Ugandan American Business Leader Talks Career Transitions and Changing Dialogue on Africa

Meet modern-day revolutionary, Liz Ngonzi, a Ugandan-born international connector and communicator with a master plan to challenge myths about Africa and the diverse people who make up its 55 unique countries. Ngonzi develops online and traditional marketing strategies and training programs for both the U.S. and international nonprofits.

Ngonzi, a Cornell University graduate, got the inspiration early to become a voice of social change. From preschool to high school, she attended the United Nations International School in New York City. At 9 years old, her mom a lifelong gender rights activist and United Nations executive, exposed her to the plight of women worldwide.

Now recognized as a global thought leader, Ngonzi continues to breathe life into her work by creating platforms, forging strategic relationships and facilitating discussions for nonprofit organizations throughout New York, Africa and Europe.

How does Ngonzi do it? “Whenever I have a suitable platform to deliver my message, I seize the opportunity to create new narratives about Africa,” Ngonzi says. In 2012, she co-organized a panel for the SXSW technology conference entitled, “Africa, Tech & Women: The New Faces of Development,” to cast African women in a new light by showcasing those who work in or leverage technology. In 2013, she presented at the NYU Heyman Center for Philanthropy & Fundraising where she teaches about Africa, Tech and Philanthropy. And this month, she participated on the Women’s Inspiration & Enterprise (WIE) Africa Symposium in Lagos, Nigeria.

Black Enterprise caught up with the culture cultivator to talk her career transitions and how other women can pursue a path in global development.

What inspired you to go into international development?

I spent the first 10 years of my career in corporate America, but 12 years ago, I was hit by the entrepreneurial bug and decided to apply the skills, networks and experience I’d gained from my corporate career to nonprofit organizations with nationwide and global footprints.  I chose international development because I guess it’s in my blood: I’ve been traveling internationally from the age of 4, and I’ve always been aware of and interested in global issues—all of which have resulted in my unique worldview.

Tell us more about your plans to change the conversation about Africa?

The overwhelming view is that Africa is a monolithic country, plagued by poverty, illiteracy, conflict and disease. Generally speaking, whenever anything positive is shared about Africa, it’s in relation to its animals and the beauty of its landscapes. While I do acknowledge that the aforementioned do exist, that’s not the full story.

african diaspora

I would like to develop an initiative that provides young Africans on the continent and those in the diaspora with an understanding of their leadership potential. I hope to provide the knowledge and tools that will help to change the self-defeating thinking, provide access to opportunities, mentoring and financial resources and showcase role models to help young people reach their full potential and ultimately move the continent forward.

What experiences have helped to build your brand as an international connector and cultivator?

I build concentric circles that connect people, ideas, cultures, corporations and technologies to achieve creative strategic outcomes. My ability to be effective in doing so is driven primarily through my extensive network of contacts, ability to see opportunities that others don’t, application of a creative approach to problem solving, and connecting the dots between it all.

I’ve been fortunate to develop an extensive Rolodex of contacts from all over the world and in various fields. And I’ve developed an approach to networking that is based on an understanding of the importance of reciprocity and paying it forward.

How can professionals take advantage of opportunities presented by the African Diaspora?

The African diaspora represents two key brand extension opportunities for businesses:

Western brands looking to cultivate partners who can help to navigate the African continent: Engagement with folks in the African Diaspora who serve as connectors and understand both contexts can be invaluable in enabling brands to identify viable opportunities and mitigate risks inherent in doing business in foreign markets. As an example, we’ve had experience working with a US university looking to partner with one in East Africa.  Of critical importance to that partnership was identifying a university with the right profile; facilitating the right introductions in government, the private sector and civil society organizations that would be critical to moving the partnership forward; and helping to bridge cultural differences so as to ensure smooth communication flow.

African brands seeking to cultivate partners who can help navigate Western markets: There are brands with very solid footprints in the African market that could potentially leverage the African Diaspora to facilitate new partnerships, and/or serve as the ultimate target audience.  One such example was when my firm was hired in 2012 by AMREF to launch its global Stand Up for African Mothers campaign in the US with a specific emphasis on engaging the African Diaspora community. This engagement represented the first time that such a major African NGO (Non governmental organization) had made the effort to reach out to this valuable community that the World Bank reports as having sent home $60 billion in remittances in 2012.

I believe everyone has a “secret sauce” that has defined his or her success. What are the top three ingredients for a successful career in international development?

Awareness of and respect for different cultures; ability to see common threads between people of different cultures; and flexibility and adaptability.


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