For NONNY UGBOMA, social impact is in her DNA
…leaves MTN Nigeria foundation with eyes on new heights
Nonny Ugboma is an enterprising, definite optimist whose corporate social investment pursuits had resulted in being awarded one of the Top 50 most inspiring women in Nigeria by Business Day Newspaper (2019). She has successfully merged her passion for social development with her expertise in finance and strategic business management in carving out a niche as a specialist and achiever in the social and environmental impact investment space.
She has had a strong career in high tech and telecoms with a proven track record managing, multi stakeholder relations covering governments, executive committees, boards, communities and private companies. She is an expert in designing viable and impactful initiatives that create economic, social and environmental value.
Nonny is a global development consultant and the Executive Director of Nondunna Limited, a policy & project management firm working at the intersection of innovation, public policy and public value creation for clients and communities. She is Mission-Oriented Innovation enthusiast and a Human-Centred Design expert.
Nonny’s past achievements are testament to her capabilities. As the Executive Secretary at MTN Nigeria Foundation (2008 to 2021), she oversaw strategy development and daily operations of the foundation activities and investments worth over ₦22 billion ($66 million), funded by the parent company, MTN Nigeria, under the youth development, Mother and Child Health and Arts and Culture causes in 850 sites across 36 states. In the same position she led the team to receive over 80 awards and endorsements for corporate social responsibility whilst executing over 30 projects, impacting millions of individuals.
She has built a solid track record of results with a balanced focus on impacting society positively and the ability to cast vision, plan strategies, communicate effectively, launch new programs, and efficiently lead teams to reach organisational goals. She has consistently exceeded all goals set for her, and is valued for her hard work, reliability, tenacity and ability to consistently come up with solutions to difficult business problems.
Nonny is a Governing Council member, Lagos State Employability Support Project; member Women Corporate Directors; Institute of Directors Nigeria and Independent Non-Executive Director, RAK Unity Plc and former Director Asharami Energy (2013 to 2019).
Her credentials also include Master of Public Administration in Innovation (Distinction), Public Policy and Public Value, University College, London; Master of Science in International Management, King’s College, London and Bachelor of Science (Hons) in Accounting and Financial Analysis, University of Warwick. She is enthusiastic about a future where mission-oriented innovation policies will contribute to the creation of sustainable societies.
Childhood memories and impact till date
I had a balanced childhood with my mother as a strong role model. Growing up, I noted that my mother had a strong sense of purpose and was dedicated to her family and her career. I was influenced by her sense of professionalism, style, and courage- she stood up and spoke out for what she believed in and was never afraid to voice her opinion, even when her views were dissenting. She also taught me to be precise and to always be truthful. My father was a career diplomat and he was a lot more mindful about what he said to people. He scolded, when it was necessary, and applauded when it was earned! He was also supportive of my mother and encouraged her to pursue her career as she loved the Law profession. He did this whilst holding his own, later as Chairman and directorship of several companies. He chose for us all to go to school in England from young ages- my siblings to prep school from ages six to eight and me at the age of 14. This allowed my mother to freely travel around the world for her conferences with FIDA and the NBA.
However, one year after we all left for England, my mother gave birth to my younger sister- a case of man proposes but God disposes. Nevertheless, one was blessed because my parents ensured that either of them came for exeat weekends and half term breaks; we also were back in Nigeria for the school holidays and then for the long summer holidays we would travel to Europe or the USA. These routines helped shape me to be devoted to my children and to design my work around my children’s timetables and holiday schedules! It also made me to resolve to make sure my children spend their formative years going to school from home and not to boarding schools at tender years.
How, when and why did you join MTN?
I joined MTN on 7 April 2003 as a Business Planner and Financial Analyst in the Business Intelligence unit of the Marketing division, having returned to Nigeria after some years away from Nigeria. I had previously worked in Financial Consulting at Arthur Andersen and with some Tech firms in Silicon Valley. I did my research and fell in love with MTN and consider myself fortunate to have got into MTN at the time that I did.
