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YOU NEED TWO HEADS TO SEXUALLY HARASS ME – TOYOSI AKERELE

By NBF News

She's industrious, an embodiment of creativity and resourcefulness .She's determined to make an impact on her generation and those coming-up. Toyosi Akerele left what could have been a highly rewarding career at Oando Plc to launch her dream project RISE and she has made the best of it till date. She's not limited by gender.

Far from it. Toyosi believes what a man can do, a woman can also do and even better. In this interview with Bolatito Adebayo, Toyosi reveals her action plan for her RISE project and the youths who are targets . Excerpts:

What is RISE up to lately?
We are preparing for the RISE national youths forum 2010, the grand daddy of all youths gathering in Nigeria . That would be coming up on the 17th of July. It kicks-off in Lagos and ends in Calabar on the 23rd of October 2010. This year we are doing a tour of ten states including Lagos, Ibadan, Akure, Ilorin, Owerri, Asaba, Portharcourt, Calabar, Kaduna and Maiduguri.

What is the impact of your programmes on the average Nigerian youth ?

Well, in 2010, I am humbled and overwhelmed by the quality of comments and expectations from our past participants. Infact it may interest you to know that during the last 45 weeks we've been receiving several calls . They have been asking when is the next RISE forum coming up? How much is it? Where is it holding? Who is coming?

This actually tells you that people are looking forward to it. Even on Facebook people are inviting us to come over to some cities. This is the reason we are not going to some cities we visited last year because we want other young people to benefit from the RISE national youth forum. I would say that over time we've had series of success stories from our participants. Recently, I was just talking to a colleague of mine in the office that we should compile some of these stories and get them to come to next youths forum to talk about how RISE has affected their lives.

How has it been raising funds for the youth forum?

It has been okay; though in preceding years it was a bit tough. We had a few albatrosses here, there and everywhere. It was a new idea then and a lot of people then technically did not believe in what we were doing. I was just a young woman trying to keep a dream alive and some were very skeptical about the idea. They were not sure we won't take the money and bolt away. But over the years or let's say in four years we have been able to work with fifty percent of the most successful multinationals and indigenous companies.

What do you aim to achieve with RISE Academy?
A lot of companies have worked with us in the past and a lot are still working with us. I just shared with one of my friends that one of the ways we want to create sustainable leverage for young people is by creating the RISE Academy. If you pass through our ground floor we have an eighteen-seat library. We realized our young people don't read and secondly the atmosphere is not conducive for learning in the country right now .

So in RISE Academy we created a place for learning. You know we are only a group of young people, so we need to work with the resources we have. That would house over 200 of the world leading best selling books. We also have wireless Internet , so you can come with your laptops. The place is open to young people to study but for journalists, it is free. The idea is to enhance learning and reading among average young Nigerians.

Tell us the origins of RISE?
RISE actually means a call to action. You know when you rise, you rise for a reason, you rise up, you don't rise down. Though I would say that personally I started RISE, but over the years, the success we recorded has been a collective effort of several other young people. I will like to give credit to all the people that walked with me over the years. What really gave birth to RISE ? Well I was born in Lagos but I schooled in Jos and we were very complacent people there and there wasn't much opportunity for us there.

You know in Lagos, you can school and work part time .So because I came from Lagos , that spirit of Lagos, you know you can't just sit, that tendency was around me, I just had do something. You know I can't just spend my time at the university and just say I read law. I wanted to do something different and I realized that I am a young person. It's my constituency, so why can't I start relating with young people. I started RISE as a small magazine at the University of Jos in January 2005. As at 2007 in January, the cost of publishing, promoting the magazine, printing it and even sustaining it became quite a challenge.

I realized that with the magazine, it is only the number of copies we can pay to publish that people can have access to. So I thought why didn't we just turn it into a massive youth programme instead of publishing a magazine and giving it to young people? So that everything we want to discuss in that magazine we can discuss it in the youth forum. At that time, nobody was doing anything for young people. So I started RISE Youths Forum in June , 2007.

NLC was on strike and there was no movement ; you know what it is when labour is on strike but we had five thousand participants. It was a sell-out. We used Party Hall at Water Parks.

The crowd outside was twice what we had inside. You know pictures don't tell lies, I can show you some pictures to prove that to you. It's just to show that it is true and we are not building unnecessary hype round ourselves. I said this is good and even though I got a job at Oando, I worked there for three weeks and then I resigned because I will go back to my phone and I would see 47 missed calls. Many young people wanted to see me after that event.

Do you follow-up on these young people after the forum?

Yes, to an extent , but what I also realized is that we cannot track all of them. For instance we wrote something on our wall on Facebook for the up-coming event and somebody said she would be coming from Minna. Another said he would be coming from Asaba and some from Port Harcourt. You see, the truth is that we can't track everyone because of the distance.

That is why we are taking the Youths Forum to other parts of the county. But the only way we can track youths is through email and phone calls but how many calls can we make? Like I said before, this year , we are going to document some stories of people who have been directly affected by RISE programmes so that other people can know more about RISE and that other young people can say ' I can also do something and if I do something next year, I would be put on stage to share my experience with others too and probably I might get someone who would invest in my dreams'.

