The Women behind WomenWerk
Demi Ajayi and Nekpen Osuan are the founders of Womenwerk, a movement that brings women and men together for a modern take on International Women’s Day. On March 8, 2014, International Women’s Day, they’ll host their inaugural event, The Century of the African Woman with a day forum for youth and professionals, and then a gala in the evening celebrating accomplished individuals and organizations such as Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and Bill Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative of the Clinton Foundation among others. Afridiaspora.com spoke to the Demi and Nekpen about Womenwerk, their inspirations, and why they decided to hold their event Century of the African Woman.
Take us to the beginning and tell us how Womenwerk came to be and also the Century of the African Woman forum and gala.
Nekpen Osuan: Demi and I have attended events on International Women’s Day events for many years, where the topics discussed offered a formal look on critical issues for women in developing countries. We wanted to have an event that also spoke to the issues of women of developed nations; issues such as such socio-economic issues, political leadership, education, and gender and equity issues. We wanted women here to feel equally vested in the conversation about their issues and concerns. Womenwerk is to honor International Women’s Day, a day where we discuss issues relevant to professional women here and also celebrate women and friends who have accomplished amazing things.
Demi Ajayi: International Women’s Day to me has seemed like a brilliant and much needed holiday. Some countries recognize it as an official holiday, but I haven’t seen much celebration around it in the United States here beyond the development community. We wanted to provide a platform to commemorate International Women’s Day by celebrating women and also talking about issues that are relevant to us as professionals in New York City.
In essence you have two events on March 8th, the forum during the day and the gala in the evening. Can you tell us why you decided to structure the day this way?
Nekpen Osuan: There are two parts because there are issues and concerns of the urban woman we need to discuss, but also we wanted to showcase and celebrate the success of African women. The forum allows us to discuss issues that are common among women and further to connect with one another on a more authentic and meaningful level. The gala allows us to pay special tribute to women and organizations doing good work for African women. There is a huge disconnect in the image of what the African woman is. It was important to us to celebrate the accomplished African Woman.
Demi Ajayi: There is definitely a duality in the narrative of Africa now and there is truth to both. By some metrics Africa is rising, yet there is much more to do. We want to keep the narrative positive and truthful by acknowledging women as agents of change and showing their impact in our world. As Nekpen mentioned, our focus for the forum is connection and conversation and for the gala, celebration.
For the forum, you have breakout sessions with topics ranging from college and success, to finding your true passion, asserting yourself in the workplace to navigating generational expectations. These are a full range of issues; tell us some of the thought processes behind the topics.
Nekpen Osuan: We designed the program to ensure that all women have a stake in this conversation. Therefore, we begin the day with a youth forum to discuss topics relevant to millenials, then proceed to our young professional panels and then end it with inter-generational conversations and the roundtable discussion where our role models can share some of their wisdom. We wanted a real practical way that woman can get connected to this day.
For the gala, you choose eight women and one man who are very accomplished in various fields. Tell us your thought process behind the amazing list of honorees that you have for the Gala?
Nekpen Osuan: We really wanted to show the different types of accomplished African women out there. You have Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who is an international rockstar and not just a gem of Africa, but really for the world. She was a managing director for the World Bank and has served two terms as finance minister of Nigeria. And then we have Bill Clinton as our ally of the year. The Clinton Global Foundation’s amazing work in Africa is broad based and very targeted. Their work on the impact on the lives of African women is amazing. He is also going to talk about how men can make an impact in the lives of women.
Demi Ajayi: We wanted to show the diversity of success within professional African Women. Dr. Mehret Mandefro is a renaissance woman, a doctor and an anthropologist and is marrying all her different interests in a way that is making an impact. And there is Mo Abudu who launched a television network to Mimi Alemayehou who is the EVP of OPIC. We were looking for people who are accomplished but also invested in their communities.
What’s next for Womenwerk after the event?
Nekpen Osuan: After the event this year, we will take some time and reflect and then start thinking and planning for next year. Next year the forum will be open to men as well, so that is something we’ll be working on. We will also be attending the UN delegation on the status of women and share our observations from our event. The conversation will be about women in developing countries, but we will bring in the point that modern women in developed countries also have a stake in the conversation as well.
Demi Ajayi: There are so many soft issues that we need to address, we’ve touched on some topics this year and are looking forward to diving into more next year. We already have a long list going. Our initiative has resonated with many people and we are looking forward to further exploring it.
You are friends and co-founders of Womenwerk and have spent the last year working side by side planning this event. What are some of the takeaways and things that have you learned about yourselves during this project?
Nekpen Osuan: Working with Demi has really thought me to take risks. I’ve also learned the importance of defining what you are doing.
Demi Ajayi: Working with Nekpen on this project has made me realize the importance of having someone there for you, having open communication, being open to creative criticism and knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are. I’ve learned so many things. It’s been a real growing experience. I’ve experienced the power of human connection; it is currency to be valued. I’ve also seen how wide the gap between idea and execution is. It takes a lot of hard work to recreate what you envision. My greatest lesson by far is that of stepping out in faith.
Womenwerk’s A century of the African Woman will be held on March 8, 2014 in New York city.
Demi Ajayi is a graduate student at Columbia University studying Mechanical Engineering. Her research focuses on spectroscopy of recent nanomaterials which have potential for solar cells and next generation electronic devices. She’s also invested in STEM outreach to increase public interest and moreover the proportion of women and minorities represented in the sciences. She’s served as a research methodology instructor for the Ronald McNair program at Columbia University. She’s also served as a freelance science writer associate for the New York Academy of Sciences. Demi has a growing interest in entrepreneurship and tech transfer and serves as a fellow for Columbia Technology Ventures. Prior to moving to New York, Demi worked in Seattle as a design engineer and stress analyst at The Boeing Company. Demi is a co-founder of WomenWerk.
Nekpen Osuan is an Associate Professor at Columbia University and an Associate Education Officer at the New York City Department of Education. Nekpen is a founding member of The Council of Young African Leaders and served as Deputy State Data Director for Obama for America in the battleground state of Florida. She volunteers on the board of The New Leaders Council-New York and AfriMetro. She’s also a mentor for the Clinton Global Initiative and Lower East Side Girls Club. She received her undergraduate degree from Baylor University and her Masters from Columbia University, Nekpen is passionate about education policy, civic engagement, and economic development. Nekpen is the co-founder of Womenwerk.