Misan Rewane is the co-founder and CEO of WAVE, an organisation that tackles youth unemployment by teaching young people employability skills. In this piece, she took us through how WAVE came to be and treading the road less trodden to make impact.
My dedication to education began when I was around the age of six when enamored by my primary 1 teacher, I said aloud in a family gathering that I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up, not a university lecturer, but a primary school teacher. I remember my dad saying, “If you want to be a teacher, you’ll be poor, unappreciated, frustrated.” He painted a very unappealing picture, but it didn’t add up. My teacher, Ms Gbayisomore, helped me learn new things I didn’t even know existed. I knew I wanted to fix the system one day. I didn’t know whose job it was, but I wanted to do it.
While an undergraduate at Stanford University in 2007, I began to put my thoughts into action, teaming up with my sister and some friends to set up a program called IMPACT (Inspiring Minds, Perceptions and Attitudes to Change Tomorrow), which helps children in Nigeria discover their talents and embrace learning outside the classroom. We recruit children every summer for a week long program of workshops about leadership and empowering change and it is all volunteer-led.
Upon graduation that same year, I took a job with a consulting firm, where I spent my first year in New York, then moved to London where I worked on projects in Africa. In 2010, I took a sabbatical, returning to West Africa, specifically Cote d’Ivoire to volunteer with TechnoServe, helping young people develop their entrepreneurial ideas. It was my first time living in another African country and I learned so much about both the similarities and the differences between how Anglophone and Francophone Africans have been socialized through our respective colonial pasts.
I felt more alive than I had in years. At the end of my volunteer consulting project, I resigned from the Monitor Group to move back to Nigeria and I joined the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives (CPPA), a public policy think tank focused on helping sub Saharan African governments, institutions and businesses create innovative policy solutions to development challenges. Though I anticipated that my job would involve writing and implementing proposals to support evidence-based policy decision-making, I quickly found myself focusing a great deal on recruiting.
This was because we couldn’t find quality research analysts and so had to build our own training program to take the Nigerian university system’s “best and brightest” and still train them for 2 years before they could deliver the level of analytical rigour we required. That’s when I started thinking again about education. We couldn’t find good talent, and yet we were meeting so many young people who couldn’t get jobs because they didn’t have the required skills. It was then the proverbial “spark” was created, where my paradigm shifted from seeing education reform as this thing that only do-gooders cared/talked about to something that would cripple the most powerful businesses and governments if the system didn’t function optimally.
A few months later, I won a full scholarship from the Sevenup Bottling Company to sponsor my MBA at Harvard Business School (HBS). I didn’t expect to become a social entrepreneur when I came to HBS, but through my interaction with other West African classmates who shared the desire to tackle the education-to-employment system problems, the zeal in me grew to implement what had started as an idea and had become a full-blown business plan, which won the runner-up prize in the social enterprise track of the HBS New Venture Competition.
Spurred on by the momentum from our big win, I moved back to Nigeria in the summer of 2013 to run a pilot with our first cohort of 12 unemployed youth. Five and a half years later, we are a team of 40 and have graduated over 2500 young people across our academies and have partnered with government agencies and other NGOs to train over 6,000 young people and connect them to entry-level work opportunities.
Problems as Opportunities
Growing up in Nigeria in the 80s and 90s, there were 2 types of conversations about Nigeria that would take place at family gatherings. The first was “The problem with Nigeria” conversations…corruption, lack of leadership, mismanagement, military dictatorships. The second was “The potential of Nigeria” conversation…
- 82 million hectares of arable land in Nigeria with only 40% cultivated.
- Over 40 different types of minerals, most of which remain unexploited.
- Top 10 greatest natural gas and oil reserves in the world natural gas…untapped!
I got excited by these conversations about untapped potential as they gave me hope of the endless possibilities of what could be and the role that I could play in bringing it to pass. I remember the Whitney Houston song that went: I BELIEVE THE CHILDREN ARE OUR FUTURE, TEACH THEM WELL AND LET THEM LEAD THE WAY…and that was me… I imagined I could become an education minister and work to make sure that our growing population of children would all have access to quality learning.
But with every passing Independence Day, there would be the same talk about potential and watching my country transition from its 20s to its 30s and now to its late 50s, I became more frustrated with the talk of Nigeria’s problems amidst its unrealized potential.
And so, after 30 years of “potentialling” I was deeply dissatisfied. John Stott says that vision is a combination of a deep dissatisfaction with what is and a clear grasp of what could be.
In 2012, I had a vision…I was deeply dissatisfied with the rate at which millions of young Nigerians were transitioning from a failed education system to a labour market that could not employ them because they didn’t have the skills required to be productive. I was deeply dissatisfied with the growing number of managers and entrepreneurs who could not reach their potential were under-performing because they could not find the people with the skills required to help their businesses grow.
