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Connecting and learning about leadership, sustainability and culture

Denver Water hosted Mandela Washington fellow from western Africa.

Traveling more than 6,000 miles from her hometown in Cote D’Ivoire, also known as the Ivory Coast, Ina Mariama Traore Diaby recently spent 10 weeks in the U.S. gaining valuable insights into leadership principles. 

Denver Water was honored to host Traore Diaby for four of those weeks, giving her a closer look at all things water.

Ina Traore Diaby, Mandela Fellow, in the Denver Water Administration Building. Traore Diaby toured the building’s wastewater treatment system and learned how Denver Water is a leader in sustainability. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Traore Diaby is a recipient of the prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, a U.S. government program that invests in young African leaders, providing them with practical skills they can apply to their current work and deepening partnerships and connections between the U.S. and Africa. 

Over the summer, Traore Diaby attended an intensive six-week, executive-style leadership course at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where she learned how to hone her skills to be an effective, collaborative leader.  

Of the 700 young African professionals in the program, Traore Diaby was one of among the 100 fellows selected to complete an additional four-week professional development experience, bringing her to Denver Water to continue her learning.

Ina Traore Diaby, recipient of the prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, spent four weeks at Denver Water learning about our operations, touring facilities and building her leadership skills. Photo credit: Ina Traore Diaby.

“When I heard about the opportunity through the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs to host a Mandela Fellow, I was immediately interested,” said Alison Witheridge, Denver Water watershed scientist. 

“I love traveling and meeting people from across the world with different backgrounds and cultures, but I rarely get to do that in my professional life. I knew it would be a great way for us to not only share the progressive work we do at Denver Water, but also to learn and get an international perspective about similar programs and challenges in another country.”

Alison Witheridge, watershed scientist (left), with Traore Diaby in Golden, Colorado. Witheridge, along with a team of Denver Water employees, hosted Traore Diaby for four weeks, building relationships and learning together. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Traore Diaby, a process engineer, recently rehabilitated a wastewater treatment unit for her company, Ivorian Refining Company (her country’s crude oil refinery), to ensure compliance with new environmental regulations. 

Her experience with this large project gave Traore Diaby a unique perspective as she toured Denver Water’s Recycling Plant and the Administration Building’s wastewater treatment system

Chance Coe (left), water treatment lead, with Traore Diaby, holds a water sample during a tour of the Administration Building's wastewater recycling plant.. Coe, who spent time in the Ivory Coast testing wells in remote villages, wore a traditional men’s dress from Traore Diaby’s country to recognize and honor her culture. Photo credit: Denver Water.

She also learned about Denver Water’s long-range planning, risk management and employee learning and development programs.

“Throughout her four weeks at Denver Water, Ina was engaged and eager to talk to everyone about their roles. She asked excellent questions and provided ‘fresh eyes’ to projects as well as the bigger picture of how we operate compared to international utilities,” said Witheridge.

Traore Diaby was very interested in Denver Water’s focus on long-term planning and how water is managed in an arid region facing the challenges related to climate change.

Traore Diaby with Damian Higham, lead planner (left), and Jose Salayandia, water treatment lead (right), during a tour of Denver Water’s Recycling Plant, where recycled water is treated for distribution to more than 80 locations in Denver and Adams County for irrigation and industrial uses. Photo credit: Denver Water.

“In my country, we have plenty of water, particularly during the rainy season. We do not have to think about how to conserve water, or the possibility of scarcity, because we have so much groundwater,” Traore Diaby said. 

“Water is precious in Denver. It was interesting to hear about the challenges the city faces and how proactive Denver Water is in planning for the future to make sure there will be enough water.”

Traore Diaby enjoys spending time with her family, pictured here with husband Ibrahima Kalilou Diaby and 18-month daughter Aicha Sakina Diaby. She also enjoys listening to all types of music, swimming, reading, going to the cinema and enjoying her favorite dish, attiéké (a versatile dish of grated cassava often topped with vegetables, chicken or fish). Photo credit: Ina Traore Diaby.

Traore Diaby also was very excited to learn about other sustainability efforts, like solar energy, recycled water, hydropower and even how Denver Water manages waste through recycling and composting. 

“The way you manage your waste and sort it for recycling and composting is definitely something I can see implementing in my country. We recycle things like electronics, batteries and printer ink cartridges, but learning about how Denver Water and other homes and businesses send less waste to the landfills gave me some ideas on how I can possibly make a difference in my country,” she said. 

When she returns home, Traore Diaby will step into a new role at her company, where she has worked for more than 10 years, serving as the organization’s first risks manager. 

Thanks to her experience as a Mandela Fellow, she feels better prepared to take this next step in her career and is excited to adapt her newly discovered sustainability mindset to her work. 

From left to right: Rachel Badger, planning manager; Ina Traore Diaby; Ryan Stitt, planning manager; Alice Jariz, associate engineer; and Greg Johnson, planning manager, visit Denver Water’s Lupton Lakes Downstream Reservoir Complex along the South Platte River. Photo credit: Denver Water.

“I learned so much, it’s hard to say what things were the most important,” she said. 

“I really enjoyed the courses that Denver Water allowed me to take, like a wonderful full-day class about compelling communication. I learned how to improve my public speaking, how to assess the strengths of my team members, how to interact with people to build stronger connections, and how to define my own personal and professional goals and the steps needed to accomplish them.”

And while the goal of the program is to teach the fellow about U.S. business and leadership, Witheridge and many other Denver Water employees also gained from Traore Diaby’s time at in Denver.

“This experience allowed us to develop meaningful connections, and it was such a joy to discuss the differences and similarities of our professions, as well as the Ivory Coast’s cultural norms and work environment,” said Witheridge.

In the end, Traore Diaby left the U.S. with a wealth of knowledge, an immersive cultural experience and some fond memories of her 10-week trip.

Traore Diaby (right) presents a gift from the Ivory Coast to Denver Water CEO/Manager Jim Lochhead, who retired from Denver Water in 2023. The hand-carved mask was created by Ivorian artisans and was inspired by the Bakota tribe of Gabon and the Republic of Congo. The significance of the mask is one of protection, with the bird on the forehead representing Calo, guardian of the sacred grove. Photo credit: Denver Water.

“This was my first time in the U.S., and all of the people I met, including at Denver Water, were so warm and welcoming,” she said. 

“I would like to thank Denver Water for the five-star treatment. Everyone was always willing to take time to tell me about their work and answer my questions. I learned so much and am so grateful to everyone who shared their time with me. I hope to incorporate much of what I have learned in my own country and use my new skills to build a strong foundation to become a great leader.”

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