Going back to school
I love learning and I have always been an advocate for self-development and improvement. I moved from science to finance, then from finance into the corporate social investment space (CSI). I am curious and enjoy stretching myself to learn new things. So, back in 2015, having worked in the CSI space for a while and MTN Foundation turning 10, I had noted a number of fundamental societal issues across the country which made me ponder on different viable options to solve different challenges.
I then decided that I needed to go back to school to review and reassess the concept of public value, especially in the developing world context. I am passionate about the Nigerian project and didn’t think I could continue doing the same things over and over again.
I wanted to develop myself to be in a position to add more value. I decided that I had to remove myself from my familiar territory and routine to be in a study environment in order to learn new things and uncover new insights about old things.
I sought guidance, did my research and then put a plan in motion to align with my sons’ education milestones. I was extremely thrilled to have got into the programme at UCL- exactly 25 years after my first Masters’ from King’s College, London.
I loved the programme. I love learning so the one-year leave of absence from work was perfect as it allowed me to renew my knowledge base and prepare me for the future ahead. One of the things that kept me going was my resolve to look out for solutions to socio-economic challenges, so I was in full-learning mode- reading, asking questions, contributing my thoughts. I was able to reframe things I thought I knew, learn new things by deep diving into historical analysis of problems because context matters especially when it comes to development.
However, it was tough. It taught me humility- you are answerable to lecturers; you are expected to do the pre-class readings and to submit assignments before the deadlines. It was a lot of work and I kept saying to myself- “who sent me”? I was also answerable to my sons, so I knew that I couldn’t remove my hand from the plough.
Coming out with a distinction
It was tough but God is merciful, and I am extremely blessed. It was like going into battle, you go in to get the job done no matter what you face on the field, you focus, and you dare and push yourself. That’s what I did. I also had my father’s ill-health to deal with and then his death subsequently, but I focused; it wasn’t easy, but I stretched myself and my efforts were rewarded. The bottom line is being intentional and directional about working hard and working for positive outcomes.
The effect of the pandemic
The pandemic meant that people couldn’t go into the office and we all had to work away from the office. It meant that people stayed with their families, wherever they considered their base. I was away from MTN at the beginning of the pandemic as I was in the middle of studying for my MPA programme in Innovation, Public Policy and Public Value at the University College, London (UCL), and was studying from home. It meant that lectures and seminars were online and the physical interaction with other students stopped.
The good part of the pandemic period was that, I was able to spend quality time with my sons as they also had to leave school and study from home. We spent a solid six months together, which was priceless. Sadly, towards the end of the first lockdown, my father fell ill and then died. It also meant that when he was buried one month later, I couldn’t attend- but thankfully all the arrangements went ahead smoothly, and he was given a befitting burial.
Leaving MTN Nigeria Foundation
Fundamentally, it is important to have a strong team and to put in place transparent and robust processes that give people access to information in your absence. This was the case. As a leader, things must be able to run without you. I was fortunate to return to my role and I set out to share some knowledge with the team on some new ways of thinking, new concepts and new methodology for executing projects. I introduced Human Centred Design thinking approach, among other techniques, to collaboratively co-create solutions and we held several workshops with the team and other stakeholders; now they are extremely capable of designing solutions using this methodology. After six months, I realised that the role had become too predictable and I had become too comfortable, so I knew that I had to challenge my comfort zone and stretch myself for growth. I decided that I needed to go to grow.
Saying goodbye was tough. I was more or less married to my job at the Foundation. I loved my work because I am passionate about social causes and doing impactful work that transform lives. I engaged the board members and the executive management team and my team once I made up my mind. There was a virtual send forth, which meant a lot to me. It was an opportunity to hear from different people within the business from different departments. It was a beautiful event and well-attend. I spoke, with difficulty, because after 18 years, less seven days, I was going to leave my second family.
But I did it, I said goodbye and wrote a final email acknowledging everyone on March 31st and I have no regrets.
What are you most grateful for through the entire experience?
First of all, I would like to thank God for placing me in the right place at the right time and the opportunity to serve a great company and my country. Secondly, I am thankful that I was able to serve as Executive Secretary, MTN Foundation. It was rewarding working tirelessly with an amazing team in a collaborative manner with other stakeholders to implement projects across over 850 sites. The journey was transformative; along the way I met special people across the country from the disabled to mothers, to orphans and vulnerable children, students and talented young people who appreciate MTN’s role in their lives.
