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Move Back To Nigeria: “This is Home. I Want My Children to Also Call this Home!” Seni Sulyman Talks About Nigeria’s Business Landscape

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Move Back to Nigeria is a new series on BellaNaija. The aim is to encourage young and not-so-young professionals in the diaspora who are trying to make the decision of whether to move back to Nigeria. In collaboration with the brilliant team at MoveBackToNigeria.com, we hope to bring you a weekly interview with individuals who have successfully made the leap. The idea is to share their successes and their challenges as they made the decision.

A lot of Nigerians in the diaspora have questions about making a change at home in Nigeria. Many suggest really good ideas on how to make things better; others would like to contribute to making a difference back home but are just not sure where to begin. Seni Sulyman is featured this week and he explores the much-talked about promising, yet challenging ‘marketplace’ that is Nigeria. His story is definitely a must read as it highlights the existing possibilities in the country and suggests key tips to know.

Thanks for speaking with us. Can you tell us who you are and what you do?
My name is Seni Sulyman, on a journey to apply technology to make life better for individuals and organizations. I consider myself a global citizen, but I’m particularly keen on contributing to Nigeria’s continued development. I am currently a full-time MBA student at Harvard Business School and a summer MBA intern at Konga Online Shopping Ltd. I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria attending both primary and secondary schools there.

When did you leave Nigeria?
I left Nigeria in 1999, in my penultimate year of secondary school, which I completed in Paris, France.

Can you tell us more about your academic background?
While studying in Paris, I was recommended for a scholarship at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Troy, New York to study Electrical and Electronics Engineering. I didn’t do any research prior to arriving and it turned out quite different from New York City. There were no bright lights and skyscrapers, no Jigga or Nas. Instead, I found myself in a tiny desolate city. It was a difficult transition after living in two urban cities this made me transfer to Northwestern University near Chicago after only a year at RPI.

Why did you choose to study Electrical Engineering?
My mother was a civil engineer at the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, I remember following her to work as a child, intrigued by what she did; engineering as a fascinating discipline. When mobile phones became popular in Nigeria right before I left, I got a taste of how much they improved our lives by making communication easier and giving us increased mobility. This is what initiated my interest in electrical engineering; I wanted to join the mobile revolution and create the devices of the future.

So how did your professional career begin?
In my obsession with mobile phones, I kept a notebook where I sketched “futuristic” designs. My plan was to rush through university and go work at Motorola. In my second year I needed some extra money and heard of a job at the university library. So my professional career really started out with moving and re-arranging hundreds of books in an isolated library archive. I then moved into a hobby of buying mobile phones for cheap from India and Dubai, playing with them and then selling them for more on eBay, the online marketplace.

The library job sounds very unexciting…
Yes it was extremely boring! I found ways to make it interesting by blasting music and trying to memorize names of books. Nevertheless, these experiences opened my eyes, at an early age, to the fact that I could earn an income and not have to rely on my parents all the time. This was a really profound discovery for me, I looked into the university co-op program where you alternate between classes and work to gain real-world experience; I needed the extra money. A classmate found me a co-op position doing circuit design and testing at Emerson Electric where I became drawn towards the business and financial decisions, which I wasn’t exposed to as an engineer. After the co-op program, I explored jobs involving business and management, had a few offers early in my final year and delightedly joined Bain & Company, a top management consulting firm.

What did your role at Bain entail?
I spent some time in general management consulting, and then due diligence in the private equity group. My work cut across multiple sectors and involved heavy data analysis in software like Excel, crafting presentations in PowerPoint, problem solving, client management, teamwork, interviews, research and lots of oral and written communication. You are continuously trained and pushed to become better at these skills.

This seems distant from your engineering plans. Were you happy with what you were doing?
I had a great experience at Bain. I learned more than I could have imagined, and met some brilliant people. I also got a really broad view of business from retail to industrial machinery and mining. Towards the end of my tenure at Bain, I felt confused about what to do next. I faced the somewhat predictable problem consultants face of being like Swiss army knives; you’re decent at a lot but not exceptional at anything. I did some serious soul searching and re-established my passion for engineering and technology; retracing my roots so to speak. I started looking for opportunities at technology companies, and got an offer to join the global strategy team at Hewlett Packard (HP) in Silicon Valley in 2010.

