THE WORLD BEYOND NIGERIA
But what she gave up in personal space, she gained by forming an unbreakable bond with her siblings. Later, when the family emigrated to Queens, the five Olonilua siblings leaned on each other and their Christian faith for support while their parents moved back and forth between their native and adopted countries.
“Family was very important to us–still us,” Olonilua mused.
In 2004, when she was 10, her family won the U.S. Visa lottery and took their first trip to the U.S. to begin the process of becoming permanent residents. They stayed with extended family in the Bronx for a short while before returning to Lagos. Though she didn’t know it at the time, winning the Visa lottery and moving to New York would alter the course of her life, as well as her siblings’, in ways she couldn’t imagine. The experience opened her eyes for the first time to a world beyond Nigeria.
“I grew up in an area where a lot of things that are considered normal here, like regular infrastructure, for example, turning on the lights and the lights coming on—all that stuff is so normal here. So, coming and having lights all the time, the roads are good—that was just crazy,” she said, laughing. “It was a big culture shock.”
Following in her older sister’s footsteps, she returned to New York in 2011 to attend Stony Brook University and four years later, graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, paving the way for her younger sisters and younger brother, who is currently studying at the school.
SURROUNDED BY WOMEN WHO EMPOWERED EACH OTHER
“Stony Brook made the most sense from a financial perspective, but also [had] a great [engineering] program for the amount of money, and it was a big campus, which is something that I really wanted—like the college experience that I had seen on TV.”
But Olonilua’s college experience didn’t exactly resemble the fictional worlds created by Tinseltown. Often the youngest, or one of the few or only Black or female students in most of her classes, she felt a sense of alienation at first. So she started forming her own communities—with her classmates in her chemical engineering classes and within a sorority for women in engineering and science.
“A lot of my life, I’ve been surrounded by women who empowered each other, and so to have that community in college was a really big deal and a really great part of my Stonybrook experience,” said Olonilua.
Her graduation from Stony Brook was a joyous affair for the whole family.
“I just remember my parents being just so incredibly joyful, and to see them so happy—my parents worked really hard to give us the life that we have, so to be able to make them proud was something that was really important to me, especially because these are experiences that they did not have for themselves,” she said.
‘HOW CAN I TAKE TWO YEARS OFF AND LEAVE A DECENT JOB?’
Back in the real world, those feelings of alienation resurfaced for Olonilua when she entered the workforce and again found herself in settings dominated by men. At Stony Brook, she had begun considering the prospect of getting an advanced degree, but in the first few years of her career, she questioned whether it was the right time and whether she could afford it—after all, she was supporting her family in New York and back home in Nigeria.
“I was like, how can I take off two years and leave a decent job in some respects? [I told myself] You’ve made it; you have a good-paying job. You have a roof over your head. You have all the basic things that you need.’ So it was like, why would you quit and leave all of that to go back to school and pay tuition and not earn a salary?”
Nevertheless, she applied for a part-time program at New York University’s Stern School of Business and got in. Though it wasn’t an easy the decision, she declined the offer, resolving that the only way she would pause her career and give up a stable income for a few years was to pursue a full-time program. And so, in late 2019, it was back to the drawing board for Olonilua.
Restarting the process meant retaking the GMAT for a better score. Because of the pandemic, she had to take the test online. She applied for the Management Leadership for Tomorrow MBA prep program and was accepted in early 2020.
MEETING EVERY MORNING AT 6 A.M. TO STUDY FOR THE GMAT
“One of the really great things that MLT did was not only provide us with a coach, but also a community of people that were also going through this process,” she said. “And so I found a group of accountability partners. We studied together. We would meet every morning at six to study for a couple of hours before we started our work days.”
As the world went under lockdown at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Olonilua buckled down and started the process of applying for full-time MBA programs, namely Wharton, Northwestern Kellogg, MIT Sloan, Duke Fuqua, and Harvard Business School.
“When I made that decision, I told myself I was only going to go for the best,” she said. “I have to make this worth my while to work really hard and aim for the highest school possible and put my all into it, and that’s what I did.”
She had a little help from her family, who rallied around her. Back in Nigeria, her mother turned into a project manager of sorts—researching Forte (an MBA prep program for women), sending links to the application for MLT, reminding Olonilua about deadlines, recommendation letters, and scholarships—all via WhatsApp.
