Three-time University of Pretoria (UP) graduate Elma Akob has more reason than usual to celebrate her most recent graduation milestone: with the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, she was finally able to experience an in-person ceremony and – more importantly – she was capped in the presence of her family.
“It was incredible to experience my first physical graduation with my parents present,” she says of her recent autumn graduation ceremony. “Knowing how much they sacrificed for me to walk on that stage made their presence even more rewarding. COVID-19 has stolen a lot from us, and with both my other graduations being online, I always felt something was missing; this was truly a dream come true.”
In fact, as Vice-Chancellor of the National Polytechnic University Institute in Cameroon, Elma’s father, Dr Christopher Akob, was part of the academic procession. Her mother, Mrs Janet Akob, who is Director of Postgraduate Programmes at the same institute, was also there to witness Elma receive her third degree, a master’s in Strategic Business Management.
“It was absolutely delightful and special for me and my wife to be part of Elma’s graduation ceremony,” Dr Akob says. “I’m grateful to UP for the warm reception reserved for my family.”
Elma also holds a BCom Law degree and an honours in Communication Management from UP’s Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences. Impressively, she obtained all her qualifications on the strength of scholarships, having been the recipient of the Barclays Africa Scholarship for leadership capabilities and academic excellence and a Mastercard Foundation Scholarship.
But that’s not all. Outside of academia, Elma is the founder and CEO of public speaking training company Elevate Africa; Head of Marketing and Communications at UP’s Albert Luthuli Leadership Institute; a voiceover artist who works for the likes of Disney; and an award-winning public speaker. She also regularly hosts formal events at the University, among several other pursuits – and all this at just 22 years old.
UP graduate Elma Akob with her father Dr Christopher Akob, Vice-Chancellor of the National Polytechnic University Institute in Cameroon; and her mother, Janet Akob, Director of Postgraduate Programmes at the National Polytechnic University Institute.
It’s no wonder that her long-term aspiration is to be chairperson of the African Union, an ambition that she states unabashedly in her CV and to me. “Yes, that’s where I am headed,” she says with a glint in her eye.
Achieving excellence seems to be par for the course for the Akob family. “Everyone in my family has done or is busy doing a PhD,” Elma says. “My mom and two sisters are busy with theirs. So in two years, we will all be doctors.” Unsurprisingly, Elma has applied to begin her doctoral studies next year.
“It starts with my dad: he instilled a standard of excellence in all of us,” she says. “I come from a very loving, high-achieving family; it’s a privilege to be part of such a high-performing family because it pushes me further.”
Elma says that while her father shaped her academic aspirations, her mother shaped her desire to achieve in other spheres of life.
“My mother was one of the first women in her community to drive a car,” she says. “That alone was a big thing. My mom made it clear to us that being girls didn’t affect our capabilities. Watching her doing her job and how she presented herself left a deep impression on me.”
She also credits her father for empowering her as a woman. “We were raised in a male-dominated society and, after having three girls, my dad probably got pressure to ‘try for a boy’. But his response was: ‘If I’m going to have girls, I’m going to make sure my girls are better than all your boys! They’re going to become exceptional women.’”
Both her parents are agricultural scientists who have implemented sustainable livelihood programmes all over Africa. Her sisters are also in the sciences, so why did she choose to go into the business field?
“I loved the suits that businesswomen wore,” she says with a laugh, “and how they commanded attention when they entered a room. I thought about what I would need to do to become a CEO. I started with law because it commands authority, then went on to study strategy and communication because I love talking – I wanted a degree that backed up my natural talents.”
Effective communication is at the core of both her academic and personal pursuits. Her master’s dissertation focused on how the communication competencies of top management affect the implementation of an organisation’s strategy.
“Management in South Africa lacks basic communication competencies. If strategy is not communicated properly at all levels, not only are there financial implications but employees don’t perform because they don’t buy in to the strategy.”
The astute graduate notes that communication training skills are not usually part of business degrees or courses, which is why, as part of her thesis, she created a course to train managers in these competencies. The course can also be included in academic curricula.
This focus on upskilling people’s communication abilities also forms the basis of Elma’s one-year-old company, Elevate Africa, which has trained more than 50 students in public speaking or voiceover work.
“If you’ve been told you have a nice voice, we’ll train you to be a voiceover artist and get you into the economy,” she explains. “We also train students in public speaking, because universities aren’t equipping them with communication skills. For instance, a student might leave university with an engineering degree, but cannot explain a design to a group of people because they do not have the speaking skills.”
Elevate Africa also goes into schools to offer its services, at no cost, to matric students, teaching them mainly interview skills.
“All the solutions to Africa’s problems are in Africa – it’s just that people don’t know how to communicate them. So if we can get people to speak with confidence, they can thrive. It aids their personal and professional development.”
It’s clear that Elma has age and energy on her side, but something else other than a quest for excellence is driving her – social impact. And again, it comes back to her parents.
“My parents’ work created an innate desire in me to have impact,” she says. “Throughout their lives, they have been giving back. As much as I am achieving, I always return to the following quote: ‘Being the first is important, but making sure you’re not the last is what creates a lasting impact.’ In everything I do, I ensure that as I am climbing the ladder, I am bringing others up with me.”
Her father also has something to say about her purposeful nature. “Elma’s drive stems from her open-mindedness and self-determination, as well as our family values, which include God first, love for family, humility and shining your light.”
Other than completing her doctoral studies in the near future, Elma hopes to grow Elevate Africa to be represented in every country on the continent. “I would love to see a generation of Africans who are able to speak their minds confidently.”
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