A mission made in Africa

Blooming Soyinka, 31, from a rural village in Nigeria, knows what hunger means and knows how to break free of poverty. No one in her family had made it to college before but she raised her own funds to secure a place at a university in Illinois, United States and later gained a scholarship to the University of British Columbia, Canada.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Now she is leading her own enterprise with a personal mission to help artisans in Africa showcase their skills and the continent's beautiful culture – hoping that along the way it will help change perceptions of the continent.

Soyinka, the daughter of Christian pastors, began her journey in Ifo, the small rural village in south-west Nigeria, where she grew up, a place where people made a living from farming, hunting and small trading in the market.

Life wasn’t easy. Going to school was a minimum one-and-a-half hour journey each way to Lagos, the country’s most populous city – sometimes stretching to three or four hours if they got caught in rush-hour traffic jams. But her family got by on an average income. Then her father died in 1999, when she was 13, and everything changed.

Suddenly it was a struggle to eat three meals a day. “We just didn’t have the means,” Soyinka recalls.

At that point she decided the only way to help her family to a better life was through education. “I just felt if I didn’t want to be poor, I would have to learn to read and if I can read I will be okay.”

No one in her family had been to college, but eight years later she was an undergraduate at Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, in the United States.

Her family did not have the means to pay for her to study abroad, and she did not manage to secure a scholarship, despite applying, so she begged and borrowed the US$9,000 cost of the first semester and decided to work her way through her studies.

She was helped in the second semester by a kind family in the US who co-signed a US$10,000 loan. In the second year she secured an internship and the same family supported her again. But by the third year, 2008, the recession hit. She couldn’t get another loan, the US family could no longer help, she couldn’t get an internship and the university was sending threatening emails saying they would have to send her back home because she had not paid for her tuition.

But Soyinka did not give up.

She wrote to the university president asking for a loan, but he refused – because she was an international student, not a local one.

Then she managed to get a full-time job and asked the university again to extend a loan. This time she was granted a US$15,000 lifeline.

“I had to be strong, I had to make it happen,” Soyinka says.

After gaining a degree in accounts and economics at Illinois Weslayen University, she began working in assurance in accounting in Chicago, but a year-and-a-half later had to return home to Nigeria when her visa ran out.

Inspired by Walmart

She took up an accounting role in a non-profit in Lagos. In her spare time she became interested in leadership and began reading books about leaders including Sam Walton, Richard Branson, and of course Nelson Mandela.

“The one who really inspired me was Sam Walton, founder of Walmart,” she said.

Like Soyinka, Walton grew up in a rural area – albeit in Oklahoma, US, and wanted to go to university to help support his family. After college he started in business by buying up a local variety store and eventually with his brother owned 16 stores in Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas before starting what became the Wal-Mart empire, dedicated to selling American-made products.

The chain grew to be the world’s largest corporation and by the time Walton died, in 1992, his company employed 380,000 people, owned nearly 2,000 stores, almost all in the US, with annual sales of US$55 billion. Since then it has grown into a US$400 billion global giant.

Soyinka was taken by the strategy of selling products 'Made in America' and how Walton built a global brand on the back of that.

“I thought if 'Made in America' can work, there should be a 'Made in Africa' too,” she says. “That is where the journey started.”

She started talking to local actors and decided she needed a business degree and in 2014 secured a MasterCard Foundation scholarship to study an MBA at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

“I decided to concentrate on Africa and start working with people from the grassroots, because I believed that is where the transformation is going to come from. I want to portray and create value on the African continent.”

She also began testing her idea by taking items made in Africa back to the US to show friends, and sell at festivals and events.

She then created a website and the business was up and running, selling hand-made women’s clothing, umbrellas, purses and jewellery, and the goal is to expand the range.

“My goal is to show the world the beauty that is in Africa,” she says.

But the story she tells is not about Blooming Soyinka building a business, but about the people who are creating these items and showcasing their work, not just in Africa but to the world.

She is driven by the negative image of Africa portrayed on social media and in the news and has made it her mission to do something to change that.

“I was getting calls in New York saying we really like your purse and I say, 'you know this was created in Nigeria and the guy who made it is handicapped from the waist down, but it is not stopping this guy creating value'.

“There are amazing things happening on the African continent and if there is anything I can do to bring that to the limelight, that is my goal. I want to bring out the positive things, the creative things going on in Africa because that is what I see. The transformation is going to be from the grassroots, those communities in rural areas that no one knows about, that don’t even have electricity.”

Ethical style

Soyinka says one of the things she has learned is that a leader has to continually serve others.

“It is like when you are leading a team, the leader is not afraid to allow other people to shine. That is the leader I would like to become. So my goal is for you to shine no matter what our relationship. The more successful people we have, the better the economy is going to be and the better the continent is going to be. So that is the type of leader I would like to become, empowering others to create value.”

Another is that it is important to develop an ethical style of leadership, which she believes is about integrity or not taking short cuts.

She faced her own test of integrity when due to downsizing she lost the job in Chicago that had allowed her to have a three-year work permit.

“I can tell 100% that there are people who stay in the US illegally, work with someone else’s insurance number and don’t go home because of fear that they might not be able to return.

“But I thought the ethical thing is to go home.

“Some people I hold in high regard call me foolish for doing the right thing. But I know who I am and I am confident of what I can do. Ethical leadership is about doing the right thing even when you know it is hard to do.”

She believes it is important for schools and universities to include programmes on leadership but even more essential to include ethical leadership and cites the poor example shown by Donald Trump.

“It’s like when you hear someone praising someone who is more like an autocrat, like the Russian president, [Vladimir] Putin – as a leader with personal influence there are some things you choose to say and some you don’t, because you are not just a leader but an ethical leader.”

Soyinka is now looking at how to make her business scalable, something she learned from her MBA. Her dream is to open a store in New York in the next five or 10 years but she has a long way to go. Sales in her first year were US$5,000. She has doubled that already this year. On her past record, though, she knows what it takes to achieve her ambitions, and it would be foolish to write her off.