INSPIRED BY WOMEN
These are personal accounts telling of what happens when others are inspired by women to do more, be more, and dream more. We are highlighting the achievements of female change makers as a catalyst towards inspiring future young leaders.
We have talented women across the Caribbean and Africa who have broken the glass ceiling, jumped to some key positions and made a difference. This reminds me when I became the first African female appointed to the position of Assistant Secretary General for the UN Department of Safety and Security, looking at global security worldwide. It was in the beginning a challenge in my mind to work with male military people, but it became easier to collaborate and achieve reform needed with them.
Women should not be scared to take high responsibilities, because in the essence of each woman, there is a powerful inner force and capacity to accomplish multitasks and succeed.
- Mbaranga Gasarabwe
My great - grandmother has served as an inspiration to me throughout my life. A few words spoken to me at a time of fear and weakness helped catapult and transform the way I approach challenges in my personal and professional life and will forever push me to showcase my strengths, work hard, and not allow fear to hold me back.
I remember it like yesterday, I was standing on the stage about to deliver a song at my pre-school graduation when I choked. As the instrumental played, my mind said “SING” but my mouth simply could not open.
My great-grandmother had accompanied me to the graduation, and up until that point, was proud of my accomplishments and all the awards I had won that afternoon. But my falter to sing that day, turned her smile immediately into a frown.
Following the ceremony, with a piercing stern stare, she looked me square in the eyes and said “you had the chance to show those people who you are, what you can do, and now they will forever remember you as the girl who let fear make her mute – and, that will be your legacy”, and in a sharp retort feeling ashamed inside, as I started crying I said “no”, and then she quickly responded “then what will be your legacy?”.
Those words pierced my mind and from there on out, to date, in everything I take part in, I ensure I do my very best and give my all, because at the age of 6, that day, those comments from my grandma made me realize that all my actions, from inception, along the way and til the end of my time, will leave an impression and/or impact on those who are a part of the journey at that time.
That single comment, at such a young age, forever changed how I approached my goals and when I became older, and further understand the profoundness of the statement, my personal and professional life.
Teocah (pictured above) is a Youth and Community Development Specialist hailing from Trinidad and Tobago. She holds degrees in Journalism and Public Relations (AAS), Media and Communications (BA Hons), and Gender and International Relations (Msc-Merit). She is also the recipient of the prestigious Chevening Scholarship award, and is a Queen’s Young Leaders Awardee.
She first started volunteering at the age of 16 and eventually became 2nd Lieutenant in the Trinidad and Tobago Cadet Force Country Co-ordinator of the US Embassy of Trinidad and Tobago Youth Ambassador Programme. She was Trinidad and Tobago’s representative in the United Nations Development Programme – Caribbean Youth Think Tank.
Teocah is presently working towards the implementation of youth development initiatives targeting at-risk/vulnerable children and youth.
I was fortunate to come upon an unexpected mentor named Patricia Aquing at a time when I already considered myself a mature professional.
And she wasn’t my supervisor, but rather an employee who I recruited. Her mature approach to work and her understanding of people, work life, and her own life view, provided me with so much guidance and support. She was never afraid to tell me what she thought, even if she disagreed with me (and even though I was her boss!).
Her counsel was always honest, grounded in reality, and valuable. She helped me with some of the most difficult challenges of my professional life and I am a much better person because of her mentorship. Up until that time in my career, I had never had a female boss and my only female authority figure was my mother. She served as a sounding board, friend, and in some cases my social conscience. I thank God for bringing her into my life, at a time when I needed guidance, but probably did not even realize it.
Vincent Sweeney (pictured above) is the head of the Caribbean Sub-Regional Office at the United Nations Environment Programme
“The only limit to the height of your achievement is the reach of your dreams and willingness to work hard for them.” These words of Michelle Obama have been one of my greatest sources of inspiration. They lifted me from apathy to possibility and transformed my view of my own capabilities. Ever since, I have been determined and convinced that my dreams are indeed possible.
