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!
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