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Monday, April 1, 2013

BOSSCHIQUE(ISM): Introducing Mrs. Yeniva Sisay-Sogbeh

Welcome to a new  year of Bosschique(ism)! We are so excited about our April feature for so many reasons. This month's feature is a woman that is truly dear to my heart Mrs. Yeniva Sisay Sogbeh. Yeniva is someone I have been blessed to know for a lot of years. This  woman comes with so much to offer the world and truly has made tremendous impact in her community in Sierra Leone. A returnee to her native country Sierra Leone Yeniva and I met when I first moved to the United States. Her mom and my mother are cousins and since meeting her I always adored her. When she made the move to Sierra Leone it was a very unconventional time for Sierra Leonean women to move back and she is truly one of the main trailblazers and brands of returnee Sierra Leone women who moved back, has endured a lot  and is continuously doing amazing things. 

So a bit about Yeniva; Mrs. Sisay-Sogbeh is  the founder Executive Director of the EXCEL Program (Education, eXcellence, Community, Empowerment, and Leadership) which provides educational services and opportunities to disenfranchised youth in Sierra Leone, West Africa.

Prior to serving as the Excel Executive Director, Yeniva taught secondary school students in the California Public School System (California, United States of America). During her time in the school system, Mrs. Sisay-Sogbeh received accolades from the University of California Los Angeles, Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) and Inglewood Unified School District. Mrs. Sisay- Sogebh is very passionate about ensuring her students learn and developed the following mantra "I teach to revive the heart beat of a nation gone numb" which is echoed throughout her classes and professional development workshops. Yeniva has also served as Co-Founder and Director of Ujima For Africa Development, Inc. Ujima means “collective work and responsibility,” which is the cornerstone of the organization’s values, philosophy and approach to effective community redevelopment.

In 2007 Yeniva relocated to her ancestral home Sierra Leone, West Africa.  Since then she has worked non-stop to bring vision into action in many areas of development in Sierra Leone. As a founder of Collective Minds an arts and culture association, Yeniva helped to produce one of the most dynamic events in Freetown, PLAY ON WORDS. Established in 2008, PLAY ON WORDS was born out of the need for a creative outlet and platform for the artist community in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Each month PLAY ON WORDS brings together a collection of poets and other cultural entertainment to produce a unique showcase. With a following of over 500 people, the event is able to bring together a dynamic audience of Sierra Leoneans, expatriates, returnees and more cutting across age and socio economics. Yeniva is also a founding member of the Ma dengn Association, producers of the acclaimed Ma dengn Beach Festival which is built on the principle of showcasing, celebrating, enriching and preserving the culture of Sierra Leone.  

Mrs. Sisay-Sogbeh holds a Bachelors of Science in African Studies, from San Jose State University, she is a UCLA Writers Project Fellow and holds a Masters in Education from the University of Phoenix. Yeniva has served as the English Department Chair, Leader Teacher and Visionary for Smaller Learning Communities and Coordinator of the Advancement Via Individual Determination Program. She is member of Young Leaders- Sierra Leone and has been appointed Global Liaison-Africa of the United Nations Young Professionals Association.(YPIC) Yeniva has been featured in Substance and Style, The African, Honey, and MiMi Magazines, Premier News, PBS World Focus and a host of radio talk shows. She will soon be Manager at the newly opened resort in Tokeh Beach Sierra Leone called "The Place at Tokeh".

WCA readers...Introducing Mrs. Sisay-Sogbeh. 

Q: Who is Yeniva in one word?

A: Manifestation

Q: You have lived in Sierra Leone for the past 6 years and moved from the United States of America! Wow you are truly a trailblazer. I want you to go back to the very first moment you made the decision to move? How were you feeling and what made you do it?  

A:  I was watching Oprah Winfery’s documentary “Building a Dream” on the opening of her school in South Africa. It struck me at the core of my being.

My background is in education, I was a high school teacher in Inglewood, California at the time. I was teaching my students about possibility and telling them to live their dreams. Most of them were watching the show as well. The next day my students came to me and said “Ms. Sisay when we saw that show we just kept thinking of you, you should teach at the school!” in my heart I was thinking the same thing.

My 30th birthday was right around the corner. I try as hard as I can to do something meaningful on my born days. This was a special one so as I was really did some soul searching to see where I wanted to be at 30. I was a home owner,  I owned my car and I had a job that I loved. But when I asked then I asked myself one thing; If I could do anything without the fear of failure what would it be? The answer was to move to Sierra Leone and make a difference. To stop talking about it and be about it. To give freely of myself and use the invesetment my parents made, my education to make a valuable contribution towards as New Sierra Leone.

I asked my students the same question and I got some of the most beautiful responses. That experience allowed me to look deeper into my heart. I knew that I had a calling to make a difference. So my students and I set out on a journey together. We decided that we were going to tell Oprah that I needed to teach at her school. One of my former students came on board as the camera man, director we shot a short promo about why Ms. Sisay should teach at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy.  We packaged it with letters and sent it off to Oprah. I knew then more than ever that anything and everything is possible. I call it my awakening.