Inspiration comes to us all in different ways. Arguably, the words and life of Michelle Obama have continued to inspire me to strive for the best, not only in my career, but my family life as well as health and well-being. In November 2008, just after my sixteenth birthday, I recall eagerly waiting up for the results of the U.S. Election. After the results were announced, while tears rolled down my eyes, I vividly remember as Michelle Obama crossed the stage in Grand Park, Chicago. As a girl who dreamt of becoming a lawyer and someday inspiring other young women, I could not resist but delve deeper into the life of this seemingly interesting woman. As 2008 was the year I was applying for college, I was motivated that it was indeed possible to fulfill my dreams of becoming a lawyer which was later met with the desire to do greater good and a peaked interest in gender policy.
With few mentoring schemes in the Caribbean, my need and inspiration to dream bigger was met with my ability to identify with Mrs. Obama, not only as a black woman, but also as an individual whose place of birth and socio-economic status did not determine her destiny.
Growing up as a young woman in the Caribbean, there were always limitations placed on one’s dreams and aspirations. Females were held to different standards than males both academically and more particularly, socially. Being born on a Caribbean Island was seen as a disadvantage by most as opposed to being born in a first world country. Most women remained in traditional roles and were rarely seen in high paid careers and positions. Even among the few who obtained some degree of success, I felt unable to identify role models. Most seemed completely engulfed in their careers, sacrificing their personal lives. Every time I felt discouraged, I would seek comfort in the personal words of Mrs. Obama. Those words allowed me to see beyond the “First Lady of the United States” to the human being sharing her wisdom; that in itself was deeply empowering.
Women are often categorized by society as either career driven or family oriented, never both. I was made to feel that pursuing my career would require me to give-up having a family. However, Mrs. Obama is living proof that you can be a professional, mother, role model [for women], nutrition and wellness advocate, as well as being interested in fashion. My perception that women neatly fit into only one of two categories was shattered. I no longer felt that I had to choose between career, family life, wellness and fashion. She gave hope that I did not have to settle for one. Instead, I could be all.
After the completion of my masters, with my newfound knowledge, I felt compelled to further my studies. Facing much opposition from individuals who did not believe in education, as well as those who felt that it was a waste of money, I remembered the words of Michelle, who said “stay true to yourself and never let what anybody else says distract you from your goals.” Listening to her speeches constantly reminded me that education was not only the key to success; equal importance must be given to power and self-confidence. Despite never having met her, I was convinced that I knew her personally and that her words of wisdom spoke to my soul.
Today, I stand as a product of many things but most importantly a product of hopes and dreams. Dreams which have awakened new possibilities through the words and inspiration of the life and words of Mrs. Michelle Obama. Mrs. Obama has taught me that you can keep your identity as woman but most importantly as an individual. She is living proof that when you stay true to yourself, outside forces can do you no harm but more significantly, you can inspire the hearts and souls of diverse people worldwide. I hope someday that I will be able to inspire the hearts of many worldwide. As a living example of a well-versed and grounded individual, Michelle Obama, without a doubt, has, and continues to be one of my greatest sources of inspiration, to do more and to be more.
-Alberta A.G.S. Richelieu (pictured above)
All of us have a story from our school days that we will not forget. It’s usually a funny story that stays with us and we tell it over and over to friends, at parties and at reunions. We recount it when we meet our contemporaries and those who shared the moment with us, or we get together and compare our stories with those of others.
Many of us can identify a teacher who was special, who loved teaching and students. That teacher’s sole purpose was to make a difference and help students achieve their potential, giving them the tools to become their best self. For me, that person is Dame Patricia Symmonds. While people recall their favourite teacher and talk about their fondest school memory, I live mine every day.
