Spotlight on Damilola Junaid / by Haley Smith

Meet Damilola Junaid - founder of The ARISE Africa FDN. Her background in healthcare and business is enabling her to empower Nigerians in their sexual health through education and health care referrals.

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Tell us about The ARISE Africa FDN.

I founded ARISE after winning first prize in an entrepreneurship competition at my Alma mater. Our mission is to increase the number of Nigerians that get tested and treated for sexually transmitted diseases (STD) in a bid to help the country meet its UN Sustainable Development Goals on health. Nigeria is known as the "giant of Africa", yet we have the second highest number of individuals living with HIV/AIDS globally (UNAIDS). We decided to focus on youths due to the relatedness component, and also because they contribute to the majority of new infections. However, they are hindered by several economic (e.g. financial) and social (e.g. stigmatization) factors. Overall, we hope to empower women by including men in the conversation and to also change the culture and conversation around sexual health.

We accomplish our mission in three ways: education, leveraging the power of the media to instigate change and serving as a referral hub for sexual health care. The latter part involves connecting Nigerians to quality and confidential medical care based on their geographic location.  So far we’ve educated over 10,000 individuals via social media,  provided funds for testing, partnered with several local hospitals and international organizations like Doctors Without Borders, and have also been featured on CNN. 

 

How did you balance your entrepreneurial career with your professional career as a hospital research technician?

I had a boss that was very supportive of my project (ARISE) prior to me winning the competition. That was our conversation starter when we met, and it was also how I got the job at Brigham and Women's Hospital before graduation. Since I worked in the OB/GYN department, the work I did in the lab was in the same field (women & children's health) and that give me a better appreciation of what I was doing with ARISE on the macro scale. As a technician, I ran several experiments for major longitudinal studies (like the FHI 360 & ELGAN studies) that focused on children & women’s health in the United States and in developing countries. When I went on our first trip to Nigeria, my boss’s support was apparent in helping me get enough vacation time to stay longer in Nigeria to accomplish my goal. She is still one of my mentors today and a respected leader in the women’s health space, at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. 

In terms of balancing ARISE with my work, I was partly motivated by the grant I was awarded to start the organization. However, my work ethic and discipline played a major role in enabling me follow though on my commitment and creating time in my schedule to manage both. In addition, the process of running an organization was a learning process for me, but I was able to navigate it more successfully with the consistent support and advice from several mentors in the public health space. Overtime, as we started engaging more with our target audience and partners in Nigeria, I also became more aware of the growing need for improved sexual health. That sustained my motivation and continues to give me perspective for the vision and mission.

 

What is your advice to other young entrepreneurs in the healthcare field?

Take it slow. The race is not to the swift, it's a marathon. So don't fall into the temptation of abiding by other people's timelines. You will succeed as long as you keep doing your best, focusing on what gets you excited and gives you a sense of fulfillment. At ARISE, one thing I was clear about in our mission is that we wanted to empower Nigerians, instead of creating a paternalistic relationship as expected from nonprofits. The easy route is to create several projects/provide aid to gain favor in the eyes of the public or donors, at the detriment of the locals in the long run. What I strive for is finding the balance between providing aid but also empowering and ensuring that sustainability is maintained e.g. locals are proactive about seeking out sexual health care even in our absence. Overall, if you’re clear about the mission and values you want for your organization, that is all you need to focus on especially when you’re surrounded by the noise of expectations or accomplishments of others.