Posted by By Salif Atojoko on
At only 29 years old, the achievements of Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli have already earned her international commendation.
At only 29 years old, the achievements of Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli have already earned her international commendation. The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, recently recognised her as a 2003 Global Leader of Tomorrow. She is the founder and chief executive of LEAP Africa, an acronym for Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability and Professionalism, a non-governmental organisation, NGO, with which she has transformed the lives of many young Nigerians. She has devoted her life to grooming young men and women to become leaders. She even has time to help wayward businessmen brush up their business acumen. Nwuneli's ideals are based on the concept called "servant leadership."
With a Master of Business Administration degree from the Harvard Business School in the United States, after a first degree in multinational and strategic management from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, USA, Nwuneli is well armed for the task. She believes that it is an honour to be a leader and when one is called upon to be a leader, he or she must make a difference. She argues that people don't have to be in a position of power like being a president or vice-president to be leaders. Nwuneli has a deep conviction that young men and women can be leaders in their communities, work hard and make a difference.
Nwuneli said she got the inspiration to help train youths for leadership from God and her parents who believe in investing in others. She does not believe in the axiom that youths are the leaders of tomorrow. "What does tomorrow hold for youths when the life expectancy in Africa is 47 years old? If you are waiting to be 47 years old to start leading then you are going to wait for a long time," intoned Nwuneli. According to her, most of the revolutionaries in the world became revolutionaries when they were young, and so she believes that most young people in Nigeria are not doing what they need to do to move the country forward.
Nwuneli is also trying to change people's mindset. Just because you are the president of a country does not mean you are a leader, she says. "I was with Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and I told him that 'with all due respect, sir, just because you are the president of South Africa does not make you a leader.' The point I am trying to make is that LEAP focuses on changing mindsets. Leadership is an art, not a profession," Onwuneli told Newswatch last week.
The pretty fair complexioned lady was moved into inculcating the art of leadership in youths on a trip to Guatemala in Latin America. "I said to myself, this is supposed to be one of the poorest countries in Latin America and in the world, how come it is so much more advanced than so many African countries? Why? What is the reason? And that is why I came up with the four words that LEAP answers - leadership, effectiveness, accountability and professionalism. These are very important attributes but they are often missing in the African context. And when you think about leadership, it is so important because it affects so many components of our society."
Nwuneli soon realised that there was a great need for formal leadership training. She looked all over the world and realised that so many other countries had invested in leadership development because they understood the need for it. She said even in America every city has a leadership development organisation. "That was how I started LEAP. I was working outside Nigeria from the beginning, I worked in Rwanda and South Africa in leadership development. I moved back to Nigeria last year and formally launched LEAP in Nigeria and now we are working in Abuja, Kano, Onitsha, Enugu and Port Harcourt.
Over a two-year period, Nwuneli has not only trained but has done one-on-one coaching with the young men and women she works with. Some of them, according to her, are working on projects to help change people's mind-set about people with physical disability and to create awareness about HIV/AIDS. "Some of them say the road leading to their communities are bad and they want to get other people to help fix them. Other people want to change the legislature; the ideas that they have are great and we have to help them implement those ideas. We try to get them involved in shaping policy. That is our youth programme. Ford Foundation and well-meaning Nigerians who believe in our cause support us," she told Newswatch.
Training sessions with the youths are very interesting, according to Nwuneli. She said the youths go outdoors and do things that are very different. The ways they do things are different and that challenges them that they can be leaders in their communities. They are trained to be socially responsible, to begin to think that they owe Nigeria something. Nwuneli said she had to work hard to change their mentality. LEAP focuses on what is good about Nigeria, the positives.
LEAP also has an entrepreneur programme, which is focused on helping people between 50 and 60 years of age who already have businesses to ensure that those businesses outlive them. Most of them are one-man businesses, which LEAP is helping to ensure that they are efficient, and don't remain one-man businesses. The organisation does not work with start-ups. Nwuneli explained that many companies in Nigeria die with their founders. "How many companies do you know in Nigeria that are more than 50 years old?" she asked. The few companies that make the mark, according to her, are foreign organisations. She said just because people are managing directors of companies does not make them leaders. She is therefore trying to get chief executives of small companies to invest in the success of their businesses. Zenith International Bank supports the entrepreneur programme of LEAP.
When Nwuneli was in the university, she was the president of the African Students Association at the Harvard Business School. Then she started the African Business Conference and the first topic in the first conference was reversing the brain drain. "We were focusing on how to get more Africans to go back. It is now an annual conference with over 800 people coming from all over the world for this conference. It is now a big event. It is probably the most well-attended African business conference in the world today," enthused Nwuneli.
"And you, wherever you go in this world you are going to be called a Nigerian, so people are coming back. Everybody has to contribute something to make sure that the future of this country is better. Even if you live in America for 200 years they will have a name for your descendants. The truth is that we owe it to ourselves and the future generation to make this country better," she continued.
Nwuneli is also the founder of Ndu, Ike, Akunua (NIA) which mean life, strength and wealth, a non-profit organisation committed to empowering female university students in south eastern Nigeria to achieve their highest potential in life. Prior to establishing LEAP and NIA, Nwuneli was the pioneer executive director of FATE Foundation Nigeria. She also worked as a management consultant with the Bridgespan Group and with McKinsey & Company, United States. Nwuneli has also worked as a consultant with Ford Foundation's West Africa Office and the Centre for Middle East Competitive Strategy in Palestine and Israel.
Nwuneli who is married with a son, grew up in Enugu and hails from Anambra State. She went to primary and secondary schools in Enugu. Nwuneli served as a director of FATE Foundation, the Aart of Life Foundation and as an advisor for a range of non-profit organisations in the United States and Africa.
Indeed, this very hardworking young woman who has made the training of her peers her main pre-occupation has carved a niche for herself.