CENTER STAGE: HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST, AMY OYEKUNLE

Monday, July 25, 2016 Gabrielle Bill 0 Comments



As much as it's hard sometimes, I do truly believe that everything happens for a reason. And in 2009, I think I was just meant to be in Washington, D.C. so that I could meet and befriend Amy Oyekunle.

The two of us were spending our summers working for The Global Fund for Children -- I was their first MBA intern, working on marketing strategies for their children's books division, and Amy was their first international fellow for adolescents and girls, hailing all the way from Nigeria, where she left her husband and two young children behind. The job was a challenge, but our friendship was easy. I attacked Amy with my effervescent drive to conquer the city in the short 12 weeks I was there, and she, a first-time visitor to the U.S., was more than happy to be my partner in crime.

Over the course of those few short months, I learned a tremendous amount about Amy, and when I left D.C., not knowing when or if I'd ever see her again, I cried at the thought. You see, in our short time together Amy taught me so much about life, about creating your own personal definition of success and about the importance of dedicating your time to making the world a better place. 

Growing up in West Africa, Amy realized from a very early age that the women and girls in her community were treated differently. She recalls the many times she was told she "couldn't" do things -- like climb a tree -- because she was a girl, or the times she "should" do things simply because she was.

"I want to be in the kitchen because I love to be in the kitchen, not because I'm a girl," she says. 

And yet, even though she knew that fighting for women was her passion, she still struggled to find her way into the field, in part due to heavy parental influences guiding her in different directions.

"My mom always said I should be a lawyer. My dad wanted me to be a medical doctor. The problem was that I hated science!"

Even after pursuing a sociology degree at university -- a decision Amy credits with solidifying her fascination with women and women's issues -- her father paid for her to pursue an MBA at Leeds University. Shortly after arriving, she changed to a development studies course, much to his chagrin.

"[I realized] life is too short to do things because other people want you to do them," she says. At Leeds, "I heard the word 'feminist' for the first time. I met well-known feminists...people who identified with other sexualities. [I learned] there’s a totally different world outside of where I come from where it’s possible for women to be fulfilled and have it all. I wanted women to have it all. I wanted to have it all."

In 2005, Amy joined an organization called KIND (the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy), a non-profit dedicated to empowering women, eradicating violence against them and encouraging their full participation in the social, political and economic landscape of Africa. 

"The work was awesome," she says. "I was able to take all of that pent up frustration about what women can do and can’t do, and joined a network of women that can do everything." 

In her work she began training other young women (some as young as 14) in high schools and universities. Her work taught them leadership skills, educated them on fundamental rights, and taught them about sexuality- and reproductive health, including the "radical" idea that their body was their own. 

"We connected them with young leaders of tomorrow. I was working to liberate others, and [in the process], I was being liberated in so many ways."

In 2008, Amy was promoted to Executive Director of KIND, a tremendous honor given her young age, and a year later, was awarded the fellowship that brought her to the U.S.

"The Global Fund for Children was the first organization to fund a program KIND was developing for younger girls," she says. "Then to have the opportunity to come to the U.S. and learn about the dynamics of donors, how they think, what they think, what they know or don’t know.... It was wonderful. I came back reinvigorated to do much more."

But her trip to the U.S. taught her more than just hard skills that would advance her work in Africa. 

"Seeing how things operated in the U.S. where everybody was treated equally changed my way of working. I didn’t like feedback before I left, but now I was finding ways to solicit it. All of a sudden I saw the importance of spending time with co-workers, team building, going out as a team. When I came back I was a different boss."

And while these newfound thoughts about leadership, teamwork and driving impact helped Amy make strides in her Executive Director role, they also created a chasm...one that widened over time.
Like many non-profits, KIND was constantly on the hunt for money to fuel their programs and goals, and when their fundraising efforts proved challenging, it meant that change efforts stalled or never happened at all. After a while, this frustrated Amy. 

"[I kept asking myself,] 'Are we making the impact? Am I doing what’s true to myself?' I want to help women and girls change things. [As an organization] I didn’t feel like we were dealing with the real structural problems that would allow us to make that happen."

So she quit. 

"I was afraid," she says. "I wanted financial independence, wanted to be a successful woman who had a family going on well, a job going on well. That’s what was important. I thought. But then I realized what I really wanted was to fulfill my own dreams, not someone else’s."

Rather than apply for other full-time roles, Amy started her own consulting business focused on women’s empowerment, NGO management and development work. She works for donor partners who want short-term consultancies to evaluate a program or design one for girls and child protection. In the last year, she's managed to recruit five clients, a workload that fills her to the brim. And she's never been happier.

“It’s mine!” she exclaims. “I hold myself to a different standard. A higher standard. I think I’m able to accomplish much more than when I was bowing down to someone or waiting for authorization or confirmation. I make decisions, and I deal with the consequences as they come. I can take off time to be with my family. I can make time for what I think is important to me.”

And to what does Amy attribute to all of her success?

"I researched a lot," she says. "I looked on LinkedIn to find examples of other people doing this work, and I realized, 'Hey, I can do that, oh I’ve done that." I did a lot of consultations, talking to people to find out the pitfalls, challenges, how to price myself."

She also focuses on the power of word of mouth and in using a great work product to inspire repeat business. "If you do a good job they will call you back for future work," she says. "It's about becoming well known in the community."

Today, Amy's once more fulfilled by the work she does and the change she can drive in her community. 

"I'm still a work in progress," she admits with a chuckle. But so are we all. 


If you'd like to connect with Amy or learn more about her work, you can send her a LinkedIn connection request.

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Gabrielle "Gabby" Bill is a career coach and consultant who believes everyone should be working in a job that leaves them feeling fulfilled. She coaches groups and individuals through a reflection process, uncovering often hidden motivations, values, goals and skills as they relate to their career. These reflections are then parlayed into concrete action plans to guide clients through the process of finding, creating and landing their dream jobs. You can learn more about her services by visiting www.gabriellebill.com

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