In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

February 15, 2021

Voices of Mayo: Wale Elegbede on standing together to end racism, lessons he’s learned

By In the Loop
Wale Elegbede

Wale Elegbede knows firsthand how prejudice and bias can marginalize groups of people. He shares his story of growing up in Nigeria during tumultuous times, experiences that have shaped his life's purpose to end racism, and lessons he's learned along the way.

Voices of Mayo is a series that highlights Mayo staff and their stories, exploring their diverse backgrounds, the challenges they face, the opportunities they have been given, and their experiences at Mayo Clinic.

As a young man growing up in Nigeria, Wale Elegbede saw firsthand how prejudice and bias can marginalize groups of people, and he even lost family members to violence. Elegbede came to the U.S. from Nigeria to pursue higher education, and as a Black American Muslim, he has experienced racism firsthand. His experiences led him to be a founding member of the La Crosse Interfaith Shoulder to Shoulder Network, which works to end systemic racism and bias.

Elegbede credits his family for his firm foundation in the values of honesty, empathy and caring for others — qualities that he found mirrored in Mayo Clinic's values and the reason he loves working at Mayo.

Elegbede has been a speaker in the TED Talks series, is a Rada Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, is president of the Rochester Branch of the NAACP, and is president of the La Crosse-Rochester Project Management Institutechapter. He recently established the Wale and Audrey Elegbede Community Engagement and Social Justice Scholarship at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse.

Read his story below.

As a young boy growing up in West Africa, I witnessed the appalling effects of prejudice and bias under autocratic rule. I was born in Nigeria during an era when military regimes gained power through coup d'etat. My father was a diplomat, and when my family moved to Togo, a neighboring West African country, I also observed the autocratic and domineering rule of President Gnassingbé Eyadema who ruled the small country for 38 years until his death. I saw how prejudice and bias influences decisions that marginalize certain groups over others and heard rhetoric from dictators that when left unchecked, led to ethnic and religious discrimination, riots and death.

Despite the tumultuous external environment, my parents provided a safe space for me to grow, learn and thrive. They were excellent role models and displayed uncompromising honesty, empathy and caring for others.

Foundational pieces

One incident that stood out to me was when I learned my father sponsored a disabled man with no legs to attend woodworking school, to learn new skills. As a show of appreciation, the man, using his newly learned skills, carved a beautiful wooden napkin holder for our family. I'm not sure why, but that display of empathy left an indelible impression on me as a kid.

Another memory that I vividly recall was my father stepping in and physically stopping a man from beating his wife. I later learned the man was drunk, was struggling to find a job, and had self-esteem issues because his wife was more successful than he was. My father was present, acted and chose to be an upstander instead of a bystander.

My mother also instilled in me the importance of serving others. She is fond of an African proverb from our Yoruba Tribe which states, "ènìyàn kan lon bímọ, gbogbo ayé lon tọ́ ọmọ." The essence of this saying, as I share in my recent TED Talk "It takes a community to eradicate hate," is that the whole community plays an important part in taking care of all children. It means standing up for each other and lifting everyone up. I made a conscious decision at an early age to emulate those servant leadership qualities to bring about positive change in myself, my family and community.

My parents were not my only role models. My favorite uncle, Muftau Adegoke Babatunde Elegbede, a former military governor who transferred over power to a civilian government and a vice admiral and chief of defense intelligence, was another. In 1993, Nigeria conducted a presidential election that was considered by international observers to be the country's freest and fairest, only to be annulled by the military regime at that time. In the aftermath of the election dissolution, which caused a great uproar that reverberated across the nation, a military dictator from Northern Nigeria, General Sani Abacha, took over the reins of power. During this period, Nigeria saw many pro-democracy activists and sympathizers being placed in detention. In addition, many high-level government, military and community leaders from my Yoruba tribe in Southern Nigeria were mysteriously assassinated. My uncle was one of them and was assassinated with 70 bullets. He stood for democracy but lost his life in the process. I learned the painful lesson that extreme bias, hate and prejudice sometimes leads to death.

Despite personal tragedies and resulting personal poverty due to the death of my father, the main breadwinner in our family, I was still well off compared to others and blessed with a prestigious lineage, including ancestors who were some of the original settlers of Lagos and her royal highness, the Erelu Kuti IV of Lagos, as an aunt.

I attended the Nigerian Navy School located in the Southwest region of Nigeria. The school's motto of “Onward Together” along with hard work, discipline and team spirit were instilled in me. The values displayed by my father, mother and uncle, and my experiences at the Nigerian Navy School are some of my foundational pieces and incorporate the values of Respect, Integrity, Compassion, Healing, Teamwork, Innovation, Excellence and Stewardship (RICH TIES), which we hold so dear at Mayo Clinic.

