Yawa Hansen-Quao was the first female student-government president at her university — and, as she was astonished to find out, also in Ghana. Seeing a lack of leadership roles for women, she switched from her involvement in women’s health to focusing on female leadership. Hansen-Quao founded the Leading Ladies’ Network, a nonprofit based in her country that teaches entrepreneurship and leadership skills to young women. Last year, she was recognized for her work as an Eisenhower Fellow.
Hansen-Quao spoke about the challenges of nurturing African female leadership, particularly as entrepreneurs, on the Knowledge at Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: What was the framework behind Leading Ladies’ Network when you started it?
Yawa Hansen-Quao: When I started Leading Ladies’ Network in 2009, the vision was to help fill Africa’s future leadership pipeline. My inspiration for that was partly from my own personal story. I ran for student government when I was in university and became the first female student-government president on my campus. But it turned out this was the first time in the history of the country that a woman had been elected president of a university-level student-government system.
That’s what really shifted my focus from women’s health to women’s leadership, because I was at the time very active in HIV/AIDS peer education. I really wanted to establish an organization that would help women become visible leaders, particularly in the fields of business and politics.
Knowledge at Wharton: In terms of giving young women someone to emulate, political leaders are great, but I think business leaders are even more important. It’s more realistic to think first about business success than political success.
Hansen-Quao: Absolutely. I think they’re both equally important, but when you can have women who are visible, who are entrepreneurs, who are making money — having access to financial resources means that they can be involved at a more tangible level in their communities. And the real work of establishing women [leadership] starts when women are girls, which is why our organization is really focused on introducing young girls, particularly in the school system, to the entrepreneurial pathway.
Part of that involves company visits and getting women entrepreneurs and business people to come serve as mentors, but part of that is using programs like Junior Achievement [that teaches business skills and knowhow to the young] and doing training, particularly because there are so many young women who are unable to continue to higher education. Giving them employable skills or skills to enable them to start their own business becomes a critical solution to making sure that they become useful in their communities.
“The world seems to be waking up to the importance of having women involved.… But I do think there is still a long way to go.”
Knowledge at Wharton: How strong is the push for entrepreneurship in Ghana and in that part of Africa?
Hansen-Quao: There is a strong push towards entrepreneurship partly because there’s such a high unemployment rate. There are so many people chasing jobs that are just nonexistent at the moment. Out of necessity, people are forced to look at an entrepreneurial pathway for their careers. I think that there has also been a lot of romanticization of entrepreneurs. There’s a sense that, “I will also start in my garage, and I will be the next [Facebook co-founder Mark] Zuckerberg.”
There are a lot of factors that are making people inclined to take the entrepreneurial path. I think for women, it’s partly because of the social burden of child care. They get married, they have children, a lot of the responsibility for their homes falls on them. It’s actually an easier thing to manage, alongside their families, as opposed to the structured world of work where they need to be in a certain place at a specific time. Taking the entrepreneurial pathway provides flexibility that a lot of women look for.
Knowledge at Wharton: If you’re talking about getting this process started young, are the schools accepting of this? Schools often think about the traditional focus on education and not necessarily what the student will become after they graduate from high school or college.
Hansen-Quao: It’s been a mixed bag of reactions. I think most private institutions understand the usefulness of programming such as ours. Public institutions are a bit more set in their ways. However, we’ve been on a journey. I think that increasingly, both public and private institutions are waking up to the fact that this is smart; it makes sense. And if we’re able to provide alternative pathways to ensure that everyone is productively engaged after they graduate from our institutions, that’s actually a smart thing to do. So, we’re finding that both public and private institutions are waking up.
Knowledge at Wharton: How many young women have come through the doors of Leading Ladies’ Network since its inception?
Hansen-Quao: We have been very privileged to have been part of so many success stories. We have a clubs program that runs in junior high, high school and university. Our numbers for that are just under 900, so we’re almost at the 1,000 mark for that program. We also do programming for women who are in the world of work. We have customized workshops and courses that we offer, and our programming with that is much higher. We just have under 1,200 women who’ve graduated through some of our programming for that. We have an annual program — the StandOut Women’s Leadership Program — which is for executives who are transitioning from early stage management into directorship roles. That is our newest community with 93 women.
