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Relationships are Key in Leadership - Nelly Agyemang-Gyamfi, Kenya Country Director at Moringa School

“People are loyal to people. If your people can’t connect with you or don’t believe in you, it doesn’t matter how grand your vision is.”

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“People are loyal to people. If your people can’t connect with you or don’t believe in you, it doesn’t matter how grand your vision is.”

In another life, Nelly Agyemang-Gyamfi would have been a women’s rights lawyer. But her love for education had her shelve dreams of becoming a lawyer. A decision she doesn’t seem to regret.

My interview with her was an interesting one. She's quite the storyteller with a good sense of humor. We talked about almost everything - her career, goals for Moringa School, thoughts on leadership and management styles and music playlist (you’ll be surprised who’s on there). Read on! 

How did an International Relations and Economics undergrad end up in the education sector?

To be honest I also wonder sometimes because I was planning to become a women’s rights lawyer. In my university, during the summer we had internships and my fellow economic graduates were chasing internships at the likes of Deloitte and PWC while I was going to teach toddlers at a camp. 

I remember chatting with a friend and I told her that I had a tutoring gig in New York teaching foster children who were waiting to be assigned foster homes. She reacted by asking whether I wanted to go into education or do economics because my summer jobs were ‘not making sense’. 

That was my aha moment. I realized that there was a reason why I wasn’t as invested in chasing internships at the Deloittes of the world. I was interested in education, especially psychology in young children and human rights. I then decided to take psychology classes during my senior year and to do my graduate degree in applied developmental and educational psychology. That’s how I began my journey in education. 

Why come back to Africa? 

Africa has always been close to my heart. I went to a pan-African secondary school, so I’ve always been exposed to people from different African countries and I’m proud of the richness. I always tell people that even though I was born in Ghana I identify as an African.

Even if I had ended up staying and working in the US, it would still have been in the service of Africa. My first job there was in Accion International, a micro-finance company that had programs based in Africa. 

Looking at your previous experiences, how did you go through all these stages to get to where you are?

There’s this interview I watched with Oprah Winfrey and Beyonce, where Beyonce said sometimes in life you don’t see how the dots connect until you look back. In the beginning, I was just a young graduate fresh out of school desperate for a job. I was just like ‘anybody take me I need to pay rent’ (laughs). I got an opportunity to do an internship at Accion’s HR department in professional development during my graduate school. After finishing school, I was looking for jobs and Accion called me out of the blue with an offer for a temporary position. Later on, a permanent position opened up at their Washington DC office to coordinate an executive education program.

A lot of it has been about saying yes to opportunities, sometimes you don’t have it all figured out but you have a sense of where you are being led or what your interests are and you take a chance and jump. 

After working in executive education for a while, I missed working with the youth. Interestingly, I met a certain lady at my cousin's graduation in Indiana who I was chatting about careers with. She asked me to leave her my resume. A couple of weeks later she sent me an email telling me about her former student who was opening a new university in Mauritius - African Leadership University and she wanted to know if I’d be interested in joining them. I thought to myself, “I’m single and young, there’s nothing keeping me here.” And I packed my stuff (laughs). I knew this was the opportunity for me. 

One of the greatest lessons I took from that period of time is that all things are possible if you are willing to put in the work. I was among the first team members to land there and the school was just starting. This pushed my boundaries in ways I didn’t know were possible. 

Naturally, I’m a very risk-averse person who likes to plan, but I learnt to say yes to things and be comfortable with failure. After 3 years, it was time to move on. During my time at ALU, I had seen very bright students who couldn’t study because of finances. Coincidentally, Moringa School was also trying to build up their access program for low-income students at that time which I thought was a huge need and something great to be a part of. 

As the Country Director at Moringa School, is there a typical day for you or is each day different?

Yes and no. The general theme of the things that I do is very common but their content is very different. A lot of my time is spent fire fighting, problem-solving and planning for the future. As to the department I am doing that for, that changes. 

What’s your secret for success at this top level? 

I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’ve been successful because I’ve only been in the role for a little over a year. But I’d say the elements that help with success, in general, are to never stop learning and to redefine your relationship with failure. By failure I mean failing within reason. You don’t just invest a million shillings in something you didn’t do research on. But if you did your due diligence and it didn’t work, ask yourself what you learnt and how you can do it better. 

Also, have fun while at it. 

Speaking of failure, what’s the last thing you failed at terribly?

I can be very forceful and opinionated sometimes. When you are at a certain leadership level and you need to work through line managers to influence people to do things, the dynamics of leadership change. It becomes more of a partnership than telling people to do things.

Recently my team and I had a contention about advertising financial aid. I feel like I should have handled that conversation better because it got to a point where I was just like, “This is happening. We are not discussing it anymore.” 

Don’t get me wrong, there are times in leadership where that is necessary, but knowing when that is necessary and when to invest the time to bring people on the journey with you is key. You can unmistakably end up making people feel unempowered or not listened to which affects motivation and productivity.     

The good thing is that I got feedback from the team who held me accountable for how I handled the situation.  

