[00:00:00] Dolapo Agbede: The weakest link in us thriving is other people, and which is why we continue to speak about the fact that we are proudly consultants with disability, entrepreneurs with disability, farmers with disability, not handicapped people. So we're persons first, relate to us as people, and then we'll all do well. Which is why smart organizations today have more people-centered approaches to the way they make sure there must be room for people to safely share what they're going through so that with the right kind of support, they can still continue to do what the organization needs. So it's not as bad as it might appear, only because I did not know enough initially. And, which is why I speak very openly about these things because I have come to realize, for me at least, the more I know better, the more I do better.
[00:00:52] Oluwanifemi: Hello everyone. Welcome to another episode of Expert and African, where we spotlight the brightest minds and exceptional tech talent across Africa. Today, we have Dolapo Agbede, an engineer and transformation leader on a mission to create a more inclusive world. Dolapo's professional journey started in the early 2000s, but the defining moment came in 2007 when she was diagnosed with glaucoma, which eventually led to her blindness. Despite the initial challenges, Dolapo persevered and has continued to pursue her dreams. She spent 11 more years working in various roles at the same multinational OEM company before venturing into entrepreneurship. As the founder and lead consultant of WillWay Paradigm, a consulting company, Dolapo's passion for inclusion has made her a force to reckon with Within the DEI and HR space. Let's delve into Dolapo's inspiring story, exploring her commitment to creating inclusive workspaces for people with disabilities.
So, Dolapo, what was it like pursuing a career in engineering in the 1990s?
[00:02:05] Dolapo Agbede: Why did I even choose to be an engineer in the first place? My dad was an engineer in the power sector. It was just fascinating. And I'm the first of seven. Sometimes I think I made the mistake of having really good grades in high school. Then you had the options of either medicine or engineering. Engineering had no blood. I ran over that way. You could take apart things, wonder why they were working. So that looked really, really interesting.
In the university, we were a few ladies in the class. I think we're just four ladies in engineering. It was quite interesting to be part of just creating solutions. So that continuous improvement, inquisitiveness is the mindset of a typical engineer. I enter the labor market at the time when the telecom industry was just taking off.
Unlike today, now you have people with 20 years experience in the telecom space, 18, 15. Then, there was barely anyone with any experience, so we were hired on potential, trained on the job, extra training.
Then there are some things, there's only when you're on the field that you learn it, you're working with your riggers, you learn to walk at height because the telecom equipment needed to be on top of the towers, you get to even know a bit of what the others are doing. Being part of that and you're down at the ground, you have your laptop, you're connected to the equipment and it's now suddenly beaming.
We do what you call the first call, so you test to make sure that the call can even be established with the switch, and then the quality of the call is good. So it's fascinating and to be able to do all of that and you can see how it's impacting people and it's improving.
I mean, we all evolved through the 2g, 3g, 4g, 5g licenses are already out there, and routers and hardware to leverage what the infrastructure that is in place is already being sold as we speak. Starting my career in tech and continuing to leverage tech going forward is so important to me. And that's why even as a DEI consultant and expert, I advocate very strongly for digital inclusion.
[00:04:08] Oluwanifemi: What were the high points you recorded in your time as an engineer?
[00:04:11] Dolapo Agbede: If I go back to the same telecom space that worked in for 13 years in total before I left in 2018. Like I said, we were hired on potential because there was no experience of telecom. But very quickly in Nigeria, in South Africa, especially these places where we had big networks, A lot was happening and it reached a point where I was now responsible as a regional leader for the content centre for access networks. So that meant that everything under IP, BSS, transmission was directly under me and the resources that were assigned to implement those projects, in terms of manpower, were my core. It was very exciting as a competence leader to send Nigerians on missions. The same way we had expatriates coming in, now local people had learnt enough, had been trained and had on-the-job training also to now replace them. Now we were the ones going. We were now going to the Middle East to implement projects. It was exciting to see this. And it was happening at all levels. A lot of those engineers that got to work as full staff then are now consultants themselves, still working across the world. We all started with, oh, we are not sure what to do, and now they are leading teams. They are doing amazing, amazing work. I'm totally excited and satisfied about, how much Nigerian talent is everywhere, especially in the telecom space.
