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‘The success of any girl in life is not to be a housewife’

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Mrs. Zouera Youssoufou is the Managing Director/CEO, Aliko Dangote Foundation (ADF). Fluent in English, French, Spanish and Hausa, She holds an MBA in Finance from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a BBA in Marketing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Isenberg School of Business.

At ADF, she leads the Foundation’s efforts to improve the health, nutrition, education and economic empowerment outcomes for the needy, primarily in Nigeria and in Africa. She’s responsible for the Foundation’s short, medium and long-term strategies, provides overall management oversight for the Foundation, and provides support on Social Investments to the Corporate Dangote Group. She also sits on several Boards, including SE4All, Private Sector Health Alliance of Nigeria, ONE Global Leadership Circle, Center for the Strategic Studies on Africa, and ABC Health. As of March 2020, Zouera coordinates the Secretariat of CACOVID, the Nigerian Private sector coalition against Covid-19.

Prior to joining ADF, Zouera was the World Bank Country Manager for Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Sao Tomé and Principe. As such, she was the front-line person in the relationship with all three governments and conducted day-to-day dialogue with all levels of government, donors and civil society. Zouera spent six years at the International Finance Corporation, IFC (private sector arm of the World Bank Group), where she led the Global Women in Business Program (WIN). In that role, she was responsible for creating opportunities for women entrepreneurs in the developing world, specifically in access to finance. She joined the World Bank Group in 2005 from Citigroup’s Smith Barney unit in New York and Atlanta where she covered emerging markets and 13 industry sectors as an Equity Research Analyst. Her previous experiences include working with the European Union on private sector development issues, and management consulting with Deloitte in Ghana.

In this interview with KEHINDE OLATUNJI, she shares her career experiences, highlighting the need for women to prepare themselves for top positions and responsibilities.

Looking at your background and places you’ve worked so far, what really influenced your choice of career?
The biggest influence in my life, obviously, is my parents who always said things like, ‘you have to do your best at school, and there is nothing you cannot achieve.’ I grew up in Niger and that is a country where we are still struggling with female education. My dad was very clear that he wanted us to go to school and was very supportive and today, we are all doing well in our careers. The success of any girl in life isn’t to be a housewife; we all went to school, and grew up in an environment where this was not normal to do. Also, my dad had opportunities to travel to different places, and he took us along so that we could see different models of how people could learn; that has been the biggest influence.

There are lots of women who have influenced my life and career. Women like Okonjo-Iweala; I met her when I was working on my first project with Access Bank in Nigeria. She was Minister of Finance at that time, and I was working at International Finance Corporation (IFC). I had a conference in London and we were both on the panel; I was shocked when I saw her on the same platform with me. After the event, we got talking and she asked me to give her a call whenever I’m in Nigeria; I never thought she was serious.

I came to Nigeria and told my friends that I was going to Abuja to see her, everyone was like, ‘how do you think you’re going to meet her?’ When I eventually met her, she was the nicest, most supportive person I ever met; I didn’t even think she was going to end up being a mentor to me. Since then, we have had an amazing relationship.

Also, I’ve had mentors that are men. My first boss who taught me about asset management was an African-American man who was pro-African kind of a person. Even now, somebody who I realised has influence in my life is my boss, Alhaji Dangote. What I get from him is just humility; I have never met anybody as humble as Dangote. I have met other rich people, but nobody was as simple and humble; he doesn’t take people for granted. He reminds me of how we all need to behave. Working in his foundation help us to live with these values and show people you don’t have to be nasty and look down on others because you are better than them. On the contrary, we need to lend helping hands to people, and think of how the world can be a better place for all.

Considering the effect of COVID-19 pandemic on the masses, what have you done so far as Chief Executive Officer of CACOVID? 
CACOVID is a coalition of private sector people led by Alhaji Aliko Dangote and the Managing Director of the Access Bank Group, Herbert Wigwe. They came together mid-March, when they saw how the pandemic was shaping the world. They decided that the private sectors in Nigeria needed to do something instead of everybody doing their own thing; that efforts should be put together and have one big private sector coalition. So, that was how CACOVID was birth.

Before then, Aliko Dangote Foundation (ADF) had been working with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) in responding to the crisis. The first person that was diagnosed with Coronavirus came into the country in February 27, 2020. So, the very next day, the NCDC put out an incident action plan and said N16 billion was needed right away to address the issues. Different donors came in and everybody committed money; ADF gave N200 million; we bought ambulances and other things relating to surveillance system to gather information on people diagnosed with COVID-19. We bought four ambulances, which we donated to the Lagos State Government. So, we fulfilled the N200 million pledges, and while we were in the middle of doing this, Alhaji Dangote said we needed to step it up a notch and CACOVID came to being.

