‘ I think very critically about what I want to do, who I want to be and what I want to achieve’

Mary Dinah

Mary Dinah won the British Council Future Leaders Award in 2018, and as part of her prize, completed a Post Graduate course in Advanced Leadership and Public Policy at Judge Business School at The University of Cambridge. Mary is also the new face of Yoko London, a luxury fashion jeweller in Knightbridge. She is the first ever model of colour to be signed by the brand, and is currently the muse of Yoko’s 2020 campaign focused on diversity.

Mary likes to laugh a lot, and, coupled with her laughter and desire to also enjoy her life, there is a loving determination to help others. It is an uncompromising wholeness of approach. She allows every part of her being to blossom: whether that is being an author, fitness enthusiast, entrepreneur, humanitarian, model or academic (she studied at postgraduate level at Oxford and Harvard). Most admirably, she set up a foundation that feeds hundreds of school children every day and provides hygiene products that lift girls out of Period Poverty. She is truly being the change she wants to see in the world whilst living life to the fullest. The Guardian invited Tunji Bada to interview Mary Dinah to share her story with our readers.

How does a girl go from being a UN Fellow to Miss Nigeria Great Britain Beauty Queen?
So it’s really not so much in that order, the UN to Miss Nigeria GB, because I started modeling before I finished high school. Modelling is something I keep as a creative outlet and as an aside from business school, and my managerial and leadership roles in hospitality.

Why did you participate in the beauty pageant?
The big drive for me was to use the platform as an opportunity to promote my charitable and humanitarian work, to catapult my charity so I can make an impact and help more people. I also very much enjoy the fashion and beauty that the pageant entails.

How did you transition from working for a company to working for yourself?
I worked at the Four Seasons and Marriott Hotels in London then moved to the Marriott corporate head office, overseeing the marketing team. I won several awards but, deep inside, I was critically bored in that role. I realised I was passionate about hotels but not about hospitality sales in a city centre head office. So I decided to spend six months studying entrepreneurship at Harvard University. Then I returned to London and set up a hotel management company. The main difference between the Four Seasons and other beautiful hotels that are not five-star is not the properties themselves but their service, attention to detail and how they treat and welcome their guests. I thought if I could package and create a service excellence training and shop it around then, hopefully, a few hotels, embassies and so on will engage my new company – and they did. It was very successful.

Shall we all give up our day jobs and become entrepreneurs?
It all depends on your personality. My personality does not suit working in a set, defined role for too long. Some people have the personality for structure and therefore excel. They can do one thing for 25 years and they are happy climbing up the career ladder. For me, there is nothing more interesting and more challenging than running my own company with all the risks and thrills this entails.

What can we think and do to live successfully?
First, a lot of people do not think about their lives and what they want to achieve within a given timeframe. I think very critically about what I want to do and who I want to be and what I want to achieve. I take a lot of time out by myself. Sometimes days. If I can’t find days in the diary, sometimes hours. I pick some kind of combination of three, four or five things that I want to achieve in that year.

Secondly, health is very important. If I eat junk and don’t work out, I feel tired and lethargic and don’t really achieve much. I have stopped eating meat. I am somewhere between a vegan and vegetarian. I do yoga. I really enjoy working out. That always makes me more ready to win the day and be successful. Every time I do it, I feel the difference immediately. When two or three days go past and I don’t work out, I feel that drop in energy and that drop in enthusiasm. I like to be on peak form – mentally and health-wise. The two are related.

The third thing I would say is networking. Making sure you surround yourself with the right type of people. I have noticed the biggest things that I have done have been the easiest because there was somebody that unlocked it. The cheque was signed and I was employed. Whatever was done was easy because I connected with the right person. That has always been the secret to getting to that really big next step.

So, knowing people is the secret?
Definitely. Now in terms of my foundation, I am looking forward and working towards raising enough money to feed over 6000 children every day. I am pretty confident that any day now, I am going to meet someone who is going to say, “We have the funding. Come on let’s do it.”

What are the blocks to success, especially for women?
In Nigeria and some other developing countries, women don’t have the freedom to network the way men do. Given that networking is one of the most important things to bring you to new places that you have never been, anything that hinders that is automatically the single biggest obstacle to success.

 Aside from business, I understand that you also set up a Foundation?
The Foundation is called the Mary Dinah Foundation. Our first initiative was Joblink, which was job centre where anyone can walk in and drop their CV. If they didn’t have a CV, we would create one for them and connect them to jobs. We connected about 10,000 people to work, created an employability training programme, trained about 3000 people and reviewed CVs for over 2000 people across Lagos.

Photo CREDIT: Flawless Faces By Jane

I also started speaking to school children about their future careers, and what touched my heart the most was the food issue. Some children did not eat lunch so I started the Food For Thought initiative to provide school feeding. So that every child we help has at least one meal a day. We make sure that meal has at least 700 calories, the nutritional value that would be necessary for a growing child per day.

Which schools do you work with?
We are currently working with Anglican Girls Seminary School and also Christ Church Cathedral School in Lagos State. There are about 500 pupils. We are, in effect, feeding 500 school children every school day.

Is there anything else you are working on?
I also focus on Period Poverty.

What is Period Poverty?
Period Poverty means not having the resources to maintain a decent level of hygiene during your period. A lot of girls cannot afford sanitary products for their monthly periods. They get embarrassed if they stain and/or soil themselves so they tend to miss a whole week of school every month, which puts them behind their male counterparts. Girls can start their periods as early as eight so this barrier to the progress of the female gender, which can also result in unconscious discrimination, starts from very early on. And all they need to overcome this is something as basic as sanitary towels, tampons and other hygienic products.

How long have you been helping the girls?
Two years. We give hygiene packs with sanitary towels to the schoolgirls we feed as part of our Food For Thought initiative.

Do you educate boys about Period Poverty?
That would be good, so that they can learn about it early on.

Finally, now that you are a UN Fellow, are we going you see you as Madam Ambassador one day?
One day. It’s by no means a direct route. I wish it were. I would like to represent my country. I spent my formative years in Paris. I would love to be the Nigerian Ambassador to France. I think being an ambassador and running a charity goes hand-in-hand anyway.

If you are interested in partnering with or supporting Mary’s foundation, please contact: md@myfoodforthought.org or visit the website: www.myfoodforthought.com and Instagram: @myfoodforthought_

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