Denise Williams is the president and co-founder of Silicon Valley-Nigerian Economic Development Inc. She tells SUCCESS NWOGU about her background, career and aspirations
Tell us about your career.
I serve on the board of three companies, including Silicon Valley-Nigerian Economic Development Inc, Global Connection for Women Foundation (an award-winning non-profit organisation that has honoured distinguished personalities such as a former President of Malawi, Joyce Banda), and Sky Clinic Connect.
I started my professional career at the age of 23, and I have worked with premier healthcare companies such as Kaiser Permanente, Gilead Sciences, Abbott Laboratories, and the State of California Department of Public Health Services.
I am also a published author and journalist featured on CNBC Africa, Huffington Post, The Guardian, Thrive Global, and many others. I was a featured keynote speaker at the United Nations’ International Day of Education, during the General Assembly.
I have also been the recipient of several awards such as US Congressional Award for Outstanding Contributions to the community, and a US Senatorial Award for Outstanding Community Leadership.
I am most passionate about building a bridge of economic prosperity between Silicon Valley (the technology Mecca of the world) and emerging countries, starting with Nigeria.
What are your educational qualifications?
I earned a Bachelor in Economics /Business Administration, with a major in Marketing, from the University of California, USA. I completed my Master in Business Administration, with a major in Marketing from Edward S. Ageno School of Business, Golden Gate University, San Francisco.
What has been your experience running SVNED?
I find that with running a business, you can have really good days and some days that are not so great. It is important to be surrounded by the right people and securing your present moment before taking the leap of faith into the business world.
SVNED has been a blessing by helping me identify skills I didn’t know I had. To be a co-founder and president was a perfect fit for me because I get to finally be myself – an American from Nigeria. I did not have to try to fit in with Americans or Nigerians. Although I was an avid user of many hardware and software applications homegrown in California, I never thought I would be part of the success story behind bridging the economic gap between Silicon Valley and the rest of the world.
There are many advantages to these two sides of the world coming together to find synergies that will lead to successes and investment opportunities.
Why do you, in partnership with some US organisations, want to distribute five containers of computers to Nigerian start-ups?
The move is geared at developing our technological capacity. An article I read recently stated that a four-year degree is no longer required to earn a six-figure salary. Jobs are created every day with the use of technology, and start-ups are bought and sold every day. So, one has to ask oneself, how does Nigeria rank when it comes to investment in start-up ideas developed by the youth? Those computers can help classrooms and small businesses in nurturing their technological capabilities.
Are there striking talents and innovations in Nigeria that need to be nurtured and harnessed for greatness?
Absolutely, Nigeria has the most talented and intelligent citizens in the world. Sometimes, our intelligence works against us because we are constantly outsmarting the system. But outsmarting the system means breaking the rules, therefore making it an unfair distribution of wealth and success for those who are honest, and law abiding. Credibility is one of our greatest weaknesses (as a people), but intelligence is one of our greatest strengths. If only we could find a balance between both, then we would shatter more records, and break more grounds for an even and fair economic prosperity spread out for all.
What has worked for the United States and many other successful nations is that the people are willing to follow rules and protocols for the benefit of the future and the present. Nigerians, on the other hand, are notorious for bending the rules until they break. And when they break, investment opportunities cease to exist. We have to learn, as a nation, to play fair and be a good example for promoting integrity and credibility for the rest of Africa and the world.
From your point of view, what do you think should be done to uplift the youth and grow Nigeria’s economy?
Youths are usually very excited to learn and get opportunities for new and exciting ventures. Whether it’s educational or professional, they show up in large numbers.
To uplift youths, one has to invest in their dreams and ideas. We have to nurture our future talents because it is out of their minds that solutions that will resolve common problems will be found.
Skill-based training is what SVNED is all about. We have designed a programme that will make the economy more efficient, and it can be applied and replicated in many other areas. Through research and experience, SVNED has developed models that will pair talent and employers together.
One of Nigeria’s greatest challenges is overpopulation, and we have more infrastructural needs than anything else. However, we can induce labour by training and certifying our youths into technical skills. That will advance the economy while they work for free, in exchange for small stipends and housing.
You have lived in the US for some years. Why do you think many Nigerians excel more in the US than in Nigeria?
The biggest difference is the availability of potable water and stable electricity. You can be a dreamer and hard worker in Nigeria, but if you are not born into a family of wealth, you are at a disadvantage, because wealth is not evenly distributed in Nigeria. However, in the US, there is a more even distribution of wealth. There is an opportunity for everyone to become a success story.
The US nurtures the talent of every citizen, and they care about everyone from the moment a child is born. The government supports parents and families to make sure that kids’ growth and development are not disrupted by lack of basic needs such as food or quality healthcare.
Meanwhile, what does Nigeria offer a new mother, and even the child, from birth to graduation? Well, you know the rest.
Why are you raising funds in line with the UN’s quality education goals for the training of about 24,000 people?
In order for us to bring professors and talented individuals from Silicon Valley to train Nigerian youths, there is an associated cost for travel and logistics. SVNED fronted the out-of-pocket cost for training 120 youths in two states back in 2018. We are looking for the top five per cent of Nigeria’s most powerful people to support our initiative. SVNED wants to reduce people’s dependence on government. There is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor. But the rich will never find rest as long as they drive in their Bentleys and fly in their helicopters while there are young children suffering on the streets.
You were quoted to have said you are working towards getting 24,000 Nigerians employed by 2020. How do you intend to do that?
Our training has proved to be effective in transforming lives. Through SVNED immersion programmes, we have had talents that have gone on to start their own businesses or become employed in the tech space and other fields. None of our SVNED immersion programmes alumni are sitting idle. Instead, they have awakened to the possibilities out there by creating a path for themselves and families.
You have written a book. What inspired it?
My book is titled, Akiti the Hunter. The book was inspired by children around the world, who sought out heroes on bookshelves and in movies who resembled members of their families. Akiti has brought joy to many homes because it connects African Americans to their roots in Africa.
What are your principles?
I believe in doing unto others as I would want done to me. I can be very sweet and also very bitter. The Denise Williams you get is a mirror image of the person you present her with.
How would you describe your childhood?
I grew up in three states in Nigeria – Ekiti, Oyo and Lagos. Before my family migrated to the United States, my days were spent playing with my older siblings and cousins. My parents were avid travellers and that afforded us the opportunity to visit several countries. It was a great experience learning about other cultures and people, and knowing that the world around me in Nigeria was a lot bigger than that. Travelling is the best training any parents can give their children, because it truly opens up their world. Now, I can comfortably say that I have lived on three continents – North America, Europe and Africa.
How do you unwind?
I read all the time, listen to music, and like many girls out there, I enjoy my bubble bath with scented candles while playing afrobeat music. I am currently reading five books, including the Bible. I keep myself informed about current events by reading the Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Forbes. I stay up-to-date with world events and continue to do my part in making the world better than I met it.
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