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Bisayo Busari-Akinnadeju: ‘A woman can only lead well when she has built self-confidence’

By Eniola Daniel
29 April 2023   |   4:23 am
A fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators UK and Nigeria, Bisayo Busari-Akinnadeju is the founder, Opalcrystal Women Foundation, Project One and convener, #IAMNIGERIAN Conference.
Bisayo Busari-Akinnadeju


A fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators UK and Nigeria, Bisayo Busari-Akinnadeju is the founder, Opalcrystal Women Foundation, Project One and convener, #IAMNIGERIAN Conference. Nominated as one of the 100 most influential young Nigerians in 2018 and 2019, respectively, she’s the author of Project One Nigerian, a book that aims to change the orientation of Nigerians and encourage them to see the country from a positive perspective.

In this interview with ENIOLA DANIEL, she spoke on the impact of her work with women, as well as benefits of having women in leadership positions.

You are the founder of Project One, what’s the idea behind the initiative?
The focus is to build a true nation from the country Nigeria; to increase pride in national identity and break the barriers to successful living. It is a non-partisan organisation dedicated to promoting patriotism, self-reliance, and integrity among Nigerians. The aims are achieved through an array of nation building activities, which include the Leadership Clubs for Nigerian students, which has over 220 memberships across government secondary schools in Abuja. Also, the monthly Read-Eat-Learn hangout for youths, seminars, and conferences, as well as skill acquisition programmes.

Under Project One, we host the annual #IAMANIGERIAN Conference that usually takes place in May. It is a gathering of Nigerians who pride in discussions on the state of the nation; the need to ignite hope and patriotism are usually the focus of every conversation. The highlight of each conference is the recognition and appreciation of patriotic Nigerians such as the Nigerian flag designer Pa Taiwo Akinkunmi, and the Late Dora Akunyili. We also grant secondary school students’ scholarships in honor of our award recipients.

Project One partners with critical organisation such as National Orientation Agency (NOA), the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), the Universal Basic Education Commission and FCT Secondary Education Board to drive our core values.

How much of impact have you had on the women folk through this initiative?
The impact of Project One on the women folks are numerous and continuous. Through this platform, I have created a network of young vibrant females who are ready to take up leadership roles at any given time. I have mentored and still mentoring secondary school girls on self-confidence. I have successfully trained many women on self-reliance and empowered them with the right skills needed to break financial barriers. Today, many of these women are into digital marketing and branding and packaging of agricultural products.

I’ve also imprinted the power of identity in the hearts of mothers through our hospital visits and distribution of Project One #IAMANIGERIAN newborn branded onesies, socks, caps and mittens. These women now know and understand the value of instilling patriotism and national values in their children as they grow.

As a woman, I believe in transcended leadership and that is how you make an impact, by ensuring that whatever values and virtues you have, your impact must be transferable and not end with you.

From experience, are there benefits of having women in leadership in Nigeria?
The benefits of having women in leadership positions are enormous. As a woman strives to birth, nurture, and train up a child, it is the same way she channels her inner strength and energy into leadership when given the opportunity to lead. She is firm, focused and result oriented and because she is naturally wired to multitask, she can plan, organize, direct, coordinate, report, and budget effectively at the same time; that’s what makes her suitable for leadership.

A woman is an effective communicator; she has the power of persuasion and the ability to settle conflict. She is a mediator, she is genuine, critical in thinking and incorruptible, which makes her a bridge builder. Only a woman truly understands and has the capacity to carry everyone along in decision-making. As I often say, ‘every nation needs a mother,’ the one whose invaluable contribution paves the way for the next generation.

As a woman, what’s your leadership style, how is it different from your male counterparts?
Transformational. I am passionate about adding value to the lives of others and this passion makes me believe Nigeria would be better. To compare my style of leadership to my counterpart will make me resound my statement that leadership has no gender. I believe that leadership style is not peculiar to any gender. When it comes to leading my work team, I am constantly stirring them on the path of self-improvement, and I know a lot of my male counterpart who share same or similar style of leadership.

