Economic inequalities persist in many African nations, leaving women with limited avenues for financial independence. Yet, amidst these challenges, some remarkable individuals tirelessly devote themselves to elevating the marginalised and steering society towards a brighter future. Efe Ukala is the driving force behind ImpactHER, a passionate changemaker bridging the divide caused by the economic inequalities that persist in many African nations, leaving women with limited avenues for financial independence.
In this week’s #MCNWorkLife, Efe Ukala tells us about her incredible life journey, her transformative work with ImpactHER, her views on gender equality, and her challenges as a woman in male-dominated industries.
Without making any reference to the work you do, how would you describe Efe Ukala?
I like to describe myself as someone deeply passionate about creating positive change in the world. My approach to life is highly solution-driven, and I find purpose in tackling challenges head-on. Among my friends and within my social circle, I am known as the person they trust to solve problems and rely on in times of need. I am a dependable individual who cares deeply for the people in my life, and I consider myself protective of them, always striving to be supportive.
If you were to ask anyone who knows me well, they would tell you that I am consistently hardworking and dedicated. In fact, I dedicate nearly 90% of my time to making a difference, whether it’s for friends, family, or the nonprofit causes I’m passionate about. I keep my work close to my heart and don’t often discuss it, as I am constantly in that problem-solving mode. This is the true essence of who I am, and I apologise if it may come across differently to others.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane. When you were younger, what was your dream occupation, and how did that lead you to your current profession?
I consider myself fortunate, depending on the perspective you take. I harboured a strong desire to become a lawyer from a young age. Whenever people inquired about my aspirations, I consistently stated that I wanted to be a lawyer. In this regard, I am lucky because I fulfilled that childhood dream; I am now a practising lawyer. Consequently, I’ve turned a childhood aspiration into a reality without the burden of unmet expectations.
Professionally, you currently occupy a myriad of roles. Which do you consider your primary occupation?
I’m an investment lawyer. That is my primary occupation.
I was determined to stay true to myself and my roots, even if it meant enduring more challenges. From that point on, I was committed to my path.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a private equity lawyer at Wall Street.
I faced numerous challenges during my journey through school, particularly as an international student on a student visa. It often felt like I had to exert ten times the effort compared to my peers who were fortunate enough to be born or raised in this country, surrounded by their families. Much of what I experienced is what many immigrants go through.
Navigating my way through undergraduate studies and then embarking on the path to law school presented a second chapter of obstacles. I vividly recall when I was searching for a job, and someone remarked that companies were hesitant to hire immigrants. They suggested I consider changing my name to something more “American” to fit in better, mainly since I had attended a prestigious school.
I responded firmly that if I had to alter my identity to blend in, then I didn’t belong. This was a defining moment for me because I had the opportunity to conform, to become someone I wasn’t, but I chose not to. I was determined to stay true to myself and my roots, even if it meant enduring more challenges. From that point on, I was committed to my path.
I decided to embrace the struggle and never compromise on my identity. I worked tirelessly, and I must admit that I also had some strokes of luck along the way. If you had asked me two decades ago whether I would hold a senior position at a Wall Street investment firm today, my unequivocal response would have been a resounding” “no.” My dream back then was to be a good person and find a meaningful job, regardless of financial motivations. This journey has brought me to where I am today.
As an investment/private equity lawyer, you’ve advised on substantial investments in the U.S. and Sub-Saharan Africa. Could you highlight a memorable investment project or deal you’ve been a part of and how the success of this project made you feel?
I recall a specific deal I worked on in Ethiopia; this company faced many challenges, struggling to maintain its balance sheets, causing investors to lose confidence. I decided to visit the company in person, touring the factory and identifying the areas where improvements were needed. What struck me the most during this visit was that the people working for the company were genuinely good-hearted individuals struggling with the business side of things.
I witnessed the determination in their eyes, especially among the factory workers, many of whom were women. Evidently, these were not high-paying jobs; they were at medium to low levels. Some women had their children sitting outside the factory, which made me reflect on the children’s future if their parents lost their jobs due to the difficulties. This particular company was considered one of the largest ones in Ethiopia.
As I gazed upon this scene, I saw a future I wouldn’t want for myself or the people I care about. It ignited a deep sense of motivation within me. I walked into the factory and told them that change was coming. We didn’t even have gloves for the workers, and I asked, “Can investors come in and see this?” So, we began to transform the entire place. We even turned on a water fountain that hadn’t run for years, even though the plants underneath were probably drowning.
