TV News Anchor, host, model, and philanthropist, Idia Aisien, is well known on television but what only few know is that she has always been passionate about giving back, not only in Nigeria, but also within Africa. Born in Lagos to a Nigerian father and a Cameroonian mother, she landed her first modeling job at the tender age of 15. A graduate of Journalism and Business Administration from the American University of Washington DC, she went on to get a Masters in International Public Relations and global Corporate Communications from the New York University while working with the United Nations. Having shot and modeled for huge brands both home and abroad, she came back home for “two weeks” and ended up staying, going on to host fashion and lifestyle shows and is now a news anchor for Arise TV. Hoping to make positive impact, this multitalented TV Girl recently formally launched the IDIA Project to help eradicate poverty, promote sustainable growth and development, integrate Africa in the world economy and accelerate the empowerment of women especially, by telling the other half of the story. In this interview, she talks about moving back to Nigeria, starting IDIA and why we should all be feminists.
Tell us a bit about your background and early years?
I grew up in a big family and I’m the last of 12 siblings; we are eight girls and four boys. My father is Nigerian and my mother is Cameroonian. My parents have had a huge impact in my life because they are very industrious and also passionate about giving back. When I was 15, I had just finished secondary school and signed to a modeling agency in Lagos before leaving for school in the states. My first job was a runway show for the House of Mya, which was sponsored by the UNICEF to raise money for underprivileged children and it was so incredible to see fashion being used for a great cause. I went on to model concurrently as I studied Journalism at American University in Washington DC. I also worked for various companies until I moved to New York City, where I got my Masters in International PR from New York University. I would say my most incredible years were when I lived in NYC, because I learned that anything is possible. I worked briefly at the United Nations, before I was hired by a private Equity firm that eventually brought me back home to Nigeria.
What made you decide to move back to Nigeria instead of remaining in the USA and how easy or difficult was this decision?
I was working with a firm in New York City that was investing in the banking sector across Africa. The firm finally had a project in Nigeria, so I immediately jumped on the opportunity to work and learn from our Africa team, which was focused on mergers and acquisitions. Today, a trip that was meant to last two weeks has lasted over three years, obviously with a lot of traveling back and forth. In my first few weeks of work in Nigeria, I was offered the opportunity to host a television show for a fashion and entertainment channel and I decided that would be a good opportunity to get into the Nigerian media industry. I think my reasoning at the time was that even though it wasn’t ideal to leave such a great job in America, I had lost interest in the work and was more passionate about one day telling stories that would reposition Africa through media. It was the hardest decision I have ever made, but I believe it was the right one. New York City made me dream big, but Nigeria has given me a chance to actualise those dreams. I would say I have learned my toughest lessons in the last three years, and I am wiser in business and work.
You recently launched the IDIA Project; tell us about it in-depth?
When I schooled in the States, I would get so many questions about Nigeria, and Africa as a whole. I realized that people were not educated enough about how developed Africa was. People would ask me, “Did you get your first set of clothes here in the states?” “Was this your first time on a plane?” “Do you guys have roads in Nigeria?” It was unbelievable, but I would always politely explain to them how advanced some African economies were. When I studied Journalism and International Business for my first degree, I planned to one day, use media to tell the parallel stories on the achievements that many individuals, groups and corporations were accomplishing across the African continent. I couldn’t stand the headlines about “the dark continent, Africa’s poverty, diseases, death, terrorism and destruction”. We have these issues, but just as they are highlighted, so should more of the positives and we don’t have enough platforms doing that. The International Development Initiative in Africa was created to report, document and to give back. Constantly telling stories on war and terrorism will only spur more wars and terrorism, or even social and political apathy. But if we highlight the progress being made, what we do is encourage people to work together; we teach them that their voices count and that their actions, no matter how small, matter. My purpose is to do the latter.
I Want To Use Stories Of Women Making Difference Across Africa To Lead And Stir Change
What was the inspiration behind starting it and what makes this project different from others?
I was raised by parents and siblings who are very compassionate. During my childhood, we would spend our birthdays, and Valentines with the less privileged. I think it’s great to live your “best life,” but after all is said and done, your impact is what counts. This project is different because in our reports we showcase the impact that other organizations and groups have made, because we know we can’t do this alone. In the short-term, we will also be providing funding to other organizations and businesses.
