Portia Agyei Yeboah is a budding Social entrepreneur and Research assistant. She’s co-founder of OAK Foundation, whose aim is sponsoring education and personal development of disadvantaged young women in Africa. Portia is passionate about human development and sustainability issues as well as the participation of young people and women in politics and national development. In this vein, she is working to implement a project to attract young graduates into Agri-business in Ghana.
You only recently graduated from university and already making impact through your organization Oak Foundation, which provides mentoring to girls in senior high schools. What sparked this vision?
Education for me is the weapon for change in the lives of individuals, family, community and a whole nation. My motivation to start this was as a result of my experience growing up poor and how that affected my life and more specifically my schooling. I was passionate about education but had to hawk in the streets during school hours so as to help my guardians make ends meet. Many of the girls hawking like me dropped out of school due to teenage pregnancy, low grades in examinations and financial challenges. So my vision has been driven by the fear of seeing young girls with potential becoming school drop outs which I feel I can do something about.
No doubt getting OAK Foundation underway hasn’t been easy. How do you typically prepare yourself for challenges that you know will stretch you?
OAK Foundation’s vision is “to be the foremost NGO responsible for sponsoring the education and professional development of disadvantaged young women in Africa” I believe strongly in being the change I want to see so psychologically I prepare to pursue the vision. Typically, I prepare weekly and daily plans and journal my progress against these regularly, strategies I learnt during my career mentorship. I also work with my team and make sure duties are properly assigned with clear actions and timelines. I believe in team work and that helps me to draw on the help of others instead of overwhelming myself.
Leadership skills are part of the training you give the girls in your project. What are some of the leadership skills you’re learning that you teach them?
The most important thing I have learnt is that, to be an effective leader I must be aware of my own weaknesses and appreciate and draw on the strengths of the team I work with. I help the girls to identify their strengths and to develop their leadership skills. I teach them to develop as individuals, to build their confidence in taking up leadership roles and also to be team players. The project also teaches them ethics which will positively influence their decision making as future leaders to help reduce the rate of corruption and unethical behaviour in society.
Many young people have aspirations but many struggle to start due to fear and other factors. What can you share about how to bring one’s goals to life?
I started schooling late, at the age of 11 and it was quite difficult being in a class with mates who were far younger than me. I was ridiculed and called all sorts of names. I faced a lot of rejection early in life due to my gender, level of education and because I was poor. I struggled a lot with the rejection I faced and was afraid to pursue my goals as I didn’t think I could handle more rejection. This was very challenging but somehow I managed to overcome this by associating with the right people. I exhibited humility by learning from the same people who ridiculed me.
I finally came to a conclusion that I needed to face rejection or risk being a failure and so decided to turn what was a weakness into strength by facing my fear of rejection. I started persistently pursuing what I wanted and that was how I got the opportunity to complete a career mentorship programme and now participating in Obama’s Young African leadership initiative (YALI) West African Regional leadership programme. Young people with aspirations must know that fear is a necessary evil that one has to go through to grow and achieve goals in life. They should understand that being rejected or failing in itself is an experience which will make them more resilient if they don’t give up.
You’ve also been active in politics helping promote youth and young women’s participation. What are some of the insights you’ve had about how politicians work and how young people can engage more effectively with them?
I worked mostly with politicians within a political party setting. These politicians were result oriented and believed in working hard to get people involved. Politicians are not intimidated by the fear of failure. They continue to pursue their goals with optimism even if they have been defeated in the past. Politicians know which channel to communicate through to sell their vision or have their needs attended to. This is exactly what young people need to do, to take a step in engaging with a broad spectrum of people and identifying the right channels to have their voices heard.
With such a good start to your career where do you want to take your career in order to make even more impact?
Hmm! I intend to follow wherever the winds of change take me and as long as problems exist, I’ll have a job to do. Currently, besides the mentoring and coaching to reduce dropout rate of girls from school, I have also initiated an Agri-business project that will attract young female graduates into agriculture. I also have a career development project to benefit all our volunteers in tertiary education. I continue to seek funds for implementation and to put in all I can to help humanity.
What advice would you give new graduates about the habits they need to develop in order to increase their chances of success in career and life?
I don’t think young graduates are lazy and mediocre as some say. However, I believe they are knocking on the wrong doors for opportunity. It is time to turn to the other doors that may not look attractive outwardly but has great opportunities in-store. I encourage them to ask themselves; what challenges exist in their community? What can they do to help change the situation? They should put away fear of rejection, have faith in God and themselves and not let finance be your problem. Once they start it they can sell their vision in order to attract funding and any support they need. Finally they should be prayerful and never give up on themselves.
What kind of leader do you want to keep growing into?
My definition of a successful leader is one who has the ability to contribute to moving a nation forward and that is the kind of leader I want to grow into. I want to grow into a “Cheetah Leader”. A cheetah is swift and keen on knowing its environment, so that it can detect and act towards any change in the environment for its own safety as well as to aid in capturing prey. I would want to be a leader who can identify pertinent problems in my environment and beyond, and help find lasting solutions that will lead to development and nation building.