“I grew up around international development. My father worked for an international development research organization; and so from a very young age, I was surrounded by that world. The funny thing is that I swore that I was not going to go into [that field]. When I was young, my dad traveled a lot for work. And so, I thought “I’m not going to go into international development, if it takes you away from your family!”
My whole life I think I’ve lived in Nigeria for a sum total of 3 years. I was born in England and actually spent most of my childhood in Niger Republic. Like I said, my dad was in international development, so we lived in Ethiopia and Niger. I spent 12 years of my life in Niger, then went to boarding school in Togo; so my real adult experiences in Nigeria were actually through work.
I have an undergraduate degree in Psychology, and I had these grand ideas of being a psychologist and doing all this counseling. But when I was in undergrad, I did some student counseling, and the girl that I was shadowing and counseling with my professor was cutting herself – and I couldn’t, at the end of the day, go home and leave it at work. It was haunting me! I was always concerned: “Is she going to be okay?” “Did I say the right things?” “Did we do everything that we could for her?” And I realized really quickly that I can’t be a psychologist.
JOURNEY TO INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT & CAREER
So, I graduated and [was thinking,] “Okay, what am I going to do now?” Because I had grown up around international development, it was very easy for me to fall back into it, and I realized that there were a lot of things about international development that I actually enjoyed! I liked the travel. I liked the management side of it. I liked being able to be in touch with beneficiaries and working directly with people. I’m very big on capacity building and training, and so, those are the aspects that actually drew me back into it.
“Poverty looks the same everywhere. I was in rural Cambodia, and I felt like I could be in rural Nigeria! The issues are kind of the same, and the passion & drive that people have to change their lives for their children and to make something of themselves.”
I went to grad school and realized that I didn’t have enough tangible skills to be employable, and I started looking for internships. A friend was working for Partners for Development (PfD); she suggested that I apply for their internship. I got in and started doing some really cool work with them as an intern, and wove that into my graduate program & did a Capstone experience with them. I basically took a team and we did an evaluation of a PfD program; I was hooked from then on! I went on to work for them in their Headquarters, and then moved to WorldVision. But I always wanted to stay in touch with PfD, because they were my first real experience of doing the work that I was passionate about, and they just had a fantastic team of people – people that were willing to mentor me, and coach me, and give me real opportunities. I found that a lot of my friends that were doing internships didn’t have the kind of hands-on experience that PfD was giving me. And that’s basically because it was a small organization, where the Executive Director just really believed in giving people a chance. He really gave me a chance and allowed me to do some real work; so, I’m really really passionate about [them] because I’ve worked with the people, I’ve been in the field, and I’ve seen the real impact of the work that they do. Also, they were my link back to Nigeria as an adult; so, they hold a very special place in my heart. I had some great experiences with them: I went to Asia for the first time. That was kinda out of this world. I felt like, even though it’s Asia and it’s very different, poverty looks the same everywhere. I was in rural Cambodia, and I felt like I could be in rural Nigeria! The issues are kind of the same, and the passion & drive that people have to change their lives for their children and to make something of themselves. It’s the same everywhere! I’m super passionate about PfD for that reason. I was invited to the Board of Trustees a little while ago, and have loved getting to be involved with them.
I’ve been at WorldVision now for almost 8 years. I’m new in this particular role: right now, I’m the Deputy Director on our Child Development and Protection team. What that means is that I manage a team of program management officers that backstop programs that support international child protection. So, we have programs that focus on education, on reducing sexual and reproductive gender-based violence in schools, on child labor issues and mitigation, on protecting children against abuse & trafficking; on democracy and governance, youth workforce issues, and a whole range of different topics. I manage it all, because I have a great team: the people I work with are super competent, and very passionate about the work that they do. Also, one thing you have to remember is that we in the U.S. are basically providing the back office support; people in the countries are actually the ones doing the work! So, the portfolio that I oversee has 16 programs, and our portfolio amount is multiple million dollars that we manage, but we have teams in each country in each program that are actually doing the day-to-day work. The support that we provide facilitates the work that they do on the ground.
So, Deputy Director is a very big title, but [part of what I do is] I’m answering e-mails, driving the big picture – basically trying to get out of people’s way so they can do the work on the ground.