Following the American dream

The promise of America appealed to me. I loved the message of democracy, gains made during the civil right era, the words of icons like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, who I had the pleasure of meeting when fate brought us together on a plane two years ago, and the scientific and technological innovation associated with America.

In 1999, I attended the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, where I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Information Systems. It's important to note that coming to America was not all roses for me. I struggled financially with high international student tuition fees. One of my low points was scrambling to find food in the kitchen and there was not even a single grain of rice to eat.

The quality education I received, however, made it possible for me to hone critical skills in computer science, software development, systems analysis and design, leadership and business, which paved the way for me to start my own software development company. I developed Lumbergear, a midsize ERP, manufacturing and business management software that was given a noteworthy mention in the 2007 edition of INC 5000 magazine. Others took notice of my work, which made it possible for me to build a production management system for Miken Sports, a softball ball company owned by Rawlings Sporting Goods.  

In my quest for continuous improvement, I learned Agile, DevOps and the discipline of project management, an important ingredient needed for bringing ideas to reality. I eventually became an IT Manager at the People's Food Cooperative and fell in love with cooperative principles. In 2012, I was contacted by head hunters and accepted an opportunity to work for the largest home furniture manufacturer in the world, where I led a critical workstream and global team for the company's first Omni-channel and platform business e-commerce launch. Upon successful completion of the intense complex project, I was ready for my next change.

Finding purpose at Mayo Clinic

I learned of project management opportunities at Mayo Clinic and began to research the organization. I wanted my career trajectory to be with an organization that served a noble purpose. I was amazed to learn about the longevity of Mayo Clinic staff. I thought 15 years was long, but then started to hear of many people who worked here for 30 and even 40 years. It couldn't be that bad if so many people were staying.

I was hooked on day one. During orientation, I learned about Mayo Clinic's goals to increase more leadership and opportunities for people of color and women. What? An organization publicly saying there were aware of their shortcomings in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion, and that they intended to change? The aspirational declaration of intent shared during orientation strongly appealed to me. Mayo's RICH TIES values also strongly aligned with my personal values, but I wanted to see if people really embodied it.

I believe you need to live Mayo values and not just read them.By the end of week one, I recall excitedly telling my wife that I've found the organization I've been looking for all my life and that this is the place I want to retire.

My first role was as senior project manager and head of the Project Management Office for the Center for Regenerative Medicine. In addition to that, I was also part of Mayo Clinic's Enterprise Portfolio Management Office.

One of my career highlights at that time was leading the planning efforts for a large multidisciplinary project team to build the first Mayo Clinic service line for a novel cancer treatment called chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy (CAR T-cell therapy) for adults with B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The service line continues to be operational and is saving lives thanks to the entire Mayo Clinic multidisciplinary team, which included the Cancer Center, Division of Hematology, Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, Center for Regenerative Medicine and others.

I was able to see our Mayo values at full display at the Mayo executive level. Our leaders were cheering us on and supporting us even when financial implications were not fully clear at times. In other organizations, if there was no positive financial return, the initiative would have been dead in its track. But Mayo is not any organization. Our leaders really mean it when they say the needs of the patient come first. "No mission, no need for money" is the other part of the quote by Sister Generose Gervais: "No money, no mission."

In my continued quest for improvement, I decided that I really needed a deep understanding of servant leadership, and not just at the periphery. To this end, I earned an MBA with Ethical and Servant Leadership Emphasis.

Standing shoulder to shoulder to end racism

As a Black American Muslim, the increased number of Islamophobia, racism and hate crimes in the later parts of 2015 and early 2016 deeply affected my family. My children and wife were afraid that I was going to be deported or that our family could be put in internment camps like Japanese Americans were during World War II. There was fear among minority immigrant communities, and my son even thought that I could be killed. Things were so bad during this time that the number of reported hate crimes against Muslims actually surpassed figures reported during the year of the Sept. 11 attacks.

On the issue of discrimination, I think it plagues us because we have not made it our collective business. In order to get rid of discrimination, which includes system racism, Islamophobia and gender bias, we need to go from a state of "not my business" to "everyone's business," where "not my business" means we're too busy worrying about our own stuff and not speaking out or taking action. It really has nothing to do with what we feel inside, where our hearts are, or if we're good people. When I say "everyone's business" on the other hand, I don't mean social policing, where we are policing the interactions of others. "Everyone's business" means we are in this together, one community together, and using positive energy to collectively address issues in a constructive and positive manner.