[00:05:42] Oluwanifemi: So you moved from a hands-on technical role to leading teams after two years of working in a multinational company, what lessons have you learned from managing people?
[00:05:53] Dolapo Agbede: Honestly, it was hard. My saddest day was the day I realized that my deliverables were directly tied to other people. You know, before that time, I had my job, what I was supposed to do, contributing into a team. Now, when I did mine, it was done and dusted o. If I wanted to participate in the rest, it was a choice. But by the time you now had team members, their success is yours. So you need to equip them, make sure that things are going the right way.
And when I became a technical project manager, and when I now had to have team members, being now accountable for the people side of things was a bit tough for me at first.
Then I now realized I was not going to go away. So I decided that the best way to do was to make sure that my team eventually trusted me. If I gave pressure, it'll be that there was really, really something and I really needed all hands on deck. And then when there's no need for pressure, ah, no, we're good.
So by earning their trust that way, I think we ended up working really well together. But again, people management demands you to rise above circumstance. Once you're managing people, you cannot just be yourself or say it as you feel it because you need to hold space for that person. How do I give feedback to my team member so that for every time they see me, they're not transported to that experience and they don't shut down and they remain motivated to let us do all this high intense work that needs to be done.
It's a big responsibility for any leader of people, especially when you're interested and invested in giving good experiences.
[00:07:37] Oluwanifemi: What would you say helped you to be the leader you turned out to be?
[00:07:41] Dolapo Agbede: I was working in a multinational OEM. So once you're identified for leadership pipeline on top of your normal responsibilities, you also had a pathway of courses and mentoring programs.
And we had a Harvard management program as part of the package of what we're supposed to leverage in our annual objectives. Our leadership development was also part of it. And then we also had our peer review moments.
You also typically would have that senior executive that was mentoring you. You had the opportunities to ask questions. So you were equipped to excel. You know, you were not just tossed on your own. But again, all that was on top of a very intensive, very demanding job. So it took a lot of sacrifice to make sure that even everything that was available that you were even using it. And I'm sure most people can relate. The organization might have put things in place, but even the time to use it might be a bit difficult.
In my own case, because I was going through a very personal disruptive thing, I was very invested in making sure that I could lead them properly, that also meant I needed to know a bit more than them. It meant that even if I might not be able to do the installation or set up the equipment or test the equipment, but I had access to the documentation. I could pick it up to and look through what they're supposed to be doing and ask questions.
[00:09:15] Oluwanifemi: Can you share with us the story to becoming legally blind and how you navigated your personal and professional life afterwards?
[00:09:24] Dolapo Agbede: Glaucoma had happened to me and because it was really advanced, they could not even guarantee me as at the date I was properly finally diagnosed, that was the, 10th of August, 2007. They could not even guarantee me two months of seeing the way I was. And that was really hard for me, I had just barely been a team lead for barely four months.
So that meant that that condition has been there for years. This is an opportunity to tell everyone, please, there's something called checking your eye pressures, get your pressures checked. If mine were checked, this would not be happening. It would've been mitigated earlier. So please be conscious of glaucoma. It's an unnecessary way to lose your sight.
Back to the story.
In my own case, I was on a mission to prove to myself that I could still be valuable. I could still do things even though each day for every time I got to work and I look up people who before maybe I could see your nose, all of a sudden it's a bigger blur than it was last week. and then I have to deal with what that means for me because I was grieving, there were things I was losing, even though I could appear very well put together.
We had an open office system. It reached a stage, when I chose to back the entrance, because when people are passing in front of you, you look up and you're supposed to know who it is and appropriately acknowledge them. But I didn't know who was passing. So my solution was to back that entrance. So if you were coming to me, you had to get to me and speak to me for me to attend to. So there's the pressure of the job. I'm making sure it's going the right way. There's the pressure of making sure that these team members are doing good so that we can deliver on time, and then there was a pressure of, oh, this leadership track I'm on, I must not drop the ball.
So since my boss helped me to realize that I could still be at work and then, they were willing to accommodate what I could. Again, that thing that was stressing me out so much, which was being a people manager, was now my saving grace, especially for my disability journey. I was able to reorganise the way I was working, initially, I was always engaging directly with the clients. Now being a team lead, in a certain role, I was the overall head for the entire architecture of one of our clients. By then, my team size had increased to over 30 people. So what I did was to put a layer in between me, so there were team leads for the sub-units who were more engaging directly, so they went to the client site.
