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Meet Seye Onabolu, Aston Business School

Aston Business School MBA Seye Onabolu co-founded a non-profit social enterprise which supports refugees into employment

Name: Seye Onabolu

Birthplace: Nigeria

Place of residence: London, UK

Fun fact about yourself: I speak fluent Greek. 

Business School program: MBA and MSc Accounting and Finance – Aston Business School

Can you tell us about your role and what it entails? 

I am co-founder and CEO of Sona Circle Recruitment, a non-profit social enterprise based in the UK which supports refugees into employment. My role involves defining and leading the strategic direction of the company, implementation of the company’s mission and managing a team of 11 employees and 2 volunteers.

How does the company you work for help refugees? 

At Sona Circle, we work with refugees to facilitate their journey into paid employment. Our mission is to connect socially conscious employers with the skilled and dependable refugee workforce and to raise awareness of the need to support refugees. Our aim is to directly create employment opportunities for refugees. 

We work with employers to create local internship and apprenticeship programmes in a wide range of sectors with both private and public organisations through the Sona Circle recruitment platform, with a focus on technology start-up companies. Alongside this, we also have a general employment programme for roles at all skill levels in industries such as retail, hospitality, and construction. 

Our goal is to equip refugees with the skills, experience, and connections they need to maximise their chances of obtaining stable, long-term employment, to support the livelihoods of themselves and their families independently.

Sona Circle has been operating since 2017 and was set up in response to the 2015 refugee crisis. However, this is a crucial period for many as COVID-19 has had a severe impact on the rate of refugee unemployment, which was already 4 times higher than the general unemployment rate in the UK pre-COVID-19. 

What is your motivation behind working in this role?

Having been born in Nigeria, I have experienced first-hand the need to leave a place I called ‘home’ due to religious tensions, civil unrest, and a lack of economic opportunities within the country. 

The story of human displacement and relocation is central to our collective histories. We are ultimately defined not by the situations in which we find ourselves, but by what we make out of these situations.

I believe that refugees have the ability to both enrich the cultures of the communities in which they settle, as well as provide a young, skilled and diverse workforce to support economic development, if given the opportunity.

What skills have you utilised from the programme into your career in this role?

The Aston MBA programme exposed me to a wide variety of skills which have been useful at different stages of the company’s development; from building conceptual frameworks, teamwork, and leadership practises to understanding the psychology of decision making at both the organisation and individual levels. 

Much emphasis was placed on entrepreneurial development of candidates. Two key skills from the programme which have been particularly useful in this respect have been the management of risk and uncertainty in business, and subsequently the development of emergent strategies in response to these uncertainties. 

These skills have enabled me to build an organisational system that is continuously learning what works in practice and adapting to changing environments which has been particularly useful in recent times.

Do you believe more B-school graduates need to utilise their knowledge and skills to help refugees?

I believe business-school graduates, as the future leaders, managers, and decision makers in virtually every sector of the economy, have a unique opportunity to make a significant difference. 

This does not necessarily have to be in the form of starting a non-profit or charity to support refugees, it could be by opting into a corporate volunteering programme, speaking to their employers about the benefits of hiring refugees or better yet, hiring a refugee into their own start-up or growth company.

How can businesses help NGOs and others in tackling this crisis?

There are several ways in which businesses can support in tackling this crisis. The first is to work alongside refugee recruitment companies such as Amplio Recruiting in the US and Sona Circle in the UK to hire a member of the skilled and diverse refugee workforce.

A study by McKinsey & Co. found that teams that have greater diversity are 33% more likely to be more profitable, 73% of employers surveyed found that refugees had higher retention rates and 87% of consumers said they would purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about. So aside from being a socially responsible practise, hiring refugees is quite frankly, good business.

Another way to support refugees would be to join the likes of Starbucks, Airbnb, and Ben & Jerry’s as part of the Tent Partnership for Refugees, a coalition of businesses that have committed to take action to help refugees.

What advice would you give other graduates who want to help in this area, whether it be through initiatives or full-time job roles?

I would say ‘go for it’! There is nothing more fulfilling than working in an area which you truly believe in and feel passionate about. There are many great initiatives which could benefit from your skills and support.

One thing I will emphasise however, is that you do not need to work or even volunteer in the sector to make a real difference. By hiring a refugee into your company or into your team, or even speaking to your HR department about this, you could literally help change a person’s life.

We have a number of resources on our website (sonacircle.com) such as information, blogs and even a YouTube channel to help prepare you for these conversations and to take the next step. 

Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

Having been actively involved in helping to resolve the issue of refugee unemployment over the last four years, it has become quite clear that we [as a society] have a long way to go. Not just in terms of taking the practical steps to supporting refugees into employment, but also at changing the narrative about refugees and their impact on our communities.

In the next five years, I see myself continuing to serve in the area of organisational social change while also being a voice and an advocate for equality in all areas of our society.