The Chairperson of Women in Management, Business and Public Service (WIMBIZ), Aishah Ahmad, in this interview with Raheem Akingbolu, speaks on the partnership with AXA Mansard, especially the feat recorded at the just concluded AXA Empower Women Contest and its attendant benefits. Excerpts:
Congratulations on the award. How does it feel to be the winner of the keenly contested AXA Empower Women Contest?
We are so happy that we won the AXA 2016 Empower Women Contest and recognised for our work in empowering women in our society. 42 entries were submitted by AXA entities from 21 countries in a keenly contested competition and AXA Mansard, the Nigeria arm of AXA nominated WIMCAP, the winning project. Aside the international recognition, we are also grateful for the 10,000 Euros cash prize because it ensures that this programme can be on consistently. For us, we are concerned about building businesses that are structured for global competitiveness. With that, it will help us to improve on our impact; to improve on the 30 women average that we are taking now, to maybe 50 and more.
Tell us about the winning project, the problems it addresses and the inspiration behind it?
The winning project is called WIMCAP, which is a platform of WIMBIZ that ensures that we are supporting women owned businesses with certain skills like people management, logistics, finance, branding and to generally understand the value chain of their business. The need it seeks to address is to ensure that entrepreneurs have better understanding of their business and are exposed to best practices. Part of the structure of the programme is a business clinic -a two-day programme, where they meet with successful entrepreneurs and share ideas. Lack of funding is a huge challenge that businesses face and this programme also addresses this. One major reason why businesses have not been able to attract funding is because they are not properly structured in a way that is sustainable.
The inspiration behind WIMCAP is that it is linked with the vision of WIMBIZ, which is to inspire and empower women and increase their contribution to nation building. One of the key areas to increase that contribution is growing women owned businesses and by doing so we would also be increasing the number of jobs available. Research has shown that if you empower a woman, the knock-on effect is in multiple fold, which invariably affects the society.
Being a women’s focused non-governmental organisation in Nigeria, WIMBIZ is popular for women empowerment; could you share with us some of the impact WIMBIZ has had since inception?
We have impacted over 30,000 women over the last 15 years across all of our programmes. Our programmes are structured around building leadership skills, entrepreneurial capabilities, and advocacy. We have been advocating strongly and increasing the number of women on organizations’ Board of Directors. We have a programme called WIMBoard which involves about three or four facets in driving this. We have a partnership with IE Business School to ensure that women are formally trained to be Board ready and we keep an executive database of women that have gone through that programme. In addition to that, we have an executive mentorship program for these women who have gone ahead to become a Board member.
In terms of our advocacy effort, this year, we also put our weight behind the gender and equal opportunity bill. The essence of the bill is to ensure that women are protected from violence, given equal right to education, and equal opportunities. We also have our flagship programme which is our annual conference where we attract over a thousand women across different sectors. The whole idea of this is to ensure that women have a gathering where they can network with other women and share experiences in terms of challenges and opportunities. It’s also an opportunity for them to learn because we usually feature very experienced global speakers. A more recent programme is the Big Sister programme created specifically to celebrate the 15th anniversary. It’s a one day mentorship programme for young ladies between the age of 13 and 17 in pubic secondary schools. We are targeting 1,500 young ladies this year across three states of the federation: Lagos, Rivers and Niger State. We’ve concluded that of Lagos where we had over 800 students from 14 schools and had great support of the Deputy Governor of Lagos State.
How has WIMBIZ benefitted from its relationship with AXA Mansard and how does winning the AXA Empower Women Contest benefit WIMBIZ?
We are very proud to partner with the AXA family and AXA Mansard in particular, worldwide leader in insurance and asset management, we appreciate that they impact the societies they operate in. We recognise that empowering women is an important aspect for them. We believe that this was the driving force that led AXA Mansard to nominate WIMBIZ, which gave us the opportunity to pitch and be selected for this award. AXA Mansard and WIMBIZ recognise that without empowering women, you cannot grow your GDP to where it needs to be.
It is exciting to see that some of the key positions at AXA Mansard are occupied by women, it shows you that they are not only driven to support women, but also live that reality.
On how the award would impact our organisation, it fuels this programme because funding is a key challenge and getting sponsorship is very difficult. So when we have strong partners like AXA Mansard, we are able to continue the good work.
Could you share some of the pressing challenges women in business face especially here in Nigeria and some of WIMBIZ’s initiatives to address these issues?
One key challenge for Nigerian women is access to opportunities and this is evident in the number of women in politics, and other spheres. Part of that is the education gap in term of opportunities, because when you give women the opportunity of high quality education, they excel. The whole idea is changing the mindset about the role of the woman and understanding that educating a woman doesn’t mean that she would not perform her wider role in the society. In fact, educating her enhances that wider role. We also see that even though quite a number of women are starting business, over 50% of businesses are owned by women, but just 20% of those businesses are in the formal sector. With this, we need to elevate their positioning and make them more competitive and impactful. What we are doing to ensure that happens is WIMCAP for example, which ensures beneficiaries take their businesses to the next level. Another challenge is what the equal opportunity bill seeks to address in terms of rights and protection; right in terms of the right to inherit, right to school, equal opportunity, right not to be abused etc.
Despite the challenges, there are also positives. We now have women in top positions even in male dominated terrains. Women also hold key appointment in government. Even abroad, we have the first woman nominee of a major political party in the US, and second female Prime Minister in the UK. Those things inspire women all over the world to know that they can also take their place in leadership.
What advice or words of encouragement would you give to women in business and entrepreneurs, especially those who are struggling?
I would say they should never give up and must work hard. Find out what you need to know and invest in yourself. I’m a big supporter of education because it’s a leveller. Information is power, particularly synthesised information. I would encourage them to also pull up other women. Not only in terms of inspiring; support female owned businesses, invest in female owned businesses. If you say that there’s a gap in the educational sector, think of how many girls you can help put through school. Let’s keep the positive thought going, there’s no way we would not succeed.
What’s your projection for WIMBIZ in the next five years?
I see a future that is very bright considering where we have come from in the last 15 years. We have seen the organisation set up by a founding board of trustees that have handed over to the next generation. And I see that happening many times over. The sustainability of this organisation is a collective effort and I know that as we continue to inspire and empower ourselves, opening up our membership to women from all over, there’s no way we won’t be sustainable. With partners like AXA Mansard supporting the organisation over the years, we would continue to realise our objective which is to ensure that we increase the status and influence of women and their contribution to nation building.