by Journey Victoria Clark
18 March 2021
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In November of 2020, the ILA hosted its first ever global virtual conference. Seizing the opportunity to attend a world class leadership conference without the cost of travel, the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, sponsored 25 Alumni to attend the event as a professional development experience.
The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is the flagship program of the U.S. Department of State’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) and is administered by IREX, an ILA organizational member and international global development and education nonprofit. Fellows are leaders ranging in age from 25-35 who have a track record of “promoting innovation and positive impact in their communities and countries.”
The Fellowship Alumni who attended recently reflected on their experiences of participating in a global virtual leadership conference, sharing notable takeaways, networking experiences, and the ways in which they planned to implement new ideas gleaned from the conference within their communities. All 25 Fellowship Alumni who attended expressed appreciation toward the Mandela Washington Fellowship program for providing this amazing professional development opportunity as well as a strong desire to participate in future ILA events, having found the 2020 event to be of immeasurable benefit.
Meet four of these young African leaders below while learning more about their experiences at ILA’s 2020 global conference.
Winfred Mwende Mutinda
Janice Da Graça
Richard Komlan Folly
Ugochi Obidiegwu, a 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow from Nigeria who runs a program helping drug addicts in recovery, attended the annual conference hoping to gain “practical insights on leadership” as well as to have an “opportunity to meet new people.” She was pleased to find “practical sessions that tackled real leadership issues in the world,” and she “gained new insights that [she] would be replicating” in her future work. In particular, Obidiegwu thought that the “plenary sessions were amazing,” and she expressed satisfaction that the event exceeded her expectations. “I felt really charged and encouraged in the work I do. Listening to those leaders also showed me a picture of where I’m going.” Obidiegwu called the overall experience “brilliant” and “enlightening,” and she can “already see how [her] team members and programmes will benefit from the knowledge gained.”
Winfred Mwende Mutinda, an electrical engineer at the Kenya Electricity Transmission Company and a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow, noted that “attending the conference was a great milestone in [her] leadership journey.” Her initial expectations for the conference were “to learn more tips on efficient and effective leadership from leaders across various sectors” as well as “to get inspired and motivated by the experiences of other leaders.” Like Obidiegwu, she pointed to one of the plenary sessions as particularly inspiring when speakers “reiterated the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic has been a reminder of [how] the world needs to return to the spirit of global solidarity.” Mutinda praised plenary speaker Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), who maintained: “We have to commit to address the root causes of our societal problems. The answer to global problems is still the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” Mutinda felt challenged by these words and resolved, as a leader, “to continue contributing positively towards the achievement of the SDGs.”
Mutinda, like all of the alumni who attended, expressed her gratitude to the Mandela Washington Fellowship program for securing her a spot as an attendee, affirming, “The sponsorship and opportunity to attend the 22nd ILA Global Annual Conference in 2020 gave me a great platform to enhance my leadership skills, to be inspired, and to learn from the experiences of other leaders. The conference was instrumental in unpacking some of the best practices in leadership, especially during moments of crisis.”
Janice Da Graça, a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow from Cabo Verde, also had an exceptional experience. As the founder and CEO of Verbum Tactus, an organization that focuses on development through art, literature, and mindfulness, she found ILA’s virtual conference to be “especially insightful…because it aligned with a more mindful approach of leadership.” Da Graça was impressed with ILA’s implementation of the Mindfulness and Connection sessions placed periodically throughout the conference and noted that, in her experience, it is not the norm for an event like this to integrate mindfulness practices. At other events she’s attended, she has longed for moments “for people to just appreciate, think, and integrate what they received and not only be stuffed with information.” Da Graça was grateful for ILA’s approach, saying that we met that need.
She further observed that the Mindfulness and Connection sessions may have played a role in how attendees absorbed information and connected with others participating in the conference. As Da Graça explained, they allowed her to feel “aligned with the vision of leadership present in the majority of the presentations and not so alone in issues [she had] been questioning.” In other sessions, Da Graça was excited to find “a scientific framework for issues and the challenges of leadership in our era.” Da Graça acknowledged that her exposure to new ideas and positive practices throughout the event will benefit her work and give her more confidence on the path she is following.
Richard Komlan Folly, the founder and CEO of the African Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow from Togo, began ILA’s 2020 virtual conference expecting “networking…experience sharing…[and] leadership development.” He found that and more. The topics that resonated the most with him pertained to “self-openness,” “finding peace,” and “handling setback with optimism.” His favorite sessions included, “When Leaders Face Personal Crisis,” and a workshop on, “Storytelling as a Strategy for Leader Identity Development,” in which, he noted, “It was fascinating…to be able to share my own experience and story.” Folly believes his conference takeaways will be beneficial to his “community, organization, and the Fellowship Network through community engagement, experience sharing and storytelling, plus speaking opportunities.”
As a professional development experience, ILA ‘s first virtual global conference offered these Fellowship Alumni an array of unique opportunities for introspection, interaction, and innovation.
In a particularly touching reflection, De Graça expressed that her time at the event reassured her that she is not alone in her experiences and that, “It is okay to struggle with the anxious state of the world, the competition and violence that is related to high positions in leadership. It’s okay to want to do things in a different way. That does not mean that you are weak or do not fit. That means that you can be part of a different style of leadership, less anxious, bureaucratic, and hierarchical and more connected to the wellbeing of people.” She directly credited the ILA for creating an environment that fostered the potential for such possibilities, saying that she “would love to be part of ILA 2021” and that “anyone with a leadership role would benefit from being part of this experience.”
We hope to see De Graça and more Alumni of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders at this year’s global conference, which will be taking place 20-25 October onsite in Geneva, Switzerland and live and online virtually. As De Graça insightfully acknowledges, leaders engage in an ongoing process to “learn, unlearn, and relearn in order to bring our best to the missions we commit to.” The ILA looks forward to continuing to support these and other leaders through the professional development opportunities available via conference attendance and participation.
Journey Victoria Clark
An editor and entrepreneur, Journey recently launched her art & marketing company, Phenom Epochal (@phenom.epochal), based in Fredericksburg, VA; she hopes to help artists & small business owners make a greater impact on the world, while continuing to write & edit for non-profit organizations.