However, there are three main factors that impact a woman’s ability to lead others: Self-confidence, societal/organisational barriers, and cultural factors. A woman can only lead and lead well when she has built her self-confidence. With self-confidence, a woman can manage all other factors that may hinder effective leadership; that’s why I am devoted to mentoring young girls on self-worth and self-confidence. Lack of self-confidence will affect the ability of a woman to lead others and as such, it is crucial for any woman or girl who intends to take up leadership role, especially in a male dominated sector, to build self-confidence first. With the right amount of self-worth and self-confidence and a supportive community of other women with self-confidence, a woman would excel in any leadership position she takes up.

There is an absolute need for gender collaboration to bridge the gender gaps that have translated into gender bias in the society. We must realise that both genders possess unique features, qualities and abilities that could either be shared or learned. No gender should be seen or perceived to be more superior or less superior to the other. We must partner to embrace our uniqueness, shun biases, and remove barriers and limitations that negate other genders. Men have equal responsibilities as women do to raise the needed awareness on gender equality.

What do you consider the most prominent barrier to female leadership in Nigeria?
Aside self-confidence, a major barrier to female leadership is culture. There is a need for the society to gradually erode certain cultural narratives about women and leadership. We must strive to break the cultural barrier that favours the male gender over the females; every child must be treated equally.

Leadership roles should be shared amongst children equally. In places of worship, the girl child should be given equal treatment as her male counterpart. So, cultural barriers and society bias must be eliminated in other for women to display their leadership prowess without fear or intimidation.

Despite the 35 per cent affirmative action, female representation is still very low in Nigeria, especially in politics. What’s responsible for this?
Women are generally underrepresented in political offices worldwide, especially in senior positions. However, women in some countries are gradually changing the narratives, as we have seen the Vice-President of US, Kamala Harris. In Nigeria where politics had long been reserved for men, it would take women with strong political empowerment to break such barriers. It would also take a bold political cultural reorientation to boost women participation.

Primordial factors such as religion and ethnicity must be eliminated to increase female participation in politics and women need to identify and affiliate themselves with political structures with female-centric polices and garner the right political experience needed to get involved in politics.

In the recently held election, we saw a woman in Adamawa towering so high and many other women in pivotal positions. More women need to get involved; get into political parties that would allow them run for office and not just be welfare officers in charge of food and drinks during party conventions. We have seen the power of female influence in political campaigns; we saw how popular actresses like Mercy Johnson and Regina Daniels championed the campaigns of their husbands and how they won their elections. This shows that women have a place in leadership and their abilities cannot be undermined.

What has been your personal experience as a female leader?
I have experienced both sides of the coins; I have been treated very well and I have been treated fairly and poorly. I have been in leadership positions and treated as a team player and I have also been in key strategic leadership positions where it appeared women are not welcome. As a woman who is ready to change the narrative and take up leadership positions against all odds, you must have self-confidence, you must be resilient, you must show up regardless of how you feel about what people may say or how they will address.

Believe me, when a woman is smart, powerful, strong and highly influential, in due course, she would earn the desired respect on the table of those who opposed you based on your gender.

I work in a male dominated industry, and I have not experienced much resistance. I am raised in the African way, so I accord respect where due and necessary. Most importantly, on every table of leadership that I have sat, especially in the corporate world, I have earned my seat and it’s undeniable. Yet I am firm and unassuming. I see no gender; I see responsibilities and carry out my duty with poise and agility.

How do you push for systemic change around ideas that are new or not that popular in this clime?
Resiliency and consistency. We advocate and canvass for systemic change through programmes and projects that are convincing and clear for all to see. To change a narrative, you must present the position to people and make them see facts they are ignoring.

For example, my organisation, Project One, is pushing for a systemic change in the area of patriotism. Patriotism as you know is not a fluent word in Nigeria. In my book, Project One Nigerian, I talked about the power of identification and why we need to take pride in Nigeria. Nigeria is not a finished product and no country in the world is. Nations of the world are all at different stages and Nigeria is at a stage also.

The systematic change that I am pushing for is for us to embrace our identity; we cannot change our nationality by mere wishes. We must accept that Nigeria is ours; it’s our homes, it’s our land of birth, it’s our identity. Rather than fight who we are, we should strive to discover the many wonders and treasures we have here and build the country of our dreams and imaginations.