In school I was regarded as a bright and articulate student, but somehow I always underperformed on exams. I could tell you all the theories, speak to the issues, articulate and defend concepts, but put me in an exam and ask me to write about it, and I just could not get it done. This plagued me right through school but my principal remained confident in me.
When I failed my certification exams on leaving high school, my parents were angry and upset and I was humiliated. I questioned whether I truly had the ability to take myself in the direction I had hoped to pursue. It was a point at which my life could have gone either way.
My principal called me. It was clear she was also disappointed but she gave me advice that I will never forget. I was 16 and her advice changed my life. Since then, whenever I have had a personal or professional challenge, when I have felt lost, uncertain of myself and my direction, I have pulled on the wisdom of the words she told me that summer day, “Elizabeth, you have fallen down at the crossroads, you can either stay where you are and let the traffic run over you, or you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and continue on your journey.”
This has become the principle by which I live my life in good and bad times. On many occasions I have fallen but on every occasion I have gotten back up, dusted myself off and kept going until I reach the destination and goals I have set for myself. I fall but I get up. I persist, I persevere, I press on, I do not relent and as a result I succeed and am happy.
Are you wondering how I did academically? I have four degrees including two Masters, one of which is with Distinction. I still remember how wretched I felt that day as I watched the oncoming traffic and wondered what lay ahead. Thirty-five years later, I remain grateful that a teacher cared enough to help me get up, out of the way and continue with a journey that has been wonderful.
Dame Patricia Symmonds, you touched my life and that has made all the difference, because it shaped my life."
- H. Elizabeth Thompson (pictured above)
Liz Thompson is a Writer, Motivational Speaker, Lawyer, Consultant, author of new motivational book Make Yourself Happy, Former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and Minister of Government of Barbados
My mother, Ioanna (Anna) Kostakou, has been a major inspiration in my life basically since the very beginning. She was about twenty-two years old when she gave birth to me, her first child. My sister came three years later.
We lived in a small agricultural village outside of Sparta, a city in Greece with a great distant past but has become stagnant in recent centuries. My mother has wanted to study, and she had the brains for that, but she was a girl in a conservative rural area. So the only way to get a life outside of her family was to get married. And she did it, to a good man dedicated to public service, who was my father. From both of them I learnt about integrity, decency and hard work, but my mother was the one who gave me the spark to do more, get out of the constraining local mindset and live up to my potential.
Despite my father's hesitation and concerns my mother encouraged me and my sister to learn languages, study and travel. In my case, perhaps, she regrets the extent to which I took all this traveling around the whole world, living and working abroad for decades. But even now, though I know that she misses me, she will always encourage me over the phone to be faithful to myself and do my best as I understand it, for my own and the broader good.
Georgios Kostakos (pictured above) is a Global Governance, climate and sustainability consultant
For me, Malala Yousafzai is one of the most inspiring women I have ever seen in the world.
To come from a family that has very little and to come from a culture that doesn't treat women as equals, to achieve what she has in life is beyond remarkable.
Standing up to those who oppressed her, even after they shot her in the head. Most people, male or female, would probably retreat after that but she fought harder and she continues to fight for women's rights today. I have a picture of her on my wall to remind me of what some people have been through in life, especially when I'm complaining about something far more trivial. If she can do that, I can do whatever it is that I'm trying to do. #AspireArtemis #changemakers
Kal Mansour is a British-born Indian actor, trained at Royal Holloway University of London and The Sorbonne University in Paris. He speaks fluent French and has also learned Hindi, Arabic, Italian, Spanish and Pashto for previous roles. He has made numerous television appearances for the BBC, ITV and Nickelodeon as well as on stage in London.
My mother has always been a constant inspiration in my life and is one of the main reasons I am who I am today. She has played a crucial role in helping me obtain professional and educational success. Having grown up in Kenya, my mother immigrated to the United States to pursue a career in social work and education, and would later raise a family of three boys that continue to see her as the "hub"in their lives.
