Toyosi Akerele-Ogunsiji: Pushing for Tech Development
She was once described by former US First Lady, Michelle Obama, as one of her personal inspirations. In 2014, she was also named by Forbes as one of the 20 Most Powerful Young Women in Africa.
A data science and artificial intelligence champion, Toyosi Akerele-Ogunsiji, Founder/CEO, Rise Networks, is one of Nigeria’s most influential social entrepreneurs; and a policy advisor in education technology and human capital growth. She is also the Founder of Passnownow, Nigeria’s foremost mobile learning portal.
The 36-year-old is the brain behind Rise National Youth Forum, the oldest and largest pan-Nigerian campus youth empowerment event.
Akerele-Ogunsiji, who holds a first degree in Civil Law from the University of Jos, is an alumna of Harvard University Kennedy School of Government; Cambridge University’s Judge Business School; University of New Hampshire, Durham; School of Media and Communication, Pan Atlantic University; Project Management College, UK; and the UK Institute of Digital Marketing.
A highly sought-after public speaker, she sits on the board of several organisations and has garnered several local and international recognitions in addition to being the youngest member of the Presidential Committee on Victims of Terrorism Support Fund. She also currently works with the International Labour Organisation and the World Bank on the ‘Future of Work’ in the light of the 4th Industrial Revolution.
Here, Akerele-Ogunsiji who is married to Korede Ogunsiji with two children, bares it all on issues bordering on gender equality, marriage, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and a lot more.
It is women’s history month, so, let’s talk about gender equality; what’s your perception of gender equality as a young female leader?
I’m a little tired of having conversations around gender equality. I like to be treated as a human being. I don’t like to be given any special treatment because I’m a woman; don’t put me in a box and stereotype me. I am a complete human and a legitimate member of society before being a woman. My mother was congratulated the day she gave birth to me; same way she was congratulated when she had a male child. I don’t want any special treatment because I’m a girl. I want society to give me equal opportunity so I can fly.
…sounds like you don’t believe gender inequality exists?
I grew up hearing about gender inequality but I must say I’ve never competed as though I’m a girl. I compete as a human being because I want to win. When I walk into a room and I’m the only woman, it’s alright; I play like a man and win like a woman. I’ve also learned that there’s nothing to gain if I am the only girl on a board, the only woman in a field, the only woman who has clinched an award, or the only girl who qualifies for this or that. The more women there are in a room, the easier it is for me to advance my cause and the cause of other women. I will have more cheerleaders.
As much as I believe in the existence of gender inequality, I want to say that we over-focus on it.
We’ve heard some successful young women like you argue that it is condescending to perform domestic duties such as cooking…
Oh, I cook. I‘m an extremely liberated woman but I also enjoy doing things that are at the pleasure of my husband. My husband and I do things for each other as equal partners. He also enjoys cooking, so, we cook together and do many things together. In my marriage, there’s no lopsided leadership; it’s not a master-servant leadership. I don’t cook for my husband because I’m afraid he will be upset if I don’t. I cook because I enjoy serving my husband; and I know he also enjoys doing things that make me happy. I cook very proudly. In fact, I also do laundry very proudly and look after my children very proudly. And I don’t think that these take away from my being liberated as a woman. The day I don’t feel like cooking, I don’t cook; and my husband has no problem with that.
He is also a very liberated, exposed and educated man. There is no laid down law in the scripture for a husband or a wife. People shouldn’t allow society determine the standard of their happiness in marriage. My husband and I are equal partners; we have absolute respect for each other. I understand the role of my husband as the head of our family and I don’t wish to compete with him in that role. Even if I ran for President of Nigeria today, like I aim to, and win, I will still go into the kitchen and cook for my husband. And I also know that if I am hungry and tired, my husband will cook for me too. I’m not saying I cook for the pleasure of the world; it’s not the business of anybody to know whether I cook for my husband or not. I am only answering the question because you asked me. We don’t have a job description about who should do what in my marriage.
A lot of men are uncomfortable with women who are high-flyers…
(Cuts in) Those are men with low self-esteem. My husband is a very confident, extremely grounded, secure man. He has always been like that from childhood. There is no feat that I will ever reach that will make my husband start to feel less of himself; there is no way I would have ever been attracted to such a man in the first place. My husband is the best of all the options of men I could have said ‘yes’ to. He is a very accomplished man on own even though he may not be as famous; fame does not define the value of anybody.
He is very comfortable with my ambition; in fact, he’s my biggest cheerleader. My happiness is his biggest priority. He is the kindest and most intelligent man I know; and that’s why I’m married to him. Truly, if I’m on who wants to be a millionaire and they ask me to phone a friend; I will call my husband. He knows something about everything.
So which generation would you say enjoyed more liberty as wives and mothers? Your generation or the older generation?
My generation absolutely. We did not inherit the silence of our mothers. We are not the women that put our two hands at our back when you’re complaining about something; we defend ourselves instead. My generation is very picky about the men we marry. In fact, many women these days want to have Ph.Ds before getting married.
My only worry is that it’s like we are training the girls so much that it doesn’t look like we’re preparing the boys for the kind of girls that we are raising. We are teaching the boys and training the girls; building them into high-capacity women. But I am worried about the quality of men that will marry these girls.
So, what should be borne in mind as we bring up boys and girls?
We must treat them equally. Boys are not special and girls are not special. All children are legitimate members of society; treat them as such. Give them equal opportunity and support. That way, we will raise perfectly-balanced human beings and build a perfectly-balanced society.
What leadership secrets have worked for you over the years?
