Elizabeth Bintliff CEO of Junior Achievement Africa narrates how her passion for the empowerment of African youths drove her back home from the USA
Every time I am introduced on a podium before I deliver a speech, I feel like pinching myself when I hear details being reeled out about my professional life, because it seems surreal that I am that person.
Statistically-speaking, everything about my professional life should have been impossible.
I grew up in Cameroon; the fourth of five children. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was one of two wives. She was illiterate, but she insisted that my mother be educated along with her 14 siblings, most of whom were male.
What I know for sure is that if my mother had not been educated, I would not have had any schooling myself. And that means I would not be where I am today. I may walk around in high heel shoes these days, but I still remember what it’s like to carry a bucket of water on my head.
I lived in Cameroon until I completed my high school education. Then I moved to the U.S. Where I subsequently obtained a Bachelors degree in International Relations at Kennesaw State University.
I then enrolled for a master’s degree in African studies at Yale University, of all places. By the time I completed my Masters, my passion for Africa had intensified so much that I was obsessed with the idea of going back to work there. But I was also realistic enough to appreciate the importance of gaining work experience and skills. So after university, I worked for several organizations and also I did a Fulbright program in Zanzibar, where I studied Swahili.
For 15 years, I worked for Heifer International in different roles. By the time I left in 2015 I was the Vice-President for the African programs. I packed my bags and flew back home even though I hadn’t made any concrete plans career wise. All I had was this burning need to go back home. I knew I wanted to work with youth, and today, I’m the CEO for Junior Achievement Africa.
I’m sure many people, particularly those from deprived backgrounds can relate to the feeling that certain things always seemed to be beyond attainment when they were growing up. Maybe you are the first person in your family to get a college education. Or perhaps you are the only person in your family with a reliable livelihood.
I reckon that most people who have attained a certain level of success can point to an army of people or maybe just one person who gave them an opportunity or mentored them on the road to achieve their goals. So we owe it to ourselves and to others to pass that on. That is what JA’s work is about: empowering youth.
JA’s work is anchored in optimising the potential of people in the world of work, starting early in their lives. We believe that in inculcating this from a young age through mentorship, coaching and shadowing, we invest in the growth and development of youth and by extension to the wider society.
If we can identify, attract, select, develop, engage, deploy and optimise the talents of young people we can set them up for success early on by familiarising them with what it takes to maximise their personal potential. This is what drew me back to Africa: the recognition that redirecting the growth trajectory of this continent meant empowering its youth.
While in Zimbabwe in 2016, I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Rudo Mazhandu, a young woman who graduated with a chemistry degree from the University of Zimbabwe. Unable to find suitable employment she began to explore her interest in soap-making and eventually founded her company, BituZim Ltd.
Rudo identified a niche in the soap market when she realized there were no washing soaps which lathered well in hard water, which is what low income populations in Zimbabwe used. After going through JA’s entrepreneurship program for out of school youth Rudo established a business which is growing and enables her to take care of her family.
Rudo represents a growing cohort of African youth who are forced to become entrepreneurs by circumstance, but for whom JA’s work is a pathway to success.
During other travels across Africa, I’ve met many young people like Rudo; eager, energetic and promising youth who give us every indication that Africa’s future is bright and that JA’s mission is relevant.
When I speak to young girls during my travels I am awed by their intellect, their poise, their ideas, their goals and their dreams. I am also driven in part by a desire to help young women to avoid some of the mistakes I made along my journey. It is important to own your power as a woman, and that has to start from a young age.
A few years ago, while on a trip to Sierra Leone, I had an experience that underscored this lesson for me. I was accompanied on the trip by my colleague and friend, Rashid who comes from the Mandingo tribe of West Africa. He is tall, imposing and at least twice my size, but a very gentle giant. In one village we visited a woman came up to me and pointing at Rashid, she said: “Is it true that you are his boss?” I was a little taken aback by this question. “No, not really,” I replied.
As we drove off Rashid, who had overheard the conversation, reprimanded me. He said: “When I introduce you as my boss I do it deliberately. It’s very important that you don’t take it lightly. It is a fact. It may not be important to you, but it’s important to these village women to see a woman as young as you, being the boss of a man as big as me.”
That was an ‘aha’ moment for me!
I want young women in Africa to learn this lesson too; to know that leadership is a privilege and that their involvement in Africa’s development is imperative. In my work at JA Africa today I take great pride in seeing young girls grow into those roles. It is amazing to see these girls on stage as CEOs of their companies in our school-based entrepreneurship education programs, leading their teams, motivating their cohorts, making big decisions and taking big risks.
As an African woman I am deeply moved by their leadership, courage and determination because our girls are often discouraged from their ambitions by societal expectations as well as lack of role models to guide them on this path.
We all have gifts to give. Whether it is our time, or our energy, our resources, our intellect, our voice, we all have a responsibility to pass on what has been given to us. We need to do this because other young people – other young women- are watching us. And we need to do it because mankind runs on the fuel of passion and service. That is the kind of fuel that never runs out.