My mother has guided me through life without actually telling me what to do, but instead, putting things into perspective and then letting me create my own path. When times are tough, she offers sympathy, positivity and in some cases, a much needed reality check. My push for deciding to live and work outside my native city, and my ongoing passion for learning about new people and places, stems from her global view of the world.
Not only does my mother continue to provide ongoing knowledge and wisdom to my two brothers and I into our adult lives, she is a well loved and respected teacher in the community, as well as a mentor to refugee families. I constantly ask myself how she manages to do it all. I am so grateful to call this strong and fiercely independent woman in my life, Mother.
Dan Dasilva works in the marketing and advertising industry in NYC.
Recently at the inauguration of the African Union - European Union Youth Plug-In Initiative (AUYPII), on the sidelines of the 4th Africa-EU Youth Summit in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, I was asked in the presence of fellow young leaders and high level officials to share my role model. At that time, I said "I am inspired by each and every person around me and that everyone present has the chance to be my role model in this new journey." One week later, I was asked the same question, with an additional challenge: single out one specific woman.
Brenda King MBE, President of the Sustainable Development Observatory at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC, where she sits as the only black female member), former President of the African-Caribbean-Pacific (ACP) EU Committee, Chair of the EU-Caribbean Forum Joint Consultative Committee (EU-CF JCC) and CEO of African Caribbean Diversity (UK-based charity) is undoubtedly my role model. Brenda has not only inspired me through her career and achievements, but she has actively supported me as I build my skills and expertise and pursue my passions.
Having shown a keen interest in observing the [creation of a] new generation of EU free trade agreements with the ACP group, Brenda invited me to attend the inaugural meetings of the EU-CF JCC. As I built up my expertise, she acknowledged my growth and nominated me for the position of Expert to the EESC to draw up the Committee's Opinion on the future of the EU's relations with the ACP group. After my nomination was approved by all Committee members, I became the youngest ever Expert at the EESC. This experience was a catalyst in both my professional career and my personal life. From that moment onwards, whenever I looked myself in the mirror, I too recognised the Expert that I had become.
Brenda always asked, "what do you think?" I didn't realise then how motivating that was, but looking back on it now, asking my opinion was inclusive and avant-garde. Indeed, it is the essence of the Sustainable Development Goal 16, to ensure ‘responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making'. Brenda was already putting into practice what world leaders would eventually agree to do on a global scale. By asking the simple question, "what do you think?", she was practicing a fundamental act of empowerment. Brenda gave me the opportunity to respond with my ideas, to share my reflections and to deliberate on them, and then decide on what is included in the final text or not, at the same table. Her dedication, ambition and drive was inspiration beyond belief and the fact that she always asked, "what do you think?", empowered me to continue to pursue my dreams.
Yentyl Williams (pictured above) is a dual national of the UK and Trinidad and Tobago, as well as Researcher on EU affairs with Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP) countries. She is Founder and President of the ACP Young Professionals Network (ACP YPN). Yentyl has several years of work experience on EU relations with the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of states, in both the public (European Commission, CTA, European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)) and private sector (consulting). In 2015, Yentyl was appointed Expert to the EESC for the Green Paper on ‘The Future of the EU’s relations with the ACP group and the successor to the Cotonou Partnership Agreement’. She is also member of the EU-Cariforum Joint Consultative Committee, EESC. She has been researching the EU-ACP Economic Partnership Agreements since 2011 and has numerous publications on the topic.
Yentyl is a graduate of King's College London, Sciences Po Paris and post-graduate of the College of Europe, Bruges. She has researched, published and travelled widely in Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, and also in Asia and South America.
I’ve been inspired by many women at different periods of my life and for many reasons. One of them, Simone Veil, had a great influence on me, both at the personal and professional level.
Sent to Auschwitz as a teenager, she lost her parents and other family members in the concentration camp. This tragedy did not destroy her but made her a Nietzschean hero capable of contriving a new ethic after the departure of humanity.
