The Alumni Interview
Mary Dinah: Positively empowering
Mary Dinah (E-Commerce and Digital Business, 2004) has always been a trailblazer. With a keen interest in the digital world from an early age, Mary studied one of the UK’s first digital business courses at Nottingham before carving out a successful career in the hospitality industry, becoming Area Director of Digital Business in Nigeria for the prestigious Starwood hotel chain at just 26, before starting her own hospitality management company. Turning her entrepreneurial vision towards humanitarian causes, Mary is today helping thousands of young Nigerians to achieve their ambitions through her Job-Link Foundation, Nigeria’s first ever job centre, Power of Women Association, a women’s rights organisation, and Food for Thought Foundation, providing food for schoolchildren in Lagos. After receiving an Alumni Laureate Award from the University in December, we met Mary to find out how she is changing the system at each step of the chain from education to employment.
“I think one of the key things is that I’ve always opened my eyes to where the need was and moved in that direction,” begins Mary. “With each of my Foundations, I saw that it was necessary and decided that’s what I wanted to do to help people.”
A digital pioneer
Although Mary’s work today is a long way from her early career, her path towards becoming an entrepreneur and humanitarian leads right back to the pioneering degree she took at Nottingham.
“Nottingham was very innovative with their courses. E-commerce and digital business was a very unique course in 2001,” said Mary. “I had applied for computer science and management but the Head of School told me about their new course, about business and the internet, and I thought it sounded so interesting so I joined the course.
“My first job after graduating was with the Four Seasons, in the sales and marketing team, and the first thing the Director asked me to do was analyse the website and suggest how to improve it because of my degree. It very early on made me a specialist in digital business, which was rare, even now it’s still quite rare. When I became Area Director for Starwood hotels, overseeing digital marketing in hotels across Nigeria, most people in that regional role were in their 40s and 50s but I was only 26 and it was really because of my Nottingham degree.”
Bringing about change
After establishing her own hospitality management company, Mary’s first-hand experience of Nigeria’s archaic recruitment system led to the creation of her first Foundation, spotting the opportunity to bring about change for Nigerians.
“In Nigeria there’s a big recruitment problem,” explains Mary. “In the UK it takes 45 days on average to fill a role, in Nigeria it’s nine months. On the other hand, Nigeria has about a 20% unemployment rate. So there are a lot of people looking for work, and there are a lot of people with vacancies, but somehow that connection wasn’t there. So that was the lightbulb moment. I created Job-Link Foundation, Nigeria’s first ever job centre.
“Initially, it was meant to be for profit, with a small application fee. But I quickly realised that employment in Nigeria is a humanitarian issue and not something we can make a profit from. It was probably the toughest business decision I ever made. But it’s definitely the most rewarding.”
Representation and empowerment
Through Job-Link Foundation, Mary was exposed to wider issues preventing Nigerians from progressing in their careers, especially for young women.
“I was very hands-on with interviewing at Job-Link,” said Mary. “Whenever I interviewed women and asked regular HR questions like ‘why did you leave your previous job’, they would say things like my boss tried to date me and I wasn’t comfortable with it. One girl I saw had done compulsory youth military service twice. When I asked why she had done it twice, she told me the first time she had issues of sexual harassment so had to go to a different state and start all over again. The stories were becoming all too frequent so I decided to set up the Power of Women Association. We have lawyers who are willing to take on cases pro-bono, companies who support on different issues such as sexual harassment, and the police are supportive of our work, taking up cases we bring to them.
“The #MeToo movement has come to Africa but only in drops. I think even in the US or UK, it’s merely a cup in the ocean. In Africa it’s a drop. Around the world, we aren’t where we want to be in terms of gender equality and empowerment for women, but people are fighting for it and it’s definitely moving forwards. In Africa we aren’t there yet, the culture is still very male dominated and women don’t have the freedom they should have. We’re definitely one of those associations that are fighting for the #MeToo movement to be more reverberated in Africa.”
Inspiring future generations
With Job-Link Foundation and the Power of Women Association established, Mary recognised that a piece of the puzzle was still missing. With many issues surrounding youth unemployment stemming from the education system, Mary founded Food for Thought Foundation, connecting the chain of support from school to employment.
“We had started going into schools, especially all girls schools, to speak about careers with Job-Link,” said Mary. “We complain about youth unemployment but it starts from somewhere, it starts from education, it starts from school. So let’s go into the schools and motivate the kids. But once I got into the schools, it was a totally different thing. One of the things that really touched me was that they don’t have any free meals in schools. So I set up the Food for Thought initiative and currently, we feed 500 children on a daily basis. We’re expanding, so soon we’ll be feeding 1500 kids across Lagos, and I’d like to expand further across West Africa.”
Through her Foundations, Mary has made and is making a real difference to the lives of young Nigerians, and undoubtedly will dedicate herself to more causes in future. In addition to her humanitarian efforts, a foray into academia beckons with a PhD at Oxford, and steps towards an ambition to become an Ambassador for Nigeria with a fellowship at the United Nations. Mary was destined to be an inspirational leader, with Nottingham helping to start her on her way.
“My degree from Nottingham is always the most important,” said Mary. “I think it definitely set the foundation for everything else that I was able to do. It sparked my curiosity to learn more and to go beyond what I was studying. I decided to achieve the potential that Nottingham helped me to discover that I had. It made me realise that I could really do anything I put my mind to.”
Do you know any inspirational alumni like Mary? Nominations for our 2020 Alumni Laureate Awards are now open – submit your nomination by Friday 1 May and tell who you think deserves to be recognised.