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How Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s Style Became A Global Movement

How Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s Style Became A Global Movement

You see her in her spectacularly designed Ankara wear and bead necklace, with a unique style of gele around her low-cut, grey hairs and something strikes you: the radiating elegance of a high achiever, dominating in a system traditionally occupied by men.

This is Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala—affectionately called NOI—the alluring new Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the charismatic icon of a new socio-cultural cum social media movement.

On February 15th, 2021, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was finally elected by WTO members to become its Director-General. While her emergence was historic for becoming the first woman and first African to hold the position, what was unexpected, though, was how quickly her unique dress style would set off a riveting social media trend with the hashtag: #BeLikeNgoziChallenge.

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Immediately after her confirmation, #BeLikeNgoziChallenge began trending across the three most popular social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

With both young girls, women, and even men taking part in the challenge. Even the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, would also join in the trend.

The British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, takes part in the #BeLikeNgoziChallenge. The trend was a gesture Dr. NOI would immediately acknowledge via her Twitter account regarding the challenge’s significance to her.

“Oh! it meant so much to me. I was so honoured and so proud,” she said in an interview. “To see those little girls and even the British High Commissioner to Nigeria take part in the challenge.”

It is worth reminding us that Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala did not invent the now-famous Ankara wear quite synonymous with Africans. Neither did she make it arguably the most easily adopted African wear.

Other notable African women like Nigeria’s former National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) dynamo, the late Prof. Dora Akunyili, and Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf have long been known to share the Afro dress sense ideology. Yet, Dr. NOI has taken it a step further in both political and sociocultural contexts.

Her symbolic public appearance signature—a style she steadily cultivated during her undergraduate days at Harvard University—adds a much-needed intensity to the liberating place of women in positions of power with their own unique dress styles. In a global workforce system beginning to reckon its decades-long part in systemic patriarchy, this is timely.

“As I started getting up in leadership—and I was already climbing in the managerial ranks–one thing I noticed was, ‘as a woman leader making your way, people look at your appearance so much. They don’t look at men as much, they can easily appear in their suit and tie or Agbada and so on. They don’t comment on their attires. But a woman is put up for scrutiny.’” She notes that her unique dress style gives her “a standard look–which I am proud of—which depicts my country and also stops people from wondering what I am going to look like.”

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) new Director-General, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in her unique Ankara and gele.

The #BeLikeNgoziChallenge has created a new form of consciousness in young women, particularly in Nigeria in a myriad of ways.

Since the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)—now known as the WTO—was formed in 1948 with Eric Wyndham White leading the institution till the end of Roberto Azevêdo’s tenure last year, there had been nine male Director-Generals.

So, in GATT/WTO’s 73-years of existence, no woman had been at the helm of its global trade affairs until the emergence of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala.

Thus, Dr. NOI’s election leaves her in no doubt as to what she believes the young Ngozis everywhere in the world taking part in the #BeLikeNgoziChallenge, who now recognise her as the emblem of inspiration, can glean from her uber-successful career in both government and the global financial system.

“For all young women, it also shows that you can go anywhere in your profession. The thing is to like what you are doing and do it diligently and you can get to the top. That’s really the message I am trying to send to young people.”

For a dress sense, Dr. NOI admits she curated because she “can do it in two minutes,” it is quite remarkable how it has become a global trend in the shortest possible period—just like the elegant woman the style has come to embody.

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