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.
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