We are beginning to look at ways of sustaining the tempo, things we are thinking of doing in the next five years to six years. If RISE is able to sustain the structure that we have in place and able to integrate it into a holistic structure maybe in another few more years, we would be thinking of taking small businesses run by young people and buy stakes in them. Take for instance you are making soap and you are very hardworking and highly intelligent. People saw me and believed in me, they didn't give me money but they invested in me intellectually.

People spent their time telling me Toyosi do it like this and this intellectual input shaped me and helped me today. You know everything is not money, but I also realized that bling, bling without economic empowerment is like a woman in false labour. She would go into the labour room and come out empty. So even though we are going to encourage them, I also think it is good to help them prepare and give them matching opportunities . So , if someone has a good idea, RISE can say okay we will give you so, so amount and buy a stake in your business.

That money becomes seed capital for that business and RISE becomes a part owner of that business, so that we can monitor the process for you. We can monitor the business plan , we can monitor the financial and operational activities in the business. So over the years, let's say some leading young business people would be people that have benefited from RISE. Instead of giving people money and telling them okay go, no, we will buy stakes in their businesses and we also take responsibility in growing them. Those are the things we are contemplating, but it all depends on the availability of funds and the economy.

You know most of our sponsors are multinationals who would tell you about these . That is why we are also trying to put our structure in place so that we would be able to generate our funds. For instance usage of the library now would be N500 per person for three hours. This is the usual fee for using a normal café that doesn't have the same structure and facilities that we offer you. We can generate income, and in case we don't get corporate sponsors RISE, we can still live and also keep in touch with our dreams.

What is your strategy as a young female entrepreneur?

I like that. I was going to say sorry, I won't share my strategy on the pages of newspapers because there is what we call trade secrets. But I will share some, because I'm particularly interested in the female entrepreneur. This is all I have done in my life and this is what I will continue to do.

Maybe not in line with the RISE youth development programmed , but every time I get an intelligent young person I tend to get them on board. I try to discipline them; I try to let them know I went through the same process. Diamond is a precious stone that was made good under pressure. Because diamond was refined and processed it became the world's most valuable precious stone which is worth millions of dollars. But coal is worthless. Why?

It is consumed in the process of usage. But diamond went through heat and I have gone through heat myself. So when young people come around me and tell me it's not so easy, I tell them I have boarded a molue(bus) too. I even had to stand in a molue . I understand where you are coming from, but run your own race because I ran mine. I slept in people's living room in Lagos, Ayobo, and Iyanapaja. I once lived in Sango-ota. I lived with the woman who owned my primary school for two years and my shoes were on my bed. My shirts were hunged on my curtain railings…

Why?
It is because my parents don't live in Lagos.
The woman who owned my primary school is my Godmother . When I finished school and I came back to Lagos to hustle and I started the RISE dream, everybody thought I was crazy , because I got a job in an oil company then, but I left. But I kept on with the dream because I said to myself I have a point to prove. That all of us may go out through the same door, but we are not going to the same direction.

I think am proving the same point. Let's go back to female entrepreneurship. I think when a man sees you and recognizes that you have what they call high IQ, he recognizes that you have personal mantra and he also recognizes that you have grey matter. It is called intelligence. The man would rather pay you and leave you and sleep with a woman who doesn't have intelligence. You know why? It is because intelligence doesn't mix with sex .

Please forgive me. It is not, because I have not been in situations where I would have compromised but I always walk into every meeting with my head high-up even when I didn't have anything. The first time I went to make a presentation, I wore a black shirt with black trousers with a black bag to match, because black doesn't fade easily. It conceals everything , but when it fades you can't easily know. It also accentuates strength. I still wear a lot of black but I now have several others.

You know I read law, so I am used to wearing black and white. But, women don't walk into meetings with strength. You walk into a board meeting to play like a man and win like a woman. I walk into the meeting to let you know that my gender is not a limitation. Trust me I can do everything you can do, give me a chance. Don't pay me until I prove a point. It has worked. If you hear anybody say any bad thing about me, it is that Toyosi is too tough. Oh yes! My friends say it to my face.

Don't you think men are intimidated by your mien?
No they are not. I have a lot of male friends and most of my friends are male. I don't have many female friends. I have may be one or two because you see men get used to you to a point where they become comfortable with you. When my friends have problems with their wives they tell me . I tell them, no, you messed up and I tell them this is how to treat a woman.

But most African men are quite intimidated by career-driven women?

Well, I'm not career-driven. I'm purpose driven. I'm doing youth development today. I am doing youth development, so that I will gravitate towards human capital development , because in the future what RISE would begin to do is to recruit for organizations all these young people that passed through RISE. But I believe it is good to take one step at a time because if you are supposed to be crawling and you are running you would come back to crawl. But if you say that African men are intimidated, it is men that cannot succeed that are intimated.

For instance Tara is married to a successful man. I also know about brilliant women, Ndidi Okonkwo is married. Oby Ekwesili cooks for her husband…I have seen her cook. She is a woman .She doesn't need any other man to know she is a woman. She needs only her husband to know that. You know why? If she takes femininity into the boardroom, it doesn't work, men know where women are vulnerable and they would use it against you.

Have you ever been sexually harassed?
Oh no. If you want to sexually harass me then you need to have two heads on your neck. When you walk into a room strutting your stuff in front of a man, he knows , make friends with men they will tell you that they know. They tell me Toyosi, you are very intelligent, I would prefer to have you as a friend than sleep with you, because every time I have a new business idea I prefer to discuss with you.