Kelechi Olawoyin: We Must Build Leaders Not Just for Today But for Tomorrow


Mrs. Kelechi Olawoyin is the Board Chair of Street Project Foundation, a non-government organisation that seeks to help youth employability and also targets young people under the poverty line through the various creative fields of music, acting, and writing, giving them access to what other people have through the creative arts.  A creative genius herself, Olawoyin has impacted the foundation with her robust background in human capacity building and communications in the area of skills – soft skill, critical thinking, project management, team work and communications. This lovely Ibo woman, married to a Yoruba man, talks about her position, goals of the foundation, challenges and more in this conversation with Ferdinand Ekechukwu

From Mass Communication to Human Resources

Im an HR professional. But my first and second degree is actually in Mass Communication, with a strong bias in advertising. My first contact with HR was when I was working with a consulting firm called ReStral Consulting. Then after that I went on to do some consulting work for DFID/World Bank and the British Council. Right after that I went on to work for MTN for about 15 months as the Project Manager for Human Resources and then I went on to work for Unilever for seven years as Talent Manager for West Africa and subsequently, HR Business Partner. Then I left to work for Novartis Africa as the Head of Novartis Africa Corporate University, and then I left there to work for Transport Services Limited (TSL) where I’m the Head of HR and Communications.

Passion for leadership and talent development

My passion for leadership and talent development has to do with growing up. My dad was in the public service. He retired as a permanent secretary in Imo State. My dad has always been someone that many of us, not just the children, but many people around him looked up to in terms of being a strong leader, having integrity, being able to push forward ideas and he was one of my very first examples of leadership, coupled with my passion to help people discover themselves. There was also a strong bias to build leaders not just for today but for tomorrow which is why I’m heavily involved with young people trying to know their capabilities. I think for me that was really specific because my dad was somebody that I actually looked up to. So that’s what fostered my passion for leadership development.

Talent and human resource management in Nigeria

Nigeria is a really, really talented country. Sometimes, I sort of feel like God was partial when he was creating Nigeria. If you put a Nigerian in the midst of other black people or even just other people not necessarily black, they would just standout. I wouldn’t use the word ‘aggressive.’ They are assertive, they are goal getters, they are intelligent, they want to excel, and they want to be on the top. So, for me, being able to harness all of those energies in Nigeria and being able to push people forward to realise their potential is really, really very important for me and that is linked to the area which I’m currently working, which is on human resources. That thought has always pushed me in whatever I do. I’m always like, my words “Africa for Africa”.

How and when I discovered my talent, leadership potential

It was from growing up days. I mean the first person who spotted my talent for music/singing was my mum. She told me I started singing at two years old. I don’t really believe that because I’m like ‘I don’t know!’ And my mum used to have music lessons for me at home; she literarily taught me how to sing. That was my first interaction with someone spotting talent; not just spotting talent but also encouraging me to write. So the creative part of me was very, very well encouraged while I was growing up. I have had people in my life from very early age who were able to spot something I could do really well and help me carve those skills. I could mention so many. Even during my internship. I took all of those things. It helped me in my career having that experience as a mass communicator and having that experience as a human resource person.

Working as Board Chair for Street Project Foundation

Ah Street Project! Street Project for me is possibly one of the most inspiring Foundations I have had anything to do with, especially because it seeks to help youth employability and also target young people under the poverty line; people without access to what other people might have through the creative arts. I think that is so powerful. In Nigeria, we are a creative people; we are musical, we are writers, I mean some of the best writers in the world come from Nigeria. Some of the best musicians in the world come from Nigerian, and some of the best actors right now, we are seeing them in Hollywood and in Nollywood. So one of the questions is how about if we use all of those skills and impact people who are really passionate about developing those skills and helping them to become more employable. The reason why I’m probably the Board Chair is because I’m a singer, well I sing in church, I’m in the choir. And I also write. So being able to understand some of the personality issues that creative people have because they are a different breed of animals don’t make any mistake about that. They are a very different group of people to manage or to lead if you ever get to bring the best out them. 

Why I accepted to serve on the board of Street Project Foundation

I have been involved with Street Project Foundation I think since 2008, maybe earlier. I honestly can’t remember but for a very long time and what I used to do for Street Project then was just volunteering. If it’s to take a class, whatever it is, I would do it. So when the founder (Rita Ezenwa-Okoro) asked me to, I was like ‘why did you chose me I mean’ and she said “you have been with me on this journey for a very long time, you have been with me for years, you have given me counsel, you understand the vision and there isn’t anybody else.” And not just that and also because of what I have done; my career of human resources and communications and also being a creative person. So having all of those skills and experiences and understanding that this non for profit is not your typical non for profit. It’s a non for profit that deals with creative people and using the creative arts. I guess that’s why she picked me.     

