20 Influential African Women Entrepreneurs & Leaders in America to Watch in 2016
The concept of influence is highly arguable, especially in an era where a burgeoning social media-controlled global society has led to the rise of a new category of virtual influencers. As traditionally defined, an influential person “is someone who has an impact on or shapes how people act or how things occur.”
As a sequel to the maiden edition of the “Ladybrille Influential African Women Entrepreneurs To Watch…”, this list represents a unique group of influencers. These are women who inspire other women and even men to pursue their own dreams; women who are making a tangible economic impact in their immediate and extended communities; particularly, this list presents an impressive collection of leading US-based African women entrepreneurs and business executives whose works and successes have caught our attention and commanded commendable respect.
According to recent data by the Center for Women’s Business Research, since 1997, the number of African-American women entrepreneurs has grown by 322%, making them the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the United States. US-based African women entrepreneurs make up a noticeable fraction of this powerful class of women.
The 2016 influential women list features women in industries that cut across financial services, fashion, philanthropy, education, legal, media and entertainment. These 20 African women entrepreneurs and business leaders are innovators, disruptors and intellectuals who are making a positive difference in their communities and transforming their world by their commitment to growth. By charting their own course and living purposeful lives, these women empower and remind us all that with hard-work and consistency, no vision is impossible to achieve. Without any further overture, these are the ones to watch for in 2016.
- Uzo Aduba
Boston-born, Uzo Aduba is a Nigerian-American actress and singer best known for her outstanding performance as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on the popular Netflix series Orange Is the New Black (OITNB), a role for which she’s received many awards. Aduba was raised in Medfield, Massachusetts and attended Boston University, where she studied classical voice and competed in track and field.
Aduba first gained major recognition for her acting in 2003 when she received the Helen Hayes Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Play for her role in Translations of Xhosa at the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts. In 2007, she made her Broadway debut as Toby in Coram Boy and went on to feature as a singer in “By My Side” as part of the original revival cast of Godspell at the Circle in the Square Theatre between 2011 and 2012. After appearing in several TV shows, in 2013, Aduba landed the role of “Crazy Eyes” in OITNB, a role which propelled her to ultimate stardom. In 2015, she was awarded the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series and the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her performance in OITNB. In 2014, she won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for the same role, making her the only actress to win an Emmy Award recognition in both the comedy and drama genres for the same role. (Source)
- Amini Kajunju
Congolese native, Amini Kajunju is an entrepreneurial leader with ample years of experience in the non-profit sector. She is the first African to ever serve as President of theNew York-based Africa-America Institute (AAI). Founded in 1953, AAI is committed to promoting Africa’s economic development through higher education, skills training and other innovative programs. Prior to joining AAI in October 2012, Kajunju served as a long-term Executive Director of New York-based Workshop in Business Opportunities, a non-profit organization which caters to under-resourced budding entrepreneurs in the Tri-State Area. Kajunju also previously served as a Program Manager at the International Executive Service Corps (IESC), an organization which provides free consulting services to businesses in developing countries. In 2013, she was honored as “Advocate of the Year” at Applause Africa’s annual African Diaspora Awards.
Kanjuju is a founding member and former Vice-President of the Board of Angel Africa List, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote economic prosperity on the African continent by building and fostering a forum for innovative technological ideas, investors and business mentors. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Brigham Young University and a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the New York University.
- Adaobi Gwacham
Adaobi Gwacham is a business graduate from California Baptist University. She is a franchise owner of a major fast-food chain Chick-fil-A. With over 10 years of experience with the franchise, Gwacham is a prime example of someone who has worked her way up the corporate ladder. She began working for Chick-fil-A at age 18, serving the front counter, kitchen and drive-thru. Upon graduating from CBU, she became the restaurant’s general manager. About a year later, Gwacham rose to the position of grand opening supervisor in the corporate office. As a college student, her ultimate goal was to own a franchise in the company which she has recently met.
- Farai Simoyi
Born in London and raised in Zimbwawe, Farai Simoyi is a budding fashion entrepreneur making a name for herself in the highly competitive American fashion industry. She’s the Founder and Creative Director of her eponymous bohemian-style fashion and lifestyle brand, launched in May 2010. Prior to starting her fashion label, Simoyi served as a Senior Denim Designer for Beyoncé and Tina Knowles’ clothing line, House of Dereon. In addition to running her fashion company, she also works as the Senior Designer for Nicki Minaj’s fashion collection, exclusively sold at K-Mart.