As a lawyer, do women in your profession have difficulties getting promoted?
Based on my interactions, I have heard direct testimonials from younger female lawyers who have experienced hardship or difficulties in getting promoted or getting elected to oversee committees or head units. However, personally, the road has been quite smooth for me.

How do you balance career, personal life and passions?
I would say balance is relative and it is what I strive for constantly. I believe one should be able to balance career, personal life and passion. I have a very active career in the oil and gas sector, I also prioritise and value the precious time I get to spend with my four children; I am present in their lives. I realise that a day has 24 hours and If I must give my best to all areas of my life, I must learn how to set priorities and use the system I call ‘Timetabling’. Is it easy? Absolutely not, but it becomes fun when you beat time to its race and have hours left in a day to rest, relax and still network. According to the great Mother Theresa, ‘If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.’

I am passionate about Nigeria. I run an active NGO; I organise seminars, conferences and events. The end goal is to make Nigerians identify proudly as Nigerian. Still, I play a lot around my children and go on dates regularly with my husband; we use car moments to bond as families when the timetabling is tough.

How can we stop gender bias in Nigeria?
We can stop gender bias through cultural reorientation, through political reforms, educational overhauling in area of single sex education at the secondary school level, and doing away with obsolete traditions and societal beliefs and myths.

Government programmes and policies should be favourable to both genders. Primordial and other African sentiments, including religion and ethnicity, should be eliminated to allow women grow and progress in any chosen field alongside their male counterparts.

What advice do you have for women looking to grow either their own businesses or in the workplace
My advice for women in business is to improve on themselves; build your capacity, belong to a community of progressive women in businesses, connect, network and build accountability with other women. Eliminate rivalry and unhealthy business competitions; build a network that supports your business growth. Take business courses and of course diligence, accountability, commitment, and consistency cannot be overemphasized.

Similarly for career women or women in politics or leadership generally, they must give room for mentorship. Seek advice; follow the tracks of women who have succeeded in their line of profession and continually seek knowledge that are relevant to their career or profession. Women in leadership must read and carry out research to be abreast of whatever they indulge in. Even stay-at-home women must create time for self-development.

Gone are the days where housewives were just housewives. Today, housewives are the custodians of knowledge for their husbands and children. Housewives should read books, watch educative and informative programmes. Be the reservoirs of knowledge for your children; follow intellectual conversations on social platforms to have well informed discussions in any gathering. Women are responsible for changing the gender narrative that stood against them.

What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?
My advice to younger women is that there is room for them in leadership. If women like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Chimamanda Adichie, Late Dora Akunyili and many others were able to break barriers to take up leadership and deliver excellently, then there’s room for more women. Women must come prepared and not walk into leadership limited in scope. The next generation of women must be carefully mentored and groomed to take up leadership.

What is one thing you wish more people knew about women in the workplace?
I wish people knew that women were born leaders. Women are emotional beings, which make them very critical in thinking, and emotionally intelligent; we are strong and fragile at the same time. All we want is to be understood from a place of relevance not from contest. Our God-given roles of motherhood has thought us how to nurture, to be patient, tolerant, accommodating, willing, committed, focused and accountable. We just want men to see us from an equal lens, not from a competitive lens.

What about your ambition of becoming Nigeria’s president come 2027, how are you working towards actualising that dream?
I like to say power can be given or taken, but leadership is entrusted. People give leadership to those they trust, and Nigerians have shown that they can entrust power to leaders that they can trust. So, I’m building trust, I’m impacting lives through my empowerment programmes and humanitarian services across the federation. I’m creating jobs and ensuring financial independence, especially for the youths.

I’m consciously working on building a robust grassroots identity and my dream of becoming Nigeria’s first female president is valid. I am developing my capacity and building relevance to my name by identifying and associating with activities that would serve as springboard. I belong to a political party and if I must contest under independent candidacy, I will.

Political gurus with integrity and worthy antecedent are mentoring me. It is safe to say, watch out for Bisayo Busari-Akinnadeju, as I would make history as the first female president of Nigeria. I will, because I can.