We know that money is needed; we also put our technical committee in place because none of us are doctors or laboratory scientists. It’s very important to have a technical committee that would drive CACOVID in making the right investments that makes sense for Nigeria. In the technical committee, we have people like Dr. Sani Aliyu, who’s the coordinator of Presidential Tax Force, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, who’s the head of the NCDC, Prof. Christian Happi, who’s the scientist that decoded the COVID-19 genome in Nigeria. We also have World Health Organisation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Nations. We have people like these to help drive the thinking about what it is that CACOVID should do.

The two things that came up was the need to increase testing and our isolation center capacity. So, the first two things we did was to ensure that Nigeria got enough testing supplies and also set up isolation centers in every single state and the Federal Capital Territory; that effort cost billions of naira. For instance, we wanted a hundred bed isolation centre capacities in every state, so we did that. We bought over 4,000 beds, the monitors, the thermometers, basically everything that you need to set up an isolation centre. We delivered them to the 36 states and the FCT. So, that was the first expense, and testing was the second.

As time goes on, lockdown happened, and the idea of palliatives came up. If you tell people to stay at home, it means no traffic and the people who sell by the roadside wouldn’t have a means of livelihood anymore. People who have to get up and go to work are not doing that anymore, so what happens to them? The drivers and people who have to go out everyday to make a living? So, that was when the idea of the palliatives came up.

We made sure the 36 states and FCT received their allocations according to the proportional number of families. That is about 1.7 million families, and a total of 10 million people. These 1.7 million families each received 10kg of rice, 2 cartons of noodles, a carton of Spaghetti, 5 kilos of sugar, 1 kilo of salt, and either 5 kg bag of Maize, Semo or Garri, depending on where they live in the country.

As a career woman, do you think enough is being done to promote women representation in work places?
I think there is still a glass ceiling, although we have made a lot of progress, but there is still a lot that needs to be done. How many women do we have on the board of companies in Nigeria? How many do we have as CEOs of organistions? How many women do we have as head of states? The reality is that we don’t have a proportional number of women in charge in the society.

For instance, in the medical profession, both genders can be doctors, but how many ends up being Chief Medical Director (CMD)? How many women are in charge of the health sector? These are examples of glass ceiling. There are some things that are perceived hampering women in the course of doing their job. For instance, when a woman is married and begins to have children, it does something to her career. The two times I had my children, my colleagues who were performing less than me at my work place, got promoted over me because I took four months of maternity leave. It proves that there is a glass ceiling. If everybody just goes to work, without raising a family, how do we sustain humanity? Women need support. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala is the first Minister of Finance that is a woman, and that was in the year 2000; other women were minister of women affairs, or social issues. If you look at the Stock Exchange, how many women are running the companies there and how many women are Chair of the Board of Companies? But I think the attitude is changing; when I look at my daughter, I wonder at her expectations because they are totally different from mine. She completely believes that nothing is going to stand on her way to do whatever she decides.

Some companies are trying, but I think it has to be discussed and promoted; women should not be seen as a threat because they are not. It shouldn’t be such a big deal that we are still talking about how we don’t have enough women on our corporate board. Surprisingly, it is the same everywhere, however, Nigeria is not really doing badly. In Africa, the only example we can point to where they have half male and female parliament is Rwanda, and that’s because of the genocide experience. Sometimes, we don’t need such a horrible history to get there, but nowhere so far in the world do we have disparities the way we have it in some countries. So, we still have a long way to go and I do think that a lot of conversations are happening around this. I think efforts are going on in different parts of the world, but we are definitely not where we need to be yet.

How can organisations, professional bodies and government help to improve the situation?
We have never had a female governor in Nigeria yet; we’ve had deputy governors who are female. I really think corporate organisations are trying; the Nigeria Bar Association last year did a lot of discussion on gender issues, women lawyers, women judges and how to get more women into the profession. I spoke at the event and it was really good, because it was like a realisation for everybody. Men are used to working with women, not that they are shock that there is a woman in the office, but a situation where we don’t make it to the peak, is a challenge. I believe this is because of the networks we don’t have.

For instance, if you were not in the conversations when the bosses are discussing something, how would they be thinking of bringing you in? The stereotypical example in developed countries is the weekend golf games.

Few women play golf, so, when the boys are out there playing golf, hanging out at the weekend, if you’re a mother, that is the time you have to take care of the children. So, how do you get into the conversation of promotion? A lot of people support, encourage, nurture, and promote the people that they see in their comfort zone everyday, and so, if you’re not in that comfort level path, then organisation has to make an extra effort to think of you for promotion as a woman.