Mm-hmm. . Then I now stayed in the office with oversight, and I did not need to go anywhere unless it was absolutely necessary. What did this do for me? It helped me to still managed to be productive, helped me to directly coach and mentor my other team members, it helped me with succession planning because it meant that I pulled people up real quick. And even when some opportunities came for me that I did not want to take, I could nominate somebody else because they've worked directly with me.
They worked directly with the client. I was not in the front as much anymore. So by pushing my team members up and out, I quickly gained a reputation of being that manager that if you were my team, you grew very quickly. It was survival for me, it was a plus for whoever ended up on my team for the organization; everything was going quite well.
[00:12:52] Oluwanifemi: Take us through how you get support in your daily life, especially with tech.
[00:12:58] Dolapo Agbede: So you see the challenges might not have been at work because the workplace enabled me and gave me the space for the pathway to that outcome. But in my personal life, what was going on?
Which is why smart organizations today have more people-centred approaches to the way they make sure there must be room for people to safely share what they're going through so that with the right kind of support, they can still continue to do what the organization needs.
So when I now meet colleagues, that see me with my cane, and I prefer to use an orthopaedic cane because in those years that I refuse to use a cane, I used to fall a lot. I have some torn tendons, you know, my legs swell based on old sprains and injuries. So the fact that in this world, bigger than my pain-filled, confused world, there are actually systems in place that I can leverage, made it a bit better to bear.
So now I know that no matter what my challenges are, I can travel very easily by air. If I'm going by a road, I'm typically going to be travelling with someone I trust. You know? So it's not as bad as it might appear, only because I did not know enough initially. And, which is why I speak very openly about these things because I have come to realize, for me at least, the more I know better, the more I do better.
So the phone, I didn't need to do anything special. The phone has accessibility on it. As a blind person, what I need is for things to be spoken to me. So for everyone who's watching or listening to us, your phone as it is right now, whatever that phone is, the OEMs in the smart devices space, have already put universal design in place.
So, you just have to go to settings, look for accessibility and switch on talk back. So the way I relate with my phone is so it's going very fast because it's meant for me. I can increase or reduce the speed. If you were reading what was on your phone, I cannot see it even if I could see. So this is meant for only me to hear.
You see that these things are already there, especially on your smartphone. I didn't have to do anything new. I just needed to know that it was there, turn it on. For my laptop, there are open source free Screen Reader. It's reading out to you what your screen is. And this is specific for visually impaired or blind people. So there are open source free software like non-visual display assistant (MVDA), that's free and open source. You also have it in dongle form. So if I was working around with that dongle and I got to a place where I needed to use a laptop, I'll take permission, put it in, and it would launch from there. The thing is that it's available and you can see that. Did you spend anything extra for that tech, you know? Yes. And what has it only done? It has given you access to be able to navigate to what other people are navigating to.
[00:16:03] Oluwanifemi: And in what ways do you think life can be better for people living with disabilities?
[00:16:09] Dolapo Agbede: So environment. If there are stairs and they're not the right kind of way, they're no handrails. That's not about tech, is it? But, you know there are applications that you can use to scan currency to make sure that you're giving the right note to someone.
Thank God for Fintech that you can pay almost everything with your cards, right? So I rarely, personally, as a preference, I rarely use cash. Everything is tied to cards and you know, that way it's easier.
So I think it's the more tangible, physical things. Tech might be able to give me the data so that I can prepare for what will be there. Again, like I have been consistently saying what is available to use is a lot more than barriers that are there.
The other barriers that could be there are how do people interact with each other? For some people, if you're not They don't want you in their space, they don't want to see wheelchair users or persons with dwarfism or persons with albinism, they don't want to acknowledge that diversity is possible and to give it space to come in.
So if all those things are there, then all of us can actually use the same spaces with the little tweaks that makes it easy for us all to have some dignity as we move around.
[00:17:25] Oluwanifemi: What does it take to be a diversity and inclusion activist?