We never heard back from Oprah but my students got more and more interested in Africa and especially Sierra Leone. I would tell them about my trips, play music and show picture of “ the real Africa” . At around that time Ismeal Beah’s book “ A Long Way Gone “ was released. I read the book and learned about a different side of Sierra Leone.  I saw so many similarities between Sierra Leone and Inglewood. Both impoverished communites, and full of young people seeking a future.  I decided to require my students to read the book I got friends, and family to donate the books for my classes and students raised the money their own. We even got a few copies signed by the author Ishmeal Beah!   The synergy was beyond belief. I saw young men who had never in their life read a book, read from cover to cover. Each and every one of them wanted more. There wanted to know, why the war? How could young people hold arms? They were intrigued that young people half way across the world could have lives as difficult and in some cases much more difficult then theirs. We were all inspired to make a difference. I was driven to build my own dream. This is where the EXCEL Education Program was born. It was my calling to come home.

Q: You truly wear many hats a humanitarian a founder of EXCEL, a wife a mom and now a general manager of a top vacation destination in Sierra Leone; The Place at Tokeh Beach.  Please share with us what a typical day looks like for Yeniva the mom, the wife, the BOSSchique?

A: Wow where do I begin? I wake up at 5:30am for meditation and reflection. 6:30 am wake up my daughter Mahari to get her ready for school. Out the door at 7:30am in the office to start the day. The day could be a range of meetings, trainings, strategic planning, marketing or event planning! Back home to Mahari in time for homework or at least a bed time story. Down time with my best friend my husband, then on to emails and finishing the work for the day.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about the new venture you are leading up and one thing you love about yourself and your work?
A: I am with the Sweet Salone Group producers of Sierra Leone’s first luxury boutique hotel. The Place at Tokeh Beach. The Place at Tokeh Beach is located on Sierra Leone’s Western Peninsula, about 20 miles from the hustle and bustle of Freetown, the capital, making it the perfect location to rest and relax when visiting Sierra Leone.

Set in 15 acres of tropical gardens, on the unspoiled, pretty white sands of Tokeh Beach, Sierra Leone.  The hotel is surrounded by an amphitheatre of lush, jungle-clad mountains, creating a truly magical setting.

The Place offers something bold and new to Sierra Leone and is the perfect location for a weekend getaway, private parties, events, weddings, business meetings, conferences and retreats.

One thing I love about my work is making the impossible possible. Sierra Leone can boast of some of the best beaches in the world and they are unspoiled because people have not discovered them.  The Sweet Salone Group is reintroducing the world to Sierra Leone.

Q: Please describe a challenge you have had that truly shaped your trajectory as an African woman and explain to us what you learned from it?

A:  I got what I thought was the job of my dreams. What I thought was an amazing opportunity to do make a difference.  Through that position I learned so much about life; the good, the bad and the extremely ugly.  I was exposed to hate, greed, envy, jealously, ridicule, injustice, and corruption. These were things that were foreign in my world, things that you see in movies or read about in books.  How could I find myself in such a mess?

My challenges are nothing new under the sun, African Women have been facing the same or similar challenges on many levels for years.

Even in the most challenging time in my life, I learned to depend on the Lord, the reality of faith, the true meaning of love and friendship, I learned about my own strength and the audacity of hope

Q: Are there any regrets that you have?

A: You know here is where people say the cliché’ “ I have not regrets” But I can honestly say I have no regrets. I have a few wishes… I wish I was not so nice at times, I wish I was not so naïve at times and I wish I was not so hard on myself sometimes. 

Q:  What would you say sets you apart from others as a humanitarian/social entrepreneur?
A: I was born to be Yeniva. This is my life calling, I don’t know how to do anything else. I only know how to walk Yeniva’s walk. Each day I try to live to my fullest potential is what makes my heart sing. I can say that my education, upbringing, culture, travel and life experience sets me apart from others.

Q: Can you tell us the top 3 things every woman needs to be successful in your industry that you currently work in?
A:  Drive Determination and Confidence

Q: What Impact do you think you are making on African women and girls through your work with The Place at Tokeh Beach  and any additional avenues you are making change in?
A: African women and girls need to see people that look like them in places of influence and power. It is then they learn that they can do it too.

In my work I have the opportunity to work with an amazing African women from all around the world, I am truly blessed. I try in everything I do to lead by example. I "blend out" even when it is not the most popular of choices; I am willing to suffer the consequences for the right cause. I have mentored many young African women and exposed them to other AMAZING African women who inspire me and are doing their own thing as well.

Q: If you were to invite 3 amazing African Women  for dinner who would it be and why?

A: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Folorunsho Alakija
Michelle Obama : yeah I said it she is an African women, In fact there is some speculation with her Carolina connection she may be Sierra Leonean. Michelle inquiring minds want to know

Q: Finish the sentence  Women Change Africa because?
A:  We don’t have any other choice. We gave birth to the continent it is our responsibility to hold it up.

Check out Yeniva on Facebook and Twitter & 
Check out The Place at : ; and their Facebook Page

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