- Lola Ogunnaike
Lola Ogunaike is as authentic as a New Yorker can be. Born in New York to Nigerian parents, she holds a Master’s degree in journalism from the prestigious New York University. Ogunnaike is a host of Arise Entertainment’s 360 show and has been a major contributor to modern media for over 17 years. She has led entertainment coverage on A-list celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Lopez and Ozwald Boateng, to name a few. Notably, she accompanied and interviewed Michelle Obama on a tour to South Africa. Ogunnaike has worked for elite media companies such as CNN, NBC’s Today Show, MTV, VH1 and The New York Times. Additionally, her work has been published in various print media including Rolling Stone, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, New York Magazine, Glamour, and V Magazine amongst others. Most recently, she wrote the cover story on Hollywood actress Lupita Nyong’o for Essence Magazine’s January 2016 issue.
- Ukeme Awakessien-Jeter
Ukeme Awakessien-Jeter is a Nigerian-born multi-disciplinary professional who’s currently an intellectual property attorney at McDonald Hopkins, a business advisory and advocacy law firm. She is an advocate and protector of innovations and brands, both in the United States and internationally. Awakessien-Jeter earned her law degree from Case Western Reserve University School of Law. Prior to becoming an attorney, she obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Maine and an MBA from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. As a Mechanical Engineer, Awakessien-Jeter worked in various roles involving research & development, strategic sourcing & procurement, forecasting, quality compliance, project management and process improvement in the consumer products manufacturing industry. This diverse background gives her a unique ability as an attorney to represent clients with a wide spectrum of business needs.
In 2015, she was appointed co-chair of the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (ABA YLD) Intellectual Property Law Committee. The ABA YLD was created to ensure that the newest members of the legal profession have the tools and opportunities necessary for professional and personal success. With over 150,000 members and 300 affiliated groups, the YLD is the largest young lawyer organization in the world.
An avid proponent of early childhood literacy, Awakessien-Jeter is set to launch a social venture devoted to developing products that equip parents of underserved and underdeveloped populations with the tools to build their children’s brains and shape their futures.
- Judith Aidoo
New York-based, Judith Aidoo is a private investor and media/entertainment entrepreneur. She is the Chief Executive of Caswell Capital Partners, LLC, (Caswell) and Caswell Communications, Inc. (CasCom), both of which were founded in 2001 and originally based out of New York. Inspired by recent economic and political growth in her native Ghana, in 2012, Aidoo moved the operations of Caswell to Accra. As a financial advisory firm for investors looking to invest in Africa, Caswell is now positioned to provide much needed resources to advance the economic development of Ghana and Africa, at large. Prior to starting Caswell and CasCom, in 1991, Aidoo founded the Aidoo Group Limited, a then New York-based investment advisory firm which focused on capital markets and structured finance in Africa.
Aidoo has received several honors for her professional accomplishments and philanthropic work including being a Rutgers University African-American Alumni Hall of Fame inductee. Amongst many other achievements, she is a founding member of the African Women’s Development Fund. Aidoo currently serves on the Advisory Board of the Africa House at New York University and that of the Women’s Media Center co-founded by Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem.
- Ella Gorgla
Liberian-born Ella Gorgla is the Founder and CEO of I-ELLA.com, an innovative and fashion-forward online bazaar with a charity twist where members can buy, sell, borrow or swap their en vouge fashion pieces. Ten percent of each transaction fee is donated to a charity or social venture. I-ELLA.com was named one of the ‘Top 10 NYC Startups to Watch’ by Time Inc. and has been featured on several top TV shows and magazines including The Today Show, InStyle Magazine and Wall Street Journal.
In 2011, Gorgla was named amongst Inc. Magazine’s “11 Leaders to watch in 2011” alongside personalities like Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and Justin Timberlake.
Prior to launching her fashion business, for over 10 years, Gorgla worked in the business and growth strategy, entrepreneurship and venture capital sectors of business for several leading global institutions including Ernst & Young, Arthur Andersen and IBM.
- Eunice Emole
Nigerian-American, Eunice Omole is a self-proclaimed success catalyst whose focus is on connecting companies and entrepreneurs with resources to catalyze their success. With a broad range of experience in sales, private equity/ investment banking, real estate and media, Omole came to the limelight after finishing as first runner up in the maiden edition of The Apprentice Africa in 2008. Following the end of the show, she founded O & M Media with the aim of servicing TV programs and eventually produced her premier TV show, Africa’s Top 100 Entrepreneurs. Prior to joining The Apprentice Africa, Omole worked in international real estate in the United States, England and China. Post-The Apprentice Africa, she served as the Director of the Ere City Microfinance Bank and sat on the board of a non-profit organization as a Director. Omole holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Virginia and a Master’s degree in Real Estate from Cornell University.