[00:17:31] Dolapo Agbede: Because of how I wanted to make sure that I was bringing a 360-degree solution, because I was now doing diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting. For me, getting certifications in emotional intelligence just to consolidate, check to see whether there was more to learn. Neurolinguistic programming is very important to me because our languaging gives away a lot about what is going on with us, and I really wanted to get to the bottom of that.
Cognitive behaviour, like from your thoughts to your behaviour. What are you manifesting based on your subconscious? Being able to interrogate and interpret it appropriately to bring solutions was important. So doing things around cognitive behavioural therapy was important.
Based on my own personal journey, and because I did not know tools or techniques, then it took me longer, so I went to get certified in that also. Occupational health and safety. We want to get people productive and earning, making sure that if the workplace was going to take you, making sure that they could be properly advised to do so. You know, again, with my engineering background, so occupational health and safety, being properly certified in it to advise on what makes a conducive environment for safety for all persons.
Continuously upskilling myself about what are the trends and norms, especially in the HR space and joining the appropriate association. I have a Master's in International Law and Diplomacy. I continue to pursue law, though, because I need to know the, the frameworks that are available for people to leverage till now. I have a Master's in International Human Resource Management and I have joined the human resource community in Nigeria. That's C I P M. Coaching is something I also do, getting credentialed in that will also help credibility.
Definitely, I already bring value, but to continue to reinforce trust, those things are the things that I do to make sure that I am properly equipped myself. Because you know, when you are bringing solutions that will impact people's lives, please do it the right way. It's such a massive responsibility and I definitely do not want to drop the ball.
I began to share about my journey part-time from like 2015, and full-time since 2018 when I registered WillWay Paradigm. With the people with disability, side is to make them aware of options that are available. Now with that smart device that you have, you can learn, you can upskill to earn that seven-digit income. Invest in upskilling yourself. There are spaces that are looking for your talent.
Based on what is available to us by law, and also the advocacy that is coming from the UN. I think it's important to share this data. By UN's extrapolation, it said that 15% of any group of persons have one sort of disability or the other. So, if we case in point, come to Nigeria, and if we take the statistics, we assume, we're 200 million people, we're already clearly talking about 30 million people in Nigeria alone.
Do we want to not make sure that at least a tangible quantity is productive? 50% of 30 million is still a lot. 15 million across this, our, country that could be contributing to the G D P, who wished to, as long as they're enabled to do so in whatever sector they wish, whether it's in the creatives, whether it's in filmmaking, whether it's in tech, whether it's in culture, whether it's in education, teaching other people, whatever it is.
The point is we can all be productive, give value to bring value, to help people see that options are available, social interaction is possible by law and by norm. The new norms now. As a person with disability showing up, you are not automatically stigmatized. Yes, people might not know enough to do better, but after experiencing you, they will be definitely better with the next person.
For organizations that want to hire persons with disability, hand handholding them with bespoke programs across their workforce, their processes, maybe their HR handbook, their recruitment process. And even your platforms, it's not every application that is easy for talkback to. So in your beta testing, we have tech-centric persons with disability who could be part of your beta testing. Just make it standard and then everyone can use it. So having those conversations, because there are some people who don't even realize that, you mean a blind person can own a bank account?
Do they even earn money to speak less of needing a bank account to speak less on wanting to do transactions with their bank account? You mean a blind person might want to move from point A to B? So they're using my app or they even want something delivered to them, so they're using my app to order it to be picked up.
How is that a seamless experience for them? Because after all you need that traffic, 15 million potential traffic. So it is the 50 million plus support system, that is the business you are missing out on when you are not making sure your platforms are accessible. That's, that's a business case.
[00:22:57] Oluwanifemi: Please share with us your future plans.
[00:22:59] Dolapo Agbede: Honestly, I really am not clear what it is. What I know is that I'm very interested in research around behaviour. Why do people behave the way they do? Research in that space and what are the blocks around unconscious bias. How do people do better with themselves, like people-centred stuff.
I know it'll be in that direction. Exactly what it is, I really don't know. But for whatever it'll be, it'll be something that I hope would contribute better to humanity.
[00:23:29] Oluwanifemi: Thank you for listening to Expert and African. Don't forget to share this podcast on Google Podcast, Apple Podcast, Spotify, and everywhere else you get your podcast. I look forward to getting feedback and recommendations from you.