By Susan Hitchcock
Founder & Host Emerita of Women in Leadership
Bintou Tunkara is an Atlanta, GA native, a Gambian-American, a young Muslim black woman, and a first generation college student. She’s currently a senior at Agnes Scott College (ASC) graduating in May, 2022 with a major in political science and a focus in business management. Among Bintou’s many attributes are her passion and advocacy for socioeconomic equity and her belief that women and girls can maintain their traditional values and follow their dreams, dreams that go far beyond what’s expected. While still in the early stage of her life and her ultimate career journey, Bintou continues to receive much deserved recognition and numerous honors for her leadership, scholarship, and advocacy. Two such honors include her recent induction into the Alpha Alpha Alpha Honor Society and the ASC Dean of Students Achievement Award, the Suzanne Goodman-Elson Prize.
On International Women’s Day March 8, 2022, Bintou posted in her own words:
“To be a woman is to know integrity, resilience and intersectionality. It’s to know the constant pursuit of getting women the freedom they deserve. It’s to know that we will never take ‘no’ for an answer. Today, we celebrate women leaders across the globe who unite in the name of fighting for equality and freedom.”
– Bintou Tunkara
I think it’s pretty clear why I chose Bintou as my first Next Gen SHEro! Using a “past, present, and future” format for our interview, the following highlights capture more about this amazing young woman – who she is and who she’s becoming.
PAST – Early life experiences and influences
Bintou speaks proudly of her youth, growing up in the South Fulton area of Atlanta with her extended family members and within the Gambian community. She has fond memories of celebrating the 30 days of fasting for Ramadan with her community as well as fun outings at Centennial Park with her mother and siblings.
Along with her fond memories, there was a growing awareness for Bintou that inequities existed – two different worlds actually – differences between the south side of Atlanta and the north side in terms of resources for education and beyond.
“I witnessed and felt a lot of these inequities during middle and high school,” Bintou said. “While my counterparts in North Atlanta would get first dibs on iPads for school, for example, we were the last to get them and it was very difficult. I always wanted to pursue so much, but because I was from an area where we didn’t have access to a lot, it just wasn’t possible. So a lot of my dreams were just dreams, I couldn’t really put them to action. But I did try my best to use my resources and people that I knew helped me to get to where I wanted to be.”
Bintou’s role as a leader and advocate was definitely developed during her time in Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County Schools, including her years at Banneker High School. She was a “person pushing for change” including changing the narrative from negative to positive for herself and other students at Banneker. Her activism included serving as president of the Banneker SGA, interning in the summer for the City of Union City, and co-leading a major volunteer initiative called “Sleep-off Homelessness,” which was sponsored by the Chick-fil-A Foundation.
Underscoring the importance of mentoring in her early years, Bintou praised a number of individuals who helped and guided her. There was Shanita Edwards from elementary school and others like Ms. Dara Jones Wilson, Mr. Patterson and Ms. Kanethia Henderson throughout her teen years. Ms. Henderson was responsible for getting Bintou into the Chick-fil-A Leadership Program. “My mentors saw a vision in me and my future.” Clearly, they also made a wise investment.
PRESENT – Growing leadership, preparing for impact
Making a decision about college wasn’t as simple as you might think. “Agnes Scott wasn’t actually on my radar but a call from my admissions counselor encouraged me to apply and I was accepted. I was hearing regularly from the admissions office but then I received another email that I got a scholarship. That was really meaningful to me. I read more about the school and fell in love with how much Agnes puts a focus on leadership and global learning. That was very important for me as someone who is first gen and has parents that are from different countries – has families across the world basically. I also knew that it was important for me to stay in Atlanta. I’m biased, I love this city!”
Another decision was choosing her major. “My major was most influenced by my interest in social impact and philanthropy. So it’s political science with a concentration in business management. I’ve always been a person who loves to solve problems and I love the business aspect of solving problems. I could see myself working in business management or in the nonprofit sector in a social impact setting. That’s where my interests lie.”