The science & technology capital that is Silicon Valley, is it as fabulous as it’s cracked up to be?
From a career perspective, it’s one of the most exciting places you can be. People are constantly thinking of new ideas and they actually have the skill and will to try implementing them. There’s sizable money dedicated to investing in the most ridiculous ideas that later become world-renowned companies. It’s a place where people respect many different sets of values. Everyone finds their place, from the tech geeks to the social entrepreneurs. It definitely influenced my worldview to a large extent.

Enlightening… So, did your role at HP focus more on tech?
Yes and no. My role at HP was in some ways similar to the kind of work I did at Bain. It involved high-level strategy, though with a deeper focus on operations. But it was all centred around technology since that’s what the business is all about. I did everything possible to learn about technology while I was there, whether it was at HP or elsewhere in the valley. My first year there was amazing and I really pushed myself to learn and deliver. I got promoted, and then spent the next six months learning to manage small projects and influence people in large organizations. I got a second promotion in those six months, which gave me a confidence boost and made me feel highly valued, as the role was typically for MBA holders. I was fortunate to have a meritocratic team and great co-workers and mentors, many of whom I’m still in touch with.

That’s interesting. So what made you leave HP to pursue an MBA?
What excites me about business is contributing directly to the end-to-end aspects of a business from production to sales. I felt like I had reached a point in my career where I was now influencing very serious decisions. I believe anyone who aspires to run a business has a duty to be his or her best at leading people – whether it’s learned on the job or through formal education. I continuously considered an MBA since 2010. Concurrently, HP had several CEO transitions in 2011, which created challenges for the company’s performance and focus. It became difficult for some of us to see how our work added value to the company. This affected our motivation and passion for what we were doing, so we left. It was definitely a tough decision.

Now, on to Harvard! Did you choose Harvard for all the obvious reasons; prestige, academic excellence, fabulous alum networks, etcetera?
I had two main reasons. First, I wanted a school with a clear return on my invested time and opportunity cost, and one that carried significant weight in Nigeria and the developing world. I applied to Harvard, Stanford and Wharton. Second, I wanted a place that would introduce me to inspirational leadership. I looked at the mission statements of the different schools, and saw that Harvard wants to be known for creating leaders that change the world. The choice became clear based on my criteria.

Okay. Can you share with us what it’s like at the Harvard Business School?
It’s exciting, motivating and scary. It’s exciting and motivating because you have many young people from different parts of the world who have done outstanding things in their lives. When you get all these people in one place, it opens your mind to new perspectives and ways of thinking. The scary part is that you sometimes look around and ask yourself, ‘am I one of the best?’

The fact that you’re there should answer those niggling, personal questions. You are the president of the African Business Club at the Harvard Business School which sounds like a really lofty position. Why did you run for it and what does the position involve?
I wrote about taking a role in the club leadership in my application, though I hadn’t seriously considered the presidency. I got inspired after seeing what the previous club officers had accomplished, and just how much the club helped to define my experience at HBS. It helped a lot that I had a fabulous running mate and co-president, Morgan Franc. Our election was an affirmation from our classmates that they believe in what we stand for and feel we would continue the legacy of the club. I must add that we are a true democracy and everyone had to campaign, give speeches and earn the votes, which made it a challenging but fulfilling process.

The role involves leading the club to fulfil its mission of catering to anyone at HBS who has any interest in a career or business in Africa. We have social mixers, information sessions, and assist with networking and recruiting. Our flagship event has been the largest student-run conference on Africa in the world. The next HBS Africa Business Conference is the weekend of Feb 28-Mar 2, 2014 on our campus. We also have a highly successful member retreat in the fall to get everyone to bond, away from school. Some of our key mandates this coming year are to get more HBS students into jobs in Africa, to create even stronger connections to companies and business leaders on the continent, and to make our conference address a very relevant topic across Africa.

With your MBA still in progress, how are you finding your internship experience in Nigeria?
My internship at eCommerce start-up Konga.com has been an outstanding experience. I think this is one of those rare occasions where I’ve found something that I’m truly passionate about with no caveats. I wake up everyday excited to go to work and I find myself coming up with ideas for work even when I’m not in the office. Konga’s vision is inspirational, employees truly care about doing things right and making Nigerians. The team is just fabulous. I had offers with firms in America like Google and Box.net, but I turned those down because I felt the experience at Konga would be unmatched.

