“Lift As We Climb” — the First U.S. African Immigrant Leadership Conference Makes National and Global Waves

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Caption: Speakers on the “Empowering Women to Lead” panel at the 2020 NAIL conference. Image screen capture/edit made by Lolla Nur.

By: Lolla Nur, Freelance Journalist

“Leadership is the ability to develop purpose, while creating a condition for [leaders] to succeed,” Dr. Fatima Lawson passionately opined, during the first National African Immigrant Leadership Conference. 

Hosted in the Twin Cities in December 2020 by African Economic Development Solutions (AEDS) — a small business development nonprofit — the conference featured 65 local, national and international speakers and moderators. Almost all were first or second-generation Africans. 

Featured on a Zoom panel with a group of trailblazing African female leaders, whose backgrounds spanned philanthropy, community organizing, marketing and business management, Dr. Lawson chose to speak about the differences between leadership and management. It’s something she has had extensive experience with, as the financial secretary for the Minnesota Institute for Nigerian Development (MIND) and a principal with Saint Paul Public Schools.

Management is the ability to get day to day things done, she said, whereas leaders “should have the ability to make things happen, not only for self but for the organization.”

AEDS organized the convening in partnership with Claim Our Space, Cullasaja Synergy Consulting, LLC, Infiniti Pictures, Pan African TV and Ramsey County Workforce Solutions.


Caption: AEDS CEO and founder Gene Gelgelu and an emcee Korma Aguh-Stuckmayer are pictured being filmed during their presentations for the conference. Image credit: Claim Our Space


Panels focused on building wealth in immigrant communities, economic inclusion, entrepreneurship, human and civil rights, maintaining identity in the diaspora, health, civic engagement and coalition building. It’s one of the first of its kind regionally, and likely nationally.

The keynote speakers were Her Excellency Ambassador, Dr. Arikana Chihombori Quao (former African Union representative to the US.), Gary Cunningham (former President and CEO of the Metropolitan Economic Development Association), and Alfa Demmellash (CEO and co-founder of Rising Tide Capital).

For Us By Us, United in the Diaspora

A sub-theme of the conference was “lifting as we climb”: a sentiment repeated through all conversations. Speakers expressed the need for more Africans in leadership positions across the board, while building more institutions led and run for, by and with Africans.

Indeed, this idea was enthusiastically mentioned by the opening keynote speaker herself, H.E. Ambassador Dr. Arikana Chihombori Quao. Dr. Quao is a Zimbabwean medical doctor, diplomat, public speaker and Pan-African activist.


Caption: Her Excellency Ambassador, Dr. Arikana Chihombori Quao’s Keynote Speech at NAILC 2020

“The problem is we [Africans] should be on the driver’s seat of the development agenda,” she said in her keynote. “Unfortunately, the children of Africa are the only missing ingredient — if Africa is to build [the] sustainable Africa that we want.” 

“[We are] not united in the diaspora,” she continued. “Which is why this moment is calling for unity and collaborations. It’s important that the people of Africa understand what’s at stake.”

Africans in Minnesota

Gene Gelgelu, the CEO and founder of AEDS, explained that the National African Immigrant Leadership conference was borne out of a need for diverse Africans to “come together to have a larger and stronger collective voice that can shape and inform the public.” The recent Bush Foundation Fellow cited the necessity for Africans to create opportunities within corporate and philanthropic America. 

“Africans in Minnesota are among the fastest growing segments of the population yet we are underrepresented in key decision-making systems and processes that determine our access to opportunities and quality of life,” he said.

A typically unknown fact outside of Minnesota is that the state has some of the nation’s largest African populations, from Nigerian and Liberian, to Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Kenyan. This often means that African business clients, regardless of their nation of origin, have unique entrepreneurial and business development needs — a large gap which AEDS works to fill


Caption: Conference speakers discussing the panel: “Global Africa: Preserving African Identity Across the Diaspora”. Image credit: AEDS Facebook page

As a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), AEDS meets the culturally-specific needs of African businesses by offering services such as business training, technical assistance, access to capital, and arts and cultural programming (via the annual Little Africa Festival).

Plus, AEDS’ services are in seven African languages spoken in Minnesota — and it has a goal of increasing capacity in serving West African communities, Gelgelu said. 

“In order to build strong economies and address economic inequalities in African immigrant communities,” Gelgelu added, “we need to build a strong national African immigrant coalition.”

The African Economy

According to research produced by economist Dr. Bruce Corrie, as of December 2020 Africans in Minnesota have $2.8 billion in buying power. That figure is nearly double the number a report he published in 2015 had cited. 

The same report, published by Concordia University, also stated Minnesota’s African immigrants’ charitable giving is estimated to be $14 million per year, and that the state’s market for African services and products is a whopping $281 million. Five years later, those numbers have increased. 

Caption: Dr. Bruce Corrie talks about the African immigrant economy in Minnesota at the 2020 NAILC.

Produced in partnership with AEDS, Dr. Corrie’s report was the most extensive of its kind in Minnesota when it was released, surveying “over 500 consumers and over 100 businesses across the diversity of African immigrants,” according to Dr. Corrie’s website

Empowering African Women to Lead

During the panel entitled “Empowering African Women to Lead,” investment attorney Efe Ukala said that African immigrant women have unique hurdles in the corporate world, which means they must put in more effort to succeed. 

Ukala, the founder of ImpactHER, added the only solution is to build your table and carve your space (she clarified that she was not speaking about, or for, her current employer during the panel).

Caption: Keynote speaker Alfa Demmellash at the NAILC 2020

“As [African] women we have to create those opportunities for ourselves. Sitting and waiting for someone to come knocking on your door with a bowl of milk and honey?” she quipped rhetorically, and with a smile. “You’re gonna be waiting a very long time — I’ll tell you that. Sometimes, you have to create that seat for yourself.” 

Many panelists discussed the unique disparities African immigrants face in fields ranging from healthcare, to business, media to politics. During the conference, Gelgelu announced plans to host the second NAIL conference in 2021, which AEDS is planning will be in person, he said. 

Other notable speakers for the inaugural NAIL conference included Nelima Sitati Munene, Tolulope Ola, Rosemary Ugboajah, Tashitaa Tufaa, Abdirahman Kahin, Nasibu Sareva, Hanna Getachew-Kreusser, Teshite Wako, Dr. Richard Oni, Mark Ritchie, Jaylani Hussein, Dr. Rose Brewer, Bo Thao-Urabe, various local policy makers, youth activists, funders, and many more. 

Disclaimer: The author of this article has been employed by African Economic Development Solutions in the past. She was a moderator for the 2020 National African Immigrant Leadership Conference referenced in this article. 


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