The key thing I’ve learned from the places I’ve worked is that there is no easy solution to poverty, and to injustice, to illness. There are so many different factors and different layers that go into trying to empower households or women or children to achieve the better life that they want. There are cultural factors, societal factors, economic factors, all kinds of household and community dynamics, national and international dynamics – so many things [at] play. I think what I’ve learned is alot of humility. Because you go to grad school and you come out like, “Yeah, I know international development!” Then you start working and you [realize], “I don’t know anything!” Again, a sense of humility to know that people have their own solutions. When I was starting out, [I was thinking], “Okay, I have a U.S. education, and all this textbook knowledge about how things are supposed to work.” And then, you get out into the field, and you’re in a real health facility where there’s no running water, there’s no electricity; yet, these [doctors] are treating people! And they’re providing really good counseling. And they’re actually changing people’s lives. And you look and [realize] they don’t actually have any of the things I learned about in school – yet, they’re making a difference. They’re doing something that’s important; they are giving back to their community. How dare I come from the U.S. and think that I have the best solution?
“The key thing I’ve learned from the places I’ve worked is that there is no easy solution to poverty, and to injustice, to illness. I think what I’ve learned is a lot of humility.”
HAIR, BEAUTY & SELF-ACCEPTANCE
I cut my hair in July ,and it really was born out of frsutration. I had braids and had fully intended to get my braids redone. So, I called the salon and told the woman, “I’m taking my braids out now, but I’m coming back to get my braids done.” It was 4th of July, by the way. I asked if she would be open, and she said [they would be]. She asked me what time I thought I would be coming, and I said around 2. I got to the salon at 2:10 – and they were closed; she wasn’t answering her phone anymore [either].
I came home, and started telling my husband, “I am DONE! I am done being beholden to these people; they are NOT going to dictate my life.” My husband said, “Don’t do it! You’re going to cut it. You’re going to hate it! And then, I have to deal with the fallout!” LOL. I said, “No! I’m doing it!” We were still arguing about it, when I took the clippers and took a big chunk out of the back of my head!!! Then I said, “Oh no! What have I done? You need to come and fix it!” Then, he cut it evenly and that was it!
Then, [my next thought was] now, I actually have to do something with it! I decided I don’t want to grow my hair again; I’m done [with that]. That’s how I got to where I am now [with my hair] – and I love it! I absolutely love it! I keep telling people that I look in the mirror, and I feel like my outside finally matches my insides. I’ve felt like I’ve always had an edge to me, and I felt that in trying to make it in my career and in my field, and in trying to make myself be someone that is taken seriously, I guess I’ve felt that I had to project a certain persona or look a certain way. In cutting my hair and having a rather decisively boyish cut, people are always saying, “Oh, that’s very butch!” And I’m like, “Yeah – and I like it!” I like the fact that I have a part. I like the fact that it’s kind of crazy at the top. I like the fact that I go to a barber shop. I know that people look at me and think certain things about me, and I feel like I’m finally not conforming to how people think that a Deputy Director or someone who’s been in international development for 12 years is supposed to look. I felt for a very long time that I had to prove my legitimacy in my field and in my world; [but now], I kinda feel that I’ve gotten to the point where [I’m thinking], No! I get to be myself! And people just have to accept me the way that I am, with my quirky whatever-it-is. This is who I am, and I’m not making apologies for it anymore!
THE AMAZING DECADE OF THE THIRTIES
In my thirties, I think that I’ve really filled into myself. I think that following along with what I’ve been talking about, I don’t make apologies for who I am anymore. I feel like I’m at the point now where: I’m kind of settled in my career, I have some tangible skills, I know what I bring to the table, I think I’ve identified where my strengths and weaknesses are. I feel like I know myself better – and I feel like I can represent that better to the outside world! I feel like I’m not proving myself to anybody anymore at this point, you know? I’ve been married for 5 years. I feel like I’ve got nothing to prove to anybody but myself!
In my thirties, I just settled into [thinking], This is my life & this is who I am, and the world’s just gotta cut a deal with that!