After we made these investments, my focus shifted towards ensuring that the company provided essential services for the employees and that fair wages were guaranteed. Over time, I witnessed the transformation from one that was barely making ends meet to one that was becoming sustainable. While it might not have become the most profitable company, it was on its way there. Most importantly, more people were employed and could now provide for their families.
This experience is a constant reminder of why I do what I do. It’s about finding ways to impact people positively and contribute to the continued prosperity of entire continents.
You have a diverse background, from private equity law to your current role as Vice President and Assistant General Counsel at a Wall Street investment firm. How has your legal expertise shaped your approach to supporting women entrepreneurs and advocating for their financial inclusion, especially in your work at ImpactHER?
It has been a transformative journey for me, which has led me to realise that advocating for women and human rights can only truly be effective if we address the fundamental issue of financial empowerment. I often emphasise the concept of the “power of the purse” because it represents a woman’s ability to achieve economic liberation and sustenance, enabling her to advocate for herself and her rights more effectively. My legal background has taught me the importance of advocacy, but my work in finance has provided me with insights into how economics plays a pivotal role in this equation.
An illustrative example of this is when we see stories in the news about women who have experienced injustice, and they have pro bono lawyers supporting them. While this is undoubtedly a positive development, more effective advocacy comes when we empower women to understand their rights and have the financial means to support their pursuit of justice. Through my work, I’ve empowered women financially, allowing them to stand on a more solid foundation when advocating for their rights.
My journey has also taken me across Africa, from Madagascar to Ethiopia, Mozambique to Mauritius, conducting due diligence for potential investments. I couldn’t help but notice the gender disparity in business ownership; men primarily led companies considered for investment, while women-owned businesses were prevalent in the markets. This realisation led me to conduct further research, uncovering a significant gender financing gap estimated at $42 billion by the IFC. This revelation marked a pivotal moment in my journey, prompting me to take action beyond writing advocacy pieces.
While writing has always been a strength of mine, I realised that the issue was already well-documented, with numerous individuals contributing to the literature. Instead of adding to the discourse, I took a more proactive approach. I knew I wouldn’t be the ultimate solution, but I was determined to play a role in moving the needle. Despite the modest impact, I was determined to contribute to progress.
Through this shift in perspective, I continued to write advocacy pieces. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I collaborated with organisations like yours and the AfDB to publish articles about what women-led businesses needed to thrive beyond the crisis. This allowed me to merge my background in finance and law, providing the courage to take action and make a difference.
Financial inclusion is a cause you’re passionate about. Can you share your vision for greater financial inclusion in Africa and how individuals and organisations can contribute to achieving this goal?
Financial inclusion is critical for Africa to realise its full economic potential. Women-led businesses, even in the informal sector, significantly contribute to the continent’s economy. Additionally, women make up 70% of the workforce in the agriculture sector in Africa, yet the number of women who own land on the continent is still below 20%. Unlocking these women’s economic potential can have a transformative effect on Africa’s economy.
Imagine a scenario where these women, instead of just working on the farm, can own and cultivate their land while having the financial literacy to manage their resources effectively. This shift from being farm workers to women who employ others would exponentially impact Africa’s economic growth and prosperity. However, to make this vision a reality, Africa needs to think creatively about making access to loans and financial resources available. Traditional borrowing requirements, such as collateral and guarantees, do not always align with African cultural norms and societal constructs. For example, many Africans may need access to land, and some women may face challenges when asked to produce a male guarantor.
I’ve advocated for collective or network collateral to address these issues. Many women in Africa belong to various groups, whether they are church groups, community groups, or even groups of friends. These networks are deeply familiar with each other’s backgrounds, families, and personal histories. Why not leverage this network to serve as collateral? Members of these groups could vouch for each other, providing the necessary assurance to financial institutions.
For example, if you’ve known someone since they were young, are familiar with their family and community, and can vouch for their character and trustworthiness, why can’t this be used to secure a loan? Moreover, these networks could collectively take responsibility for loan repayment. If one person struggles to repay, the group could help trace them and ensure the loan is repaid.
Thinking innovatively and adapting financial systems to suit Africa’s unique cultural and societal context is essential rather than importing systems from the West that may only partially serve our needs. Doing so can empower women economically and pave the way for economic prosperity.
