Though Donald Trump is now President of America, one person who will not forget former President Barrack Obama in a hurry is Nkechi Tessie Udegboka. Tessie was among the 1,000 people who participated in the Mandela Washington Fellowship in America last year. They interacted with Obama whom she said left a lasting impression on her.
From Igboukwu, Anambra State, Tessie is passionate about working to better the lives of people living with HIV and environmentally disadvantaged women and youths. She volunteers in rural communities through Whispering Hope Africa Initiative (WHAI), offering free capacity-building resources, entrepreneurship and leadership training to better people’s lives. A holder of certificate in Entrepreneurship Management from Pan-Atlantic University, she has also acquired developmental skills in journalism, women and youth empowerment, leadership, management, and sustainability amongst others.
In this interview, she talks about the Mandela Fellowship, why she is passionate and optimistic about Africa; showcasing the continent wherever she goes among other issues.
How did your journey to the Mandela Fellowship all begin?
My journey to the Mandela Washington Fellowship and meeting President Obama is something still surprising to me. In 2015, the US government announced the opening of Mandela Washington Fellowship (MWF). I hurriedly shared the link to my email contacts and on social media pages and encouraged youths to apply. Three youths on my network applied. Despite my busy schedule, I made out time over two weeks to work on and edited their application answers. Though I discovered they didn’t meet up with the years of experience required, I didn’t discourage them. I was rather happy they attempted to apply. From editing three people’s applications, I started getting inspirations, the track to go for and ideas on how to apply for mine. The deadline was fast approaching, yet I hadn’t started the application process. I was rather busy putting finishing touches to other person’s applications. Three days to the deadline, I started answering the essay questions that required deep thought and brainstorming. For three consecutive days, I worked on my application and finally submitted few minutes before the application portal closed. Typically, I do not submit/apply for opportunities and put my mind on them. I was engaged with numerous other projects, activities and writing facing me and forgot everything about YALI or MWF. One day, I got an SMS with an unknown MTN number inviting me for an interview. I quickly deleted the message, affirming it’s one of those fraudulent messages since I never applied for any job. There was MWF on the text but I couldn’t figure out what it meant. I’m a known unbeliever of dreams. To cut the long story short, I later went for the interview which seven of us from Anambra participated in and I was the only one finally chosen. Today, I am a Mandela Washington Fellow and have met and interacted with Obama.
Could you give us a general overview of the program?
The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is the flagship program of Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) that empowers young people through academic coursework, leadership training and networking. The fellowship aims to empower us, young Africans to growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance and enhance peace and security across Africa.
One thousand outstanding young leaders from Sub-Saharan Africa were provided with the opportunity to hone their skills at top U.S. universities and colleges focusing on leadership and skills development in one of three ways i.e. Business and Entrepreneurship, Civic Leadership, or Public Management plus a new institute focused on Energy.
The academic and leadership experience was followed by a summit with President Obama in Washington, DC where we met other top US leaders and firms willing to partner with us to develop Africa. There is also an optional six-week U.S. professional development experience at a U.S. company, civil society organization, or public sector agency in the United States.
What were the high and low points of the program?
The low point of the program was losing one of us from Nigeria, a week after we arrived the US. John Paul, 23 years and final year student at University of Ilorin and the youngest of us had achieved a lot on a global level at his young age. We had a memorial service for him at our various universities while in the US. It was a very painful loss.
The high points included meeting Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow PUSH team; encounter with Prof. Syal Verinder and his book, Discovering the Entrepreneur Within is what I’m currently using to build a new team of entrepreneurs in the slum and rural communities.
Another interesting high point for me was that I brought Africa to America. I showcased and promoted Africa in everything I wore and did that I was nicknamed Ada Africa by my colleagues. I am not an African because I was born in Africa; I am an African because Africa is born in me. This disposition got many Americans interested in visiting Africa and in what we do. They are currently in touch and planning trips to Nigeria.
On meeting Obama, how did you feel?
Yes, we did meet Obama in Washington DC. It was his birthday! We sang a happy birthday song for him. He was so excited to see us. Yeah! True, I had a handshake with him and mine was the first hand he shook after our meeting with him, but that means less or nothing more to me. I went back into myself to reflect on the words he shared with me and other fellows that day. Here are few things I took away from meeting him:
“Africa has one of the fastest growing regions, subjected to grow to one billion consumers”
“Today, Africa is filled with unprecedented opportunities”
“I am working to transform America’s relationship with Africa”
“USA-Africa Investment Inc is to encourage more trade and investment”
“We are going to keep working together on our ‘Power Africa’ to promote cleaner energy and businesses”
“I am doing all these not just because I love the people of Africa but because the world would not be able to deal with climate change, terrorism and other issues we face globally without the rising and dynamic Africa.
