Stories of Empowerment from the Young African Leaders Initiative

Mandella Washington Fellows Pose for selfies and group photos at the YALI summit in Washington D.C.
Mandela Washington Fellows pose for photos and celebrate at a recent YALI Summit.

Stories of Empowerment from the Young African Leaders Initiative

For Mandela Washington Fellows Leah and Augustine, the Summit marks the official end of their U.S. State Department-sponsored fellowship, but for these leaders, it marks the beginning of a new stage in their commitment to lead innovation in their home countries.

The kickoff to the 2019 Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit was charged with the energy of nearly 700 young leaders from Sub-Saharan Africa, who had convened in Washington, D.C., after six weeks of tailored leadership training at higher education institutions across the United States. Their excitement and sense of community was palpable as they heard from distinguished speakers including United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce, and the President of the Heritage Foundation, Kay Coles James.

The assembled Fellows’ personal stories and achievements reflected the theme of this year’s Summit, “Inspiring Innovation and Growth through Leadership,” and the values of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI).

Among the Fellows I spoke with, Leah Molasteli exemplifies these themes by “living out loud” – radiating a passion for female empowerment and hunger for success.

The author poses with a Mandela Washington Fellow, Leah Molasteli, from South Africa.

Leah, from South Africa, is a lawyer and has made it her mission to expand accessibility to legal services for small businesses so they can move towards economic prosperity. Her enthusiasm for women’s professional success also jump-started her involvement in the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE), a Bureau of Educational And Cultural Affairs (ECA) initiative to support women’s entrepreneurship around the world. She serves on the selection committee in South Africa and has been contributing her expertise in technology and legal services.

But despite Leah’s obvious drive, getting the Mandela Washington Fellowship was no simple matter – Leah applied several times before becoming a finalist. That experience only amplified her desire to reach her goals. In team-building exercises at the Summit, Leah’s peers immediately identified her as someone destined to achieve her goals—a defining moment in which Leah realized that not only does she believe in herself, but other people do as well.

“After the Fellowship and the support I received at the University of Notre Dame, I could imagine the space that my small business was going to be in. I no longer was only looking five years ahead, but 50 years ahead,” Leah said. Fellows with an interest in business like Leah especially enjoyed the Partnership Expo, where American companies and organizations highlighted their work and connected with the next generation of African decision-makers.

Other participants also reported that their experiences on the Fellowship led to an inspirational change in perspective.

Mandela Washington Fellow Augustine, from Nigeria, poses at a recent YALI Summit.

Augustine Okorodudu, who was hosted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, described how site visits to agricultural organizations as part of the training sparked new ideas on how he might work to mitigate the youth unemployment rate in his home country of Nigeria.

A community youth advocate, Augustine has been instrumental through his nonprofit, “Ideals and Realities Youth Empowerment Foundation (IRYEF),” in supporting young people and providing them with resources in leadership and education. He also uses his radio station as a platform to amplify his work and efforts to reach youth.

He shared that many youth in his community believe agriculture is “difficult” because the outcome doesn’t seem to be worth the physical effort. His meetings with agriculture sector counterparts in the United States showed him some possible different approaches to advocating and present farming as a modern profession, with the help of state entities.

Augustine proved his belief in the power of the Young African Leaders Initiative by helping to establish a YALI chapter in Delta State, Nigeria. By connecting alumni through events and seminars, and facilitating interaction between prospective applicants, Augustine continues to empower and support leaders all over Nigeria.

While they are only two examples of the 700 youth present at the Summit, Leah and Augustine show how the Fellowship and the Summit can help fuel the Fellows’ motivation to innovate and inspire the next generation of young African leaders.

About the Author: Elizabeth Georgakopoulos serves in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.