It’s not a magic switch. It’s not like I turned 30 and all of a sudden, it was like, “Oh, I get it now!” LOL. But at the same time, I [realized}, I’m 33! What the heck? When did that happen? I feel like I’ve come into my own.
I think one of the things I’ve come into in my thirties is making peace with my body. I feel like a lot in my twenties I was thinking,”I’m too fat!” “I need to work out more!” It was always about having this right fit in my clothes. I was always very conscious of having to fit into my clothes the “right” way and always having to look a certain way in my clothes. I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where I’m [thinking], You know what? I want to be healthy. My weight is going to fluctuate – and actually, that’s okay. And I [no longer] feel as though I need to look a certain way in my clothes. I can throw something on and go to work, and I’m just going through my day. I’m not constantly thinking, How did I look? Was I slouching in that? Could people see my belly fat? You know what, WHATEVER! So, I think there’s a lot of freedom that comes from that.
“I look in the mirror, and I feel like my outside finally matches my insides. In trying to make it in my career and in my field, I felt that I had to project a certain persona or look a certain way. I feel like I’m finally not conforming to how people think that a Deputy Director or someone who’s been in international development for 12 years is supposed to look. I felt for a very long time that I had to prove my legitimacy in my field and in my world. I’ve gotten to the point where, No! I get to be myself! And people just have to accept me the way that I am. This is who I am, and I’m not making apologies for it anymore!”
STYLE, COMFORT & DRESSING FOR YOU
I’m most comfortable in skinny jeans, a button-down shirt, and sneakers. That’s my go-to. That’s what I’d wear to work on a Friday. That’s what I’d wear on a weekend. And people – even my close friends – say, “That’s really butch!” And I’m like, Really though! It’s just clothes! Why does it have to have a label? I love a great pair of pumps and I love to dress up as well, but why can’t I just be comfortable in my own skin and not have people make assumptions of me because of the way that I dress or the way that I look?
“In my thirties, I think that I’ve really filled into myself. I feel like I know myself better – and I feel like I can represent that better to the outside world! I feel like I’ve got nothing to prove to anybody but myself!”
ON DATE NIGHT
[My husband and I] are huge homebodies, and we spend a lot of time at home. LOL. It has become this running thing between us: we don’t go anywhere – and we love it! It’s kind of sad, but it’s kind of awesome. We love to eat out – but when I say, “Eat out”, I mean go get the food and come back home. LOL. That’s date night! We [also] have an in-home theater which we spend quite a bit of time in, and that’s our thing.
We don’t own a TV; so, we spend quite a bit of time watching movies. That’s our just-cuddle-up-downstairs, get-some-good-food, hang out [time]. I’ve had people come to my house and go, “Your house is so quiet! You need the radio on or something!” I get very overwhelmed with constant noise; so, the fact that my home is so quiet is so good for me.
DEFINING A “LIFE FULFILLED”
I would look back and think that my life was fulfilled if I could see that I had been intentional in my relationships with the people that I love, and that I used my skills and talents in a way that glorified God. I’m at the point [where I know], you don’t know what life holds and we have to be thankful for all the times that we have good health, and our needs are met, and all of that. So much in life is transient and so much is uncertain. So, if you can feel like you’re not just being tossed around and you’re being intentional about what you’re doing and have some element of control in the way that you respond and react to the things that come into your life, that is very powerful.
My faith is very important to me. So, feeling like my faith isn’t just something that I say, but something that people can see lived out, I would feel very fulfilled with that.”
Lanre Williams-Ayedun is a public health professional with more than ten years of experience in organizational leadership, systems building for new business acquisition, and technical program design and management. Lanre is currently the Deputy Director for Child Development and Protection for WorldVision, Inc. She joined the Partners for Development Board in 2012, but worked with and for PfD from 2005 to 2009 in various capacities, including in program design and start-up of public health, microfinance, and agriculture programs in Nigeria, Tanzania, Cambodia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Lanre has extensive experience with major U.S. Government, U.S. foundations, and multi- and bi-lateral donors including winning and managing grants from USAID, USDA, The Packard Foundation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. She has led the design and submission of proposals that have yielded over $50M in new revenue from USAID and The Gates Foundation.