“Africa depends on the rising generation of new leaders (which is me and others)
“It is known that when women succeed; our country succeeds”
“We are energized by your passion, as America will learn development and community building from Africa”
“I am proud of my partnership with young people like you; we believe in your potential”
Rather than keep showcasing pictures and handshakes with Obama, I’m enthused to reflect on these words of President Obama, which have strengthened my passion for Africa. I’m motivated to return to my community and help build the 4th generation of African leaders among the environmentally disadvantaged people.
Though this was not your first visit to the US, what makes this one different?
If I have been to the United States 10 times, this particular one supercedes the 10 times put together. My academic and leadership experience was at the Northwestern University, Chicago were I studied Business and Entrepreneurship. The knowledge, experiential learning and connections allowed me further impact my ventures and communities I serve. I was exposed to all aspects of the entrepreneurship process starting with developing a business idea to the launching of the business. Class work, case-based learning and frequent assignments that kept one awake all night and visits to prominent Chicago businesses provided me the opportunity to learn about entrepreneurship and business practices from leaders in various fields. The learning at the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Northwestern University was very intensive and required tremendous hard work. It was highly demanding and I hardly had time for personal stuff as I devoted all my time to it.
Can you share more of your experience in the program?
Meeting the former US presidential candidate, Rev. Jesse Jackson, experiencing the humility in him; his passion to help bring development to Africa; hosting and dining with me twice; gathering experts from different sectors to mentor and provide partnership opportunity with us was the greatest experience I had.
Meeting young leaders from other African countries doing incredible things like Andreas Koumato of www.mossosouk.com who built and developed the first e-commerce platform in his country, Chad in his early 20s; Emerson Foli, 23 years, visually impaired, speaks good English despite being Francophone and a 300 level Law student, who has empowered lots of the blind in Togo. Kemo from Senegal who is building the LinkedIn of Africa etc. Interacting with and learning from other young African leaders from 49 African countries, I marveled at their incredible ideas and achievements. I shared ideas with world leaders and CEOs of multi-billion dollar companies willing to invest in Africa.
I was professionally exposed to interact with successful entrepreneurs, socially motivated individuals and organizations that got me to learn from their expertise and how to execute business plans at organizations of various sizes and with different goals.
During the young professional meet-ups, I met Yemisi Dinkins, who was impressed with what I do and she connected me to her aunt, Kay and today you can’t imagine the support and educational materials they have donated to aid kids from rural communities. Also Felicia, a mentor I connected with at the luncheon with Jesse Jackson donated chairs for WHAI Resource Center.
What lesson do you think you have learnt which you would like to impart to others?
I went to the US for MWF with a mindset and came back with a different mindset. I went to the program with some expectations but what I met was above my expectations. I have a pool of networks and contacts willing to invest in Africa but the challenge here is no business is ready for investments. Reason is we have been doing it wrongly. The contacts that want to invest or collaborate with the government; my state government has been unresponsive.
Participating in the MWF for Young African Leaders is one of the best things happening in my life, it has given me new initiatives and powerful connections. It has re-sharpened my mind and enriched my imagination.
Acquiring an Msc degree or certificate is not enough. Youths must learn the art of converting their education/knowledge into skills and value. Initially, I thought upon completion of the MWF, I would launch a cosmetics kit, first in Africa, to meet the needs of about 80% of African women that would create employment for more PLHIV and slum/rural people.
That has changed, though I will still launch the kit but all my energy at present is focused on restructuring the startup businesses and grooming young entrepreneurs in the environmentally disadvantaged communities to prepare their businesses for growth or inventors/partners to come in. This I will do through WHAI Enterprise Incubator, which we have partly started.
Through the incubator and YALILearns event, I am freely stepping down everything I have learnt and exposed to at Northwestern University. Another impact I’m creating is establishing a YALI Network Anambra. I returned to Nigeria with lots of powerful resources that I’m willing to share liberally through the YALI Network Anambra.
What are your driving passions in life?
A Zulu proverb says, “You make a living by what you are handed (given); you make a life by what you hand out (give) i.e. givers and takers. ‘Paying it forward’ has always driven me. I do not wait to make money before I help my community or people because what I do for free or a little fee, mostly bring back big fees later.
Zig Ziglar says, “You can get everything you want in life, if you could help other people get what they want.” The passion and zeal to help the vulnerable or better other people’s lives drive me to overlook my personal needs till theirs are met.
Friends and family are not okay with this, but I am. It works for me and the passion keeps me going.