Her whole life, she resisted oppression and fought for justice and human rights. She is arguably the one person most responsible for advancing women's legal rights in France during the twentieth century.
While she was Minister of Health from 1974 to 1979, she pushed forward two major laws on contraception and legalization of abortion, her toughest political fight for which she had to face the fiercest critics and personal attacks.
Women’s rights was not her only cause. She continuously promoted peace and dialogue among nations and people. As such, she was a campaigner for Europe, as an ideal and a cause. In 1979, as well as being the first president of the elected European Parliament, she was the first female President since the Parliament was created in 1952.
I believe that as a French woman, I owe our legacy to her courage and determination. And whenever I feel down and forget to be more grateful, I recall her words: 'Pain is the root of knowledge.'"
Nathalie Guillaume is a Policy Officer at the United Nations
Lu Esther Mertz was not your typical mentor. When complemented by those she supported or helped, her response was usually a shrug of the shoulders. She indicated she was merely helping people in doing what they already knew how to do best. In actuality, Lu Ester was an "Angel" in every sense of the word. Her accomplishments were legion, and she always
remained very low key about them. As a role-model, what I learned from Lu Esther
was the value of "being true to myself,", "trust my instincts even if they go against other's opinions", "lead from behind", "encourage others creativity", "listen", "enjoy life to the fullest", think less and act more and often", "treasure all of life's moments", "read great literature and learn from it", and most importantly, "don't worry so much".
I have never met anyone like Lu Esther. She accomplished much in her lifetime and through her Foundation and Philanthropy she ensured her legacy and commitments to what she believed in would continue.
A business leader, philanthropist, donor and influencer, Lu Esther exposed me to people of power and influence. It was a priceless education which taught me the value of asking great questions, nurturing quality social capital, building strong and committed relationships with individuals of integrity and self-confidence in articulating ideas. And always, being curious and passionate about one's talents and putting them to good use. It was an honor and privilege to know Lu Esther Mertz as my good friend and mentor in life.
Jo Singel (pictured above)
Executive Board member - Aspire Artemis Foundation
I've known Estelle Celia Levine my entire life, but didn't get to really know her until recently.
During the past ten years of our lives, the nearly daily phone calls between Estelle, my 104.5 year old grandma and myself have been the foundation of one of my most cherished relationships. Our banter has revealed a fierce and pointed personality in a woman that kept quiet for so long. The grandma I get to know today is very different from the one of my youth. What I get now is a woman with vitality, verve and nerve.
This awareness of who she is today and who she was perhaps hiding before, has inspired me to live richly with bravery and risk. In her recollections, I am her witness that her personality didn't emerge until after my grandfather, her husband, passed away in 2001, and long after her controlling mother passed in the late 1980s. Her newfound zeal to share her opinions and her strong, unique voice emerged once she realized she didn't have to answer to anyone anymore. Now she rocks her feminism and wisdom from her rocking chair perch; her very own soapbox.
"You've got to like it or lump it," is perhaps her life's motto. There's a lot of wisdom to that quip, I've noted as my own life story encounters its highs and lows. It's an interesting piece of advice, however, from a woman who had and has so much to offer the world, but refrained. She wanted to be a nurse, but her mother discouraged it. She never learned to drive, so she was home bound more than out and about. When she finally left the home she grew up in, she moved into the home she built with my grandfather. There, she lived to serve him and her two children. I think in many ways, this perhaps has subconsciously inspired me to take risks, to pursue a career in the creative arts, to move away from my hometown and explore the world.
Despite her choice to live with caution, one quality she's always maintained is one of unabashed, genuine curiosity. To this day she reads several newspapers front to back — refusing to wear glasses and opting instead to read with a magnifying glass. In her "music room" is where she spends most of her time because that's where the TV is. She knows something about nearly everyone on television— from Oprah and Ellen, to Dr Oz, Wendy Williams and Judge Judy. She breaks the social rules when it comes to speaking about politics and religion. When she meets you, she gets the scoop immediately — charming doctors, nurses, social workers, rabbis and chaplains with her wit and global knowledge.