Knowledge at Wharton: What is your impact? How far of a reach do you have in Ghana and the region?
Hansen-Quao: Ghana is in West Africa, and we’ve been able to recruit and work in five countries. We’ve done work in Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan and South Africa. We’re really excited about that. One of the things that we were proud of is that the benefit overall for having more women as leaders is not just that they’ll be there as physical reminders, but they can leverage their leadership for the good of others.
One of the things that we encourage and even demand is that once women go through the program and get the skillset, they leverage their leadership for the good of others. We’re seeing young girls and older women involved in changing their communities because we are really focused on making sure that we take this sense of entitlement that often exists and transform that into a sense of responsibility for the good of the community.
“We want to be able to fill Africa’s future leadership pipeline and to strengthen the capacity of existing women leaders.”
Knowledge at Wharton: You are seeing the investment back in the communities, an understanding of the philosophy that you have to leave it better than what it was when you started?
Hansen-Quao: Absolutely, and it’s not something we even have to force. I think a lot of these women receive training, and a light gets switched on. The immediate question that they ask themselves is, “Who else needs this? Who else may I pass it on to?” I think that that’s one of the benefits of inspiring or motivating or empowering women, that they immediately think of who else needs this and how can we pay it forward.
Knowledge at Wharton: Who were the female leaders that you looked up to as you were growing up?
Hansen-Quao: I had the formative years of my life here in the U.S. We were political refugees for a while. I remember admiring Hillary Clinton. I have admired my mother. I have learned so much from her and from strong teachers and relatives. I find inspiration in different places and from different people.
But I have also found a lot of inspiration from men. My father was a strong influence in my life. One of the things that I hope towards the work of empowering women is that we do a better job of involving and roping in men as allies in this journey. Particularly, if you are going to be the first anything as a woman, your predecessor will probably be a man. So, the role of men in mentoring women for corporate success or for business success cannot be overlooked.
Knowledge at Wharton: That partnership between men and women wasn’t there 30 years ago. The opportunities for women weren’t as great as they are right now. Is that bridge between men and women better in your part of the world now compared to what it was when you were a girl?
Hansen-Quao: It’s improving. I think the world seems to be waking up to the importance of having women involved in governance, in business and in politics. But I do think there is still a long way to go. There is a very pervasive and subconscious belief that women cannot or should not lead. For instance, I do not know a woman my age who hasn’t experienced sexual harassment in her place of employment. We have made a lot of gains, but there still is a long way to go. I do think that the more collaborative we are between gender lines, the better it will be.
Knowledge at Wharton: Is the ultimate success story for you having somebody come through Leading Ladies’ Network who ends up being the CEO of a company, whether it be in Ghana or someplace else?
“The role of men in mentoring women for corporate success or for business success cannot be overlooked.”
Hansen-Quao: Or become president. Absolutely. You know, as it relates to my Eisenhower fellowship, one of the things that I’m very interested in is learning from the experiences of other women’s organizations here. There’s an adjunct professor here at the university … who runs an organization that prepares women for political leadership. Our goal is to become a pan-African institution for women’s leadership development. We want to be able to fill Africa’s future leadership pipeline and to strengthen the capacity of existing women leaders, with the hope that they will not only improve their own circumstances but the circumstances of other people.
Knowledge at Wharton: I would think that the goal is also to develop skills to be a leader whether in business or politics, which are two areas that sometimes don’t mesh very well.
Hansen-Quao: Absolutely. And also, to not negate the leadership that women have innately — I’ve always said that if you can make your two kids stop quarreling, that’s the same skillset that you need to broker world peace. It’s not so much about us making women leaders, but also helping to unearth the leadership potential that they already possess and helping young girls understand that if they’re responsible for their younger siblings, that’s leadership, too. That leadership is not so much about the stage, about being public, but about being influential. All of us have influence, and how do you leverage that influence for yourself and for others?
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you hope that Leading Ladies’ Network can expand throughout Africa and beyond?
Hansen-Quao: I would love to see our operation go into the developing world, into countries like India and other parts of Asia. But for the next 10 years, our focus really is on Africa.
Image: Yawa Hansen-Quao at the World Economic Forum on Africa held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, May 2012.