From festival founding to communications: IABC Ottawa’s Awelana Akeriwe shares lessons from AfroFest

 Awelana Akeriwe’s accomplishment is one to which few other Ottawa communicators can lay claim: Starting, from scratch, an annual festival that celebrates African culture.

But founding AfroFest, a Regina-based festival, is more than just a unique line on her resume. She says it’s helped her a lot in her communications career.

“With AfroFest I quickly learned that starting a non-profit and putting on an annual event involves a lot of relationship building,” says Akeriwe. “For me, being authentic and making that human connection always worked.”

Building a festival on African pride

Akeriwe, originally from Ghana, has always found pride in her African heritage.

It was what she wanted to share with the rest of her community when she started Regina AfroFest, which debuted in Saskatchewan on July 5, 2014.

The event brings together live music performance, drum and dance, arts and craft, African food and workshops to celebrate Africa’s diversity.

“I’m proud of my African heritage and I wanted to share this rich culture with my community,” she says.

“Plus, with my communications background and interests in public relations, I felt I had what it took to make this happen.”

The event ran in downtown Regina’s Victoria Park for four years before going on hiatus for 2018.

During that time, the festival grew from having a zero-dollar budget to having multiple sponsorships and a recognized brand.

“Bringing this form of educative entertainment and diversifying the festival landscape in Regina has been one of my proudest achievements,” she says.

From AfroFest to TD (and IABC Ottawa)

In her day job, Akeriwe works as a Communications Analyst with TD. She also is a member of IABC Ottawa. A commitment to collaboration has defined her position, helping to bring together diverse teams spread around different locations.

“Our teams are always communicating, brainstorming, problem solving – together,” she says. “We’re always looking at the bigger picture.”

This constant collaboration encourages a culture of continuous learning, she says.

For example: She’s learned to use Canva, a simple design tool to create professional designs – both for internal and external communications. “I’ve been able to grow beyond my comfort zone,” says Akeriwe.

Lessons from AfroFest

Akeriwe says AfroFest has taught her invaluable lessons in her career.

  • Relationship-building counts: Akeriwe says she’s always had a penchant for networking. Founding AfroFest helped her to build on her commitment to connecting with others. “For me, being authentic and making that human connection always worked,” she says.
  • Build a great team: Akeriwe learned this first-hand as chairman of AfroFest’s Board of Directors. “I’ve had to be flexible but also hold on to my values. Honesty and integrity has been at the core of everything I do.”
  • Don’t discount writing skills: Building AfroFest meant grant proposals – a lot of them. “It goes without saying that good writing and editing skills have been highly essential. Seeking a second opinion on my work has always served me well.”
  • It’s never too early to start planning: Akeriwe attributes much of AfroFest’s success to building a strong brand; however, recognizing your target dates and building in sufficient lead times can make planning less onerous. How did the festival do it? 1) By building a business and marketing plan right from the outset 2) maintaining consistent messaging across all channels and 3) building the right relationships.
  • Trust your gut: Akeriwe says this is perhaps the strongest yet subtle revelation she takes from AfroFest. “There’ve been times where I have not hesitated to offer a differing view if I feel the team was not headed in the right direction. It has more often than not paid off.”

A commitment to diversity

Akeriwe has always championed diversity.

And founding AfroFest has only further affirmed to her its benefits.

“Given that we are presenting the cultures of a continent, which in itself is diverse, we’ve made it a point to create partnerships with other community groups and include both Africans and non-Africans in the planning process ― in Africa there is a saying that ‘Together we stand…’ to mean there is strength in diversity,” she says.

“After all, the festival is open to everyone regardless of age or background and so it makes sense to involve as many from our community.”

It’s an approach that would apply to many organizations in communications.

“You’ll be amazed the amount of creative ideas you can gather from a team of people with diverse backgrounds.”

Building a career with the help of IABC Ottawa

Akeriwe joined IABC Ottawa having relocated, to stay connected with other communicators, broaden her network and enhance her communications knowledge.

“For me, it’s a great opportunity to access (members-only resources) relevant materials and stay informed on industry trends,” she says.

Her advice to young communicators?

Networking is important. But so too is focusing your discipline.

“Having a broad knowledge of the profession is great and valuable, but as you progress in your career and because the Communications discipline is very broad with a wide spectrum of different domains,” says Akeriwe. “If you can nail down a specialty of Communications you’re really good at or have a passion for, then do it.”

Connect with Awelana on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Become a member in May: Top 5 reasons to join IABC today!

There’s never been a better time to join IABC Ottawa. Joining is easy, and the benefits are immense. Check out why!