This speaks a lot to who I am today. I too am a people person, curious about the human condition. I love meeting new people from all walks of life, and growing my network of friends from lands near and far. My career as a journalist and storyteller speaks to that passion. And actually, while my grandma says she always wanted to help others and be a nurse, I think she actually would have made a fantastic reporter and gossip columnist with all that sauce she can dish.
Shira Levine is a storyteller living between Los Angeles and New York
As a Filipino and Asian American female producer and writer in television, I never thought that I would ever find a significant mentor from a completely different field.
I heard about Maharlika, this popular Filipino pop up brunch in New York that became a restaurant in the East Village. Later, I was invited to the soft opening of Jeepney, a second project by the same owner, Nicole Ponseca. As a self-proclaimed food snob, I was pleasantly surprised how the food won me over. I couldn't believe that in my lifetime, I would see not one, but two successful Filipino restaurants in the US that gave respect to our culture while adding innovation to the cuisine.
Now, there are Filipino restaurants popping up all over the US and Filipino food has been on food trend lists in recent years. Nicole proudly shares our food in the press from publications like “The New York Times” and television shows like ABC's “The Chew.” By making Filipino food become a part of the mainstream palate, it has given encouragement for her community to pursue their own meaningful goals. She has inspired me to write Filipino and Asian American female characters as part of the American story.
Nicole is a leader who embraces challenges, creates solutions, and searches for depth, but also finds the time in her hectic schedule to help other women.
Leizel Olegario is a television producer and writer in New York.
I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was greatly inspired by many women in the village of my life: my mother, her mother, her sister, my sisters, my niece, friends, women in leadership at work and in the country, various spiritual mothers and of course, Oprah. I have always wanted a mentor and found that there are few to no women who were prepared to or willing to be that for me. My mentorship more often than not was virtual.
The one woman that I would say was particularly pivotal in shaping my life in the path and projectory it is on now is Dr. Debbie Bartlett, a pioneer in Bahamian media and entrepreneurship.
At the time a leader at Bahamas Faith Ministries under the tutelage of the prolific spiritual teacher and author late Dr. Myles Munroe, where I was attending and met her, Debbie Bartlett was a female dynamo and force to reckon with. She started an annual conference called the CEO Network and she would bring in key international leaders in business, politics and personal development to share their stories and strategies for success.
Her vision was huge and she was doing it, from what I could see. I remember sitting in those sessions transfixed by everything: the excellence in execution, the caliber of speakers, Debbie’s confidence and passion, and the crowds she attracted and influence she had. I didn’t know it, but I really wanted to be doing exactly what she was doing. I wanted to be like her. I faithfully followed the conference for 7 years and grew tremendously. I went to California one year with a girlfriend of mine to one of her speakers’ workshops on how to help others write mission statements. It was life changing for both of us to this very day.
I watched Debbie go through many challenges and hardships over the years as did I. Personal and business loss, criticism, ridicule and yet she resiliently persevered to make comeback after comeback with the same humility, grace and passion she had almost 20 years ago. I’m grateful for Dr. Deborah Bartlett and the host of other strong women in my life’s village who have taught me how to love unconditionally, support unwaveringly, work tirelessly, and live purposefully. I choose to also follow this sacred path by being all I can be and inspiring the young men and women who are watching me in the same way I watch my ‘womentors’.
Simmone Bowe is a Bahamian-bred writer, trainer, strategist, consultant and change initiator. She is the author of three books: ‘Communication of a Higher Order’, ‘Help! I Need a Job’ and ‘By Design: Principles for Choosing a Career’. Simmone is also the founder of Strategic Transitions, a training and HR consultancy firm, a youth empowerment program called Life Success Principles and the Recharge Women’s Empowerment Group.