Justina Mutale, Globally Renowned Humanitarian Leader

Justina Mutale, founder and CEO of POSITIVE RUNWAY: Global Catwalk to Stop the Spread (of HIV/AIDS) can only be described as a one woman powerhouse, working tirelessly to advance the cause of women in her own unique but highly effective way which has lead her to being generally acknowledged on a global level by bodies such as the United Nations as an influential humanitarian leader.

Read this in-depth interview to gain an insight on what it takes to make your entrepreneurial dream into not just a reality, but a successful one at that.

1 Please describe your childhood and how you were brought up.
I grew up in my home country Zambia. I had a very happy and loving childhood. I am the sixth born child in a family of thirteen, despite being the ‘middle’ child I found that I was closer to my mother than any of my sisters were. I had a great relationship with my mother we are very close and she is my role model. My mother is a wonderful, beautiful and great woman, who made sure we were always properly disciplined, well mannered, appropriately dressed, adequately fed and well looked after.

I also had a great relationship with my father who has had a great impact on the person that I am today. My father was a great man. He was a gentle, kind and caring father. He had a great sense of humour and would always tell us some funny folk tales to make us laugh and to comfort us. He would also always tell us what was happening around the world after reading the newspapers or listening to the news on the radio or television. This made me become very curious about the world. The stories from my father at that young age guided my choice to study international relations and politics later on in life. To date, when I see what is happening in the world, I always wish my father was here to share his opinions on the current state of the world.

Image: Justina Mutale at the United Nations High Level Dialogue on Migration and Developement in New York
2 How has that influenced you into becoming the woman you are today?
Growing up in a huge and loving family was a lot of fun. One literally met the whole world in my family; we had all kinds of characters and personalities, many of whom I continue to meet along the way in my personal and professional journey around the world. And of course we had the numerous sibling rivalries and unending fights. I had seven young siblings (five brothers and two sisters) and five older siblings (three brothers and two sisters). This taught me the importance of being self and socially aware, to be sensitive to the needs of others and to be responsible forGrowing up in a huge and loving family was a lot of fun.

One literally met the whole world in my family; we had all kinds of characters and personalities, many of whom I continue to meet along the way in my personal and professional journey around the world. And of course we had the numerous sibling rivalries and unending fights. I had seven young siblings (five brothers and two sisters) and five older siblings (three brothers and two sisters). This taught me the importance of being self and socially aware, to be sensitive to the needs of others and to be responsible for my actions.

My family also instilled in me the importance of love - love for the self and love for others. They also infused me with a sense of pride, a sense of positive competition and to strive for what I wanted in life.

The different behaviours, characteristics and personalities in my family taught me how to handle the outside world. This helped me develop diligence, discipline, perseverance, dedication to duty and also taught me the importance of community responsibility.

Image: Justina Mutale at the 3rd Global Officials of Dignity (G.O.D), United nations Head quarters New York
You are well known as an ambassador of the African diaspora. Tell us about you came to live in Europe.

I came to England to pursue higher education, after my studies I started working at the Commonwealth Secretariat.  The Commonwealth is an inter-governmental organisation based in London with a membership of over fifty-four countries spread around the world. Most members of the Commonwealth are former colonies of the British Empire, of which Africa forms the largest part. 

I formed part of the employee quota reserved for representatives of my country, Zambia. I worked in the Commonwealth for over 17 years and served in several divisions of the Secretariat including the Secretary-General’s Office.  Part of my work involved planning, organising and servicing high-level Commonwealth Meetings and Conferences, including the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM), Ministerial conferences, High Commissioners meetings and other Senior Officials’ meetings and Conferences held in various parts of the Commonwealth and the rest of the world. My final ten years in the Commonwealth included working in the Gender Section of the Social Transformation Programme Division, dealing with promoting gender equality and gender mainstreaming in Commonwealth countries. 

