Q&A: ‘Michelle Obama Made Me Cry’ A Young African Leader Says

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Written by Veronica Pamoukaghlian

U.S. President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative brought 500 African business leaders under the age of 35 to top U.S. universities to network and develop business and leadership skills.

Ghanaian-born Ethel Cofie was one of them.

Selected from a pool of 50,000 applicants, Cofie and her colleagues got to meet Obama and many key industry players in the U.S.

Leading up to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., the young leaders were asked to develop a set of recommendations, which were presented at the summit. Companies participating in the program, including IBM, have expressed an interest in the young leaders’ abilities to use their experience in the U.S. for change in Africa.

With an emphasis on leadership, creativity, and social technoly, the YALI program shows potential to have a long-lasting effect.

A natural born leader, Cofie exudes confidence and is not afraid of working hard to realize her dreams. As a young girl, she said she grew up with the notion that women were somewhat “lesser beings” because they couldn’t carry on the family name.

With an interest in technology, she was impressed the first time she saw a successful female technology worker “in high heels.”

After studying at Brighton University and working as a business and systems analyst in the U.K., Cofie went on to found the BarCamp Africa U.K. Unconference — her first large-scale project for African business development and integration.

Then she landed several high-profile jobs. She worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on a project — Mobile Technology for Health in Ghana. She got a job with a Ford Foundation-funded Nigerian election data crowdsourcing project. Other gigs included working for Dream Perfect in Sierra Leone, and for Vodafone in Ghana.

Through all her jobs, Cofie said she never lost sight of her greater goals for the empowerment of African women and African development.

AFKInsider spoke to Cofie about her experiences with YALI and her vision of the future of Africa.

AFKInsider: The bulk of the African population remains in poverty. As a young African leader and a woman tech pioneer, what are your views on the future of African economic growth? 

Ethel Cofie: Five of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. Africa’s middle classes has been steadily growing at an average rate of 3.2 percent per year since 1983. The present era has seen growth stalling in most developing nations. The numbers show more and more people are moving upwards into the middle classes in Africa, but you are right, it is not happening fast enough. I believe that we risk leaving people behind if we don’t increase the pace.

AFKInsider: What is your takeaway from participating in YALI’s Mandela Fellowship?

(The flagship program of YELI, the Mandela Fellowship includes six weeks of intensive executive leadership training in the U.S. for young African leaders to accelerate their careers and contribute more robustly to strengthening democratic institutions.)  

Ethel Cofie: The Mandela Washington Fellowship for me has being a life-changing event. I have had the opportunity to learn from the best and the brightest at Yale University’s School of Management. We spent time with IBM’s best and brightest, assimilating tools and best practices on compliance and I have vastly expanded my networks across the African continent and in the U.S.

In the same week, I was fortunate to meet with President Obama, Michelle Obama, Susan Rice and Samantha Power. There is no other way I might have had that opportunity. The networks I was able to expand across the continent have enabled me to put together the first African Women in Technology event. I have sharpened my business model.

I was in awe when President Obama said to us at the town hall, “Thank you for inspiring us all with your talent, your motivation, your ambition.”

I will never forget how inspiring Michele Obama’s speech was and being unable to hold back my tears as I hugged her, because, suddenly, all the hard work in helping women in tech go forward and achieve higher goals seemed worth it.

AFKInsider: Can you tell us a bit more about your business and your personal goals?

Ethel Cofie: I have three passions: technology, women’s empowerment, and entrepreneurship. I exercise my love for these areas in various ways: I am a tech entrepreneur — I run an IT consultancy. I am the founder of the Women in Tech group in Ghana, and I am at the moment working on accelerator in Africa to help accelerate startups which want to launch in multiple African countries.

My personal goal going forward is to ensure that my dreams are not small and comfortable, but rather big and audacious, even scary, so that I can be motivated enough to feel excited about the challenges ahead when I wake up in the morning.

AFKInsider: What is your vision of what can be achieved from the U.S.-African Leaders Summit?

Ethel Cofie: We are the Washington fellows who put together recommendations for the variety of issues in Africa. Many of them dealt with peace and security, and how our leaders can invest in the future.

My ardent hope is that they will take some of these recommendations and implement them. The Yale University team’s recommendation in particular was to create public-private partnership for building innovation centers to allow youth to build local solutions for local unemployment problems.

(Cofie attended some summit events and said she hoped to impress upon African leaders the dreams and hopes of future leaders.)

AFKInsider: What are the main challenges faced by a young business woman in Africa today?

Ethel Cofie: Where do I start…we have the same problems most young businesses do — access to capital. However, there are particular issues around having to prove yourself over and over again, because some people don’t expect you to be as good as the next person because of our gender.

AFKInsider: The U.S. is creating an interesting platform with the Young African Leadership Initiative. Who do you think will be the main allies of African entrepreneurs in the technology sector?

Ethel Cofie: I believe the U.S. is making a diplomatic effort here. They are investing in the future of Africa and ensuring that they are part of Africa’s success.

AFKInsider: People outside Africa are used to seeing images of malnutrition, epidemics, and wars. How do you think that paradigm can be changed? What can the rest of the world do for the development of Africa?

Ethel Cofie: I keep reiterating this Africa is not just a continent of war and famine; it is not a single story. There are wonderful stories of prosperity and beauty, and I wish the foreign press would focus on that sometimes. Africa does not need aid, Africa needs partnerships to grow.

AFKInsider: Can Africa can create environments attractive enough for young people to stop migrating in such high numbers?

Ethel Cofie: I left a good job in London to move back to Ghana to start my business. Venture capital funds are flocking into Africa to try and understand the continent in order to be first on the front line. So, the way I see it, as long as there is peace and prosperity, there are opportunities in Africa .These young people have to look for it and stop believing everything Hollywood movies tell them.

AFKInsider: What is your message to a young person in Africa who wants to succeed in business

Ethel Cofie: Dream big, keep on trying, this is our time. This is Africa’s time.

Learn more about Ethel Cofie on her YALI blog.