Nigeria On The Rise: Africa’s Engine Draws B-Schools’ Attention

Full house: Attendees at the MBA Tour event in the Four Points Sheraton Lagos listen as a panel of admissions officers from North American schools offer advice on applying and getting in. Marc Ethier photo

When Leigh Gauthier came to Lagos, Nigeria in 2017 as part of a touring group of mostly North American business schools advertising their MBA programs to prospective students around Africa, the program she represents had exactly zero Nigerians. But a year later, back in Lagos for the latest iteration of The MBA Tour and speaking before a rapt audience in a packed room, Gauthier could boast that the full-time MBA at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management welcomed 12 Nigerians in its latest cohort. 

From zero to 12: It must have been something she said, right? 

“In addition to the numbers, I think the bottom line is, there’s talent here,” says Gauthier, assistant director of recruitment and admissions for the Rotman full-time MBA. “Nigeria has some incredible talent. It really is an emerging market. There is talent here that could bring some interesting ideas and great experience to the Canadian market. Canadian companies want talent. It’s just such a win-win-win for us to be here.”

A WORLD TRAVELER SEES GREAT PROMISE IN NIGERIA

Leigh Gauthier and Stephen Uwazota speak to a room full of Nigerian business school prospects earlier this month. Marc Ethier photo

It’s a win for other schools, too: About 20 total, mostly based in the U.S., took part in this year’s MBA Tour, often combining their participation with talent-hunting travel to other regions. Among them were Columbia University, Duke University, Vanderbilt University, HEC Paris, Northwestern University, and MIT. In one-on-one interviews and less-formal group discussions, they played host to an estimated 500 participants representing area and global corporations as well as top schools, such as Lagos Business School, in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa.

Gauthier’s annual trip to Africa is part of approximately 50 days a year she spends on the road. One of six Rotman recruiters, her “corner of the globe” includes the Middle East, where she will visit four to five cities in one annual visits, and Southeast Asia, where she will visit five more cities in two to three yearly trips. 

On last year’s Africa trip, Gauthier went to four cities, joining the MBA Tour in Accra, Ghana, Johannesburg, South Africa, and Nairobi, Kenya in addition to Lagos. This year was different. This year, she says, was all about Nigeria.

“This year, Rotman strategically decided that we wanted to invest more time and energy in Nigeria, partially because of the success we had last year,” Gauthier tells Poets&Quants. “So, we doubled down this year on Nigeria, brought in alumni from Nigeria. I will literally meet with hundreds of candidates over the two days I am here.”

A NIGERIA-TO-CANADA SUCCESS STORY

Gauthier says Rotman and its corporate partners have identified Nigeria — specifically Lagos, the sprawling megalopolis of anywhere between 17 and 21 million that is both the largest and fastest-growing city in Africa — as a place in the world where top talent can be found. As an example, she gestures to the man sitting next to her. 

Stephen Uwazota joined Gauthier in Lagos not as an official participant in the MBA event or as a paid Rotman representative. Rather, he came on his own dime to sell the school to his countrymen and women. A 2016 Rotman grad, Uwazota works in energy services for a large bank in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, a city he calls “one of the foremost livable cities in the world” and where he has settled to start a family. 

“What you’re beginning to see is this thing of Canada being able to harvest the talent within Canada of people who have roots around the world,” Uwazota says. “You’re beginning to see an opportunity for people who move to Canada from Nigeria, who live in Canada for a while. And now you have Canadian companies saying, ‘Who can we send to run our operations back in Africa?’ You are kind of seeing that come full circle now — that global competitiveness is becoming really topical in Canada these days.”

Alexia Jablonski, left, speaks to Nigerian MBA prospects at an event in Lagos, Nigeria this month as Roman’s Leigh Gauthier looks on. Jablonski, a representative of the Deputy High Commission of Canada, told attendees how they could secure permission to study and work in Canada. Marc Ethier photo

FINDING WAYS TO PAY, AND TO STAY

Uwazota’s journey would not have been possible if not for Canada’s policy of allowing newly minted MBAs to work visa-free for three years. Contrast that with the current well-publicized woes of those seeking a H1-B visa to work in the United States. For Uwazota, not having to worry about staying in the country after graduating from Rotman was worth everything — and particularly important because at Rotman, scholarships, while available, are merit- and not need-based. (Gauthier points out that one of the Nigerian students in this year’s cohort received scholarship money totaling about CDN $50,000, which covers not quite half of the total cost of a Rotman MBA.)

“In my time I was lucky there was this loan available from one of the commercial banks in Canada that you didn’t need a co-signer for,” Uwazota says. “That was available, that helped. Speaking selfishly now, as an African, as a Nigerian, would I want to see maybe a dedicated pot of gold for Africa? Absolutely, because that just helps the school compete better.

“One of the things I had going for me when I was looking at schools was, I had a couple of mentors who were graduates of some of the top business schools in the U.S. One of the things they told me was, ‘Don’t go to the U.S.,’ because you didn’t have as clear-cut a path to work post-MBA. The significant value of doing your MBA in North America is that certainty of work post-graduation.”

Uwazota plans to stay in Canada, but that is not always the case for Nigerian MBA grads. Just as Chinese and Indian students often return to their home countries, Nigerians, Uwazota says, have a spirit of entrepreneurship that leads many to return home to help build up their country, a still-developing nation that only has had stable governance since 1999. “You’ll see the full spectrum,” he says, “those who wanna come back and those who are never gonna come back to Nigeria or Africa or wherever. Many are like, ‘Now I have the training and the MBA, I have the exposure to the North American workplace, I can take on an executive role, leading change for business out of Africa.’”