‘Women should not be afraid to leave their comfort zones and diversify their professional backgrounds’
An SDG 17 advocate with a passion for building and strengthening public-private-partnerships to solve Africa’s most pressing challenges, she has worked extensively with executive management in several of West Africa’s largest business, oil and gas, telecommunications, production and manufacturing conglomerates in capacities ranging from consulting and stakeholder engagement, to risk management, business development, and asset management providing strategy, negotiation, consensus-building, research, project coordination and implementation support.
A member of the Global Shapers Lagos Hub Governing Council, she currently serves as Head of Partnerships and Fundraising on the Project Management Committee for SHAPE Africa 2020. Chinenye has continually lent her voice for inclusion, fair treatment and equal opportunities for the marginalized in some of Nigeria’s most underserved communities. She fights to address the stigmatization of menstruation which prevents girls from going to a school called #EndPeriodPoverty campaign. Chinenye has also advocated for financial literacy, digital literacy, and professional skills development by co-organizing several of the hub’s Business, Vocational and Market-Ready Skills Workshops.
Co-Founder, of the Survivors Voice International (SVI), cancer survivors and patient support foundation that raises funds to cover the costs for cancer screening and support treatment of women diagnosed with cancer from low-income and rural communities in Nigeria, she co-leads a project titled “Paint Owerri Pink”, to educate and screen rural women in Imo State. In her capacity as Partnerships Lead, Chinenye coordinates with local NGOs and government to raise funds and awareness through programs such as cancer awareness walks, screening programs, lectures and health symposiums. Passionate about Nigerian women and girls, she talks about discovering law, her journey into advocacy, her various women-oriented projects, fighting gender bias and tackling patriarchy in the Nigerian society amongst other burning issues.
Give us a peep into your early years and education, how was it like for you?
I’ve always been curious about the world. It comes from a background of moving, I lived in Nigeria, the U.K. and then the U.S and so I developed an interest and passion for international relations, international law, and the French language in high school, specifically taking an interest in how it all affects Africa.
I completed my Bachelor of Arts with Honors in International Relations, Political Science and French at Syracuse University, and then went to Switzerland for my Master of Laws (LL.M.) in International Law. I studied French because I knew many African countries are French-speaking, so I wanted to be able to communicate with them. Also, French is the language of diplomacy; but it was in 2014 when I returned to Nigeria to complete the NYSC that I decided Nigeria would be home for me again.
Did you always know that you were going to be a lawyer, was there any experience or event that decided for you?
(Laughing) I actually wanted to be a ballerina. I love to dance, I love music and I grew up in a household where my parents encouraged us to develop our musical talents. My sisters and I played instruments, violin, double bass, piano, flute and we love classical music. So naturally, I thought to combine the two to become a professional ballet dancer but that dream was short-lived. My mother always said she had a vision of me engaging world leaders and being a diplomat. My father studied law and has worked for the United Nations, so he encouraged me to do so as well. Eventually, I fell in love with international relations, human rights, and the rule of law. I always knew that I wanted the foundation of law for any career I pursue, but I’ve also always hated watching human suffering. I became determined to understand the legal protection of people, especially vulnerable communities. I studied world wars, genocides, natural disasters, and more. I feel a calling to be a part of the next generation of people committed to fighting social injustice and poverty, and ensuring that history does not continue to repeat itself.
As someone who has worked both home and abroad in international relations, human rights business and development, tell us some of the things you have done in these areas over the years?
While in the United States, I worked with New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, which helped me understand the legislative process that the Nigerian legislative system is modelled after. It was very interesting to see how laws pass from initiation to implementation.
In Geneva, I worked for the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) where I was able to identify knowledge gaps for decision-makers on the world stage. I developed modules and e-learning courses for diplomats, ambassadors, and representatives to ensure they were well informed before making decisions. Moving back to Nigeria, I sought to develop my understanding of the private sector through consulting. However, I felt a bit unfulfilled in that space, which is why I went back to my passion, becoming a member of the Global Shapers Community, an initiative of the World Economic Forum (WEF). This is how I began to understand the multi-stakeholder approach to development. The public sector, the private sector, and academia, it’s important to bring these key players together to participate in the dialogue, decision-making, and implementation of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and solving our problems.
As an SDG 17 (Partnerships for Development) advocate, what does this mean and entail?