You have a certificate in Human Rights and International Justice. How passionate are you about human rights and what would you say is the biggest threat to people fighting for human rights? 

I was going to become a women’s rights lawyer, so I’m very passionate about it. I don’t get angry a lot but one of the things that can take me 0 to 100 very fast is injustice. Everyone has a right to live a dignified life. 

The greatest threat to human rights is humans themselves. Last year so many things happened, we saw people speaking against police brutality with #BlackLivesMatter and the Lekki massacre in Nigeria. It was heartbreaking. These issues are a result of lack of empathy. 

Moringa School recently partnered with the Mastercard Foundation through the Young Africa Works Program. Tell us a little bit more about this partnership. 

We’ve been in the partnership since July 2019 and I’d like to shout out the Moringa team because if it hadn’t been for their hard work in the last 6 years we wouldn’t have had this partnership. 

The key thing around the partnership is to expand and provide education opportunities to students from low-income backgrounds. The partnership also ensures that we are able to scale up Moringa’s model which will enable us to engage more students in Kenya and beyond as we think about the future of Moringa across the continent. It allows us to invest in research, technology, product development, sustainable student financing and providing full scholarships to more low-income students. 

There have been a lot of efforts to attract more women into science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. Are we making progress towards closing the gender gap in tech when you look at the number of women enrolling for the courses at Moringa school? 

In tech, I’d say yes and no. There’s still a long way to go. Let me speak about Moringa School. Before COVID, we were hovering around 20% - 30% of women. In 2020 we saw the numbers go up, I was shocked to see we are in the 40 percentile of women. Our goal is to reach 50%, we are happy with this progress.   

One of the lessons that came with that is that when you think about attracting more women into technology, you need to have flexibility. We found that working from home created flexibility in peoples’ time. We had more females signing up and it reminded me of when we were launching in Rwanda where it was an all-female cohort. One of the barriers was that females are handed a lot of responsibilities like family, and they need support. You’ll find one has a child and doesn’t have somewhere to leave them for the period they are in school. We ended up having a daycare to enable females to come in.

As we think about how to have more women in tech, we need to create women-friendly environments because they face unique challenges.

How do you guys achieve an 85% placement rate for your graduates?

First off, good skills speak for themselves and we ensure that we have market-aligned skills. If you get the opportunity to sit in on one of our leadership meetings you’ll find that one of the things we talk about is how many students are in jobs, it’s not only about how many students have enrolled for classes. 

We invest a lot of time in figuring out what the market needs. For example, our Data Science course which we launched in 2019 came out of market research we did in partnership with Mercy Corps. We asked employers what they need, where they saw their future headed and what the gaps were. We then designed the course to fill those gaps.  

We also did an internal study in partnership with Dalberg and Mastercard Foundation in 2020. This was to understand what’s going on in the job market and with our graduates. It revealed that while most students went into formal employment after Moringa School, some ended up in freelancing or entrepreneurship. So we have to equip them with those skills.  

Our students also work on real-world projects. We look for problems that companies are facing and have our students work on them as their projects which is a low-risk way for employers to find new hires. 

Do you mind name-dropping some of the employer partners?

(Laughs) I hope I don’t get in trouble for this. One of the projects that I was interested in was for the World Bank where the students were creating a carpool application for them. We’ve also worked with Sanlam to create some of the tech that they use to communicate with their customers. We have about 100+ employer partners including I&M Bank.

We’ve been doing a series on leadership and management. Does one's personality type or the industry they operate in impact their leadership style?

I’d say it’s less about the industry and more about the people because as a leader you are in service to the people in the organization. That’s service to create an environment that allows them to thrive and be productive. 

I was reading a book called ‘Tribal Leadership’ by Dave Logan, Halee Fischer-Wright, and John King who researched leaders across multiple industries. You get to see that all leaders have things in common, so leadership is industry-agnostic.  

I don’t think people can change their personality or personality can change because of where you work. Everyone is in their spectrum and it really depends on what it will bring out at that particular time.

What leadership and management lessons have you learned that have been valuable to you? 

Relationships are key, people are loyal to people. If your people can’t connect with you or don’t believe in you, it doesn’t matter how grand your vision is. Nobody is going to stay. 

In one of my previous organizations, we had a really amazing boss and there was a time we had a difficult period where we couldn’t hit our goals no matter how much we tried. A colleague of mine said something that stuck with me. She said she felt bad not because she was disappointing the company but because she was disappointing the manager.  

The relationship you have with your employees is what pushes the employee to do 1 extra night of work when they have already done 2 nights of work. It causes them to go above and beyond. 

What do you want to be remembered for at Moringa School?

Culture. I want to create a culture that enables innovation and productivity. A place that enables people to do more than they think they can. To create an invisible company through building that culture. 

I’m curious about your playlist, what’s the last song you danced to? 

(Laughs) I’m a very bad dancer. The last song I bobbed my head to is by Simi called There for You. It has been on repeat. That girl’s voice is from heaven. But I’m big on everything, I listen to Broadway musicals, Taylor Swift, Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B - it depends on my mood. 

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Written by

Kelvin Mokaya

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