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”I Want to See Girls Lead Fulfilled Lives, Irrespective of their Social Class, Past Experiences Or Looks”: Seun Olagunju, Founder- Beyond the Surface Initiative

Seun Olagunju is many things, including a blogger, writer, project manager and social entrepreneur. As a social entrepreneur, she encourages young girls to embrace and love themselves irrespective of what society says. She does this extensively through ’Beyond the Surface Initiative’, a development initiative for underprivileged teenage girls. In this piece, Seun tells us about the impact she is making through BSI, her vision to curb the increasing rate of teenage pregnancies in Nigeria and how her personal struggle with low self-esteem has equipped her to help teenage girls going through same. Be inspired!

Who is Seun Olagunju?

I’m a graduate of English Language from the Obafemi Awolowo University, currently exploring a career in the fields of Communications and Social Development. I am a writer. I love to tell stories and teach people the lessons drawn from these stories. While I’m working on becoming a published author one day, I currently run a blog where I share all my stories – sometimes of me, sometimes of other people. On the days when I’m not writing to tell stories, I’m writing to create content for corporate bodies and entrepreneurs.

I’m also a social entrepreneur. I love to help people and give back to society. This is why a large part of my life revolves around organizing social projects and actively volunteering with organizations whose work align with mine. I want to see underprivileged kids get access to quality education. I want to curb the number of teenage pregnancies in my community. I want to see girls lead fulfilled lives, irrespective of their social class, past experiences or looks, and to solve these problems the best way I can, I created a self-esteem development initiative for teenage girls in Nigeria, called Beyond the Surface. I have been running this since 2016.

In the corporate world, I currently work as a product manager with a tech firm in Lagos. But strip all these titles off me and who you will find is a simple girl who God loves and who desires that she pleases Him with her life, always.

You have an educational background in Arts but you are currently cutting your teeth in tech, why the transition?

This one is quite funny, because for someone who loves to write, read stories and talk, tech. was not a field I saw myself exploring at all. I had always seen tech as something that was for geeks and nerds, while creative’s like myself would stick to the Arts. However, when in 2016 I finished from the university, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my degree. Having studied English, I realized that I had gotten myself a degree that was so open-ended, there was no defined career path. I however knew I didn’t want to sit at home doing nothing. I knew I wanted to explore the corporate world. I also knew that there was nothing that couldn’t be learnt, so when the opportunity came to work in tech, I took it. Having worked in this field for a while, I have come to realize that tech isn’t only for computer engineers and programmers; that my skills are relevant and since tech is playing a huge role in solving most of the world’s problems in this age, it’s a field I would like to keep being a part of.

The tag line of your website reads ‘since impact is not a function of age, gender, or social class, none of us has an excuse not to make one.’ What’s the motivation behind what you do through “Beyond the Surface Initiative?”

I started the Beyond the Surface Initiative in 2016 after an encounter with a pregnant 15 year old teenager. She had had to drop out of school because she was pregnant and worse, the boy who had impregnated her had fled. When I asked about her story, I was told she had gone into that ‘relationship’ because she never saw herself as pretty and felt privileged that any guy could come to like her. So, in an attempt to keep him, she indulged all his advances towards her, till she got pregnant.

When I heard her story, I was very sad because I too had gone through a low self-esteem growing up, but somehow I was able to overcome it and because I overcame mine, I knew it was possible for that girl to overcome hers too. So I started by gathering teenage girls in my community to teach them on adding value to themselves and developing their self-worth. I believe these girls can become great, irrespective of their social class, background or looks and this has been my biggest motivation to continue teaching them through the initiative.

A while back, you flagged the #IamBeautiful Campaign which highlighted themes like, ‘loving yourself, loving your body and low self-esteem.’ How have you been able to measure its impact so far?

I grew up with a low self-esteem but I was able to overcome it before it ruined me. Unfortunately, a lot of young girls don’t get that and so we see them depressed, hurting themselves or doing a lot more worse, just because their minds are affected with low self-esteem.

When I started to research the cause of low self-esteem in young girls, I found that one of the major causes is our physical appearance and the way we think people perceive how we look. So, for the #IamBeautiful campaign, I wanted to teach young girls to love themselves irrespective and I did this using the stories of other young girls, who though had stereotypical physical appearances, had been able to overcome their insecurities. We used social media to push the stories and also had an offline project where the girls shared their creeds.