4 You've led a successful career working for the Commonwealth Secretariat, what led you to decide to become an advocate of women?
I had a very prestigious and jet-setting job in the Commonwealth Secretariat and I travelled the world extensively.  However, I somewhat always felt that my talents were not being adequately utilised as an employee.  I therefore, always had this strong urge to start out on my own. I come from a family of powerful, strong and assertive women, women who have defied the gender dynamics for centuries. On my mother’s side, a woman rules the Kingdom. The women in my mother’s side of the family never take up the husband’s name or their father’s name either, because girl children have their own identity and feminine names right from the time of birth, which they carry throughout their lives.

While on my fathers side, a man rules the Kingdom, this did not stop one strong assertive woman to rise up and start her own independent church movement that shook the political establishment of the country. My mother was another great woman who has inspired me greatly.

God, my mother and other women in my family background taught me that a woman has the power to lead and to shape the world. They have shown me that women are the backbone of society and the world’s most potent force as natural born leaders. At an early age I could see that those strong and powerful women around me had a strong sense of community and channelled their connection to the community in all their work. An inbuilt generosity of spirit and strong emotional intelligence also made them sensitive to the needs of others. This knowledge from my childhood experiences reinforces my belief in the capability of women to lead and has inspired my leadership style and its potential, and shaped me into the woman I am today.

5 What advice would you give a budding entrepreneur who is struggling to find the balance between work and life?
My greatest advice to budding entrepreneurs is to ensure that one ventures into an industry in which one has great passion. I believe life is a combination of family, self, other people, career and business. It is therefore, important that one excels in one’s life in order to be in a position to excel in a career or business.

The business or career world is not for the faint-hearted, and without passion, one will not survive. When one is focused on getting the job done and not necessarily on the rewards that come with it, there is no limit to how far one can go.  I am very blessed in that I work in an industry that I have a great passion for and my motivation for doing my work is driven directly from the heart. I believe that when you do a job that gives you great joy and pleasure you can go all the way without thinking about the obstacles.

I am a born go-getter and a highly ambitious person with an insatiable drive to succeed. I therefore, work very hard to get things done. I also believe that if one wants to see one’s dreams come true, one must never go to sleep! For anyone to succeed one has to work hard and put in 110% in everything they do.

Once I have a vision in my head I will do whatever it takes for that vision to become reality, despite all the obstacles that might stand in my way. 

I am also a very resilient person, a trait that is very important and which has been very beneficial to me in terms of the industry that I work in. My determination and focus for reaching and achieving my goals are some of the qualities that have driven me to be the person that I am today, and to accomplish what I have accomplished thus far.
Image:Justina Mutale as a key note speaker at Ascent Expo in Los Angeles

6 One of the key projects you founded was POSITIVE RUNWAY: Global Cat
walk to Stop the Spread, briefly tell us about how you came up with the idea for the concept through to the show going live.

I have always believed in the power of fashion to effect social change and shape the world.  Growing up in Zambia, I witnessed the devastation that the HIV/AIDS pandemic had on the families, communities and the country as whole.  

At its peak, the HIV/AIDS pandemic pruned the professional and intellectual resource of Zambia and the rest of the African continent when it claimed the lives of highly educated men and women in their prime.

HIV/AIDS claimed the lives of Africa’s top managers, decision makers and policy makers, which impacted negatively on the development of the continent and also resulted in the creation of a huge population of AIDS orphans and street children. Although the world has made tremendous technological and medical advancements in making people live comfortably with the HIV virus, it is baffling that after more than 30 years, the world still continues to experience new HIV/AIDS infections, more so in the young generation under the age of 30.  Ironically, this is a generation that has never known a time without effective HIV/AIDS therapy.  