You turned down Google… How do you feel about that decision now?
Although it sounds crazy, I don’t regret it at all. I’m learning a lot about what it takes to get on the ground and make things happen in Nigeria. So I feel very positively about my decision to come back home. This summer I’m at Konga. Last summer, I was at CardinalStone Partners. My desire to be involved in business in Nigeria is 100%, so I’m really just searching for the best path to get there. Besides, what I am doing at Konga is very much in line with my passion for using technology to make life easier for people and businesses. It’s a great fit.

What drives this desire to move back?
Every hour of my time spent creating something will go a longer way in helping and improving Nigeria more so than elsewhere. This is home. I want my children to also call this home, and the only way I can guarantee that is if I play a role in making it the home that we all desire. Infrastructure and technology are critical elements of Nigeria’s path forward and I would like to be a part of that journey.

Aside from these more serious things, I can’t ignore the fact that I have a much more ‘natural’ social experience in Nigeria. Great friends, great people to meet, vibrant music, suya, chapman, pidgin, the guy dancing at 4pm on third mainland bridge, random invitations to people’s weddings whom you’ve never heard of. These are things you only get in Nigeria, aside from some of the headaches, which I’ll address later, I am generally happier with my social life here. My next conquest is to explore Africa’s attractions; Calabar, Zanzibar, Nairobi, Cape Verde, etcetera

As a repatriate in Nigeria, does anything surprise you?
Something I have noticed in Nigeria is that some people discount your foreign experience and automatically assume you don’t have your ears on the ground. They tell you Nigeria is so different, that you cannot apply anything from anywhere else in the world to Nigeria. This applies to any country, but is only true to an extent. Nigeria is neither the first nor the only country grappling with corruption or infrastructure issues. I understand their concern that many returnees come here expecting to change things in day one. But everyone has a role to play in Nigeria, including expatriates and repatriates.

What challenges have you faced?
Moving to Nigeria requires patience and modified expectations, and a challenge has been the people element. Power failures, internet connectivity issues and other infrastructure shortcomings can be frustrating, but you manage around those. The real challenge for me is that Nigeria, particularly Lagos, can be overly lawless and unpredictable. Issues like excessive tardiness, senseless driving, rampant lying and cheating, and safety issues are caused by people who look just like you and I. It’s becoming clear that even the average Nigerians are holding Nigeria back without realizing it.

What if your exploratory process is not favourable, will you reconsider moving back?
The truth is that a lot of business people around the world are not permanently located in any one place. Although I have a huge vested interest and desire to be in Nigeria, I am cognizant of the seven billion people in the world. Therefore, regardless of what my exploratory process yields, I will have an established presence in Nigeria.

On a final note, how has it been moving from a career in the West to one in Nigeria?
It has been very enlightening. From a personal angle, I’ve learnt how important humility is. You find people with varying levels of expertise and exposure. When you come back home you may find that some people don’t speak the same ‘language’ you speak or do things as you would, but this doesn’t mean that they bring less value. I know this doesn’t occur to everyone but it’s a key behavioural adjustment that smoothens the transition immeasurably. You don’t need to assert yourself forcefully; people wilfully give you respect if you deserve it. Also, people recognize when you respect and value them, and they are more eager to help you.

From a business perspective, I’ve had some exposure to just how vast Nigeria is and how much opportunity exists while in Lagos, Abuja, Kaduna, Ibadan and Ilorin. I am also inspired by the hopefulness, resilience and entrepreneurship inherent in Nigerians. Our people want to live more comfortable lives and they look for every opportunity to make every day better than the previous one.

The truth is, in Nigeria, as with everywhere else, everything is great until it’s not. Unfortunately, since the upside in Nigeria can be much higher, the downside too can be much lower. So when you move back, you’re making a big bet that things will go well for you and that your downside is limited. Once you make that decision, carry on and hope for the best!