We’ve measured the impact of this campaign through the feedback we’ve received from people – both young and old. For one, we had a couple of people who made efforts to stop calling others certain names because they wanted to be more sensitive. Also, till date, one of the girls uses the tagline ‘Unapologetically Dark’ to describe herself and now enjoys modeling for photographers using the same dark skin she was once insecure about.

What has been your greatest challenge in the course of running this initiative and how have you managed it?

I think the greatest challenge I have faced in the course of running my initiatives so far would be fear. Sometimes when I conceive a project idea in my idea, I would just get so afraid – like how do I fund this? Would the girls show up? What do I teach? e.t.c. But first, I have learnt to always hand everything over to God, knowing fully well that if He is backing me up, everything would be just fine. Also, I build a team of people who can buy into my vision enough to push it and whose strengths compliment my weaknesses. Sometimes, their strengths could be in the area of finances; some in relationships; some in administration, so when we come together as a team, we end up driving our projects successfully.

How would you advise young girls struggling with low self-esteem?

First, strive to find your identity in God. There is somebody God has made you and if you know who that person is, you wouldn’t think so low of yourself.

Work to keep adding value to yourself. If you spend time developing your mind, your character, your heart, and your brain, and you spend time adding value to the people and things around you, you’d find yourself evolving into someone of substance and gradually, your past experiences, your social class or how you look won’t have a hold on you anymore.

Also, keep a picture of who you would like to become in mind and keep affirming these things to yourself always.

You also run ‘Project Coverings’ and ‘Read Campaign’, let us in on what both campaigns aim to achieve?

One of the things I’ve realized in the course of running my project was how hard it was convincing a teenager to be proud of how she looks when she has no clothes to wear. So, one thing we try to do is to give to those who we are teaching. Project Coverings was one of such projects. I had visited an orphanage in Moro, Osun State, just before I left the university and I noticed while there that flies just kept perching on us. This was because they had no door and their windows lacked good nets. So my friends and I decided to help get new coverings for their doors, windows and floors. It was a very daunting project at the time considering the fact that we were all students who didn’t really have money, but at the end, we got more than what we had planned and we were able to make new doors, new nets, new floorings and get food for the orphanage.

The ’read campaign’ wasn’t my idea. It was and is still led by my friend, Nkechi of the social enterprise, HerLibrary. The campaign started out with a drive to see more young people read. We thought if we put the images of successful people who read in their faces and shared how these people were able to find the time to read amidst their busy schedules, they too would be inspired to read. Over the years however, the campaign has evolved to helping public school pupils in rural areas renovate their libraries and stocking them with books. We believe that if these kids are encouraged, they will read. We also believe that books will expose them to a world bigger than what they currently know and that’s what we hope to achieve with the campaign.

Do you have moments where it seems like the universe is giving you external nods in form of thoughts like ”Yes! this is proof I am where I am meant to be?”

If anything, the fact that the number of young girls I used to see standing with boys who wanted to get into their pants beside uncompleted buildings in my community has reduced considerably, is enough nod from the universe that I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing. If I needed another proof, it would be the fact that I am being recognized by a platform like Leading Ladies Africa for this. I mean!

Let’s talk about your blog,  ’Tirzah’- do you face fear when penning your thoughts? How do you push past those fear-filled moments?

I do. I do feel fear. I remember wanting to share the story of my addiction to a certain sexual habit one time and I was afraid my mum would see it and freak out. However, I’m able to push through the fearful days because I have learnt to see my blog as a platform to reach out to people. Usually, before I share some of my stories, the nudge in my heart would be so strong, it would feel as though if I don’t share it, someone might die. I have also learnt to own my stories and to discern which ones are meant to go public and which ones stay with me. That has helped a lot.

And the name “Tirzah”- what does it mean?

Tirzah means ‘she is my delight’. That’s God talking and I chose the name because that’s really what I want Him to say of me every day of my life.

What would you like to say to that young girl in her 20’s reading this?

Your life is more than clothes, bags, a pretty face, acquiring 100 likes on Instagram, fame and human validation. You have a purpose. You have a brain. You have a heart. You have something of value that you can give to make this world a much better place. Focus on these things instead and watch yourself evolve into a woman of great substance and worth.

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