I decided that an "everyone's business" approach was needed to address Islamophobia and became one of the founding members of the La Crosse Interfaith Shoulder to Shoulder Network, which is composed of 12 members of Christian, Islamic, Jewish and Buddhist faiths. Our mission and focus was to end anti-Muslim sentiment and hatred toward any targeted group as we stood shoulder to shoulder. Our group was diverse in race, gender, age and religion. One of our members was June Kjome, a 95-year-old former missionary who was blind due to glaucoma and macular degeneration. June saw injustice under Apartheid South Africa and was committed to helping. She was not interested in sitting on the sidelines. We just celebrated her 100th birthday last December.

The Franciscan sisters who played such a critical role in Mayo Clinic's creation were also vital to sustaining our little organization. The Franciscan Spiritual Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, gave us a safe space to meet, and the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration supported us with financial grants to further our mission. It was such a cool experience to be working at Mayo Clinic during the day and then in my spare time working collaboratively with the Franciscan sisters.

My community and social justice advocacy work took me to the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. On Jan. 1, I was elected the new President of the Rochester Branch of NAACP.

I call on all of us for renewed effort.

The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmed Aubery, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice and countless others highlight the need for renewal. It's time for us to weed the garden and sow new seeds. The seeds I'm talking about are the seeds of truth, seeds of love, seeds of ending systemic racism, seeds of ending school discipline disparities, seeds of quality education for all, seeds of jobs and economic opportunity for all, seeds of health, and seeds of leadership for our common good. The garden I'm talking about is a community garden where all are welcome, where young and old, rich and poor, black, white, indigenous and people of all races work together toward a renewal of values. Everyone has an important role to play in this garden.

Life and leadership at Mayo Clinic

My leadership journey at Mayo Clinic, and frankly in life, is that it should be a "we" thing and not a "me" thing. All my major successes inside and outside Mayo were possible because of "we." Think of it like a relay race. You will only win the race as a team, but as a runner, you also need to build and develop yourself to your best form to be able to pass the baton for the team win.

My leadership journey brought me to where I serve as director for Strategy Management Services in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology. Under the leadership of Teresa Knudson, we are focused on ensuring successful outcomes to departmental strategies set forth by our department leaders, Dr. Morice and Scott Beck. It is truly a collaborative approach built on trust, support, empathy and expertise. We are taking an intentional approach to building a team of diverse talented people who are skilled, dynamic, have positive energy, and are innovative and results driven. It is important to have what I call the "execution gene," but those are just table stakes for me. Equally important is how we treat each other, the positive energy we bring to work, and the diverse skills of experience, expertise and background we offer. All of this is needed in putting the needs of patients first. We have an excellent team and we support each other.

I also am part of the department's Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Leadership Team. After the death of George Floyd, we focused on addressing systemic racism and other forms of discrimination. We continue to make important strides.

Here are some of the important things that have served me well and I hope they help you.

  1. Focus: One of the biggest challenges that you will face in life is time. There is simply not enough of it. How will you prioritize your time? There is a Yoruba proverb that says, "If you listen to the noise of the market, you won't buy anything." The essence of this proverb is focus. Don't be distracted by all the things around you. Dream big, but know that dreams alone don't achieve. You need to have goals and focus on your target. Put in the work. Don't spend too much time thinking about what is holding you back. Just do it and build momentum.
  2. Build your Top 5: The people you surround yourselves with are the biggest influence on your behavior, attitudes and results. In the words of entrepreneur speaker Jim Rohn, "You are the direct reflection of the top 5 people you spend time with." We are greatly influenced by people in our environment. These people determine the conversations you engage in, and eventually, you start to think and behave like they do. Stay away from negative energy. Also seek out mentors who help you improve. Mayo Clinic is the best organization in the world. We have so much talent, expertise, caring and track record. If you're in a position to mentor others, take new people under your wings — people who look different from you. Serve with excellence, happiness, and ethical and servant leadership. Your success and positive energy will attract others around you.
  3. Community and service: Collective strength is far superior to individual strength. But you also need to build and strengthen yourself to make the group and team stronger. Service is a choice, so choose to serve others. Choose to serve our patients, customers, students, the poor and the sick. Choose to serve your neighbors and people who look different from you or worship differently than you do. Choose to serve community. This is how we make our community, workplace, country and world a better place. 
  4. Do your best, leave the rest:My personal motto is "Do your best and leave the rest."I try not to waste any effort worrying about the things I can't control. Put a strong effort into the things you can control. For example, you can control working hard. You can control being nice and respectful. You can control serving others. You can control what you say. Remember, speech is like an egg. Once it drops, it can't be withdrawn. So choose your words wisely.

We still have much work to do, from increasing the diversity of our leadership and staff, increasing diverse enrollment in clinical trials, and more community engagement, but what truly inspires me is our mission, values and people. People really care for each other. Our values and RICH TIES will outlast all of us. Our values are our north star and will guide us through whatever the future brings. We need to hold on to that tightly and never let go.

Tags: Employee Stories, Voices of Mayo, Wale Elegbede

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