“I’m Always Willing to Hear Other People Out”, Denise Okpala on Leading by Example
Denise Okpala is the Office Manager for Financial Reporting and Grants at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission.
Her lifelong objective is to explore techniques and policies that will help facilitate sustainable environmental conservation. She is a passionate advocate for strong leadership structures in African countries and looks forward to the day when her home country, Nigeria, will be led by a woman.
She shares her story with Damaris Agweyu.
Denise, what do you do for fun?
My children are still very young, and I love spending time with them. I am what you would call a homebody.
How do you strike a balance between having young children and working full-time?
It comes naturally to me. Once I have dropped my kids off at school, I go to the office and start my official duties from 8 a.m. I usually return home between 4 and 5 p.m., and then I spend the rest of the evening with my family. Family time is very important to me.
Do you feel like you are where you are supposed to be in life?
On a personal level, yes. Professionally, I like to believe that my work is preparing me for where I want to be. I’ve always said I want to be a leader in environmental conservation; this is what I am passionate about.
How did you get to where you are now?
While I wanted to pursue the environmental sciences at the university degree level, my parents had other plans for me. They wanted me to be a doctor. So my entrance exams were to study medicine. But I didn’t get the required grade for medical school. Fortunately, the school made a supplementary list, and I came up for marine biology. I feel this was Divine intervention in a way because it validated my dreams. I went on to study marine biology, but the experience was far from what you would describe as ideal. During the four years, there was a lot of back and forth with my parents, who kept urging me to transfer to medical school. Because of this, my final results were average. Deep down, I knew, and I know, I could have done better.
After school, I got a job with the Federal Ministry for the Environment, where I worked for one year. Then, I worked with an organisation that was creating geographic information systems for Nigerian states for another year before joining ECOWAS to work in the environment and natural resources department.
As I was working at ECOWAS, I studied for a Master’s degree in environmental planning and management. I performed better than I had with my first degree because I was more focused. Soon after, I was recommended to work on some projects within the organisation. These projects did not directly involve environmental work. And that’s how I left the environmental space.
I still work for ECOWAS, as an office manager, dealing mainly with financial reporting and grants. This work is preparing me for the environmental world in many ways. Meanwhile, I am constantly on the lookout for opportunities to volunteer in the environmental space.
Where does your passion for environmental work emanate from?
When I was younger, I was exposed to many wildlife documentaries and documentaries that showed the impact of hazardous waste on natural resources. I was aware of the fact that natural resources can deplete, and the chemicals that we use affect our livelihoods in an adverse manner. I knew that there was very little public awareness about the environment and the work that needs to be done, so I hoped I could get in and change that. Ideally, I would want to come at this space from a sustainability angle.
I think it’s about changing the way we do things. It includes having leaders who believe it is possible; leaders who understand its importance. The problem with my home country, Nigeria, is we haven’t got our leadership right; we keep recycling the same people that led us to where we are.
It’s a familiar narrative. The question is, how can we do better as citizens?
We can be more compassionate. Caring for the next person, not just our own pockets. Compassion is essential because many people want to get to the helm, not to serve but to take for themselves; they don’t care about the people they came in to serve.
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