Angela Williams, President & CEO of United Way Worldwide, Visit to Nigeria

The President of United Way Worldwide, an international non-governmental organisation (INGO), Angela Williams, has pledged more support and investment for Nigerian youths to enable them contribute to the nation’s socio-economic development.

Williams, the first African-American woman to lead the 135-year-old NGO, made the promise at a news conference on Thursday in Lagos as part of activities to mark her first official visit to Nigeria.

She described Nigerian youths as talented and resilient.

Williams said that she would invest in Nigeria’s next leaders to enable them to thrive and be their best globally.

She also said that the NGO would bring more solutions to Nigerian communities, adding that Nigeria is important to Africa and the world.

She said that the organization had partnered with the government, private companies, and individuals to achieve its goal because many societal challenges could be solved through strong collaborations.

Read the full Q&A session below.

It’s your first time in Nigeria, how has the experience been so far? To lighten the mood: what’s your favorite Nigerian dish?

This has been a powerful and humbling trip. Amidst the tragedy and destruction last month’s floods have left behind, I’ve still been met with warm hospitality and kindness everywhere I’ve gone. I feel a sense of community here in Nigeria, and I’m looking forward to more time here.

As for my favorite Nigerian dish, it feels impossible to choose. But I think I have to go with jollof rice. I love a spicy kick at the end of mine, and so far, the jollof here has delivered that in spades. I’m hungry for more!

One of your aims of visiting Nigeria is to bring awareness to the United Way presence in Africa (specifically in Nigeria) and attract high net worth individuals and corporate donors to support the mission of United Way Greater Nigeria. This is an ambitious move. How are you proposing to go about this? What will success look like for you?

That’s right. I’m here to celebrate and lift up the great work happening here through United Way Greater Nigeria, and in doing so, make the case for why more people should invest in it.

The United Way Greater Nigeria team does so much good work from its work Promoting Virtual Learning and STEM Education in Nigeria (PVL-STEM) to its work on Skills to Employment Program (STEP).

And after last month’s floods, the need is greater than ever. With farmland destroyed, communities underwater, over 200,000 homes washed away, 1.4 million people displaced, and over 600 lives lost, this country is hurting, and United Way is here to help.

In about 5 affected states, United Way Greater Nigeria has immediately begun to galvanize support from our corporate and international partners to provide good camping with toilets and water systems, mattresses, blankets, foods, insecticide-treated nets, educational materials for children, hygiene products including sanitary towels for girls and young women, medical support and supplies especially for children who are mostly affected with high risk of cholera.

I’m excited to hear more about that work, and be on the ground to understand local needs, and explore how United Way Greater Nigeria can do even more to support individuals in need. 

That’s the same approach I bring to supporting the entire United Way Network of over 1,100 affiliates in 37 countries around the world. As president of United Way Worldwide, it’s my job to leverage the power of our global network and ensure the right help and resources are on the way.

For me, success will ultimately be defined by more people in Nigeria having their basic needs met, and building a more equitable future for Nigerian communities to thrive in. It’s about advancing the common good, and I’m honored to help drive that work forward here in Nigeria.

United Way Worldwide is one of the largest privately funded philanthropies in the world. As the first African American woman to lead United Way — and with the world just 8 years from achieving the SDGs related to equity — I am asking on behalf of many women out there, how have you consciously walked the great walk to break barriers as you rose to the top?

It’s an honor to be the first Black woman to lead United Way, but being the first is a feeling I know all too well. As a Black woman, I have been the “first and only” in so many instances throughout my career.

One of  the biggest lessons I’ve learned along the way — and what I tell young people everywhere who might find themselves feeling different than the majority of others around them — is that there is true power that lies in being yourself.

Showing up as you are with your full, authentic self on display may sound simple in theory, but it’s radical in practice. I know how scary it can be, but trust me when I tell you that it is vitally important to be your authentic self — not just for you, but for the whole world too. It is the only way we’ll push real progress forward, breaking barriers for yourself and for others around you.

I know that it can be tempting — particularly in the business world — to gloss over your differences, hide what makes you unique, and fall in line to fit into a mold of others’ expectations. But it is imperative that we not do that. The world needs each and every one of us, just as we are.

It’s been 5 years since United Way Worldwide got established in Nigeria, what has the partnership with Nigeria been like? What achievements are you most proud of? Could you please share some success stories?

