University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

Getting Women Into Africa’s Boardrooms

Marcia Ashong, recipient of a recent Archbishop Desmond Tutu Fellowship, is helping cultivate women leaders in Africa.

In 2016, Marcia Ashong (B.A. ’06) was a U.K.-trained lawyer and highly successful executive working in the Ivory Coast for the Houston-based oil and gas firm Baker Hughes. After several years with the firm, she had diligently worked her way up the corporate ladder to country manager, but as she did, she noticed not many women were following her up the ranks.

It was at that point that Ashong decided to do something to help other women make it to the top throughout Africa. That year she launched TheBoardroom Africa, whose goal is placing women on for-profit and nonprofit boards throughout the continent.

Ashong considers lack of diversity on boards to be “the thorny roots of the problem” of gender equity, arguing that boards are “unique environments where leaders can really flourish.” Furthermore, she adds, “research shows that diverse boardrooms lead to more diverse executive teams.”

Ashong and TheBoardroom Africa set a goal of doubling the number of women in boardrooms across the region by 2026. And they’ve made a good start. After just three years, says Ashong, they’ve placed more than a dozen women on boards across Africa, while building a network of nearly 800 senior executive women. “We want to end excuses for not seeking out and appointing high-caliber female talent,” she says. “There is no excuse when companies can use us as a resource to diversify their executive talent.”

Recently, for example, TheBoardroom Africa helped arrange for a number of women to join high-profile boards, including PricewaterhouseCoopers tax partner Ayesha Bedwei’s appointment to the board of Ghana’s Kuenyehia Prize for Contemporary Ghanaian Art, and for development firm director Allen Asiimwe’s and GE Africa communications and public affairs officer Patricia Obozuwa’s appointments to the board of The Water Trust, a nonprofit organization based in Uganda.

The importance of adding women to boards of directors cannot be overstated, says Ashong. “Diverse boards mean embracing diversity of thought and experience,” she says. “Women on boards bring openness to new perspectives, collaboration, and inclusiveness, and strength in ethics and fairness. By changing the dynamics at the top of the business … diversity radiates across all levels of the company.”

Ashong says her diversity activism started while she was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, earning her B.A. in political science and international relations in 2006. Although her earliest years were spent in the U.K. and Ghana, she “spent the majority of my formative and early adult years in Minnesota,” Ashong says. “Minneapolis is
where I honed my interests and passion for making an impact,” and although today she lives in Ghana, “Minnesota will always remain my second home.”

Her effort to make an impact has been noticed. For her work with TheBoardroom Africa, Ashong was recently awarded a prestigious Archbishop Desmond Tutu Fellowship, administered by the African Leadership Institute. Just 20 individuals from more than 300 applicants—considered some of Africa’s highest-potential young leaders—are named Tutu Fellows each year. Among the program’s goals, says Ashong, are fostering Pan-African perspectives and sharing leadership experiences.

The fellowship program is a part-time, six-month commitment that includes two intensive interactive workshops—one held in South Africa and one in Oxford and London. The workshops feature important African leaders, including such past speakers as Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, former vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town and former managing director of the World Bank Group; Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, former president of Tanzania; and Graça Machel, international human rights advocate and former first lady of Mozambique and South Africa.

Between workshop modules, fellows undertake group projects designed to develop solutions for some of Africa’s most pressing challenges. Recent projects have aimed to improve destitute patients’ access to medicine in Nigeria, to mentor and encourage higher education among South African girls, and to supply microloans and vocational training for farmers in Kenya.

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