And so I found other friends who shared this deep dissatisfaction and together we came up with an idea – that we would find hardworking young people in our community, we would teach them basic employability skills – how to think critically to solve problems, how to manage themselves and manage others, basic digital literacy and so on. And we would connect them with small and growing businesses that needed entry-level talent.
We started right where we were in Lagos with a class of 12 young people and five years later that idea has become a 40-person organization that has trained over 2500 young people and helped over 300 businesses access entry-level talent, Our organization WAVE has partnered with Lagos and Oyo state governments to train thousands more young people in secondary and tertiary institutions.
The results from this journey have provided evidence that the lowest hanging fruit and the biggest return on investment when it comes to realizing the potential of our resources is OUR YOUNG PEOPLE.
Advice to Younger Self
I would tell my younger self to slow down, reflect more and enjoy the world more. I have tended to move at an unhealthy pace, racing against some life clock, convinced that a long life isn’t guaranteed and so, wanting to live 2 lifetimes in 1 in terms of the mark I leave on the world. As E.B. White famously said, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan my day.”
Friendships and Partnerships
Friendships and partnerships have been integral to my personal and professional growth! With every institution I have passed through, I have “collected” a core group of girlfriends who have kept me going when the going gets tough! We meet on a regular basis, both virtually and in-person wherever possible. My best friend and I have been visiting a new African country at least every other year for the past decade, from Senegal to Zimbabwe. Partnerships have been integral to our organization’s growth from day 1, helping us leverage others’ strengths to “go far together”. In the past 2 years, our WAVE Employability skills curriculum has been replicated to reach over 6,000 young people through partnerships with Lagos state government and other social enterprises also tackling the youth unemployment problem. Scaling through Replication partnerships is our key strategy for scaling our impact!
WAVE is currently building a movement of employers committed to hiring for competencies (over credentials) and educators committed to developing 21st century competencies in young people. By focusing on degree credentials and work experience as proxies for competencies in entry-level recruitment, employers signal the wrong focus to educators and young people. As a result, educators and students prioritize schooling over skilling, flooding the marketing with jobseekers who are credentialed but not necessarily prepared for work. Those who have developed their competencies in non-traditional ways continue to be blocked out of opportunity. Our next frontier is to rewire the education-to-employment system so that it provides a level playing field for all young people to access the skills and opportunity to become what they imagine.
Advice to Potential Women
My advice to young girls and women re life is probably the same advice I would give to any group of individuals treated as “other” or “less than” (from low-income “poor” people to those from minority ethnic groups to those labeled “less educated”)…it’s important to believe in yourself, believe that you can become the exception to the rule and change the paradigm that people have of xyz label. One of my favorite quotes is from John Stott, which describes vision as “a deep dissatisfaction with what IS and a clear grasp of what COULD BE”.
Have a vision for yourself, a deep dissatisfaction with the way the world is about “xyz” label and don’t just work hard to learn how to “play the game”, once you’ve figured out how to play it, the onus is on you to “change the game” for others coming up behind you!
I say this because it’s very easy to get bogged down by the personal challenges we’ll face as girls-turned-women and to build a self-centered approach to either getting by or better yet, winning! However, we must remember that others who’ve gone before us, also made sacrifices to change the game, and it was some of those sacrifices that have made the world a little less unequal for those of us going through it now… so in essence, “to whom much is given, very much is expected”… so learn to play the game while changing it along the way!
Role of Government
I believe the playing field is very uneven and so laws that are seen as “favouring women” are barely scratching the surface of the gross unevenness that exists. For starters, the playing field was designed/built by men so of course, it’s seen from the limiting angle of “favouring women”. How do we get more women to be the designers of the playing field?
For those of us who work in the formal sector and have some control or influence over workplace policies, simple things like paternity leave. At WAVE, we ensure new fathers get a month of paternity leave (and even that is admittedly not good enough) to ensure that they can assist their professional wives can get back to work sooner without feeling like they are abandoning their babies.
We can advocate for longer maternity leave (at least the Nigerian government is moving in the right direction in that regard) so mother’s have the option, and we should ensure they aren’t sidelined because they missed 3-4 months of a performance review cycle every time they give birth. When a man loses little to no time in the career ladder / rat race every time he has a child but a woman loses 3-4 months, you can imagine the impact on promotions and consequently the gender pay gap, which continues the vicious cycle.
At a national level, the fact that the Gender Equal Opportunity (GEO) bill (which seeks to protect girls and women from gender-based violence, among other human rights) has been in the National Assembly since 2015, is a reflection of the state of affairs in Nigeria. The problem has never been that our “leaders” don’t know what to do…I’ll leave it at that.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Spark Magazine. Find the magazine here to read other articles.