You wear several hats, model, TV Host and presenter, actress and philanthropist; how do you make all work?
(Laughs) It gets harder and harder, but I always remember my end goal and I have tunnel vision.Most people believe initiatives and NGOs are only out to get foreign aid and are being used to embezzle money. Is that the case here?
Well, initiatives and NGOs are different and I can’t speak for everyone. It’s always a question of motive. I’ve been planning this for the last five years, and I have too much personally and financially invested in this organization, my name and that of my family.
In your opinion, do you think women are generally under-represented in most areas?
It’s not really about what I think; it’s about the facts on ground. I worked recently with the European Center for Electoral Support, which is a subset of the European Union and in politics for instance, we found that although women account for a substantial number of the population in Nigeria and contribute to world development, they aren’t enough women in leadership or political positions. It’s not a Nigerian issue, it’s global; we see that women have not been adequately represented in various fields across the board. The great thing is that it is all changing, we saw women make history across America by occupying various seats during the just concluded mid-term elections in the USA. Now in Nigeria, we have a number of women leading in various fields from media to banking. Plus, who could not forget to mention Oby Ezekwesili who is vying for the post of the next President of this country, believe it or not, a woman will be president of this country soon. It’s inevitable, because the world has changed, and we are too capable to be overlooked.
How does your initiative plan to help and uplift underprivileged women?
Under our mission to give back, our three areas of focus are education, poverty eradication and empowerment. The focus is not just for women, but also for young people and the underprivileged as well to feel empowered in these areas. With our plans to connect struggling businesses with funding, skill training and most importantly using the stories of women who are currently making a difference across Africa to lead and encourage others.
Tell us something that has influenced your career positively today?
Moving home to Nigeria from the USA has changed the pace at which I could grow and succeed, compared to if I stayed in the diaspora. I would also say adopting the right mentors goes a long way.
Do you think today’s woman has managed to break the ‘glass ceiling’ and as a professional in several areas, what would you tell a woman that wants a seat at the table?
I’d be honest with every man or woman who wants to be successful. You have to bring your own seat to the table. So much is happening all at once and people can only guide you, but not necessarily get you to the top, because everyone is busy running their own races. You have to know exactly what you want and have a plan. Bring your own chair and once you place it at the table; you have to show people why they can’t afford to ignore you. What’s your value addition? I ask myself that question everyday, and it helps me push myself harder and harder.
What do you do to relax? What is your guilty pleasure?
I love traveling, warm baths and going to the beach or the spa. A new pleasure is being curled up at home watching Netflix; I almost forgot how amazing that ‘alone time’ feels.
If you had the chance to change something for Nigerian women, what would that be?
The way women are sometimes addressed and perceived is disappointing. So many women of various ages and fields are setting the bar so high, and I think we should be judged for that, not based on the women who have brought the bar low. People will always try to put females in entertainment in a box, or even just women who are attractive. Someone was saying how excited they were to meet me two weeks ago; “You’re so, so smart, for someone that’s so beautiful! It’s really refreshing!” In response, I just smile now, because I can’t be bothered to address the insult.
Would you say you are a feminist?
A feminist is someone that simply wants something “better” for women, so I think everyone should be a feminist.
How has the journey in TV been?
It has been a great three years with many ups and downs, but I have a very solid support system, which is my family. We have an online group; and we’re always encouraging each other. They’ve helped me knock on so many doors that just wouldn’t open and they’ve also observed how I’ve grown so much on this journey with a smile on my face.
What are some of the challenges you have faced and how did you overcome?
I think the biggest challenge has been wearing many hats at a time and still communicating fluidly with my audience. I love the same things I have loved since I was 12, fashion, television, travel, philanthropy and I’m evolving career wise, which is great. The core message remains that I’m a young woman trying to follow my passions, and proving that anything is possible if you never let anyone force their own timing, standards and expectations on you.
What inspires you and keeps you going?
What would you tell women out here looking up to you and want to tow this path you are on?
It’s not all glitz and glamour and you have to be willing to put in the work and time. It doesn’t always come handed on a platter and when it does remember nothing lasts longer than something that has been built carefully and with great attention to detail.
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