Move Back to Nigeria is a series on BellaNaija which aims 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, considering the leap, as well as those who have tried it and realized it is not for them.
The idea is to share their successes and their challenges as they made the decisions they did. 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.
Movebacktonigeria.com is the fastest growing online community of Nigerian professionals living, studying and working in diaspora.
We have the pleasure of speaking to US-based Akin Olaoye this week. He discusses in compelling detail, his academic background, inspiring professional journey so far, his entrepreneurial and non profit passions and his unique perspective on repatriation. Read on for more!
Thanks for speaking with us. Can you tell us who you are and what you do?
My name is Akin Olaoye. I currently live in the US and work as a principal project management consultant implementing the health benefit exchange (ObamaCare) with one of the southern states in the U.S. My area of competence is in IT Project Management consulting, Business Process Development and Organizational Capability Maturity. I own a company called Akin Consulting, as well as a start-up called whereyoudey.com in Nigeria. I am very much involved in community service programs, workforce empowerment and career mentorship of young individuals in Nigeria and the U.S. I recently began hosting a mentorship/career development event at the Society of Black Engineer conventions in the U.S with about 200 students participating.
Have you always lived in the U.S?
I was born and bred in Nigeria.
Tell us about your educational and professional background.
I initially attended the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-ife briefly to study Computer/Mathematics but due to the never ending ASUU strikes, at the age of 19, I moved to the U.S to study Industrial Engineering at Tennessee State University. Upon graduation, I struggled for the first three months after graduation to find a job and considered moving back to Nigeria. Eventually I landed my first job as a Process Engineer but I got laid off after a year because the company refused to sponsor my H1-B work visa forcing me to enroll in a Master’s program Engineering Management at Portland State University. During the program, I worked as a Project Planning Engineer for Chrysler and this carved a path for me into managing high profile projects. I have worked for a number of fortune 100 companies in the U.S, providing consulting services which include Microsoft, Providence Health, Deloitte & Touche and BlueCross BlueShield.
What made you consider the shift from engineering (your first degree) to project management?
I grew up in Port- Harcourt and my dad worked for an oil and gas company. Growing up in such an environment, by default you either become an engineer or be considered ‘illiterate’ and so my path was defined. However, during my undergraduate studies in engineering, I took a course in project management and I found it interesting. Working for Chrysler, I was really able to identify certain traits that I possessed personally and it was an ideal match for a career in project management.
Project Management is certainly a ‘popular’ field. Can you briefly tell us more about your firm and how your career led you to where you are right now?
I started from the bottom with project scheduling, project coordination and made my way up, gaining solid experience along the way. In the course of my career, I have managed about 40 – 50 projects and through all of the successes that I enjoyed, I realized that the only path was for me to create an environment where I could bring more people on board, become a mentor, and expand my ability to support efforts within larger corporations. I recently began extending into Nigeria; identifying opportunities where individuals can be trained for free using virtual training platforms and create a path to empowerment. In the U.S, I do have training sessions that I host within community groups; like a mini boot camp, all free, for me it’s all about giving back.
That’s inspiring! So, what does your day to day work-life entail?
I’m currently working as an implementation manager on an ObamaCare project which is very high profile and challenging. As a project manager, I work 18-19 hours per day and travel weekly; for the last 7 years I’m on a plane Mondays, home Thursdays because I do have a family. In the midst of all that, I still have to find time to make a presence in Nigeria at least 4 times a year. It’s an extremely busy life circle and a huge challenge.
So, how exactly do you handle the challenging aspects of your projects when they do not turn out 100% successful?
For me as a project manager, I would say if you are not able to deal with challenges, then it’s not a career you want to be in. Project management involves a lot of risk assessment, mitigation strategies, issue & stakeholder management which requires frequent changes. Everything comes down to client engagement and ensuring that they are fully aware of some of the issues that may arise.
Let’s talk a little bit about Nigeria. Why have you chosen to do what you are doing long distance, don’t you feel that you need to be back in Nigeria to properly explore your business opportunities over here?
When I graduated, I didn’t see the need to jump on a plane and move back to Nigeria as a foreign graduate and expect an employer to offer me a job. I thought it was important for me to get work experience, get a “tool box” that I could take back with me and add value within any organization or toward nation building. However, regardless of how busy my work schedule here gets, I still feel a part of me exists in Nigeria, I know ultimately the move will happen but I have to develop competencies while being confident that I can make an impact. In 2010, I was in Nigeria for about 3 months to lay the foundation for our new start up “whereyoudey.com” and this really exposed me to the opportunities/challenges of operating a business in Nigeria. My partners and I, spent months developing our business plan, conducting market research and we launched the business in Port- Harcourt and chose to cover only the southern states; PHC, Warri, Asaba, Calabar, Yenegoa, Benin, Nsukka and Abuja including a few other areas that could provide data to people who found it relevant. At the initial launch, we employed about 30 individuals as part of our data gathering and product development efforts. Between my partners and I, turns were taken to establish a presence in Nigeria. This required one person making a scheduled trip to Nigeria for an extended period of time to manage the product, conduct training, roll out marketing campaigns and establish contact with our customer base. It was very challenging and not the easiest situation to cope with.