What should be done is to actively and deliberately promote women. If the government decides that in Civil Service, we need to have some level of clarity and everybody who is a permanent secretary cannot be a man, then, we are actively looking to promote women. Things like this have to be done deliberately, otherwise, everybody just stays in their comfort zones and women are not necessarily part of it.

What role do you think women can play in bridging the gap?
I actually don’t agree with the idea that women don’t like to work with themselves. I think it is true that some women are like ‘I have to fight my way to the top, I have to struggle to do it, and now that I have made it, this other little girls who just want to quickly climb the ladder, have to struggle too just like I did.’ Some women really feel that way. But what I find out is that, we also are part of the stereotype thing. If you give me two CVs of a boy and a girl and they have the same qualification, it is most likely that I will pick the girl; that is because I am a woman. So, I don’t think it is true that women don’t want their counterpart to succeed; that is a narrative that men promote.

Women are way supportive of each other; we discuss things that pertain to us. You can’t discuss breast-feeding with a man in the office; different women and different ways though. Some are supportive and some are not; some wants to work with women, and others would rather not.

So, what is your advise to women?
Women need to be ready for these top positions and responsibilities. Women need confidence and self-development to get to top positions. They should not expect that because they are women, and it is their turn, they should get it.

They should be prepared. Just like everybody is getting to do extra courses and certification, they should be doing that too. There is no excuse for you not to get things done like the male gender. We should never have a sense of entitlement; we are not entitled, nobody owes us. We have to work just as hard as men to get to where we need to be.

We also need to self-assurance. What I found out as one of the biggest obstacles for women in the workplace is, lets say there is a job that is advertised and 10 criteria are listed to get the job, a woman will have eight of the criteria, but will be discouraged because of the remaining two that she doesn’t have. Meanwhile, a man with just three will apply, and get the job. So, the woman will be wondering how did he have it? So, women need to put themselves forward; get all the knowledge, training, and the most education that we can, get the assignment that nobody wants to do. Then, when it is time for promotion, you will be recommended.

Although certain social and economic situations for women have improved, but when it comes to personal finances, a lot of women still have hurdles.

Given your experience, how do you think women can overcome these challenges?
When I was working in City bank, the company had something called Women and co; it’s like an investment for women. I was wondering that why do we have separate investment for women? But it was clear that women were not making the most of their financial capacity and investment; they wouldn’t take the same risk as men. A very clear thing is that women and men have a very different perception of risk. It is not that women are risk averse, is just that we don’t assess risk the same way men do. My husband will be ready to mortgage our house for a business venture, and I’ll be like what if something goes wrong with the business?
So, women don’t look at their finances the same way men do. We have a lot of social issues; there are lots of things that hinder women from being all that they want to be. Financial services for women are a huge opportunity to get women to invest their money in the best possible way. I believe in being independent; I think women needs to be independent. Where they can take care of themselves, they should. When women are overly dependent on men for their livelihood, they give their power away. There is a part of you that has to be responsible for you. You cannot give your entire life to a man; you can be married and respect your husband as an independent woman. I have been married for 25 years, so its not like I don’t know what I am talking about. Being in a relationship comes with some level of submission, compromise and trying to make things work, but I think it is important to remember that we are individuals and God made us two. It is important for women to understand finance and make decisions. You cannot be 100 per cent dependent on somebody else once you are an adult.

Are you in support of a joint account for married couple?
My husband and I have three accounts; we have a joint account and separate accounts. The reason I have my own account is that we don’t want to have conversation about how I need to buy a pair of shoe. There is a part of our money that is jointly owed because we have a joint life, and joint responsibilities. He has his money and he can do what he wants and I have my own money, and I can do what I want with it; we decided this when we were getting married.

Our church has a mandatory counseling session for intending couples and so we had to discuss with our pastor how we wanted our lives to be. They ask very difficult questions, like ‘what happens if you don’t have children? What happens if you have a disable kid? How do you see your financial life and how are you going to manage it?’ So, these three things works for me, but some people don’t know how much their spouse earns. Everybody should do whatever works for them.

Picking a mate is the most important decision a woman ever makes; men too, but I think for a woman, picking a mate who supports you, who will be there for you, who will be a good father for your kids, who will let you be all that you can be, that is really important.

When it comes to choosing career path for children, what is your advice for parents?
My advice as a parent is to look at what your children are good at and encourages them to do it. Too often, we have a specific career we want our children to do, because we think that is what they should do. But, I think it’s important to let children do what they actually are interested in.

What do you do at your leisure time?
My favorite thing to do is read; read and write.


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