Thirdly, it is actually when you leave an establishment that you know how impactful what you have done had been, the outpouring of love and commendation in the past few weeks from people who have been impacted one way or the other, either through working with me or listening to me has been overwhelming. For me, I was doing my job, which I loved very much, and as such, I didn’t pause to calculate the impact instead, I would say to myself – move on to the next thing!
Going forward, what are you up to now?
Right now, I am reflecting, recalibrating and redesigning my life to map out the future, with God’s help. There are a number of great things lined up, which I will share at the right time. In the meantime, I continue with my writing, which I started in November 2020, thanks to you and BusinessDay and other platforms, where some of my thoughts and ideas are being published.
If you were to summarize the company MTN in your own words, what will you say?
My beloved MTN- simply put, it’s a fantastic company with opportunities to learn and do great things. Sometimes misunderstood, but a great place to work.
Your parents and their impact in your life
My parents complemented each other. They both cherished frank discussions and were extremely open with us. You could discuss almost everything with them. Growing up, they were dutiful in knowing everything that I was going through, they were involved in all of our lives. I learnt work ethics, professionalism, precision, etiquette and style from my mother. I learnt the art of conversation and human connection from my father. He was humble and related with different people from different walks of life. He was effortless in his interaction with people.
When your father passed on, what was that experience like for you, and what did his death do to you?
My world shattered when my father died. He was my shield and my rock. My father was devoted, protective and loving. I am truly blessed because he loved me. My father’s love gave me gave me wings to fly, to dare greatly as he taught me that I could do anything through Christ. Growing up, my father provided all I needed and a lot of what I wanted. I miss him dearly and find myself pausing to recall his stories that were embedded with life lessons, to know what actions to take, like my decision to leave MTN.
What every young worker in any organisation needs to know
The importance of showing up, speaking out and daring greatly. You cannot stand on the side-line or lay on the couch to watch others in the arena of life. You must get into the arena and not fear failure.
The importance of moving on from a clean slate
The most valuable asset you have as an individual is your name; my father taught me that. It is not about amassing money and cutting corners, it is about making sure your work is transparent, that you work with integrity. With a clear head, deliberate actions and interactions, wealth and fulfillment will come. For sure, you will make mistakes, but life is an iterative journey, so you assess the situation, admit the failings and adjust accordingly and advance to the next.
I was particular doing a detailed handover report to the board, outlining challenges and areas that needed improvement as well as success stories. Full disclosure at all times is important.
What does living a purposeful life mean to you?
Fundamentally, living a purposeful life means trying my best to be true to my Christian faith. It means seeking God’s guidance in all that I do. It means choosing to Live, Love, Let-go, Listen and Learn! It means being intentional and deliberate in all that I do. So, I have five guiding values- my SLICE.
STEADFASTNESS-I want to be dependable delivering on my promise to myself and others, ensure that my obligations are met and that I work diligently to constantly deliver value.
LOVE- This is my anchor and allows me to be empathetic. It drives my actions and interactions. It is my essence and helps check my motivations.
INTEGRITY-This is where my soul resides when I am alone with my thoughts. It is a constant reminder to be honest and true to my faith, myself & others.
CONNECTION- This is about relationships. It is important for me to ensure that I am working collaboratively with others to create value, learn and share. It is also important that I invest my time and energy in building new and nurturing existing relationships. It is also important to review my ecosystem to churn relationships that become energy sapping.
EXCELLENCE-I measure myself to ensure I excel in all that I do. I give my all to deliver value. I stretch and apply myself to deliver on this value and work to influence others to achieve this in all they do.
What would you say is an area of improvement that you need?
I need to learn to pat myself on the back more and commend myself for the good work I have done instead of moving from one task or project to the next without acknowledging my wins. I need to learn to stop and celebrate more, albeit in a dignified manner.
Words of Admonition
These words are for me too. Remember to prepare, show up, get into the arena and get on with it. Let the critics talk, they don’t count, even when you fall, get up and assess, admit, adjust and advance. As long as there is life there are learning points, so move.