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The Partnership Icon


As Head of Partnerships at the Tony Elumelu Foundation, Dewunmi Alugbin has always led her life by planning strategically, working hard and following her passion. Her work ethic was evident when she calmly walked into the studio as the production team completed setup for her interview and quickly met some work demands on her laptop. In this interview, she tells us about her career journey and passion for impacting lives.


I think as human beings, we have talents and strengths that are present but we may not be able to direct as desired. The moment I realized there was a difference in the way I viewed the world and what I was willing to do to be the change I wished to see was when I  quit my job and move to Nigeria to see how I could contribute my quota. A lot of people wonder how I could just make that decision. It didn’t really take much for me to say, “Yes Nigeria is where I need to be, home is where I need to be. I need to work to change it rather than complaining from somewhere else”. For me, that decision was quite pivotal. And as I spend more time on ground in Nigeria, I realize a lot of people would not make that same decision. Despite the challenges, I am still here doing what I love to do which is impacting lives.


At the beginning of my career, my vision for the future was to do good. So I started working in an organization where we worked on policies, bilateral agreements, managing the conferences where these amazing decisions were taken and I realized I didn’t feel like I was touching a life directly. Working in New York was more like a routine – you wake up, go to work, come back. But the moment I made the decision to come to Nigeria, everything aligned.

I moved to Nigeria and started looking for opportunities where I could contribute to the impact that I wanted to have, and to work where I could touch lives. My moving back was very intentional and that helped me manage a lot of the challenges I faced objectively. No matter how difficult it got, I was able to lean on my friends and family for support. For me, I’ve come to understand that overcoming the challenges requires an intentionality to see every challenge as an opportunity. Be ready to be open and honest about your challenges and accept help from your support group, let them know where you need help and be really persistent with your dreams.

If your desire is to work within the development space at a certain level and in a certain capacity, start putting in the work to get there. Network at relevant events, put your CV and portfolios out there, look for speaking opportunities, write articles on your LinkedIn page, so what it takes to position yourself for the opportunity you seek. That’s what my move back taught me – the way to overcome is by being strategic, planning, working hard, by being resilient, being really focused and really leveraging your support systems. Where I am now in terms of career growth is certainly not where I aspire to be, I am not at the peak. Amina J. Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations is a role model of mine and I as a way from reaching her level. So, let’s see how I can keep pushing to become maybe even the Secretary General of the United Nations. I’m nowhere near where I envision and I know the future is still unwritten, so I am excited and eager to continue working.


At the Tony Elumelu Foundation, when in partnering with other organizations, we practice something I call “collaborative philanthropy”. We look for likeminded people who have the same vision for developing Africa. However, as an organization we have a process in place to mitigate our exposure or any liability that could arise from a partnership. KYC (Know Your Customer) is quite important but most importantly and tying back to having a strategy and plan is that we partner with people we have pre identified as reputable and credible in order to retain our integrity. As a private sector philanthropy, we cannot compromise on that and nor should we.


I may not look it but as comfortable as I am speaking to people one-on-one, I’m a nervous wreck when I need to address large groups of people. That was a major fear of mine in addition to driving in Lagos traffic but recently, I joined a panel in France for Ambition Africa, and it clicked that all these people are here to listen to the expertise I had in Entrepreneurial programming in Africa and they deserved to get the best of me and my knowledge.   When you are discussing partnerships, you need to go to the far ends of the globe to tell people what you are doing and why they need to join you. If you can’t talk about what you do, then probably you’re not convincing them about your work either. For me I had a pivotal moment when I had to shake off that imposter syndrome that was holding me back and reminded myself that I believe so much in empowering African entrepreneurs and that helped me get over my fear. Now, the fear of driving in Lagos, that is still being worked on.

Now as eager as I am to talk to people and understand them because ‘people’ are an interest of mine, you cannot imagine what it feels like when almost 7,000 entrepreneurs have access to your phone number. I wake up sometimes to see hundreds of text and WhatsApp messages from people just seeking advice about their businesses, their personal lives or just sending good will messages and that just reinforces that I am doing something amazing here, I am touching lives.

Beyond speaking publicly, there is also the role of one-on-one engagement about how to find success as an entrepreneur across Africa. It’s really interesting how my job has helped me develop that personal skill. When your job feeds your personal goals and ambitions, and that ambition then drives the work you do- you’ve found the sweet spot.


Balance is important in life, so I try to keep a balanced schedule that has work, play, catching up with friends, family time, personal hobby time but sometimes, the most challenging part of my schedule is the schedule itself. With work for instance, we have a very lean team, so everyone is wearing several hats. As we continue to grow and scale, the hats get bigger. My work includes travelling while still being very responsive to issues at the office. Sometimes I get scheduled into different meetings at the same time regarding three different areas of collaboration and if not for technology helping catch the overlaps and also allowing me virtual access to some meetings, it would be a disaster. I am grateful to work in a place that has a flexible, forward thinking corporate culture and empowers us with technology to manage our time. The Foundation is the philanthropic arm of the Heirs Holdings Group and I have yet to identify a better place to work in Nigeria.


I am definitely not where I want to be yet. I still have a lot to learn and beyond the work we do, I hope to go back to school (an Ivy League hopefully) for a midcareer professional degree to really put my knowledge to the test, expand my skills and network, improve my leadership capabilities and evolve in my world view. I am excited about the opportunity to continue learning. The ability to say, “I want to change this” and to start planning towards it is what being a wonder woman is about. I know the future I want to see and I am working on getting there.


It’s interesting that my passion for the empowerment of Africa fits so nicely into entrepreneurship as a tool for sustained development. As an entrepreneur myself, I have started several businesses and I understand that my ability to sustain myself in business contributed to the government through my taxes. That little trickle would’ve gone into some public expenditure such as infrastructure. The stories we hear from our alumni at the Foundation is why we do what we do. When we travel across Africa and we meet young people who tell us amazing stories for instance, we have an alumnus from Rwanda who when she successfully applied to the Tony Elumelu Foundation, used her seed capital of 5000 USD to buy a little cart to sell fruits and vegetables. Fast forward to 2020, she is now the largest exporter of fruits from Rwanda. Or you’ll meet a Ghanaian entrepreneur who took his small seed capital and has turned it into a business that now employs hundreds of people. They are all contributing, helping their communities and ultimately helping Africa as a whole. For that I am forever going to be excited for entrepreneurship as a tool for empowerment in Africa.


For any woman aspiring to build her career and achieve success, she must first define what success means to her. She should not use anyone else as a measure or gauge of her personal level of success. Next, I cannot stress enough about how being prepared helps. She needs to show up and be prepared. She needs to have a strategy or a plan so that when the opportunity arrives, there is no need to second guess herself. She will be able to make a move and take decisive action because she’s researched it, she’s planned for it and as part her strategic objectives, she’s ready for it.

There is no room in 2020 and beyond for any woman who is just wishing for things to happen to her. Start working towards your goals now so that when someone shows up and says “I want to give you this opportunity”, you will know whether it’s a distraction from your goal you’ve prepared for or it’s part of the master plan and you can seize the opportunity.

For us women, it’s like deciding you want to get married by 30, you know when to review the seriousness of the relationship and when to end it if it’s not aligned. We need to put the same energy into our professional development. Think about your life, what you want from it and make a plan and focus actions and behaviors that will move you to your goal. Yes, things happen that can distract or derail, but when you have a Plan A, B and C, you pivot quickly so the changes don’t break you or end your dreams.

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