New England leader looks to a workforce free from adverse social norms that affect women and girls

Throughout her successes, her mother, whom she did not see again until 2005, always asked her: “What are you giving back? »

Today, Ajakaiye is the founder and executive director of RISE Women’s Leadership Conference (Realizing Inspiration and Sustaining Excellence), a nonpartisan educational nonprofit in Providence that connects women from all industries in New England on issues related to gender parity, socio-economic topics and the equality at work. The women on the board come from a variety of backgrounds, but are an all-volunteer advisory board.

They host a conference every year, which was held September 8 at the Rhode Island Convention Center with over 55 local stakeholders.

Q: What inspired you to launch RISE?

Ajakaiye: I constantly look back and think I was the key kid, but there are a lot of young girls out there who need to hear positive messages. And by the time they might be thinking about college or just making good decisions about high school, it might be too late. I want to be able to message these girls early and make change happen sooner.

What do you do the rest of the year?

We started developing opportunities for anyone on the advisory board talk in schools. We do online webinars, which have become a source of dialogue throughout the year. And we have a scholarship event every year – five girls win prizes every year. We will have a physical office from next year.

This year, we have also collaborated with Accreditation Aid, where we distributed sanitary napkins during the conference. I have an idea—which is in its infancy—to put lockers around town for teenage girls in Providence to pick up free sanitary pads with a code, no questions asked.

Do you incorporate men into the workshops or the conference?

I’m a mom of two teenagers, have an amazing husband and a phenomenal dad who sacrificed everything to make me the woman I am today. So this year, we incorporated a whole panel of men and called “the men who get it”. In order to evoke change, you need to bring all the stakeholders around the table. And we talked about the critical need for men to support the progress of women.

You’re also executive vice president of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, a position a woman probably wouldn’t have held 50 years ago. For those who say we’ve come a long way, how much do we have to do to make the workplace a truly fair place for women?

There is certainly progress. I am an immigrant from Ethiopia, who had the opportunities I had, and now I am in my role as Executive Vice President of the GBCVB – which is a 45 year old legacy organization. I was the first black female leader the organization ever hired. We need to celebrate these things. You might say I’m breaking glass ceilings for other like-minded people in my organization, but there are plenty more to break.

What do you think are the main issues women will face in the workplace in 2022?

Pay equity is an easy catch. We know the problems that come with that. But I recently saw one stat where men had recovered from job loss due to the pandemic, but another [1.1 million] women had not returned to the labor market [from February 2020 to January 2022]. Why is that? I think there is still a serious gap in allowing women to be truly present and at the forefront of high performance jobs, while still being able to be recognized and rewarded for being an effective mother.

Additionally, there are serious shortcomings when it comes to women in the boardroom – leading and not being questioned. She shouldn’t have impostor syndrome or thank someone for having them there. There are qualified women everywhere and there are enough seats for them.

What do you see as positive in the workplace?

There is a certain momentum that I still see among organizations that want to make sure they are like the communities they serve. After the [murder] of George Floyd, there has been work around equity, diversity and inclusion, especially among those at the highest levels of leadership. We have to stick to it.

You work for the Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. Yet the conference has always been held in Providence since 2018. Why is that?

I live in Rhode Island, and we have women on the advisory board who are in Maryland, Connecticut, Boston, and Florida. The question is always asked: Why not Boston? But we are an entirely voluntary operation. We all have full-time jobs and careers that we love and we don’t want to bite off more than we can chew. But we were asked to duplicate this event in other cities as far as Canada. And we know there’s room for a conference like this in other cities — but maybe when we increase our budget.


The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are building new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to journalist Alexa Gagosz at [email protected].


Alexa Gagosz can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.

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