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I recently had the honor of participating in Vital Voices’ Corporate Ambassador Program fromåŹNovember 1-5, 2009åŹand speaking at the 8th annual WimBIZ (Women in Management and Business) Conference in Lagos, Nigeria, “Change the Game and Make a Difference”.

What an amazing experience!

Arriving in Lagos after a 13 hour flight from Washington, DC, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect as this was my first trip to Africa.åŹ Thankfully I was met by Tara Durotoye, my WimBIZ host for the week and Celena Green, Vital Voices’ Program Officer for Africa. Tara is a wonderful example of the drive and resourcefulness of the women I met…over the last 10+ years, she has expanded her business, House of Tara,åŹfrom doing make-up consultations to now having 5 retail locations, a beauty school where she trains other consultants and her own make-up line.

Fortunately I had a day between arriving in Lagos and the start of the conference, which allowed me to see a bit of the city. It’s immediately obvious how densely populated Lagos is — the traffic is simply indescribable! Multiple lanes, cars bumper to bumper on city streets, motorscooters darting in and out at warp speed and vendors walking between the lanes of trafficåŹselling everything from phone cards to brooms to undershirts to cans of tuna! Our driver was masterful at maneuvering through this maze, but my heart was in my mouth every time I got in the car!

On the first day, we visited a couple of art galleries, including Nike’s Gallery in Lekki. Nike, a textileåŹartist and painter,åŹis an icon in Lagos, an indefatigable bundle of energy, can-do attitude and good will, whom everyone seems to know. She has been a fixture in the Lagos artistic community for overåŹ25 years and has just opened a striking 4-storey gallery on Victoria Island. She exhibits her own work as well as that of many other artists and offers free art training that she’s already provided to over 2000 Nigerians. The walls areåŹfull of colorful paintings in many sizes and styles — oils, acrylics, beading, mix of fabric and paint, and metal. The variety is impressive and the exuberance of color shouts out the enthusiasm with which the Nigerian people embrace life. Nike is justifiably proud of her new gallery and plans to host musical events and arts and craft workshops there. She insisted on presenting us withåŹlovely batik jackets in one of her designs as a remembrance of our visit.

From left to right: Celena Green, Kathy Reiffenstein, Nike Okundaye, Tara Durotoye, Shayee Awoyomi

The conference started on Tuesday and we arrived at the Convention Hall to find that there had been a power outage for 3 hours, delaying much of the set up. This is apparently a common occurence in Lagos as the power infrastructure is lacking. It is not at all uncommon to have the power go off several times a day, no matter where you are. Most businesses need to incur the expense of running a generator constantly because the power supply is so unreliable.

The Governor of Lagos State, His Excellency Babatunde Raji Fashola (SAN) opened the conference and spoke on the need and opportunity for women to lead change in their organizations and their society. The Governor had arrived with the usual entourage that accompanies a political figure — aides, bodyguards and press with flashing cameras. His wife, the First Lady of Lagos State, accompanied him and stayed throughout the 2-day conference, contributing some impromptu remarks onåŹthe second day about her life as First Lady.

The rest of the conference was a series of plenary sessions in the form of panels: Corporate Governance (a hot topic in Nigeria because there has been and still is so much corruption that it’s hard to do business without having to pay people off, thus substantially increasing the costs of doing business), Recruiting and Retaining Talent, Raising Your Professional Visibility and a debate on the pros and cons of “Marking the Social Register”åŹ(an exploration of the numerous social engagements that traditionally Nigerians must attend).

Most allåŹthe presentations were marked with personal stories and examples which added to the richness of the dialogue and gave the approximately 350 women attending the conference real life insights. My own topic, Raising Your Professional Visibility was extremely well received and I had numerous women come up to me after the presentation to ask questions and get my business card. Now back in the U.S., I have been corresponding with several attendees. ln all ofåŹthe topics, the women were hungry for advice, tips and insights. Many in attendance were thinking about making the leap to starting their own business and they were looking for inspiration as well as practical how-tos.

My last day in Lagos came all too soon. I had become so energized interacting with these dynamic, inspiring women, I didn’t want to leave! As a delightful finale to my trip, one of the women at the Conference, Nimi AkinkugbeåŹ(the sister of one of the speakers), invited me to her home to view her orchid collection after I had mentioned that I was an avid gardener. She has a beautiful home, right on the water, and it was fantastic to see her gorgeous garden filled with lush orchids, bougainvillea, rosesåŹand plumbago.

From left to right: Celena Green, Kathy Reiffenstein, Nimi Akinkugbe, Tara Durotoye

As I reflect fondly on my trip to Lagos, I’m left with some overall impressions:

1. WimBIZ, under the guidance of Ini Onuk (a dynamo in her own right!),åŹis an impressive organization, in both talent and vision, and seems to be an excellent partner to support Vital Voices’ work.

2. The conference was as sophisticated, both in logistics and content, as any conference I’ve attended in the U.S.

3. The women I met were inspiring, highly competent and driven to make a difference…in their own lives, their business community and their society.

4. Although I didn’t meet a lot of men, I came away believing strongly that Nigeria’s future is in its women.

I am so thankful to all of my wonderful hosts for their warm welcome and the outstanding care they took of me during my visit. I truly hope I will have the opportunity to return to Nigeria and its warm, gracious people and make a small contribution to their progress.