United Way Greater Nigeria has been up to some terrific work these last five years, and the proof is in the pudding:

3,000,000 direct and indirect beneficiaries since inception

  • 13 Local NGOs and Community Based Organizations supported to reach over 750,000 beneficiaries
  • 200,000 kgs of Family Food Packs weighing 20 Kilos each donated to 10,000 vulnerable households
  • 3000 Corp Members sensitized on Mental Wellness, Suicide awareness and prevention
  • 70 communities reached across 12 states
  • 22 local companies helped to reach CSR goals over
  • 5000 in and out of school young people impacted with Leadership, financial literacy and savings culture
  • 100 pupils supported with tuition fees and scholarship
  • Over 13,000 teaching and learning materials donated
  • Over 2,700 pupils,out-of-school young people and early career employees & entrepreneurs,  supported with Digital Skills Training for the Future of Work

As I begin to get to know this team better, I’ve been particularly proud of the way they’ve made use of the minimal resources they have to impact a significant number of girls, women and children across Nigeria.   

One success story that stands out — and one that I think holds a lot of promise — is United Way Greater Nigeria’s recently announced partnership with the Embassy of the United States of America, Abuja, American Corner Maiduguri and Intercommunity for African Development Initiative.Together, they launched the “Promoting Inclusive Economic Growth and Development Through Sustainable Programs” initiative which will help transform the future of young people in North East Nigeria, aged 15-24 by helping them fulfil their potential in entrepreneurship and employment. The young people will be trained on Leadership and financial skills, then provided access to economic opportunities by linking them to mentorship, internship and apprenticeship chances as well as starting up businesses or scaling up business for them as necessary.

That work is vital, and so is the work that United Way Greater Nigeria is doing in response to last month’s floods — the worst this country has experienced in a decade. United Way is here to offer immediate support in the short-term, but we will stay for the long-haul too, and shape a more equitable future for communities across the country.

You have served as the Vice President, general counsel and chief administration officer at the YMCA in the US. You have also served as the President and CEO of Easterseals amongst  many other top positions that you have held over the years. What can you say about your style of leadership and how it has catalyzed the impacts you have made in multi-agency organizations, even in spaces that are often considered as men-led?

I aim to be a servant leader every single day. Actions speak louder than words, which is why I’m all about rolling up my sleeves, being on the frontlines alongside my team, and standing shoulder to shoulder in this fight to advance the common good, every step of the way.

Trust and humility are key components of my leadership style too, and I think successful organizations need them in spades to have the greatest impact possible.

I’m proud to be a woman working in many spaces that are predominantly male-led. Like I said before, I’ve been a trailblazer for most of my life, and I wear that badge with pride.

More than 80% of United Way Greater Nigeria beneficiaries are women, children and men living in underserved communities across Nigeria. What strategies are in place to ensure sustainable impacts on the lives and living conditions of this demographic, knowing that Nigeria is in a constant shifting politico-economic space?

I’m glad you asked, because this is really at the heart of what makes United Way’s approach so different. No matter where we’re operating around the world, United Way approaches our work as partners – not saviors.

Nonprofits tend to think we have all the answers, and too often come into a community convinced we have the solution to any challenge, rather than listening to the people that are directly impacted.

Let me be clear: the people closest to the pain know the solutions that will best help them out of it – and they need to have a seat at the table as those solutions are crafted.

So to answer your question, our strategy is to leverage our relationships with local community leaders, and ensure that the women, children, and men of Nigeria help shape the services that will ultimately serve them.

We’ll take their insights, partner with them to ensure they are most effective, and leverage our national and global network to deliver the services and aid necessary for maximum impact. That’s the United Way “secret ingredient” — it’s all about bringing a hyper-local focus to our work, which also helps us respond to rapidly changing social, political, and economic realities like you mentioned too.

One part of United Way Greater Nigeria’s vision is to build a country where all people can attain their full potential in education, sustainable income, and healthcare. What scope or kind of partnerships/collaborations will be critical to achieving this huge vision for the organization, and also how do you plan to retain them for sustainability?

Fighting for the health, economic well-being, and education for everyone takes all of us, which is why partnerships are such a fundamental part of United Way’s work.

We work with over 22  partners around the world, and they help us maximize our impact and expand our reach in countless ways. For example, our partnership in Nigeria with General Electric International Operations (GE) helps us foster student development, provide learning essentials for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and help out-of-school children access education.

I’m here in hopes of recruiting more corporate and philanthropic partners to join us in our work and see the amazing things we can make happen together. In the same way I try to lead with a spirit of servant leadership, trust, and humility internally at United Way, I try to extend the same to our external partners. With that at the center, our partnerships can have staying power long after I’m gone.

In a world where kindness is scarce, I would like for you to tell us what Kindness means to you and how we can make the world a better place through Kindness.

Desmond Tutu had it right when he said: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

As I see it, there’s no act of kindness too small not to pursue. It’s fun to go about your day and challenge yourself to be as kind as possible — in big moments and in little ones. Put on a smile and tell the cashier at the grocery store how much you like their glasses. Go the extra mile for a coworker at the office to lighten their load. Feed the hungry, help the sick, and show up for those in need.

Kindness knows no bounds, and it never gets old sharing it or receiving it. Thanks for showing me kindness here today, and thanks for your time.

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