1. You could win back the cost of your membership.

Everyone who joins or renews IABC Ottawa during the month of May is entered to win a $300 Visa gift card. That’s nearly the amount of your membership! The winner will be drawn in June. Only new or renewing members for the IABC Ottawa Chapter are eligible to win.

2. IABC World Conference will be held in Montreal this year so why not join & go?

Are you planning to attend IABC’s World Conference in Montreal this June? If you are not yet an IABC member, now is the time to join! As a member, the discount you receive on conference fees is greater than the cost of membership. Join and go today and benefit from the conference and a year-long IABC membership!

3. You’ll grow your professional network.

IABC Ottawa holds networking and learning events monthly. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about all aspects of communications and meet your peers from across the city. A strong local network will help build your job prospects and provide access to individuals who can share their expertise with you.

4. Members get access to resources that non-members don’t

IABC welcomes all communications professionals – member and non. But as a member, you get special treatment – discounts on events, a monthly e-magazine with tips, tricks and information about all forms of business communications, and access to many free resources in the IABC Academy.

5. You’ll be part of a community of strategic communicators and we’d be proud to have you join.

IABC is the only communications association that includes a broad range of communications professionals – from specialists in public relations, to corporate communications, from internal communications to working with and in the C-suite. We’ve got you covered. Oh, and let’s not forget we’ve got members around the world! IABC members are proud to be part of this community. Join us today.

May is local Membership Month at IABC Ottawa

Spring is here, which means it’s time to renew your IABC Ottawa membership!

Join or renew in the month of May and you’ll be entered into a contest to win a $300 Visa gift card.

To get started with joining or renewing your IABC Ottawa membership, click here.

Why join IABC Ottawa?

IABC Ottawa is a great way to get involved in the local professional community.

As a member you’ll receive:

  • Receive discounted rates to monthly networking events
  • The ability to tap into the global marketing and communications resources available from IABC International
  • Connect to the expertise of members around the world
  • Take advantage of frequent webinars, workshops, certification opportunities and The Voice podcast, to stay up-to-date on the latest industry trends.

Discounted rates to IABC World Conference

This year the IABC World Conference is in Montreal. Become a member in the month of May and receive a discount on membership fees and your entry to the conference!

Ready to get started?

Join or renew your membership with IABC today!

A commitment to authenticity: IABC Ottawa profile of Rojen Izzetpanah

Ro Izzetpanah has held many positions in her career. Finance specialist with the Government of Canada. Customer Service Representative for a major national bank. Manager of Marketing for an amateur baseball team.

But what some might call “job hopping” or indecisiveness is actually, for Izzetpanah, reflective of her broader philosophy on marketing communications.

It all comes down to authenticity.

“The further you get from your authentic self the more it can be seen through, and to succeed in communications I think that staying true to a voice, and being able to act in a digital world the same way that you do in real life, earns respect you and allows people to believe in your brand,” says Izzetpanah.

A space for like-minded professionals

Izzetpanah currently works in digital communications with the Senate of Canada and is a member of IABC Ottawa. She says she joined because she wanted to network with other professionals and exchange ideas with like-minded professionals working in working the same space. Since joining she’s found value in the fun events and inspirational speakers. It’s just one part of her unique approach to career-building.

The other half? Her commitment to authenticity.

Finding authenticity

There is no denying that the rise of the internet has been a boon to marketing and communications professionals. There are now more tools than ever available to reach audiences. But to Izzetpanah it’s also changed some interactions for the worse. “I think that when whether you’re in marketing, public relations or really any communications role, the point of the internet is to create relationships,” says Izzetpanah.

The problem, she says, is that it’s difficult to see those relationships through the numbers that frequently dominate internet marketing campaigns.

“As communications professionals are paid to produce results it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers and information that you can provide to a client, things like x amount of impressions on their company’s name or logo,” she says. “But as humans we crave real things – it’s in our nature, to care about raw, real things.”

Those brands that are willing to show their flaws and connect with audiences on a human level will find more lasting success, says Izzetpanah.

Always something to learn

That commitment to authenticity also informs Izzetpanah’s broader career strategy.

I move from place to place because I believe there’s something to learn in each one of those industries

She’s held several positions at multiple organizations – including Correctional Service of Canada, TD, the Ottawa Champions – in just a few years. “I’ve always been all over the place,” she says. “My career path is very similar to the way my brain works – I move from place to place because I believe there’s something to learn in each one of those industries.”

She’s the first to acknowledge how it looks to outsiders – “many of my peers have laughed at me, and told me to settle down and just pick something” – but says she’s just staying true to herself.

“I am a strong believer that we can do anything we want, especially when we’re young,” she says. “I’ve always focused on trying new things based on the opportunity to learn.”

Connect with Ro Izzetpanah on LinkedIn.