By Ishola Balogun
Lilian Ajayi is the founder/Executive Director, Global Connections for Women Foundation, GC4W, an organisation aimed at creating new opportunities for young girls in under-served communities and helping them ro reach their potentials. Late last year, the Foundation partnered with Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and the Clinton Foundation to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy in the United States of America which was adjudged extremely rewarding. In this interview, she speaks about her accomplishment which she describes as ‘changing the lives of the less priviledged.’ Excerpts .
How did Global Connections for Women Foundation (GC4W) come about?
Both my childhood and professional experiences contributed and motivated me to create a way to give back to my community and beyond. But, what really got me engaged and took action was when I attended a discussion at the Harvard Club, called “Women, Power and Entrepreneurship” .
Women from various professional backgrounds attended, and the guest panelists challenged those of us in attendance by posing the following question, “how are you helping your community grow?” I left the discussion that evening feeling truly inspired and empowered to do something.
Several months later, after great research, I turned to both my family and friends about forming a not-for-profit organisation called the “Global Connections for Women Foundation (GC4W)”, an organisation that believes in all women and their right to create new opportunities for themselves and their communities, and with a mission to connect, educate and empower women and young girls in underserved communities across the globe.
Subsequently, I invited friends to join the cause and participate as my GC4W champions. All were very supportive and many eventually became part of a select group that would comprise the first class of GC4W champions.
It is said that even great things have tiny beginnings and it is my hope that as GC4W grows, and the story of its inception and success can be added to that lineage.
At what point in your life did you discover your passion and how were you able to bring it to fruition?
I discovered my passion at a young age as I watched my mum, Chief Temitope Ajayi (also known as Mama Diaspora) simultaneously nurture her children and the community in which we lived. I witnessed first hand, how happy and fulfilled it made her feel to be able to balance both the desire to support her family as a single parent and the desire to support and encourage her community.
“There’s goodness in helping people”… a frequently used and favourite quote from my mum. It was this very experience that made me realise that my passion lies in my ability to help people define their goals and strive to meet them. This is precisely how I have been able to handle personal relationships and professional endeavours , whether it is helping a family member, a friend, or a mentee realise their dreams or helping a company meet their goals.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in trying to put GC4W together?
The biggest challenge I faced with starting to develop GC4W was similar to that of many entrepreneurs experience when they first embark into unfamiliar territory. You tend to reach out to people you know with experience in your specific industry.
I reached out to someone older, who I admired and who had tremendous amount of experience running a not-for-profit organisation but frankly to my dismay, she discouraged me from starting this journey. She called my mission “egotistical,” and added “you are just a grain in the sand” and stated that “this-is-bigger-than-you,” all in the face of my hopes that she would mentor me through this journey.
While it was stinging and definitely hurtful, I learned to become resilient and ultimately turn this negative feedback into motivation and drive to stay the course for I was only thinking of all the women and girls that would benefit from the GC4W program. I also kept my favourite Nelson Mandela’s quote in mind – “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
What advice would you give someone who plans to open an organisation?
My advice to someone who plans to start an organisation or a business is do your research, talk to family and friends about your idea, stay focused, and be patient. You also have to prepare to work hard and tirelessly on this endeavour, go out and network, but the foremost important thing is to remain passionate about your organisation’s mission and vision.
You can’t ask or expect others to be energetic and enthusiastic about your plans if you aren’t first. For this is the infectious drive that would attract the right audience to keep you motivated and focused, thereby, making you successful in your organisation or business endeavour.
How were you able to get what you wanted from your career?
I took the road less travelled, I wasn’t afraid to go after what I wanted to do and that fit into my own personal convictions, and I didn’t shy away from big challenges. I also found great mentors and spent a lot of time learning from people I respected and admired.
I was able to get what I wanted from my career because I set personal goals for each of my professional endeavours. I strongly believe that you are the only one who can determine what you want out of a job. Some of us have been very fortunate (myself included), we have had mentors for bosses who have helped guide our careers but that notwithstanding, you should decide what you want to get out a job both before and after you are hired into a position.
What would you recommend to someone who needs insight on how to be a better leader?
My recommendation is to read as much as you can on what it takes to be a leader, talk to real leaders or people with experience leading and get as many perspectives as you can on leadership qualities so that you can acquire first hand true insights of what it takes to be a great leader.
What is the biggest challenge you have witnessed that is facing young African leaders today?
The biggest challenge I witnessed facing young African leaders today are their ability to dream big. Though it may sound cliché, many young African leaders underestimate what they are capable of achieving once they decide to let go of their fears, set their sights high and pursue their dreams. Perhaps, it’s because we are more exposed to a number of cultural, social and political ideas that often times can pose a challenge to our sense of identity and make it difficult for us to bring new ideas in an old ideological thinking.
But they need to break out of that mold and use their cultural heritage to their advantage and thrive in a multinational world. I also think that too many young African leaders are waiting for something to happen to them or for them. This attitude reminds me of what a good friend once said to me, that there are two types of people in this world, someone who wait for things to happen and some who make things happens. Young African leaders have to decide where they stand. Are you waiting for things to happen for you or are you making things happen for yourself?
If by this you decided to pursue a graduate degree or decide to start a business, go for it. We need to continue to fight for what we believe can happen for ourselves, something President Barack Obama refers to as the “audacity of hope,” which he goes on to describe as “hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists that something better awaits us so as long as we have the courage to keep reaching.”
How do you determine who to hire into your organisation in a situation where you have many qualified individuals?
I am passionate about GC4W and our mission, and I would only hire someone who shared the same vision, passion and is highly focused. These qualities are not something you can pretend to hold, nor is it something that is necessarily reflected or apparent in one’s resume.
But rather, it is demonstrated by how a person describes their professional journey and their personal mission. I will only hire people who are passionate about giving back and are qualified to serve the GC4W global community with a passion and commitment to helping the less privileged.
When it comes to your career, what is your biggest accomplishment, and what makes it stand out from the others?
My biggest accomplishment would have to be starting the Global Connections for Women Foundation. This endeavour allows me to not only give back in a meaningful way to the world around me but it also leverage all the skills that I have developed in my past professional endeavours. With these skills and experiences in tow, I am better positioned to help GC4W thrive and to help change the lives of women and girls in underserved communities around the world, who choose to participate in the GC4W programs.