Humility is a very important virtue; both to the people ahead of you and under you. Of all things, what scares me the most is God. He is the one that takes the man in the background and puts him in front just to shame that arrogant man on the front role. One day, your student will be your rival. When it happens, would you say you were a worthy leader? Humility is one of the greatest things that I’ve learned about leadership. The second is inclusivity; don’t discriminate against anybody. The third is equity; what you cannot take, don’t do to people.
When you’re not working, what do you like to do?
I like to spend time with my family because I travel and work a lot. My best moments are the times I am with my husband and children. I revel in those moments. I like to run around the house, scattering everywhere with my children and husband. I enjoy speaking to and doing homework with my children. I’ll give anything to have those moments. I don’t party, and I don’t buy aso-ebis. People know I don’t party; and I also don’t do parties. If I am not at work, I am having fun with my family.
Your favourite travel destination?
Maybe because I am a very intellectual-oriented person. I only think about travel destinations as places that swell my energy; not places that would mean wearing bikinis on a beach. My work demands that I stay extremely knowledgeable. Thus, I’m a very voracious reader because I get a lot of speaking engagements. In fact, in a year, I get up to like 200 speaking engagement requests. Therefore, I love places that are beautiful but are also very intellectual-oriented. I like Boston in the US for several reasons, and then Cape in South Africa.
What won’t Toyosi ever be caught wearing?
Bikinis in public.
Let us talk about your work; why the transition from social entrepreneurship to the digital technology space?
Any individual that really wants to change the world; which is what I want to do, has to be able to grow with the tide. This includes the needs of the world and target audience of whatever initiative or programme you are creating. The truth is that we cannot face today’s challenge with yesterday’s knowledge. What the young people of 2008, 2009 wanted when we started Rise National Youth Forum is actually different from what the young people of today want.
At that time, they wanted knowledge and a reawakening. But now, people want jobs because the unemployment rate has worsened; and these jobs will depend on the skill sets in the area of digital skill.
So, 10, 15 years ago, it was fashionable to have a university degree. But what is fashionable today is the skills you have. The world has evolved from “what did you study” to “what do you know how to do?” So, for me, it was pertinent for us at Rise Networks to expand the scope of our value proposition and solutions.
How did you make the transition happen?
One of the things that I have learned to do is to constantly go in the direction of my dream very vigorously. I have one goal and that’s to make sure I elevate the quality of life of the young people of my country. Their greatest need in the last 20 years has been education and economic empowerment, and creating platforms for them to achieve these has always been my concern.
So, I am still a social entrepreneur. It’s just that the methodology of my work has changed. For my reality at the moment, the prevalent skills are in the areas of data science, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, machine learning, internet of things, quantum computing, block chain technology, 3D printing, etc. If I truly want to be a global citizen that is competitive across board, my know-how is the first thing that I must face because the degree that I got in the University of Jos in 2007 cannot make me competitive in today’s world. It is important that young people are prepared for the future of work in this 4th Industrial Revolution that is upon us. If we don’t fix our education, what we’re going to have is a generation of university graduates who will not be able to compete with High School students in other countries. For me, my priority is to guarantee the global competitive of our people in the 4th Industrial Revolution.
What does the 4th Industrial Revolution hold for a nation like ours?
One of the greatest challenges of Nigeria in this 4th Industrial Revolution is that we don’t have a central data mining system that provides information that guides policy-making on the side of government and guides decision-making for the private sector. If you don’t have data, how can you do national planning? We are not a data-driven country, so, it’s difficult. All of the data that Nigeria is using to innovate are foreign data.
So, what the 4th Industrial Revolution holds for Nigeria is not even the point. The point is that, whether we like it or not, this revolution is already upon us. It’s our last chance to become a developed country. This inspired Rise Network’s conference, ‘The WorkPlan 2019 Agenda’, which held last December. That conference was Africa’s first private sector-led collaborative platform for policy makers, the private sector, the academia and youths to draw up a practical blueprint for developing the formal and informal skills of young people that are pivotal to job creation; as well as the sustainable growth of Africa’s various sectors and industries ahead of the 4th Industrial Revolution. My dream is to be able to set up a full emerging-technology institute where we can have block chain technology happening, AI, quantum computing, and more; like a finishing school for graduates.
How is that supposed to specifically help?
In a country where block chain technology is being used to check fraud in oil and gas, being a simple mechanical engineer does not make you outstanding. In a world where computer visual facial recognition, components of AI and data science are being used to check fraud within the financial system, having an accounting degree doesn’t make you outstanding if all you know how to do is calculate money and use excel.
Majority are afraid that the 4th Industrial Revolution will lead to more job losses; how true is that?
That’s not true. AI is simply non-biological intelligence work done by machine. Who will train the machine to be intelligent? Human beings. AI will make our work as human beings more efficient. In fact, AI will depend on the most superior human intelligence to function properly. Of course, with technology, there will be a few job losses; but I always say that it is the lazy people that will lose their jobs. If you grow with the trend as the trend evolves, you will be constantly relevant.
AI won’t take all the jobs away; instead, it will make our systems more efficient. We only need to constantly update our knowledge. I studied law; I’ve you forgot? If you can read, unlearn and relearn, you will always be relevant.
How do you cope with the challenges faced in the course of your daily life?
I’m always prepared for them. I live my life consciously everyday with 90 percent. I am not an incurable optimist; I am a very practical person. Challenges are part of life; but I am also a very prayerful person. I am a person totally helped by God. I’ve had major setbacks and failed severally in my journey but I shake them off and move on. I don’t carry my challenges like badges.
Words by- Josephine Agbonkhese