My experience in both the public and private sectors has shown me that partnerships are critical to achieving SDGs and that goals can only be realized with a strong commitment to collaboration and cooperation among all stakeholders. SDG 17 is about sustainable development through global partnerships. That means collaborations between business and government, multilateral bodies, social actors such as NGOs, and local community organizations. My advocacy is about engaging these leaders and bringing various sectors together in dialogue to provide solutions to development challenges. My ultimate goal is to continually facilitate these conversations as part of the work I do and to ensure that solution building is encouraged through multi-stakeholder dialogues to solve our greatest development problems.
You have worked with oil and gas, telecommunications, production, and manufacturing conglomerates in the last decade. Tell us some pertinent lessons you have learnt over the years and want other women to know?
I’d encourage women to not be afraid to leave their comfort zones and to diversify their professional backgrounds. Learn something new as often as you can, but also draw from every professional experience to succeed in the next. Management consulting exposed me to various industries and I gained valuable knowledge from the different types of consulting engagements. I developed a passion for learning new things rather than relying solely on what I was familiar with.
As a member of the Global Shapers Lagos Hub Governing council, how are you using this position to assist women in particular?
During my tenure as Vice Curator of the Global Shapers Lagos Hub, the curator and myself were the first female leadership duo in the history of our hub. We focused heavily on mentorship and implemented a “Meet the Leader” speaker series to facilitate connection to prominent women in the industry. Within the Hub, I actively champion initiatives that focus on women and girls’ issues, such as the stigmatization of menstruation, girls’ education, skills training for female entrepreneurs, and safe internet training for girls. As a member of the Hub’s Governing Council, I make sure we are focused on projects that address the specific challenges women and girls face, especially in the most underserved and under-resourced communities.
You say you’re a strong advocate of fair treatment and equal opportunities for the country’s most marginalized people and communities, what are some things you have done in recent times to advance this cause?
I believe the best way to advocate for these communities is to speak up for them, and in the biggest rooms and most prominent platforms available. When I attended the 50th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, I took every opportunity to speak on behalf of marginalized communities, including women, young girls, persons with disabilities, and the people in rural towns in Nigeria. I spoke about the farmers and women who are the most affected by climate change concerns, like heat waves, droughts, floods, and pests. I spoke about youth unemployment, and about how millions of young girls miss school due to countless challenges they face on a daily basis. When the topic of security and instability came up, I spoke on how militancy and proxy wars are killing thousands of people. Most of the time, marginalized communities are not represented when the decisions are being made. It is important for world leaders to hear from these communities, and I feel a strong sense of responsibility to be that voice in the room.
Tell us a bit about your #EndPeriodPoverty campaign which you initiated, how are you fighting stigma surrounding female periods and how do you plan on sustaining this initiative?
The #EndPeriodPoverty campaign is a global campaign to keep girls in school, recognizing that millions of girls drop out each year because of period poverty. Period poverty is the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, even toilets, hand washing facilities, and overall waste management in some countries. A friend contacted me for help on a charity project during the Christmas season in 2018, but she wasn’t sure how to go about it. I introduced the idea to have the Lagos Hub host the project in line with the global #EndPeriodPoverty campaign to combat the stigmatization of menstruation. I co-designed the outreach project, and we chose the Lagos Island community where we identified a need to educate young girls about menstrual hygiene and body-positivity. Our team developed the project to reach out to 100 secondary-school girls from the Lagos Island community and we provided them with each with menstrual hygiene kits, including sanitary products and information pamphlets. We hope to continue this campaign annually, partnering with sanitation-focused or socially responsible companies and organizations to assist with the hygiene kits. We would love to visit other schools across Lagos state and beyond.
You’re passionate about improving literacy, especially amongst women. How are you working towards better financial and digital literacy for women especially women from poorer and marginalized backgrounds?
Through the Hub, we are working to offer financial and digital literacy training and courses for women from less-privileged backgrounds. This is an area that we certainly hope to expand in the coming years, as we’re seeing the enormous potential for women to succeed in these areas. We aim to have a speaker series and other targeted initiatives such as master classes that would increase access for these women.
You co-founded Survivors Voice International (SVI), what does this do?
SVI is a foundation designed to support cancer survivors, diagnosed individuals, and their families and loved ones. We advocate for people, especially women, affected by cancer, and raise funds to cover basic medical costs–such as for screenings. We also support the treatment of those diagnosed with cancer from low-income and rural communities in Nigeria. The organization was founded after my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. The burden of cancer was so great on our family, but we couldn’t imagine how great of a burden it must be for those in less-privileged circumstances. We were determined to help, and my mother is the champion of that effort. She has led our foundation to participate in cancer awareness walks, symposiums, conferences, and medical missions in Nigeria.