Thanks for your time and best wishes moving forward!
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________
Movebacktonigeria.com is the fastest growing online community of Nigerian professionals living, studying and working in diaspora. Our primary objective is to connect Nigerian professionals with various opportunities in Nigeria, ranging from recruitment drives to information & support regarding relocation processes and financial & tax advice. We also feature social interest topics such as what’s on, where to live, how-to survival tips and so on. We consistently engage with and feature young Nigerian professionals in our weekly interviews and also regularly publish social interest articles relevant to the general public. We welcome everyone to our online discussions & fora and also invite you to air your views & suggestions on topical and trending matters.’ For more information and further inquiries, please contact [email protected]

MBTN helps Nigerian and African professionals from across the world connect with career and Investment opportunities. We also organise networking events, conferences and workshops that give you the required tools to get ahead in your career in Africa or elsewhere. Find out more at www.mbtnglobal.com. Follow us on Twitter @mbtnglobal and Instagram @mbtnglobal

31 Comments

  1. cece

    August 2, 2013 at 9:41 am

    nice to read such inspirational stuff/…it only makes you know that you too can do same and even more… congrats man x

  2. Oyinade

    August 2, 2013 at 9:45 am

    Bella, you tried this time. Thank God, it is someone who has actually made the move. Nice interview

    • dare to be beautiful

      August 2, 2013 at 4:56 pm

      Well technically he HAS NOT MOVED BACK….. he is only doing a 3month summer internship in Nigeria and should be back in August for 2nd year MBA..
      I would be interested to hear in a year time if he would accept a full time job offer in Nigeria , now that will be something …….. He does sound intelligent so best of luck to him

  3. natty

    August 2, 2013 at 9:56 am

    This is my best interview so far, because he life choices are quite similar to mine except, I doubt I’ll go back to Engineering

  4. Bola

    August 2, 2013 at 10:11 am

    I love this. I must commend you Bella for this very innovative segment. It’s a bold, brave move and can only come from you as a Repatriate yourself. I have some class mates that left Nigeria in the 90’s and have kids who have never been to Nigeria or speak any of the languages. Not being judgmental but to deny them an opportunity to know their roots is most unfair. The West is good for some things but really its only in Nigeria that as a young person, one can achieve the success others can only dream about. Thankfully, several are not believing the hype of Naija being bad etc and are coming back home. Just imagine if D’banj, Tiwa Savage etc had remained in London, doing menial work? SMH

    • BellaNaija.com

      August 2, 2013 at 10:18 am

      Thank you! It’s actually an initiative by “Move Back to Nigeria” – Movebacktonigeria.com. We loved the concept and are glad to be media partners.

  5. Tiki

    August 2, 2013 at 10:12 am

    “It’s becoming clear that even the average Nigerians are holding Nigeria back without realizing it.”

    On point! so many times we the citizens complain that our leaders are ‘spoiling’ the country, when truth be told we are doing our bit and then some! Change is needed all round, we need to stop passing the buck and sit up, every last one of us.

    Nice interview. Refreshing to see a ‘returnee’ with a practical yet optimistic view on life at home.

  6. Fola

    August 2, 2013 at 11:08 am

    Great interview. Such an inspiring story, but I think that Nigeria isnt for everybody. Sometimes the things that one wants to accomplish you cant get it in Nigeria. Im not talking about monetary things!. But congrats to him, I hope the move will bring all he hopes and dreams of!

  7. Berry Dakara

    August 2, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Nice interview – well thought out, truthful, and insightful. I think he does a good job of stating the good and bad of Nigeria, without overhyping or deprecating, respectively.

    @Bola – I have to disagree with one point you made. It’s not ONLY in Nigeria that people can achieve the success others dream about.

    berrydakara.blogspot.com

  8. Lizzie

    August 2, 2013 at 11:13 am

    I totally agree with Seni and Tiki, we do despicable things that help hold our country back but always cry foul at our leaders. Imagine if every average Nigerian decided henceforth to do the right thing? Our country will be the better for it and our leaders will have no choice but to follow suit. As for me, I have chosen to do the right things as much as I can, I don’t care about being the laughing stock… It is for the greater good. Well done Seni

  9. Sexy Prof

    August 2, 2013 at 11:29 am

    this is the best “moveback to nig” exerpt that i have read on Bella Niaja. Good luck U are my dream guy

  10. Iphie

    August 2, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    Nice & realistic interview!You said it all…..’This is home. I want my children to also call this home, and the only way I can guarantee that is if I play a role in making it the home that we all desire. Infrastructure and technology are critical elements of Nigeria’s path forward and I would like to be a part of that journey’

    Believe me,we all have a role to play in making Nigeria a better place….it begins with YOU&ME.

  11. obitalk

    August 2, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    I am really loving this segment. it has grown on me and I always find alot to learn.