New infections to me, indicate that not enough has been done to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS, or perhaps that the message has somehow gotten lost and is not getting across to young people.  It therefore, occurred to me that new and innovative ideas were needed to contribute to the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS in order to secure an AIDS free world and AIDS free generation. I also believe in the old adage, “Prevention is better than cure”.  Consequently, I founded POSITIVE RUNWAY: Global Catwalk to Stop the Spread.  This is a worldwide HIV/AIDS response campaign that aims to contribute to the global efforts to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS by speaking the same language as the young generation, and utilising select media that grab and hold the attention of the 21st century young generation and society at large, such as fashion, music and celebrity allure to get the message across.

7 What was your greatest challenge organising POSITIVE RUNWAY and how did you overcome it?
The greatest challenge in venturing out on your own or starting a new venture is to have people believe in your dreams. When I left my employment at the Commonwealth Secretariat to start out on my own, a lot of people thought I was biting off more than I could chew, because even in the 21stcentury, women’s apparent success in setting up their own ventures is still considered to be at odds with the continued exclusion of women from big corporate boardrooms.  However, I believed starting my own venture made me master of that boardroom!  

The other challenge was the stigma attached to the issue of HIV/AIDS, which made some people raise their eyebrows and shrug sholulders at the project. Although my organization, POSITIVE RUNWAY: Global Catwalk to Stop the Spread was initially started as an HIV/AIDS response Campaign, the organization has now evolved in line with the demands received from various Campaigns who believe in our methods and approach of getting the message to the 21st Century young generation.

POSITIVE RUNWAY now boasts presence in six continents spread across the globe with affiliation and membership of various international and global organizations and is highly sought after by various high-level business and community events.  We have been an official affiliated event of the International AIDS Conference, a biennual event held in various parts of the world that brings together world leaders, scientists, researchers, civil society, HIV/AIDS activists and advocates to look at new ways of fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS and how to secure an AIDS free generation and AIDS free world. POSITIVE RUNWAY has also been part of the People’s Global Action on Migration, Development and Human Rights and have held workshops during the United Nation’s High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development event held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York and also at the Global Forum on Migration and Development held in Stockholm, Sweden.

Most recently, POSITIVE RUNWAY was part of the Ascent Expo held in Hollywood. The Expo brought together various industries that apply the philosophy of Positive Psychology in their work and everyday life. Each year, POSITIVE RUNWAY marks World AIDS Day with a synchronised Fashion and Music event held in various cities around the world.

8 When you look back on both your past achievements and failures what do you know now in retrospect that you wish you knew then?
I am not sure that I can point out any failures as such, rather I can perhaps point out the things that I have not done. I therefore, do not have many regrets.  The only thing I wish I knew then was that it was possible for me to venture out on my own and to succeed at what I was doing. I wish that I had been encouraged right from the beginning to venture out on my own rather than to seek employment.

However, having said that my experiences, knowledge and information that I gained while working in the Commonwealth Secretariat has greatly contributed to my success in running POSITIVE RUNWAY, as I took with me some of the experience of working on the issues of HIV/AIDS from the Health Section of the Commonwealth Secretariat, which saw me as a part of the team that attended the  World Heath Assembly in Geneva every year.

I can also attribute some of the knowledge on gender issues that I got from working in the Gender Sections of the Commonwealth Secretariat and this applies to planning, organising and running and participating at high level international meetings, workshops and conferences held around the world. I can also say that my line of work was decided a long time ago.

When I was very young, I wanted to become a nun or priest. I wanted to serve God. I also wanted to serve and save humanity. I wanted to feed the hungry. I wanted to comfort the poor and I wanted to save sinners from burning in hell. And so, here I am, a humanitarian trying to save humanity from a hell on earth in the 21st century! I can confidently say that I have been very blessed in my work. I can quote Beyonce in saying “When I leave this world, I will leave no regret.” In fact, in a recent communication with a former colleague from the Commonwealth Secretariat, she commended me on my work and my achievements and said, “Justina, you have done better than all of us.  I always knew you had it in you”!  During the redundancy exercise last year most employees of the Commonwealth Secretariat where very apprehensive about opting for voluntary redundancy and leaving the Secretariat. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that in a motivational talk to encourage and prepare the employees for life outside the Commonwealth Secretariat, I was highlighted as a success story to demonstrate that there is life after the Secretariat!  