“I felt so incredibly supported and so incredibly OK with the decision that I was like, yeah, we’ll be alright. Like, it’s going to work out. And I was super, super thankful for that,” she said.
SHE DEVOURED EVERYTHING SHE COULD FIND ON HER TOP MBA CHOICES
Amid the slower pace of life wrought by the pandemic, Olonilua was grateful for the gift of time. Instead of commuting, she dedicated early mornings before work to studying for the GMAT.
“And then after that, it was OK, what schools [am I] going to choose? How am I going to think about the schools I’m applying to? And starting to do that introspection and really figure out the impact I want to make on the world and how I want to get there.”
She devoured everything she could find on her top choices. She reached out to current and former students and admissions officers at each of the schools. During her busiest spell, she was clocking in at least six calls a week.
Next, she worked on her personal statement, going through multiple iterations as she tried to figure out what kind of story about herself she wanted to tell. It was an introspective process, she says, one that challenged her to “be real with herself.” She found journaling her thoughts to be helpful. Still, this period was marked by sleepless nights and all-nighters.
“It took a very long time for me to get from, ‘what do I think they want to read?’ To ‘how do I want to show up; How do I want to tell them who I am in an authentic way, and in a way that’s true to myself, and not just something that I think they want to hear?’” she said.
ADMITTED TO FIVE SCHOOLS, SHE CHOSE HBS FOR ITS CASE METHOD TEACHING & STRONG AFRICAN NETWORK
She submitted her applications in the fall of 2020 and then, in preparation for her own interviews, began contacting current students to gather personal experiences in the various MBA programs.
She got into all five schools, but ultimately chose Harvard for its case method approach, which she says she felt uniquely challenged by, and for the program’s prominent network in Africa.
“The ability to start to cultivate relationships, and build those networks while I’m in school and beyond is something that really appealed to me,” she said. “Nigeria was my first home, and so the ability to be able to go back and make an impact in some way, shape, or form is something that is really important to me. And Harvard is a great way to do that.”
The clincher for Olonilua was a virtual program Harvard hosted last fall called “Leading with Intersectionality in Mind,” which brought together Harvard Business School graduates from different backgrounds and walks of life to share their unique perspectives.
‘I COULD SEE MYSELF ACTUALLY CONTRIBUTING TO CONVERSATIONS’
“I felt like I could picture myself there, like I could see myself actually contributing to conversations,” she said. “I always knew in my head I wanted to be a CEO. I want to be able to influence how a business makes decisions. I want to be able to develop people and empower people. And that really started in college because I was involved in a lot of different clubs and organizations.”
Con Edison afforded her the opportunity to learn about the energy industry, said Olonilua, and the job enabled her to solve problems and use her creativity, but she didn’t have much of a say in how business decisions were made. In the future, she envisions herself working on the African continent, broadly focusing on improving critical infrastructure. Energy has always interested her, particularly in the clean tech and climate spaces.
“I want to be in a position where I’m truly making an impact and having fulfillment from my job,” she said. “I don’t want my job to just be a job that I do. I want it to be something that fulfills me, that empowers me, and empowers others.”
Olonilua believes education has placed her on the path to success. Her dad didn’t finish high school and her mom didn’t complete her college education. They grew up in families where they had to be breadwinners at a young age, so when they had children of their own, they impressed upon them the value of education, making sacrifices so that they could go to college.
‘EDUCATION IS AN INVESTMENT IN YOURSELF’
“Education is something that’s always been really important to my parents,” she said. “My dad always says it’s an investment in yourself.”
As she packed up her belongings in preparation for her move to Boston next month, Olonilua took a moment to reflect on how far she’s come, overcoming pangs of self-doubt and “not feeling like I was good enough” throughout her life.
She had this to say to anybody who’s on the fence about business school: “Bet on yourself, because you don’t lose, you only win or you learn…It’s OK to bet on yourself and really believe that it’s going to happen for you. Lean on your community and really find a support system to go through the process with, because it is not easy going through it alone.”
Added Olonilua, “And stay off the chat boards as much as you can—for your own mental health and your sanity.”