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Girls Leading Africa wins Great Dames pitch competition

Katie Tabeling


Giftie Umo

WILMINGTON — In the days leading up to the Great Dame’s Remarkable Ideas Pitch competition, Giftie Umo was exhausted. But thinking of the young women of Nigeria she pushed through and finalized her presentation anyways.


“It wasn’t about me anymore. It was about putting a smile on a face of someone who might not be ever to say thank you to me … this was an opportunity for a girl in my community that has no idea what the future holds and make sure she gets the support she needs,” Umo told the Delaware Business Times.

Umo and her nonprofit Girls Leading Africa, which seeks to provide access to educational and vocational skills training to girls and adolescent mothers, won the 2020 Great Dames Remarkable Ideas Competition. At the end of a four-day summit, Umo won a $1,000 cash prize and access to a mastermind panel of business leaders to move forward.

Great Dames, an organization focused on meeting women’s professional and personal goals, started the pitch competition in 2014 after seeing so many competitions leave women behind. This year the event was focused on reimagining communities.

“With the tumultuous times, this year we wanted to focus on what could be done for our communities. It’s about embracing success and allowing our community be it a neighborhood, your family or a region to thrive for those that come after,” Great Dames President Sharon Kelly Hake said.

Girls Leading Africa was chosen from 10 finalists who pitched to judges at the Reimagining Your Remarkable Life conference. The conference was the first Great Dames event to go global, with about 500 attendees participating in the online forum.

Founded in 2018, Girls Leading Africa wants to give girls a path forward through mentorship and skills training programs, specifically through sewing, baking and computer skills. Between those three programs and additional support through programs, girls and young mothers can find a path out of poverty.

Girls Leading Africa has raised $28,000 dollars, which has gone toward administrative and operational costs. The pitch prize money will purchase computers and sewing machines for vocational programs. The nonprofit now has two full-time employees and a staff of volunteers leading several girls and young women in vocational training. The hope is to give young women the skills and resources to set their own course, including starting a clothing business.

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa with 200 million people, but 70% of its people also live below the poverty line and 10.5 million of its children between ages 5 and 14 are not in school. In Cross River State, only 35% of female students who begin the first grade reach the fifth grade, and only 24% finish the fifth grade.

Umo, who grew up in Cross River State in Nigeria, said her course was set early by her father, who challenged her to academically succeed in high school. While she was studying applied chemistry at university, her father died — and she was exposed to things that he shielded her from.

“One of the things that really helped me was that I had a father who loved me. He would tell me, ‘You’re better to me than 10 sons put together,’” Umo said. “It meant I could do anything, whether or not I was a girl or a boy … and it wasn’t the same for every girl.”

While teaching in rural Nigeria through a national service program, Umo saw “different forms of abuse” and young girls left with few options. In a culture where getting pregnant was a disgrace, young girls may not be able to finish their education out of shame or taking care of a child.

“Most would have to choose between becoming a domestic maid and marriage,” Umo said. “Every girl should have some sort of economic security to make decisions for herself or while taking care of her children.”

In the days after the Great Dames conference, people started connecting with Umo. She hopes to continue to expand that network not for herself, but to build a pipeline for young women across the world. In the future, she hopes to become one of those who set policies for those who follow.

“I feel it’s a collective responsibility of every girl,” she said. “Empower one girl, she reaches out to another girl in the community, and it keeps going and going.”

Kelly Hake called Umo a young woman with remarkable courage, and Girls Leading Africa as an excellent sense of the connection women can experience as a global community.

“She has such a fire in her that makes her turn around and ask what she can do for others,” Kelly Hake said. “I’m greatly impressed with her ability to look past the extraordinary challenges she faced and overcome them. She is aptly named, because she is a tremendous gift.”

To donate to Girls Leading Africa, visit: urbanpromiseinternational.org/our-ministries-nigeria/girls-leading-africa.

By Katie Tabeling


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