Instead of offering motivational speeches, we aimed to provide practical help and guidance to women, showing them how to navigate challenges effectively.
You’ve been featured in Forbes, BBC News, and BBC Africa and have spoken at prestigious institutions like Harvard Business School and the United Nations. What advice do you have for aspiring changemakers and entrepreneurs looking to impact their communities positively and beyond?
I advise anyone to pick one or two things that they are genuinely passionate about and excel in them without hesitation. it’s crucial to ignore the naysayers and the noise that tries to deter you by saying, “You can’t do this.” Patience is vital in this journey because significant changes take time to happen. Keep persevering until you see the desired results, but remain adaptable and open to change. When obstacles arise, view them as opportunities rather than roadblocks.
I can personally attest to this advice. When I felt a strong desire to start making an impact, I sought the counsel of trusted individuals. Some of them questioned the need for what I wanted to do, citing the existence of many women’s support groups already. They told me I was adding one more to the mix. However, I persevered and decided to create something different. Instead of offering motivational speeches, we aimed to provide practical help and guidance to women, showing them how to navigate challenges effectively.
Had I listened to those who advised against it, we wouldn’t have achieved what we have today. We trained over 76,000 women in 53 African countries and established partnerships with organisations like the African Union. The United Nations has also recognised our work. This proves that pushing past the noise and being persistent can substantially impact and open up opportunities for thousands of women.
My advice is to follow your passion, ignore the doubters, be patient but persistent, and embrace flexibility when unexpected obstacles arise. These principles can lead to remarkable achievements and create meaningful opportunities for positive change.
Stepping into your role as a teacher and educator for women who want to get into financial law or advocacy, what steps do you suggest they take?
Women wanting to enter finance must know that the industry has been predominantly male-dominated. It would be best to be open-minded because you will get those experiences that remind you that this is a male-dominated world. You have to learn how to brush issues off. You must ensure you are a good advocate for yourself or surround yourself with people who would advocate for you when you’re not in the room.
This reminds me of an experience I had When visiting a portfolio company. I was in this room with about 12 men and was the only woman present. The founder of the portfolio company – a man – goes around and shakes everybody. I was sitting next to my CIO. He shakes my CIO but skips me and continues shaking hands. My CIO asked what it was about, and I told him I didn’t know. But in that moment, I was visible, yet I felt invisible. It is hard for a woman in that space to learn how to manage that without being offended. I could have stood up, asked what that was about, and made a fuss about it. But I thought about the bigger picture and how best to advocate for myself without being the angry black woman in the room.
What struck me during these visits was the noticeable gender divide. When I ventured into the bustling markets, I saw primarily women.
You are the founder of the impact-driven organisation ImpactHER. Can you share the experience that inspired you to start the ImpactHER initiative and your journey so far?
That brings me to the story I mentioned earlier. While implementing this work, I had the opportunity to travel across different African countries. One of my favourites has to be Madagascar. When I went to Madagascar, my dad was quite intrigued. He said, “Wait, you’re really in Madagascar? Tell me more about it.” For many of us, Madagascar is one of those beautiful places we’ve heard about but have yet to consider visiting. But when you go there, it’s truly breathtaking.
During my travels, I was primarily focused on exploring potential investment opportunities. I worked in mostly male-dominated companies, which is quite common in finance. However, I had a personal tradition whenever I visited an African country. I always made an effort to visit the local markets. It was a way for me to connect with the culture and pick up a piece of art that would remind me of that country.
What struck me during these visits was the noticeable gender divide. When I ventured into the bustling markets, I saw primarily women. They were the heart and soul of these vibrant marketplaces. Yet, when I entered the corporate world, particularly while seeking investment opportunities, I found that there were predominantly men in leadership roles. The few women I encountered were often relegated to serving tea and biscuits or handling cleaning duties.
This stark contrast left a lasting impression on me. I realised that what I had observed in Madagascar was not unique to that country but was a widespread issue across many African nations. During my subsequent research, I discovered the enormity of the problem – a staggering $42 billion gender financing gap in Africa. This alarming statistic has been documented by the African Development Bank (AfDB).
With this revelation, I felt compelled to take action. I asked myself, “How can I make a difference?” That’s when I embarked on the journey of creating ImpactHER, an organisation dedicated to changing this narrative. The name “mpactHER’ “encapsulates our mission – we are here to make an impact and give women access to finance, enabling them to scale their businesses.
