The face of young African leadership

How Afua Osei is challenging the status quo and the one big lesson she learnt from US First Lady Michelle Obama


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Afua Osei, co-founder of She Leads Africa

Like other millennial leaders Afua Osei is challenging what traditional leadership looks like. Osei is on a mission to make an impact on the lives of female entrepreneurs in Africa.

She is one half of a dynamic duo that founded and runs She Leads Africa, a social enterprise that is aimed at advancing female entrepreneurship on the African continent and the diaspora.

A political consultant by training, Osei studied political science in her undergraduate studies with the thought of going to law school, but an opportunity to do a summer program took her to public policy school and business school where she learned about 'this amazing world called business' she tells SME South Africa during their recently held Hive Jo'burg event.

Her mission has taken her across the United States where she was providing strategy and communications expertise to political campaigns at EMILY's List, to as far as Malaysia creating community engagement programs as a Fulbright Scholar.

One of her most significant experiences, however, was her stint assisting the White House research and writing teams in the Office of the First Lady.

She has presented at the Harvard African Business Conference on "Empowering Women in Business" and contributed business and entrepreneurship articles to various publications.

Stumbling onto her passion
Osei says when she went into business school she was a complete rookie who didn't know what hedge funds were, or private equity, and met people who had careers she'd never heard of before.

"But it was a great opportunity to learn and meet incredible people," she says. "I had the chance to move to the continent, to come back home to become a corporate consultant and while there I was solving problems for multinational companies and big governments and I had a desire to work with and help young women who I could see really needed support in starting their own businesses and utilised all of the skills that I have been learning from business school from my political consulting career to actually come and help young women."

"So I started She Leads with a former colleague, Yasmin Belo-Osagie, and the goal really is to help young women achieve their professional dreams – whether it's starting a business or climbing the corporate ladder how can we use our networks, our expertise, our experience to help young women go out there and reach that next level," she says.

​The organisation has gone on to create a buzz all across the continent to as far as New York and London and has set Osei and Belo-Osagie as trailblazing millennial leaders who are changing not only the face of entrepreneurship but the face of leadership on the continent.

SME South Africa finds out from Osei what she has learnt from Michelle Obama about being a leader and the good and the bad of being a female leader in Africa.

Watch: She Leads Africa co-founder, Afua Osei, on being a 10X leader

People who are always paying attention and learning and improving are the ones who are able to stand the test of times, says Osei. As the impact of technology grows ever stronger, Osei the willingness to push boundaries counts as one the characteristics that make a 10X leader. 

"So that willingness to try new things, push your business in new directions is really important. We’ve all heard the stories of businesses who died. They just didn’t get it, especially in today’s economy with global competition we can’t feel as if our small markets are going to protect us there are global competitors coming all around. And the pace and the way the technology is evolving and developing – it’s really important for you to always be mindful about how can you create a new product, deliver your service better to your customers because there could be something else that comes and totally wipes you out," says Osei.

Watch: The importance of being different - Afua Osei on challenging the status quo

Osei says that part of ensuring the company remains on top of its game is to always ask 'how can we do things better?' 'how do we reach more people?' and 'how do we give them more value?'

This, Osei says, as well as holding themselves to high, worldclass standars are some of the reasons SLA has been so successful. 

Watch: ‘Everything you do, do it right’ – what I’ve learnt from Michelle Obama

"Imagine that that e-mail you're about to send could be on the front page of the New York Times," says Osei. Making sure that everything, including the little things, is key to being successful. This was the lesson Osei says has stayed with her throughout her career.

"I want to make sure that we're putting out the best possible product that really reflects our values and our standards," she says.

Watch: Osei on the good and the burdens of being a female leader in Africa

While it still feels strange to be seen as an inspiration by other young female entrepreneurs, Osei says it's very important that she speaks up when there's an opportunity to do so, in order to demonstrate and show people the multifaceted aspects of leadership and also show that women are there and they are involved.

"I want to see more women seeing leadership and innovation and being creators as a space that is welcoming to them," Osei adds.

Watch: Osei on how she has grown as a leader and what she’s learnt about inspiring her team

"I really had to change my expectations," Osei says, "Not lower them, but to really understand that we're not going to have a company of people all like myself and my partner. It wouldn’t help us do well, it wouldn’t be good for diversity of ideas."

She says that while it is a lot easier just to yell, however, to really have a good team it's about how do they find people who they can trust are willing to learn and put in the work and train them to do the rest.

"But if we're going to have people who have different backgrounds and expertise, we have to be willing to adjust the way that we work with them to generate business results for the company," Osei says.

Watch: My Favourite and best advice on being a 10x Leader

Osei says when it comes to being a great leader, it's the little moments that count.

"It's about knowing what's important to your team. It's about being there for them and supporting them, coaching and giving advice. It's about letting people know that it's not a boss-type of relationship. It's about how can we both work together to achieve this goal."

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