Who could have imagined that after growing up in a village in Uganda, I would have met President Obama or that I would now be participating in the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University, the only fellow under 50 years of age? My life so far is a testament to dreaming big and working hard to create a purposeful life.
The youngest of 12 children, I grew up in the tiny Ugandan village of Gomba. My father died when I was eight. Although it was a difficult time for the family, my mother’s strength pulled us through. Despite having very little education, my mother defied the cultural norm that pressured women to remarry and give up their children. Her example gave me the motivation to pursue my goals and help other young people along the way. I watched my mother turn 1 shilling into 100 shillings. Her philosophy was that richness comes from the heart. It isn’t about how much money you have, but how you use what you have efficiently.
From the village school in Gomba, I went on to Nabisunsa Girls’ Secondary School in Kampala. There, I learned the importance of women helping women. I spoke no English, so I asked a classmate for help. Every day after school, we sat outside, and she tutored me. I eventually became a debate champion in English!
I studied Fine Arts at Makerere University. Within two weeks of graduating from university, I landed a position at SCANAD, the largest marketing and communications group in Sub-Saharan Africa and a subsidiary of the WPP Advertising group. After two years, I quit that job to start my own agency, Century Marketing, which I ran for 12 years. This didn’t come easy: I realized then that I didn’t have enough experience in marketing or branding, so I enrolled in the Chartered Institute of Marketing in the U.K. and attained a Diploma in Advanced Professional Charted Marketing. For continuously learning, I have done a lot of Leadership development courses including British Council InterAction Program, Aspen Global Leadership fellowship, Synergos Senior Fellowship, Vital Voices VVLead Fellowship and KAICIID International Inter-Religious Fellowship. I also did a Master’s in Peace, Conflict and International Development at the University of Bradford in United Kingdom
After some time, I realized that I wasn’t happy, and my mind was conflicted. I had launched a successful branding and marketing business, but I realized that I was helping companies make more money from people who had so little to spare. I had lost my moral compass. But I was committed to finding it again, so I made a change. After ten years of running my marketing firm, I shifted from building brands to changing minds because I knew that Africa’s transformation would start from mind-set renewal.
Creating a Nonprofit
I founded Century Entrepreneurship Development Agency, (CEDA International) in Uganda, a nonprofit organization that mentors women and youth, with the aim of creating the next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs. My work has empowered over 168,000 youth and women across Africa; it has groomed leaders, influenced policies, empowered youth, provided education and employment for young women, mentored women to run for public offices and supported enterprises to develop business management systems. It has been gratifying to have been recognized with the World of Difference Award in 2011 from the International Alliance for Women, and, in 2014, The Goldman Sachs/Fortune Global Women Leaders Award. I am a Global Ambassador for Let Girls Learn, a Michelle Obama initiative. I was also recognized in 2016 as one of 50 Africa’s Most Influential Women in government and civil society; and awarded a Women in Development prize by the Islamic Development Bank for my contribution to peace-building.
My book, From Gomba to the White House, details my journey from mere survival to success, significance and influence. I share the 5D Cycle, the tool I have used to Discover who I am, Dream big, Design goals, Develop critical skills, habits and build character that have led me to a rewarding Destiny.
After 10 years of running CEDA International, I could see that my work wasn’t only an accessory for development, but also a tool that I could use to create a movement. I needed a community with purpose for intellectual conversations embedded with research, policy and practice to enable me design strategies for scale, sustainability and enhance impact of my work. I started a journey that would define my next chapter and contribute solutions to one of the major global challenges: access to quality education and youth employment, particularly for girls and women. As the mother of two daughters, I am passionate about education for girls.
In order to broaden my experience and mindset I am currently a fellow at the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative, a year-long opportunity to focus myself for my next chapter. Coming to Harvard has brought a new breath of air. Everyone is positive—creating something: artificial intelligence in the health sector, cancer research, early childhood education, building sustainable cities and economic empowerment of people at the bottom of the pyramid. For the first time, I am not leading, mentoring or thinking for others. I have given myself the liberty to just be—and focus on me.
I am finding the courage to abandon practices that have made me successful in the past and instead take daring leaps. I am preparing myself, not for the comfortable predictability of yesterday but for the realities of today and the unknown possibilities of tomorrow. I am using my time at Harvard to share, network and build strategic collaborations.
As a social innovator, my goal is to build solutions that will enable Africa’s young people to solve African problems with global perspectives. With more than 78% of the population under the age of 35, the time is now. I intend to create sustainable development solutions that facilitate the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. I want to turn the youth of Africa into productive members of society and global citizens. I want to be remembered as a teacher who supports people to take charge of their lives and destinies, and lead change in their communities.
Advice to Young Women
One thing I know for sure is that your background does not shape your destiny. And as you go high, remember to lift another girl or woman up because the African proverb says that the night sky is never lit by one bright star, it is lit by the billions of stars that come together. And if you walk alone, you go fast; when you take others, you will go far.
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