Scaling a business requires various elements, from marketing strategies to sound financial planning. And that’s precisely what we aim to provide. This journey led to the establishment of ImpactHER, and we have been committed to this cause ever since.
What is the most difficult challenge you have faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?
What excites me most is entering new spaces and learning about them. It’s interesting because I never studied private equity in law school; it simply wasn’t part of the curriculum back then. When I entered law school, I focused on learning about the practice of law. However, in the professional environment in which I work, there are times when I’m called upon to step into unfamiliar territory. Colleagues might say, “Hey, we know you don’t have a background in this, but can you take this on?” So I dive into it, soak up as much knowledge as possible, and attempt to hit the ground running, even when it feels like there’s ground beneath me and I lack the appropriate shoes for running.
The key is not just entering these new domains but deciding to stay in them. I’m sure you’ve had those days at work when everything feels challenging, and it’s tempting to question your choices. But I consistently remind myself that this is my chosen path and genuinely love it. That is what sets my working career apart. Despite the undeniable stress, I never feel like I’m just working. Amidst stress, it’s still enjoyable. So, it’s about the ability to pivot and explore new terrains, even when I lack prior experience. This willingness to embrace the unknown has defined my career journey thus far.
What do you think is the most prominent challenge women in your field face when trying to advance their careers?
They may feel invisible in the room. You’re working hard, putting in the hours, but you don’t feel like you’re being seen. Fortunately, I don’t have that problem where I am now, but it is a common challenge for some women. Male voices in the room can sometimes exert authority over you, hindering women from getting promoted and receiving the recognition they deserve.
Have you ever had to deal with stereotypes in your workplace? If you have, how did you overcome it?
Yes, of course. I’ve faced that, although outside my current position. I remember working at a firm where they mentioned that new Chinese clients were coming in. I’m sure my pictures were attached to my profile, so it was clear that I was not Chinese. I was the only black woman at the firm and the only foreigner in the company with over 100 employees. They said, “We have these potential Chinese clients and want to win them over. We think you should come to the meeting so that we can impress them.” I asked, “What do you want me to discuss in the meeting? I’m not familiar with the details.” They responded, “No, you don’t need to say anything. We just need them to see you.” I was confused because I thought,” I Have a brain. I can speak. I can contribute.” But they just wanted me there as a visual representation of diversity, without any intention of me using my voice or expertise. I was unsure what to make of it, which was perplexing.
Similarly, a few years ago, a severe storm in New York knocked out the power supply for several days. Despite the circumstances, I had gone to the office, and someone asked me how I managed at home. They said,” Hope you didn’t have to gather all your furniture in the middle of your living room and burn it to stay warm like they do in Africa.” It was another stereotype, assuming that’s how we cope in Africa. I responded calmly, saying, “I’m from Nigeria, and we don’t burn our furniture to keep warm because that would burn down the whole house.” It was a stereotypical comment, but I addressed it without fussing. He tried to play it off as a joke, but I told him that cultural sensitivity is essential. I didn’t dwell on it, but it became a defining moment.
These were two significant incidents where I was clearly the “different” one in the room. Preconceived notions about my background led to these situations, where they either used it to their advantage or made assumptions about what I knew or didn’t know about Africans.
With the demanding nature of your work, what personal hobbies or interests do you engage in outside of your work?
I go to dancing classes once every three months. I used to do it a lot before being in the swamp. I used to do dancing and even performed in shows back in the day. I still do it occasionally, but less often than I’d like. There are never enough hours in the day.
On the other hand, doing the work on ImpactHER and helping with things – this may sound unbelievable – brings me joy. I genuinely enjoy it, so I spend my time working on a piece or writing something on most weekends. Once I get in that zone, sometimes I want to stay there. I particularly enjoy writing, the best thing in the world.
How do you successfully manage a work-life balance?
For me, work-life balance involves finding joy in what I do. For example, speaking to kids, mentoring, and supporting others brings me joy. For instance, coming to talk to 200 kids excites me. Writing a piece or something as simple as a newsletter is fun for me. So, what some might call work is therapeutic and fun for me. You probably never heard me say this, but it truly is enjoyable. Work-life balance is finding joy in unexpected places, even at work.