe it’s up to all of us to be the ambassadors of that message to the rest of the world.

Interview

Why We Need ‘Hard Cash In The Economy’

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Busi Mabuza, the Chairperson of the Board of the Industrial Development Corporation, on the BRICS summit and why we need to start talking as an African bloc.

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The Heroes Among Us

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Heroes exist in history, on celluloid, in pop culture or in these digital times, at the forefront of technology. These are the mighty who shine on the front pages of newspapers, as the paradigms of victory and virtue. But every day in public life, surrounding us are some of the real stars, the nameless, the faceless we don’t recognize or celebrate. In the pages that follow, we look at some of them, exploring the exemplary work they do, from the war zones to your neighborhood streets. They are not flawless, they are not infallible, but they are heroes.

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Entrepreneurs

The Ghanaian Who Brought HR Corporate America To Ghana

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Ghana is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies this year, according to the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the IMF. Its projected growth in 2018 is between 8.3-8.9%.

The Ghanaian workforce is young, with 57% of the population under the age of 25. This means millions of new graduates enter the workforce each year. One woman who understands the struggle that awaits this unsuspecting group in corporate Ghana is Human Resources (HR) entrepreneur, Rita Kusi.

Kusi is the founder and CEO of Keeping “U” Simply Intact (KUSI) Consulting, a marketing, training and recruiting company based in the United States (US) and in Ghana. She is also the Managing Director of threesixtyGh, a social enterprise company with an online presence showcasing innovative ventures in Ghana and the people behind them.

Born in Bolga, Northern Ghana, Kusi’s family gained access to the US through the US Visa Lottery in the early 80s. The family relocated to the US in 1991 where Kusi remained until 2013. And that is also where she amassed a wealth of experience working in several sectors.

READ MORE: Cracking the Code and Bridging The Gender Gap

After college, Kusi worked a number of temporary jobs, from telemarketing in Atlanta to door-to-door sales in Maryland. She even tried her hands at customer services and working in cafes.

“I think for me having held all these jobs opened my eyes and I realized especially what I wanted to do in corporate America,” says Kusi.

All these experiences came together when she applied for a new role as HR assistant. When she did not hear back from the company regarding her application, Kusi took the initiative and called the hiring manager.

“So my dad told me to call and get feedback and as I called my CV happened to be in front of the hiring manager and he invited me in for the interview. I knew nothing about HR but I was just really looking for a job and I ended up getting that job and it was the longest I ever stayed at any job so that was a sign,” says Kusi.

She had finally found her calling in HR but it was not until a nostalgic visit back home that she would merge all her US experience together, ushering in a new life as an entrepreneur.

There were no real training programs at the time focused on improving the quality of customer service in Ghana. Kusi seized the opportunity to provide quality HR training programs, which she hoped organizations would pay for. And they did. This was the birth of Kusi Consulting.

From training services, the company has morphed its offerings into recruitment services and Kusi is now diversifying into skills-training as well as business process outsourcing, where the company handles the pay roll function for other corporate clients. Her timing couldn’t be more perfect. Hiring the right people is critical for companies to reduce employee attrition and enhance returns from HR. Companies face challenges in accurately perceiving and assessing an employee’s quality attributes prior to hiring that employee. This problem is more pronounced in African economies, which involves novices who do not have prior work records attesting to their raw skills, learning abilities and motivation. And this is where Kusi comes in.

READ MORE: Remembering A Corporate Legend

She believes a specialist HR function is imperative in every organization to ensure maximum output by each employee. However, she has had some difficulty convincing corporate Ghana.

“It has been challenging operating here especially being a female because it is literally a man’s world and in this country, it’s all about who you know… There is that challenge of how do I make myself look older and more respected?” she says.

But ever resilient, Kusi refuses to back down. She hopes to create her own temp agency where she has skilled staff inhouse which she can outsource on demand to other companies. Her newly-formed team is just as passionate about the business and with that focus, she is rebranding her company to be a leader in HR not only in Ghana but across Africa.

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