  12. kenny

    August 2, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    To choose CardinalStane Partners and Konga.com over Google and Box.net is such an inspiring patriotic thing to do. Dude, I’m sure you’re gonna learn so much about the start up, growth process f an SME and be able to have an impact in the business to an extent which you would probably never be able to in the States. These internship opportunities are very motivating for me, the growth process is a priceless experience while most people are rushing to catch a big pay check, you’re actually preparing yourself for greatness.

  13. Mariaah

    August 2, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    Finally!! Someone who actually moved back even though its for summer internship 🙂 We done MoveBackToNigeria family and of course Bella Naija!!

    And to Seni Sulyman, we would love to have a young brilliant mind like yours back home when you leave school. 😀

  14. very brilliant. Thats a real egg head too

  15. OmoMakun

    August 2, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    This guys seems to have a a good head on his shoulders…much respect bro. I pray God grants him the desires of his heart…I can’t believe he turned down Google though..Choi!

  16. milly

    August 2, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    I bet it’s just internship! After that we will not see him in Nigeria in the next twenty years! Although its an excellent piece, but this wicked generation of Nigerian leaders have to die out, then we will have acquired enough skills and experience to come and carry out a reform,say in the next ten years! But for now Ohio!

  17. Adams Ede

    August 2, 2013 at 11:24 pm

    Lol @ milly. True but hey at least he’s trying to put a bit of roots down even if for a time. Still feel we can do something worthwhile in this country even if the old men who don’t wanna leave power are still alive cos I know that the time will come when the youths will say enough of the issues… Well done to you Seni.

  18. http://africansweetheart.blogspot.co.uk/

    August 3, 2013 at 12:08 am

    Good for him. Positive role model indeed!

    africansweetheart.blogspot.co.uk

  19. Brit

    August 3, 2013 at 2:28 am

    Seni!!!! So proud of you always!

  20. Temi

    August 3, 2013 at 5:21 am

    Nice Job Seni,Proud of you jare padi mi…..

  21. Stranger

    August 3, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    The young shall grow. Isn’t this Femi and Tara’s brother? Love his responses

  22. Ogay

    August 4, 2013 at 6:28 am

    Shei shei… you know you stay keeping me motivated. Trust you to always make the best decisions. Good job and good luck always.

  23. Bisola

    August 5, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Very inspiring Seni! With your great personality and your great accomplishments under your belts, you can only keep soaring!!! Thanks for sharing

  24. Bimpe

    August 13, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    kudos Seni. Wondering who is running the move back series.

    Seni, Rotimi and Banke Adeyemo all run in same circles…..I won’t be surprised if Dipo Ashafa is the next one on the series. lol

    But really because someone isn’t in naija 365 days a yr doesn’t mean they are clueless. These folks grew up in naija, finished at least secondary school in naija, come home multiple times a yr, have family and friends working in naija.

    You don’t have to be somewhere to know the opportunities available there. Especially when some of these opportunities have existed all your life (including when you lived in naij)

  25. Anonymous

    August 17, 2013 at 11:11 am

    Why his government name though?

  26. Niyi Adelaja

    August 19, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    Very nice move Seni. good to know that your truly inspired by the need to create a better environment and to develop Nigeria in your own way. God bless you as you do such great things. I can only wish you success in all of this. #bless

  27. Frill Artist

    September 11, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    Anytime people think of moving back to Nigeria, their mind instantly drifts off to Lagos. I know it’s the commerce center and all but there are other places in Nigeria. Overpopulation in Lagos is what makes it such a nasty place to live in.

  28. themanecaptain

    September 17, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    Great interview Seni.
    I agree that average Nigerians are also part of their own problem. Congratulations on your achievements. It’s very possible to know so much about a country, even more than the citizens residing there without actually living in the country. People just like to show off sometimes and pretend like they know more, though they don’t. All the best in your endeavours.

  29. Abioye

    December 15, 2018 at 2:31 pm

    It’s quite remarkable that shortly after this interview, Seni joined Andela in Nigeria and grew through the ranks to become Country Director and now Global Vice President. By the way, Andela which employs more than 600 employees in Nigeria and over 1,000 collectively in Africa and America, is currently voted as the best place to work in Nigeria and Africa. Well done, Seni, for continuing to remain an inspiration and motivating us to be the change that we long for anywhere we find ourselves.

    2

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