- Millen Magese
Millen Happiness Magese is an established fashion model and endometriosis advocate. As a model, Magese is currently signed with Ford Models in New York, NY and Ice Model Management in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has been featured on several magazine covers in collaboration with many top fashion designers and brands including Ralph Lauren, David Tlale, Gavin Rajah and Korto Momulu. An endometriosis survivor, Magese launched her foundation out of the determination to turn her personal struggle with endometriosis into an awareness campaign for the estimated 176 million women who suffer from the illness worldwide. On a larger scale, the Millen Magese foundation’s mission is to further causes that benefit women, children, and primary education in Tanzania and eventually other parts of Africa.
- Amanda A. Ebokosia
Nigerian-American Amanda Ebokosia is a Freelance Journalist and Founder & CEO of The Gem Project, Inc., a nonprofit organization that educates school-age children, youth and young adults on issues that affect them and their communities. In 2006, the New Jersey-based philanthropist, founded The Gem Project at the young age of 19 while studying at Rutgers University. Since inception, The Gem Project has directly impacted the lives of 1,950 youth and young adults in the Greater Newark area. For her work with the Gem Project, she has been honored by The White House, The City of Newark and featured in the annual Forbes Magazine 30 under 30 list. As a freelance journalist, Ebokosia focuses on the psychology of people and the relationship of same to leadership styles amongst other areas of interest. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Biology with a Minor in Psychology from Rutgers University.
- Ethiopia Habtemariam
President, Urban Music/Co-head of Creative, Universal Music Publishing Group
Thirty-six year old Ethiopia Habtemariam sits at the helm of Motown Records as President of the multi-million dollar music company, making her the highest-ranking black woman (of Ethiopian descent) at a major record label. She also doubles as President of Urban Music/Co-head of Creative at Universal Music Publishing Group. Prior to making it to the top of Motown Records, Habtemariam served as Senior Vice President & Head of Urban Music at Universal Music Publishing Group.
Her foray into the business of music began in 1994, when at the age of 14, Habtemariam took up an internship at LaFace Records, a music label created by Epic Records’ LA Reid. After interning at LaFace Records for 4 years, Habtemariam went on to work with Universal Music Group. In 2013, Habtemariame was named by The Hollywood Reporter to their “Women in Music” issue and by Variety Magazine to their prestigious “Women’s Impact List.” She’s also been previously named to the Billboard 30 Under 30 and 40 Under 40 lists.
- Esé Azénabor
Nigerian-born, Canadian-raised Esé Azénabor is a rising fashion designer who has become a well-known name is the Dallas fashion industry within a relatively short period. In 2012, she followed her dreams and launched her eponymous fashion label, abandoning her original plans of moving to Dallas to pursue a Master’s degree. Armed with limited personal funds and her sewing machine, she conceptualized her love for heavy hand beading, exquisite fabrics and embroidery and began selling her designs to anymore who would buy until her success led to hiring more hands to support her growing brand. Azénabor has now debuted five collections including her Henry VIII-inspired Fall/Winter 2015 collection and a Spring/Summer 2016 Collection themed The Garden of Eden during New York’s Fashion Week.
According to Azénabor, her ultimate goal is to empower women through the art of fashion.
- Hassanatu Blake
Atlanta-based Cameroon native Hassanatu Blake is Co-founder of Focal Point Global (FPG), a non-profit organization founded in 2010 to empower underserved youths in Africa through the use of education and technology as tools of addressing pressing social issues. Blake has been recognized as a White House Champion of Change for her work through FPG which also aims to improve global health. To this end, Blake has worked with top health agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Agency for International Development to create strategic health programs. Most recently, she worked with BroadReach Healthcare to strengthen the skills of health professionals in Zambia. Blake holds a Bachelor’s of Art degree from Tufts University and Master of Public Health from Emory University. Through FPG, Blake will be launching a Gambia and Namibia HIV/AIDS Education Initiative, an inter-African and cross-religious (Muslim and Christian) program focused on connecting African youths and create a discuss on how to contain the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa.
- Nneka Alexander
Nneka Alexander is the Creative Director and Head Designer of Atlanta-based international luxury brand Brides by NoNA. Her fashion label features bespoke bridal and formal wear. After working in the finance industry for several years, including as an Investment Banker on Wall Street and as a Senior Finance Specialist for Coca-Cola, in 2008, she gave up the 9 to 5 life and launched Brides by NoNA. Since then, she has continued to expand her fashion business becoming a force to reckon with in the luxury and couture niche of the global fashion industry. In 2015, she was honored as a Woman of Power & Influence by Modern Luxury’s The Atlanta Magazine. Also in 2015, she won the Couples’ Choice Awards by The WeddingWire. Alexander graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s degree in Finance and Business Administration from Houston Baptist University.