Theoretical and practical engagement of youths, using training and internship

Training and internship is the vision of the founder (Rita). From her perspective, she reasoned we need to have a theoretical aspect. So it’s not just about showing them what to do, they need to have a background as to why this is the right approach to specific areas of their potential or of their talent. So it’s important to give them that background and also give them that practical side.

There are people that are not very good with sitting down and learning the theoretical part; they are more interested in the practical part. But if you are going to be a well-rounded learner, you need to touch on all of this area and make sure that you have both the theory part and you are able to translate that into practical skills.

We are doing reasonably well in terms of networking

I think we are doing quite well or reasonably well in terms of networking. I mean the Foundation has won lots of awards, have had partnerships with Lagos State that have really impacted thousands of young people and Lagos State has recognised Street Project Foundation as one of its key partners with regards to youth employability. I think if we can replicate that across the states especially across the states that are a little bit more disadvantaged. Taking time to reach out to other states would really help in scaling up our activities; also networking with our international partners. I would like to see more of that. I don’t think we are scratching the surface yet. I think that there are a lot younger people that we can reach but we are not able to reach them simply because of size and also the lack of funds.

What employers of labour need to do to support Street Project

Any organisation passionate about youth development would support us. It’s not every organisation that is passionate about youth development and there is nothing wrong with that. Every organisation would decide for itself where their strategy for their social responsibilities lies. But for any organisation that is really interested in youth development, I think the important thing is to create an avenue for Street Project to connect some of the young people for internship. So, being able to give youths that access and that opportunity to come in and learn and understand will be brilliant. But let me be honest with you; any organisation that is not interested in youth development, I don’t know where they want to hire people from (laughs) because it’s the same pool of people that they are going to be hiring.

Taking care of young people living with disabilities

I think it’s bad. If I go to a lot of offices, you would hardly find a disability ramp. So if it’s somebody who is not able to walk, it will be difficult for them to even get into the building. So, it is just a total lack of awareness. We don’t even realise that that consciousness of the fact that there are people in the society that have issues with that and they need opportunities just like every other person. I don’t think we are doing really well. I don’t think organisations are taken up the charge as well as they should. I don’t think the government is taken up the charge as well as they should. So, for me, the fact that somebody has a physical disability in anyway should not disqualify them from work and we need to be more conscious about this and actively and proactively and intentionally create opportunities for people with disabilities.  

Helping young people who cannot easily figure out what their passion is or too shy to pursue such

That sounds like me. It took me a long time to find out what I wanted to do because I was good at a lot of things; and a lot of things still within the creative. So, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be a singer. I was like ‘should I go and be a journalist so that I can write and work for a newspaper’. Even after I left school, I was still trying to like ‘I’m not sure’. So what I will tell the young people who are like me (laughing), because I’m a different animal, I can’t tell you to follow your passion; they are divers. So my advice to young people like me I would say, experience all you can experience. Be curious, don’t hold yourself back. Don’t put limitations on yourself. Just tell yourself I will experience as I go along and then I will figure it out.

The singing part of me

I still have the singing part; it’s just that I don’t earn money from it (laughs). So that’s the thing. I need to have those blocs; that is what makes me up, those are the things that make up my life. I wouldn’t be happy if I don’t have an opportunity to express the singing gift, I wouldn’t be happy if I don’t have an opportunity to express my writing gift, I wouldn’t be happy if I don’t have an opportunity to be in human resources because human resources is diverse. If any of those blocs is removed, I would be totally unfulfilled. So for me, it’s not so much about or why I’m I not a singer. There was a time I considered that I was actually not to go to a university but to a music school abroad and my father had this conversation with me and said ‘is this what you want to be doing; you wake up every day and see yourself singing around the world?’ And I said ‘no.’ He said ‘there you go, so this is a hobby for you; it’s not a calling.’ So, these are the questions that we need to ask ourselves. I like the fact that I’m able to do that but I don’t have the passion to want to pursue that as a calling because for you to be in the creative art, you have to have a calling for this. You have to keep it awake at night. You have to wake up in the morning and you are hungry for it, you are burning inside it. So, mine has never been in that area. But do I have a burning desire to express myself in those gifts? O yes! If I don’t have an opportunity, I feel like I’m drowning. We are all different. But the creative part of me must be expressed. If it’s not like I’m dying.  

In terms of singing, I haven’t done any specific singing in a while because I’m not in the church choir any more. But I sing. So I have my i-pad and I have my i-phone so I put on a piece of music instrument and I sing and I record and I just send it out. I have recently been exploring trying to put that on Youtube but I haven’t really gone through that. In terms of writing, oh that’s lovely. I also head the communications unit in my office. So, I’m straddling the two. So, that’s it; I’m living it every day.  

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