As part of her unique college experience at Agnes Scott, Bintou has had an opportunity to go on two “journeys” during her freshman and senior years. In 2019 she and some of her classmates spent their spring break in Costa Rica, one of about 15 different locations chosen by the college for students to travel as part of their global learning curriculum. In 2022, she accompanied a group of current first year students on their journey, this time to Martinique, a Caribbean island in the Lesser Antilles and an overseas territory of France.
“The topic of the course was post-colonial legacies. We learned about what colonialism looks like in a present day country like Martinique. We learned a lot about the culture there and how France plays a bigger role as well as interacting with the local people. We also spent a day at a university, attended a lecture and connected with the students. Since my mom speaks French I could converse fairly well. I think the students found their journey to be a really valuable learning experience.”
Every summer of Bintou’s college experience has included in-depth internships. “I completed a two year program with Habitat for Humanity International. Last summer I interned with Georgia Power and now I’m with the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. All of these have been extremely helpful in my confidence, in my ability to do things and get things done. Not being egotistical, but I think I’ve learned how to interact and be a people person, especially in professional settings.”
Bintou has two key takeaways from these experiences. “First, the power of networking, it’s kind of a domino effect going on. Because of a lady I babysit for, she was able to connect me to someone she knows who supports her business. Another very meaningful connection was made in high school when I was introduced to Ann Cramer. The other key takeaway is soaking in as much information as possible. I love to ask questions and to learn. I was always doing coffee chats at my internships, whether it was for 10 or 15 minutes, just getting to learn why someone has gotten into their field.”
FUTURE – The horizon ahead – goals, challenges and dreams
Looking forward but also reflecting on what makes her who she is, Bintou commented on what it means to be “living in a double world for one journey to success.”
“As I mentioned earlier, I come from an immigrant background, Gambian – American. On one hand I’m immersed in my Gambian culture, and on the other hand I’m proud of being a black woman from Atlanta. There are beautiful parts to both, but there are challenges. My biggest hurdle is slowly but surely overcoming the fact that in my community, it’s hard to be both. Some people assume that if you’re really into education and a professional life, that your culture identity is going to be lacking.”
“I’ve always had this yearning to balance both because I’m really into my culture and I’m really into my passion and my career goals. But because it’s not something I see a lot in my community, it’s been really hard to understand and dissect what that looks like for me. But recently I’ve been getting to a space where I do believe – yes, I can do both. I can be very African and I can be very first gen and I can be very career oriented.”
“I’ve also learned the importance of not letting other people project their ideas on to you. Now I’m confident that my career path and my life path can intersect and can be together. I don’t have to sacrifice one for another. And yes, it may be a little difficult to do both because of my Gambian culture which is very traditional in a sense of the wife’s role and the husband’s role. But I think having a supportive partner and being very confident and firm in my career and life goals will help me to balance. That’s been my recent revelation.”
So beyond graduation, what’s next? Is there a dream job ahead? With clarity and authenticity, Bintou said, “Since sophomore summer, I’ve never had a summer where I’ve gotten to rest. So my biggest thing this summer is to rest. We’re planning a family reunion in Gambia with my family and I’m hoping that goes well. I’m trying to wrap my mind around leaving my laptop at home, not answering emails for a couple of weeks, and really immersing in my culture. That’s the part I’m talking about – the balance. I feel like I’ve done my four years and now I’m going home and focus in on what it means to be a Gambian woman.”
“I’m really excited for this trip and it’s going to be very transformative for me. When I return, I expect to start a new role – one I can’t announce quite yet but I have accepted an offer and I’m really excited.”
While looking forward to this announcement, I had to ask one more question. In Jim Collins’ inimitable words, what about her BHAGs – i.e., her Big Hairy Audacious Goals? Bintou’s response was immediate. “I’d say my wildest dream is to work and learn and grow in my career. I definitely want to work in politics later down the line and I can see myself possibly running for city council or school board. I’m really still defining that.”
And there you have it. Bintou Tunkara – what an inspiring young woman! Stay tuned, keep up with her on LinkedIn and follow her journey. She’s already proven – and will undoubtedly continue to do so – that any investment in her is a wise investment, no matter where her career and life journey may take her.
Interview & Profile by: Susan Hitchcock, Founder of The Age of SHEroes