- Ama Yawson
Ama Yawson is a Ghanaian-born intellect with many acronyms attached to her name. She is the Co-founder of Joojos, an artisanal children’s shoe company and also works as a Securities Lawyer in New York. In the past, she has worked in several finance and legal roles at top Wall Street institutions including Bank of America and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. As an author, she published her first children’s book titled Sunne’s Gift: How Sunne Overcame Bullying to Reclaim God’s Gift with the aim of helping young children deal with peer pressure and negative influences. Yawson holds a Bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, an MBA from the Wharton School and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. Based her broad experience and expertise in social issues, business and law, she’s a relevant voice on a wide range of social and business topics. As a speaker and educator, Yawson gives empowering workshops on various issues such as prevention of bullying, cultural empowerment and entrepreneurship. She’s a revered writer whose works have been published in the likes of MSNBC’s The Grio, The Huffington Post, Madame Noire and The Atlantic. Yawson has been featured as a guest on the Today Show, Fox Business and Al Jazeera’s The Stream, amongst other syndicated shows.
- Magatte Wade
Senegalese-born Magatte Wade is the Founder and CEO of Tiossan, the first luxury skincare brand from Senegal. She founded Tiossan because she “wanted to share the gifts that had been passed down by her ancestors.” Tiossan beauty products are made using ancient Senegalese recipes and natural African botanicals with the proven ability to keep skin vibrant, healthy and youthful. She is a serial entrepreneur and a strong advocate for change and advancement in business, gender roles, and the African Continent. A TED Global Africa Fellow, Wade is an internationally renowned speaker and was listed amongst “20 Youngest Power Women in Africa” by Forbes Magazines. In 2011, she was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland.
- Yetunde Odugbesan-Omede
Global Affairs expert
Nigerian-American Yetunde Odugbesan-Omede is a motivational speaker, professor, author and global affairs consultant. As an entrepreneur, she is the CEO of Yetunde Global Consulting, LLC., a management consulting firm specializing in leadership development and training, organizational management and business branding. As an author, Odugbesan-Omede recently published a book titled, Young Woman’s Guide, a self-improvement book that contains how-to advice, tips and tools for young women to live life purposefully and be well-rounded. Odugbesan-Omede who is currently working on her PHD in Global Affairs at Rutgers University is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and International Studies at Adelphi University. Her teaching curriculum is focused on comparative politics, African government and politics, women and comparative political development, American government and other global issues. A graduate of the United Nations Worldview Institute, Odugbesan-Omede previously served as a fellow at the United Nations Population Fund where she worked on issues on sexual health and reproductive rights, safety and security and the development of adolescent girls globally.
- Lilian O. Ajayi
Lilian O. Ajayi is the Founder and CEO of Global Connections for Women Foundation (GC4W), an organization founded in response to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to support women and girls by giving them opportunities to create empower themselves and their communities. Ajayi sits on several boards including that of Harvard Crimson Impact, Madison Square Boys & Girls Club, NAAEP Ltd., the HOPE Program and International Women in Business (IWIB). She served at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, as part of the Mission of Nigeria to the United Nations. Ajayi was appointed as the Ambassador of Goodwill and Honorary Citizen of the State of Arkansas by Governor Mike Bebe. She has received several awards for her humanitarian works including the Special U.S. Congressional Award for Outstanding Community Service, “Top 40 under 40” – Most Inspiring African in the Diaspora by Applause Africa Magazine and being listed as one of the “Power Women of the Diaspora” by Black Enterprise Magazine.
- Bukola Oriola
Bukola Oriola is a Nigerian-American award winning journalist and former human trafficking victim. Her anguish began after her marriage to a US citizen who impeded her every being-from establishing interpersonal relationships with anyone other than himself and confiscated all of all her earnings amongst other despicable acts. Her book, Imprisoned: The Travails of a Trafficked Victim highlights her experience as a human traffic victim. Oriola has since become an advocate for human trafficking victims and has appeared on a discussion panel following a screening of the documentary film Not My Life at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. She was awarded Change Maker 2009 by the Minnesota Women’s Press for her courage. The Imprisoned Show was launched as a result of Bukola’s belief that there is a desperate need to fight human trafficking in every community through education using the public broadcast media. – (Source)
Disclaimer: This writer has a personal relationship with one of the honorees, Ukeme Awakessien-Jeter