by Aminata Diop-Kunta
My name is Aminata Diop-Kunta. I am an entrepreneur based in Dakar, Senegal. I have been working as a translator and interpreter for more than four years. I own a vegan/vegetarian business and I am also a sustainable development consultant for an environmental studies firm. I am married and spend a lot of time acting silly with my two-year old daughter who completes me.
Lesson #1. Make a Decision
As an entrepreneur, I can trace my earliest qualities of leadership from the time one of my closest high-school friends died in November 2014. This was quite a traumatic and unexpected event. I lived in NYC at the time and I was 26 years old, a program manager for a film festival, and by all means what many would refer to as successful. At the time of her death, my friend lived in Canada and was finishing up her studies to pursue a similar trajectory of getting a great job and possibly starting a new and exciting life in Canada. Yet, death had halted all of those plans. The last time her parents had seen her, she was getting on her flight to Canada some three years before, and now she was returning to them in a coffin. We were both from Senegal.
As I booked my flight for the first part of the funeral in Montreal, I also bought a one-way ticket back to my homeland. I had family and friends there that loved me and that was enough reason to go back. It was while I was packing and prepping that it occurred to me how late I had been in making this life-changing decision. The true charm of any journey resides in the return, but New York had made me so comfortable and focused on my superficial well-being that I completely brushed aside the fact that I had initially made my way to the US to study and then return home to make the best of both worlds: build, learn and give back to my community.
The first lesson on leadership came, unbeknownst to me, from the decision to go back to the place I called home, and by extension to “myself” in a holistic manner.
Lesson #2. Become Independent
I arrived in Dakar in late December 2014, with a B.A. in World Politics, polyglot skills, and a very open-minded approach on how I would impact my community. I always believed that when it comes to leadership, the work begins within. With that in mind, I never actively sought out conventional “leadership” roles. I decided to learn as much as I could before I could pretend to influence anyone in any way, shape or form.
While living at my parent’s home, I enrolled in a global development practice masters’ program that I never got the chance to fully complete because I met my now-husband at around the same time and fell pregnant. I learned about development that worked; and to test out my knowledge, I secured a job as a translator for an American NGO based in Senegal. Becoming a translator for a structure that works in development is a great opportunity when you want to learn everything – positive and negative – that happens in the non-profit world, because you translate everything.
This time as a translator and development practice student taught me the second lesson about leadership: the importance of becoming independent. Whether it is on a financial level, or in terms of simple decision-making, one cannot lead without full freedom of thought or freedom of action. This means that on a macro-level, no country can ever prosper without economic growth which is mainly achievable in countries like Senegal through entrepreneurship and/or financially empowering the unskilled workforce that makes up a large component of the country; on a micro-level, it is simply a necessity to strive to be financially independent and to read, read more, and then some, about one’s history, one’s capacity, one’s power.
Lesson #3. Have a Plan B
Knowing this before I gave birth to my daughter, I made the decision to plan ahead and become a social entrepreneur after my four-year contract ended. I launched the first online vegan business in town. The goal was two-fold: to bring healthy food to my community but to also prove to myself that it is possible to have an income-generating activity no matter what situation you find yourself in.
That is my third lesson in leadership: always have a plan B in case plan A does not work, when it comes to financial security.
I mentioned pursuing a masters on development practice and how important it was for me to further practice my knowledge in the matter. This is because education is key in any kind of leadership. It is crucial to learn as much as you can about any topic you deem useful to your community.
Lesson #4. Take Care to Treat People Well
Education is not just going to school, getting the diplomas, and securing a great job. It is fundamentally about how you treat people and this is something that begins home. It is thanks to the values that my parents, my religion and my home country instilled in me – respecting human life, restoring human dignity, giving elders their due respect, speaking the truth even if it is against me, staunchly believing that there is more good than bad and willing to fight for it – are the habits that keep me going every day.
Lesson #5. Appreciate Your Own Good Qualities
These are lessons on leadership I have learned before becoming a mother which nothing on earth prepares you for…or so they say. I think practicing leadership qualities in my daily life and making decisions on my own have paved the way for what I think is my biggest achievement and my hardest job, becoming a parent. But I am truly content with my life and I wouldn’t trade a second of it with anyone else’s.
I hope that in spite of the challenges of becoming a parent today, and the earlier trauma of losing someone that was close to me, I was able to develop and enforce qualities that shaped me to become the woman I am, unafraid of obstacles, and happy to instill these values to her daughter but also her colleagues, and who knows, maybe one day, an entire nation, as an active and hopeful agent of development.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I met Aminata Diop at Hamilton College during a seminar in 2010, She and I bonded over conversations in English and French about the political leadership and state of development in Senegal, her home and a country in which I had served. Her reflections on leadership as a self-starting business woman and mother demonstrate the self-awareness and optimism so vital to successful change agents.
This article is a part of the Marketplace of Leadership Stories series.
- What leadership challenges or opportunities have you encountered as a parent?
- If someone were to ask you to cite 5 of your best qualities, what would you answer?
- How can we help others identify their best qualities?