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Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala address women’s leadership at mentoring conference

Recently, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and EJS Center Board Member Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala joined a virtual fireside chat at the Women in Successful Careers (WISCAR) 2020 Virtual Annual Leadership and Mentorship Conference. Madam Sirleaf gave introductory remarks and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was a keynote speaker and the recipient of the Distinguished WISCAR Award.

WISCAR is a non-profit organization that empowers women in Nigeria and across Africa to achieve their goals through coaching and mentoring programs. The 2020 conference, themed “The Future We Want,” was the culmination of the annual mentoring calendar and included over 25 speakers with a focus on driving legal and policy changes for growth and development.

In her opening remarks, Madam Sirleaf talked about her vision for the future at a time of great uncertainty, calling for action to create a world in which the human rights of all are respected and enforced—a world free of misogyny and gender-based violence.

Madam Sirleaf also recognized the need for good governance to enable men and women to be fully engaged and employed in a productive economy, allowing women to achieve the professional goals of their choosing as they operate in an equitable environment. Madam Sirleaf closed her comments by expressing her thoughts on the role of women in delivering a better future:

“As you discuss where we are in this global environment of change, let’s call on women to be a part of the change, to be the change, to claim the leadership they so deserve. That’s my message to you, that’s my message to myself, that’s my message to the women of the world: our time indeed has come.”

During her conversation with WISCAR Founder and Chairperson Amina Oyagbola, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said that she felt energized by the conversations preceding her session, and that they made her feel that “there is hope in the world.” She began by talking about being raised by her grandmother and living through the Nigerian Civil War, which helped her to build resilience:

It was a tough time, seeing children die…Living through three years of bombardments, just some of the most difficult times, running from place to place… That’s why I can thrive in because I’ve been through many things in my life.” 

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala also discussed the choices she has made over the course of her career, noting that she has always considered whether a specific role would enable her to give back and whether she would enjoy it. After a 25-year career at the World Bank, she returned to Nigeria to lead the revival of the country’s financial health, increase the transparency of its financial systems, and improve the country’s financial image on the world stage. During this time, she faced significant obstacles due to her gender. However, she believes that being a woman was also one of the factors that helped her success:

“I hate generalizing, because there are always exceptions, but I think women are less egocentric. Sometimes to solve problems ego gets in the way… to get things done you have to put your ego in your handbag.”

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala also highlighted the EJS Center as an example of the type of organization needed to help women actively pursue leadership roles and work together rather than against each other. In terms of the personal attributes needed to be a good leader, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said:

“There is no right recipe to be a leader. It’s not a cookie cutter recipe. But if you’re going to be a leader, you have to be yourself.”

You can watch the full conference here. Madam Sirleaf speaks at 0:26:40, and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s remarks begin at 0:42:57.

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