It does sound challenging. Can you tell us more about the product that you launched in Nigeria?
Whereyoudey.com was conceived to provide business listings, event information, as well as a classified section. We’ve been very active for about 2½ years and have been able to man the product remotely despite the challenges we faced.We achieved a lot despite the constraints mentioned. Everyone on the team was focused on Innovating and creating value and as a result, we were one of the first local companies’ in Nigeria to roll out mobile apps for our products on 4 different platforms: Nokia, Blackberry, Samsung and Sony Ericson for free. The apps created huge opportunities for consumer adoption while creating a value proposition for our clients. A number of challenges we faced were the cost of running a business in Nigeria; cost of operating generators 8-10 hours daily, cost of advertising with radio ads being not so affordable for a self-funded-start-up. Also the skepticism the average Nigerian exhibits when a new product or service that they are un-familiar with is introduced, I will urge other start-ups to anticipate delayed returned on investments with a long term goal to achieve profitability.
Fascinating! So, what has been the response to the business been and where do you see the product in the coming years?
When we launched the product, the web space was not as mature as it is today. At the time of launch, you could go on our website and search for say an “apostolic Church” in the most obscure part of town and it would come up on the listing. Access to relevant data in Nigeria was something that had proven to be a huge challenge, so we took it a step further and integrated available data with Google maps so not only can you search for a business, you can locate the business using longitude/latitude coordinates. We had studied the market and understood the adoption curve Nigerians often embrace and identified strategies to penetrate the market over time. The market reaction was very positive to the whereyoudey brand, but over the last year we decided to scale back operations to give the ecommerce space in Nigeria some room for maturity and an opportunity to re-introduce new services. It is imperative to mention that the maturity of the ecommerce industry has been very steady and the whereyoudey brand is well positioned to take advantage of some of the growth that’s been happening.
Are there any plans on the horizon to be fully located in Nigeria in order to expand seeing that the majority of you work remotely?
For me, I have bought into the philosophy where I take a “one leg in, one leg out approach”. If I were single, I would be in Nigeria with the level of experience that I have acquired but notwithstanding; I can replicate having a temporary presence by frequenting Nigeria multiple times a year, while keeping the mindset of someone having a full time presence. If there are people who are not mentally ready to move back to Nigeria permanently, the opportunity exists today where you can frequent Nigeria and still make the same impact as you would if you lived in Nigeria, as opposed to about 8 years ago.
Have there been any advantages to running your business sub-remotely as you do, and are you better able to deal with a lot more logistical challenges?
Yes. Some of the advantages of running the business remotely included taking advantage of available IT infrastructure we have access to, which reduced costs and provided stability when considering cost of running generators. The time zone difference allowed us to manage the resources during business hours in Nigeria, which minimizes interference with our careers here in the U.S. Also the ability to acquire needed skills through experience gained in our careers both technical and business wise has proven to be value added. Licensing and fees are obviously cheaper in terms of being able to purchase products needed to support our home grown application and business tools.
Given all that you have shared and also that you seem very driven, what inspires you daily to achieve all that you set out to?
For me, I love being accomplished notwithstanding the number of hours I have to put in. I am highly driven and I don’t think there are any excuses that can be made as to why you are unable to accomplish any goals. There will always be constraints and challenges but optimism, hardwork and having a lot of faith is the way forward.
On a final note, what words of wisdom would you say to people who would be inspired by your story?
I have been fortunate to get an education here in the U.S and I do have counterparts in Nigeria who have been very successful as well, so I don’t think the diaspora story is the only one that would yield success. Irrespective of your environment or situation, you should always have a plan, have a realistic goal and be prepared to invest the effort required notwithstanding any challenges. Also a mix of financial rewards and the ability give back to the society around you positively is what truly defines success.
Many thanks for your time and best wishes moving forward.
The primary objective of MoveBackToNigeria.com is to connect Nigerian professionals with various opportunities in Nigeria, ranging from recruitment drives to information & support regarding relocation processes, financial & tax advice and much more. Move Back To Nigeria also features social interest topics such as what’s on, where to live, how-to survival tips and so on. Consistently engaging with and featuring Nigerian professionals in weekly interviews, Move Back To Nigeria regularly publishes social interest articles relevant to the general public. Everyone is welcome to their online discussions & fora and you are invited to air your views & suggestions on the topical and trending matters section. For more information and further inquiries, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.