As part of the Wharton Africa Student Association’s WASA Wednesdays series, Elizabeth Ngonzi, former CEO of Afrika Tikkun USA, led a discussion titled “The African Female Executive.” The event, a collaboration between WASA and WWIB, was organized to learn about the experience of a woman of color in business and discuss strategies for career advancement. The 90-minute interactive session delved into various themes including, expanding your network and building relationships, cultivating varied interests, and establishing your personal brand from the perspective of a woman in business, especially from a woman of color.
At the start of the program, as students listened over their plates of jollof and plantain, Ms. Ngonzi quickly turned the event into an interactive discussion. After sharing an anecdote about an exchange with a boss at a prior job, she said to the room, I’d like to hear about your experiences. Students quickly raised their hands, keen to share their individual stories as women and men of color in business. Various questions were raised about maintaining your identity at work, assertiveness without being labeled “pushy”, and relating to coworkers in predominantly male industries.
Ms. Ngonzi shared with the students strategies she has used to help mitigate the challenges related to how she is perceived. Throughout her career, she has faced many challenges and according to her, “the most obvious being that I have an obviously foreign last name, and am a black woman.” She has used three strategies to overcome these perceptions. First, she focuses on developing mutually beneficial long-term relationships which have enabled her to develop social capital, resulting in others always having her back. Second, she strives for excellence in all that she does to ensure that her reputation is that of a professional who takes pride in her work. Finally, because she recognizes that her assertiveness can be perceived as intimidating, she chooses to let her warm and outgoing personality shine through, and is not afraid to show her femininity as a means to disarm others.
Students soon asked about ways in which they can make the most of the Wharton MBA program to best set them up for a successful career and Ms. Ngonzi had several key pieces of advice. First, she encouraged the attendees to cultivate relationships with classmates, professors, administrators and visiting alumni. Second, Ms. Ngonzi served on the alumni board of Cornell, where she developed many strong relationships with fellow alumni, so she highlighted the importance of being an active alumnus by attending events and volunteering as an alumni leader. Finally, she pushed students to get out of their comfort zones and try a new hobby or join a new group, saying: The more diverse your life experiences are, the more interesting you will be when engaging with those who will be assessing your ascent into leadership because it’s no longer about how great you are at PowerPoint or Excel, it’s about how you can bring new ideas to a company. Ms. Ngonzi then shared her newfound interest in sailing and the interesting people she has met through the activity. In fact, she’ll be attending a sailing camp in June!
What do you want people to find when they Google you? asked Ms. Ngonzi to conclude, reminding the students that they all have a brand that they should focus on curating.
“Five Tips for Women About Navigating the Corporate World” from Elizabeth Ngonzi.
- Immediately begin seeking mentors when you obtain your summer internship. These can be leaders in your firm, who inspire you, share your values, or may be in positions that interest you. Keep in mind that you do not have to limit your mentors to those who look like you, and in fact should seek out those who may seem to be the most different from you, as you can teach one another a great deal. Also recognize that mentors may be for a specific purpose, a season or even a lifetime. When the relationship has run its course, you will know.
- Don’t just focus on keeping your head down as you work. It is very important to cultivate relationships inside and outside of your firm, as a means to develop and maintain your network, share updates about opportunities and create balance. Having lunch, a video call, or going out for drinks/dinner at least once a week with a member of your network, can make a big difference.
- Cultivate your professional brand. As you seek leadership roles, you will have to build a brand around that which you want to be known. A great way to do so is through thought leadership, which is actually encouraged by many firms. If you’re a great speaker or writer, you can seek opportunities to share your knowledge thereby potentially increasing your visibility internally and externally.
- Be willing to pivot. While it is important to have a multi-year plan, you do have to be flexible enough that if an opportunity arises that is aligned with your goals, talents and interests, but may be different from what you expected to do, do at least consider it. Seldom do we get through our careers on a straight path and have some of the most rewarding experiences when we are willing to take some calculated risks.
- Choose your life partner very carefully. You already are quite accomplished and as you being your post-MBA career, you will be quite a force to be reckoned with. As such, it is very important to include in your criteria for selection, a partner who is supportive of your journey, has their own interests and with whom you can collaborate to create a mutually beneficial life. Having the wrong partner will definitely negatively impact your career and whole life.
Elizabeth Ngonzi was born in Uganda and grew up in Manhattan from the age of four, in a United Nations home. From an early age, she developed an interest in human rights, other people’s cultures and business. A voracious reader, she has always been fascinated by books about leaders’ journeys and how things work. She says, “In fact two books I read when I was a teenager—Ogilvy on Advertising by advertising pioneer David Ogilvy and Estee Lauder’s autobiography about the building of her beauty empire ignited my interest in marketing and entrepreneurship, respectively.”
Ms. Ngonzi spent the first half of her career in corporate America in tech marketing and sales, and management consulting. Following those experiences, she founded and ran a boutique consulting firm for 12 years, whose clientele included Susan G. Komen for the Cure, National Eating Disorders Association, the United Nations, Bank of New York Mellon, among others. In 2014, she was recruited by a Blue Chip South African nonprofit to build its presence in the US, which entailed everything from brand building, partnership development, fundraising, organizational development and pretty much everything it takes to build an organization. She completed that mission in January of 2018 and has since taken time to decompress, reflect, rest and begin laying the foundation for the next steps of her journey.