Conveners – Chidiogo Akunyili

Chidiogo Akunyili leads the Global Shapers Community across124 cities in Africa and Middle East. Akunyili was named “100 most influential Young Africans”, cited as the continent’s biggest honour for young achievers by Africa Youth Awards. She is also a World Economic Forum’s Global Leadership Fellow, an Executive masters in global leadership with focus on personal, team and organizational leadership skills with teachings that span across INSEAD, Columbia University, Wharton School, London Business School, China Europe International Business School, and Cornell Tech.

Akunyili has over 9 years of professional experience across Africa, the Middle East, Asia, North America and Europe in Community building and Business development, International Development, Sino-African relations and Strategy consulting with focus on Africa.

Akunyili has worked as a Management Consultant with Roland Berger Strategy Consultant in Lagos and UAE; Dalberg Global Development Advisors and Frontier Strategy Group in D.C; Research Assistant at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia; Founder & Program Director of the Cultural Diplomacy in Africa Program in Berlin; and China-Africa Consultant in Beijing.

B.A. International Relations & Political Science, UPenn [Sciences Po Paris]; M.A. International Relations & Economics, SAIS Johns Hopkins; Executive Leadership Program, Master in Global Leadership, World Economic Forum

Akunyili is fluent in 7 languages including Chinese, English, French, German, Igbo, Italian and Spanish.

Sam Potolicchio: What are you trying to accomplish with the global shaper community at WEF?

Chidiogo Akunyili: In my role, I have found myself daily working with and inspired by a group of young change makers – Global Shapers – united by purpose. The Global Shapers Community is a network of Hubs developed and led by young people who are exceptional in their potential, their achievements and their drive to make a contribution to their communities. Global Shapers number over 6,000 young men and women across 450 city based Hubs across the globe. Their strength of collaboration lends itself to the African proverb that “if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. It is to empower one to empower another, and this butterfly effect becomes a revolution of minds and inspirations, of voices and of ideas, of dreams and with it, of realities.

Potolicchio: Which world leader has impressed you the most? Why?

Akunyili: It was at the event of the World Economic Forum Annual meeting in Davos, 2016 where Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made his now famous speech on gender equality saying “we [men and women alike] shouldn’t be afraid of the word feminist”. It was during the same meeting that I had welcomed him to an intimate conversation with 50 Global Shapers on the topic of pluralism. I was struck by his earnest, and honesty, his zeal and the freshness of it, his hope and commitment. He literally lit up the room by his passion, a rare quality. The above already make for an impressive statesman. However, it was not until the next day, when I ran into the PM sauntering confidently but calmly surrounded by an entourage of aides on the narrow corridors of Davos. He was eating an apple, and mid-crunch, he slowed his gait, and waved at eye contact with a carefree smile. He most certainly didn’t have to, but he did. The humanity of the moment was one I was still to see or experience from many, let alone an ‘important man’.

Potolicchio: You are fluent in 7 languages yet you didn't start learning languages until you were 17. Give us hope. How do you do it?

Akunyili: My story with language started with failure, and I share it in hope of giving hope indeed. I was 11 years old, and it was the first day of French class in secondary school at Queens College Lagos, Nigeria. Our newly transferred teacher asked for quiet time. I recall whispering a request to a classmate when I felt the disorienting whoosh of a smack across my face. She must not have known yet that we didn’t hit here at Q.C. Though typically a straight A’s kind of student, from that day on, I failed all 6 years of French class.  I had long accepted that I was not good with languages.

17 years old, having left one world behind for a new chapter as a college student in America and at UPenn! I was filled with pre-freshman energy and living with my sister in a sublet in west Philadelphia, she had the idea that changed everything which was that I spend the summer in France and learn French. I liked the thought of being abroad and on an adventure, a first in many ways. I jumped on it. And off I went to Vichy.

I cried on the first day of French class. I didn’t understand why the teacher expected that I understand her questions though posed in French. This was compounded by that my host family of 6 children didn’t speak combined more than a few words of English. It was French overdose, a shock to me ears and senses: Speak, Watch, and Listen

I had to find a copying mechanism. I started listening and understanding words before I could really be certain what they meant. Translating body language into words. I also found that once over the initial panic and shut down, I started to piece words together as practiced best in conversation. I must have sounded off in every way, but I didn’t care, as long as the sounds got me understood. This has been a key learning; don’t be afraid to make mistakes as all the wealth of learnings is in just this.

Over the next 10 years and 5 new languages, is years I have come across other helpful tools for myself that I hope you might find useful:

  • Live in the ‘host’ country of the language. This has been a key element for me and my style of learning.
  • Listen to familiar fairy tales in the foreign language, the familiarity of the story makes for easier comprehension.
  • Read children’s books in the foreign language, the more familiar ones as well might be best for starters.
  • Listen to songs in the language, fall in love with songs and sing along and aloud to them
  • Continually browse local papers (I wasn't very successful at keeping this one up)
  • Speak, speak, converse. New friends, Taxi drivers, fruit and vegetable sellers, bakers etc. etc. basically everyone.
  • Evenings out! And with a native group. When locals are in a group, they over time loose the need to translate to English etc. Such space provides for steep learning curve.

I believe we all have special and unique ways of learning, so do let one or all advice go if you see does not work for you and your style. I hope it will work for some! And I hope as well that you find your way to overcoming any of your past limiting beliefs of your capabilities.

I am grateful to James McGann who at graduation from undergrad counseled a group of us he had taken under his wings to go learn a difficult language. This language for me was Mandarin Chinese. A propos, If you speak a tonal language — this means to borrow the example of Igbo, a tonal language, that the word ‘Akwa’ can mean 6 different things depending on tone with pronounced— it is my opinion that Chinese will be much easier for you to learn. This is because the main enemy of language learners is the grammar, and in Chinese, there is no grammar! Its the most beautiful basic sentence structure. The devil in the detail for the spoken language is tones. Put in another way, tone deafness is not an option for success with spoken Chinese.

Potolicchio: What is something you think is untold about Africa?

Akunyili: I think something untold that is so even to ourselves is the recognition that we, Africans, bear complex wounds of slavery, occupation and colonialism. Like any trauma, acknowledgment is a first step. We need to acknowledge that our Africans — our hair, our skin, our cultures, our very religion cannot and must not be judge itself as lacking in comparison. We must never compare, we were not all created only to be the same! Of the untold tale of our trauma lies the even less told truth of the smoldering strength of mind, body, spirit that is as old an mankind. 

Both the ‘victim’ and the ‘aggressor' must open an honest door for dialogue that the healing might begin.

Potolicchio: Financial inclusion is one of your major initiatives. How do we get there?

Akunyili: Working with circa 20 global experts and stakeholders from government, civil society, and business in the context of Managing the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Economic Growth and Social Inclusion,  it became more apparent from discussions the need for a multi-layered approach to address this global challenge. Complex problems demand a multilayered approach. We asked tens of individuals across the globe experiential and working solutions to rising inequality that work.

An evolving thought I have might just hit the nail on the head. What do we do when a problem seems larger than life? we break it down. Broken down, we, individuals are the basic units, Are we broken? do you love ourselves and our neighbors, our environment and all life.  

Given the scale and complexity of social and environment challenges we are faced with, all hands are needed on deck. Start with the consciousness of our own contribution, positive or negative. Inclusion I believe to be seeded by any action that empowers another.

Potolicchio: What's the book we need to read to get a sense of your Nigerian Homeland?

Akunyili: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King's Horseman. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah.

Potolicchio: What's the best insight you've overheard during your visits to the WEF Davos gathering?

Akunyili: "Surround yourself by community!" – Sebastian Vettel