What can we expect from SVI this year? How many women do you want to reach this year?
This year, we’re looking to significantly increase its awareness campaigns, educational talks and of course, its impact. We are hoping to take our awareness campaigns to local governments across the Southeastern states where we are currently running programs. We are also hoping to raise more funds to support more individuals. We are planning to hold our Breast Cancer Awareness campaign “Paint Owerri Pink” again in Owerri this October, and look to expand it to other major cities across Nigeria. SVI is gearing up for another great year of impact and we look forward to what 2020 has in store.
As someone that has worked across Africa, how can we fight gender bias and uplift more African women?
As a society, we need to create a bias-free culture. It’s deeply rooted in our homes and education systems. We need to embrace women as equal members of society and afford them opportunities.
We need to celebrate the capability of women and confront and deconstruct the dangerous patriarchal ideologies that are so resistant to change.
In your opinion, why do we tend to see fewer women at the helm of affairs and how can this be corrected?
I believe this is largely due to the patriarchal structure of African society that has historically oppressed and subdued its women. The ideologies that suggest we are only meant to occupy the home or the kitchen are the main issue. It’s why we’ve been less educated than men, and consequently, why we have less access to offices where decisions are being made. Once again, I believe it takes education. Women who are educated and empowered are more confident, better equipped, and well-positioned to succeed in these positions.
Tell us something you did/do that has turned your career around positively?
I try to attend as many conferences and workshops as possible, both in-person and online. This has led to several opportunities to travel, meet amazing people and develop myself professionally. I credit a lot of my career development and network to taking advantage of these opportunities.
What would you tell Nigerian women that want a seat at the table?
I would tell these women the same thing I was told during a speech given at Davos: before you become somebody, be nobody. Do the grunt work, roll up your sleeves and do the work others refuse to do. Do your research, build your credibility, and become an authority on whatever it is you’re passionate about. That way, when the God-given opportunity comes, and people have underestimated you, you’re prepared.
If you could change something for Nigerian women, what is the first thing you would do?
I would change our perception of ourselves. I would want us to see ourselves as we are in the eyes of God and not in the eyes of man. I would want us to revisit God’s original plan and blueprint for a woman as His creation. God was very deliberate about our architecture and gender purpose. I believe we have let society dictate who we are and who we are not which has led to several issues.
You recently participated and spoke at a UN SDG panel, what are some things that were discussed that you can share with us and how it would effect change for Nigeria?
We discussed how young people are active agents of change in the fight against the world’s challenges, and referred to how African youth are tackling climate change. According to the UN, the continent of Africa is most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Africa faces increased droughts, floods, fires, rising sea levels, pests, the spread of waterborne diseases, and loss of natural ecosystems, which will inevitably have an impact on business. This is a region where large populations of people rely on agriculture. Many young people will occupy farms and rural lands for jobs, and they will bear the costs of the decisions made by the older generations. African youth are not ignorant of what’s happening; we are choosing to stand on the frontlines of the defense against climate change. This is our future, it’s our inheritance, and we don’t like it. We also spoke about how intergenerational dialogue and collaboration is critical in addressing these challenges. Apathy and desensitization are counter-progressive; we discussed ways in which young people can actively engage the older generation when building solutions.
Life at this level can be hectic and stressful. How do you disengage and relax?
I am a spiritual person, so I often pray and meditate. I try to disengage from my phone, computer, and other electronics whenever I feel the need to. I try my best to listen to my body. I have seen that stress manifests itself physically, and it can take a huge toll on your body.
What are some tips you would give women entrepreneurs so they can succeed better?
Do not be afraid to ask for help. No one knows it all, and we are better together. Women entrepreneurs should consider collaborating. Celebrate each other and don’t focus on making money, instead focus on making an impact with your passion. You are already a success, remember that.
Nigeria joined the rest of the world to celebrate IWD on March 8, would you say things are better for Nigerian women?
Nigeria is definitely making strides but we still have a long way to go. We see the potential and capacity of Nigerian women every day, and we need the men to stop ignoring it. It’s a deeply patriarchal society, and that needs to change. Women can lead us into a better Nigeria, and that should be more important than our egos.
What last words do you want to leave with women reading this that have been inspired by you?
Remember, it is not a competition. One of the greatest mistakes we make is thinking that the next woman is a threat. A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. Also, shine brightly. Do not quiet yourself to make others comfortable. Marianne Williamson once said, “There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” I hold onto this, and I hope other women will too.