I have also been featured as a Hero in the Capital Finance International Journal, which brings coverage and analysis of the drivers behind change by combining the views of leading multilateral and national organizations with thought leadership from some of the world’s top minds.

9 You have been the recipient of many prestigious Awards, which one is closest your heart and why?
I  am blessed in that my work has received global recognition and I am a recipient of numerous international Awards, Honours and Accolades from various parts of the world.  I cannot highlight one as being special, because each of these recognitions hold a special place in my heart as each one of them has been given to me for a special reason and in recoginition of my efforts. While my organisation, POSITIVE RUNWAY has become a global brand, I too have become a global brand in my own right, with my name highly sought after to attach to commercial, humanitarian and charitable causes around the world.

I serve as President, Advisor, Patron, Ambassador, Trustee and Board Member of several humanitarian, community, and charitable organizations in the UK and overseas. I have been honored as African Woman of the Year. I am an Ambassador for Peace and a Distinguished Member of the Royal Biographical Institute and the Global Institute of Human Excellence.  

I am listed in the Worldwide WHO’s WHO Directory of Distinguished Individuals as well as the Worldwide WHO’s WHO Directory of Executives and Professionals. I am featured in the Black Women in Europe Power List and in the Black 100+ Hall Fame, an exhibition and legacy of the top 100 Black achievers in modern Britain.  I am a nominee of the Black British Business Power List.

I am listed among Africa’s most respected names, well-known faces and influential voices, and also on the African Diaspora Professional Women’s Power List.  I have been honoured in the G.O.D. Awards (Global Official of Dignity) held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York; as Africa Goodwill Ambassador in Los Angeles; as Leading Innovative Woman in the Global Women Inventors and Innovators Awards in Ghana; and in the GAB Awards (Gathering of Africa’s Best) in London; among many others.

I am the Honorary Ambassador for Gender Equality and Spokesperson for the International Women’s Think Tank. I serve on the Advisory Board of the World Leaders Forum, Dubai; the British Award for Africa Development in the UK; and the African Achievers Awards in Africa, among many others.  

10 You have recently launched the Justina Mutale Foundation For Leadership. What are the key goals you'd like your foundation would like to achieve?
It is no secret that in many parts of the world women still face challenges in politics, business and social life in general. And that in many countries, cultures and social conditioning have prevented women from unleashing their full potential, especially in leadership roles. Most of us will be familiar with the various initiatives aimed at women’s empowerment and gender equality and the various affirmative actions, which have taken many forms, starting from the women’s suffrage movement in the 19th Century, moving on to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted by the United Nations in 1979, followed by the Beijing Platform for Action declared at the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference in China. Gender Equality was also included as a priority in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

To date, we still have a huge gap in gender parity in many areas, with only a few women around the globe, who have so far had the privilege to hold very prominent and visible high ranking positions of real power, real influence and real authority in politics, business, society and all other spheres of the global agenda. Consequently, Gender Equality and women’s empowerment has once again been highlighted as a priority in the Post-2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda. In response to the persistent gender gap and the aspirations of the United Nations Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, I recently launched The Justina Mutale Foundation for Leadership in commemoration of the 2015 United Nations International Day of the Girl at the House of Lords, UK Houses of Parliament in London.  

The Justina Mutale Foundation, aims to educate, empower, inspire, motivate, mentor and equip women and girls with the necessary skills to achieve gender equality and to become effective leaders of the 21st Century in business, politics, society, environment, academia, science, technology, and all other spheres of life. I am in the process of launching the Justina Mutale Scholarship to offer an opportunity to underprivileged women and girls from developing countries to study at higher education level in developed countries abroad.

My future goal is to build a leadership university for women and girls in my home country, Zambia to provide leadership skills, knowledge and information to women and girls on the African continent.  For more information please visit: http://justinamutale.com/  

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