We had a chat with Millennium Fellowship alumni Toluwalashe Soyemi from Nigeria and Kendi Juma from Kenya, who have both been selected to be among the fifteen-member Born This Way Foundation Advisory Board. Born This Way is a foundation co-founded by Lady Gaga and led by her mother Cynthia Germonatta that is aimed at demonstrating the power of kindness to impact well-being, validating the emotions of young people everywhere, and eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health.
The advisory board plays a pivotal role in the planning and execution of programs, campaigns, and projects core to the foundation’s mission. Kendi and Tolu are 2020 and 2018 Millennium Fellowship alumni respectively. We asked them a few questions about their time during the Fellowship, their experiences since graduation, and their new adventure at Born This Way:
Tolu and Kendi, so great to connect with both of you! Please tell us a little bit about yourselves.
KENDI: “Thank you. My name is Kendi Juma, a 2020 Millennium Fellow and a final year law student at the University of Nairobi. My Fellowship project was a campaign titled "Heights and Depths", which started partly in response to the increasing numbers of mental health issues caused by the pandemic, and partly from the need to provide necessary pandemic essentials to struggling families within my community. First, we organized online fundraisers that enabled us to donate face masks to over 100 poor school going children, then we initiated physical and online conversations centered around mental health, creating safe spaces for young people to open up, be heard, and find community.”
TOLU: “My name is Soyemi Toluwalashe, a 5th year medical student from the Lagos State University, and a 2018 Millennium Fellow and Campus Director. I am a Mental health advocate with particular interest in the wellbeing of young people in Nigeria. I have made it a personal mission to try and fight the stigma and discrimination associated with mental unwellness in Nigeria. I am also passionate about personal development, having been in the development space for 6 years now. My goal is to help young leaders bridge the gap between potential and performance by providing them with training and access to opportunities and resources.”
"The Millennium Fellowship helped me discover my passion for change." Kendi
Awesome! How has life been for both of you since you graduated from the Millennium Fellowship?
KENDI: "The Millennium Fellowship helped me discover my passion for change, and gave me the realization that social impact has always been my calling. Since I graduated I’ve been able to navigate the social entrepreneurship space better. I’m also glad to share that I have discovered my passion for climate action. Before the Fellowship, I did not fully understand the issue of climate change, because you never hear much about that in Africa, but after interacting with the community of Fellows from around the world, and attending SDG conversation hours, Goal 13 piqued my interest! I realized how important and urgent climate action is and have not turned back since. I’ve since been selected as a Global Champion for Climate action, and just recently won a $1,000 grant from BYLC to assist my climate work. I’ve also joined the Foundation for Climate Restoration where I get to learn more about what we can do as the young generation to save our planet.”
TOLU: “Life has been an adventure! The Millennium Fellowship was by far the best organized and most impactful program I have ever been involved in. It gave me the right opportunities and resources to jump into my next phase of leadership. Since I graduated, I have gone through a long journey of learning. I’ve enjoyed many successes and I’ve faced many failures. But the transformative Fellowship curriculum prepared me for all this and more. I have recently won the Diana Award, and continue to walk into more opening doors.”
Congratulations on your appointment to the Born This Way Advisory Board! Can you both tell us a little bit about the foundation an why this is so important to you?
KENDI: “Thank you! Born This Way was co-founded by Lady Gaga as a mental health platform that tries to spread love, warmth and kindness to all people around the world. It also teaches the need to appreciate diversity and embrace differences. I learnt about this opportunity through the Millennium Fellowship and thought it resonated so I applied. Honestly, when the response came I was totally surprised, in a good way of course, because I simply didn’t think I was going to make it. But I took the leap of faith and now here I am! I guess there’s a lesson there, on self confidence and self belief! I’m just completely honored and humbled to be representing the African girl and to be able to voice her cry.”
TOLU: “Thank you very much. Born this way is aligned with my personal vision of a warmer, happier continent. It promotes bravery and supports kindness and these are what Nigeria and the rest of Africa need the most right now. I thought it was a very unique opportunity that would help me help my community and so applying was a no-brainer. Now I want to use this opportunity to reach out to my peers across Nigeria, to scale my work and lay foundations for a long impactful career. Thank you Team MCN for the recommendation and for helping alumni find these doors.”
How did the training, connections and credentials gained during the Fellowship help you as you went into these new challenges and adventures?
KENDI: "I have always been a shy girl, and though it's not necessarily a bad trait, sometimes this timidity made me miss out on opportunities. But after the Millennium Fellowship I have been able to approach openings and opportunities with courage and self belief. In terms of practical skills, the lessons on pitching and approaching donors have helped me win grants to implement my projects. I also learnt from my cohort the value in teams, and the beauty in working together to chase goals bigger than each of us. Also just having the Millennium Fellowship credential on my CV has given me an upper hand I believe. So I’m now more equipped for a long leadership journey and hopefully a fruitful career in social impact.
TOLU: The Millennium Fellowship gave me great self confidence. But more importantly, it gave me the relevant knowledge to back that up. The curriculum is very insightful, it builds you and sharpens you. It helped me narrow my interests, find my voice and identify my passion. Sometimes as a young leader you can be clouded by the idealism of change without taking time to figure out what exactly you are best equipped to change, so the Fellowship definitely helped me with that. I have also found friendship and support in my cohort mates, and have opened up new networks that I otherwise would never have found. I also appreciated the willingness by Sam and the team to write recommendations for promising former Fellows. The recommendation provided by him helped me secure the Born this way foundation opportunity.”
"The Fellowship helped me narrow my interests, find my voice and identify my passion." Toluwalashe
Anything you'd like to share with prospective fellows, alumni and young leaders around Africa?
KENDI: “I would encourage them to think beyond borders and their countries and start considering themselves global citizens, because Africa can be one big beautiful community if we all just pull together. I want young Africans to embrace this world and realize that it can be theirs. They should believe in themselves, never sell themselves short and aggressively chase opportunities for growth. For 2021 Fellows, make sure to value this platform! Your cohort mates might end up being lifelong friends and partners, so learn teamwork! Improve your organizing and leadership, and remember in everything you do you cannot separate compassion from impact, so let love guide everything you do. Most importantly, take good care of your mental health. It is easy for young social activists to get overwhelmed, isolated and end up disappearing into dark places. So spread love and ensure you stay around people that share theirs with you”
TOLU: “I know this will sound cliché, but I'd just tell them to never give up! Embrace the frustration, learn from the fear, but never stop moving. I’d tell them to find ways to motivate themselves, even in the face of failure, even in the face of defeat. Realize the importance of community. Create support groups with friends and colleagues. Share your pain and celebrate your success. Find mentors who have been there and done that, because it is important to stand on the shoulders of giants. Above all, I’d urge all of them to be mindful of their mental health. At a time when a mental health crisis is ravaging African youth, we must all learn to care for ourselves and for the people around us.”
Thank you Kendi and Tolu for sharing your story with us! Alumni, if you have a story that you think our community needs to hear, email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Connect with Kendi on Linkedin.
Connect with Tolu on LinkedIn.