My Third Class Degree from UNILAG Turned Out to be a Blessing

Toyin Odutayo, an Information Technology executive, who had her postgraduate studies in the UK, shares her inspiring story with The Nation News.

Get motivated in your postgraduate educational pursuit, it’s not over till you win.

JOURNEY to the UK in search of knowledge

One of the reasons behind me doing a master’s degree was because I didn’t do too well in my undergraduate studies. I made a third class. I had always been one of these people that sort of looked at myself and felt the need to differentiate myself. I had always been ambitious, so I said let me go and do this master’s while I am more matured and focused, knowing what I wanted in life.

I got into London South Bank University and I did a master’s in Information Systems Engineering. That was one of the most focused years of my life, because I knew what I wanted. I knew the impediments, given that I had a third class from my Nigerian degree. So I told myself I have to do really well to make sure that moved forward. So I had an MSc with distinction and literally that was what opened all the doors for my career advancement in the UK.

What I did differently

I will be brutally honest here. I also had a part time job while I was doing my master’s. What I did different was that I just read. Having said that, when I was in UNILAG, I noticed the time I was focused, I did very well. I was young then. You get into the university at 16 or 17, you want to play. So what was different was that I was completely focused. I knew what I wanted. I knew that to get a really good job, something should set me apart from the other applicants. I made my distinction and it really opened up lots of doors such that when I put in an application for a job, when I look at the ratio of rejection from when I had a third class to the number of  rejections that I had with having a distinction, it was crazy. Literally, if my CV goes anywhere, a door would open. I also feel that God was really on my side.

Programming Experience in the UK

I had a good project manager who looked at me after I had been in the UK for about three months and said I could be a team leader. I was in my early 20s and I didn’t have as much experience as the people on my team. What he explained to me was that there are people who are destined to lead and there are others who are destined to just be developers. I worked as a team leader for a company now called EDS for about two and a half years and I left to work in the retail sector. From team leader, I became a project manager by the age of 25. Having realised that somebody could have that confidence in me and realised my capabilities, I made a conscious decision to keep reading up and trying to make myself different. The Internet wasn’t rife then, so I just found myself investing in self-help books, and then I moved into the financial service sector and became a systems integrator. Again, I did that for about three years in the UK. I stayed in the UK until 2001. I was in the UK for about 12 or 13 years.

Returning to Nigeria, a sanity break

After working in the financial services sector, I began to get itchy feet. So I decided to leave the techie world behind to go for an MBA. That has to be the hardest year of my life. What made it challenging was that I am techie born and bred. With techies, it is bits and bytes whereas in the business world, one plus one equals two, but it could be two in a bit or slightly less than two.

Going into business school was also my turning point. So when I left Nigeria in 1989, I left with the mind of going for five years, but five years became 12 years. The reasons why that was is because it was just very easy to go into the UK and fit since I had lots of Nigerian friends.  Although that ‘fit’ will always be fit in quote, because you look at your skin, you are a black person. No matter how English you try to sound, you are still a Nigerian.

That realization hit me when I did business school, because there were many of us who came from Ghana, Namibia and other African countries. The kind of things they were talking about going to do back home prompted me, and I was like oh my God, I need to go back home and do something too. That was the turning point really.

I wanted to make a difference and I know that would not be made working in the UK. I was brought home by the late Osaze Osifo, former MD of FBN Capital. I knew that after spending so many years in the UK, I would need the sanity break, and that sanity break was coming home to Nigeria.

My experience coming back home

I turned my back on the UK and came to live in Nigeria, and I have no regrets. I moved into Oando as the head of IT. It was extremely challenging. I would go in and talk the talk, but I am actually a leader by example. I strongly believe that your followers will have confidence in you if they see that you have proven experience and you are not afraid to get your hands dirty if you have to. I am an ED now but I still get my hands dirty. Not everyone has to be a leader that leads by example, but I think for me, that is what works and that is what has always worked.

On the cultural shock when I came back, I am a Nigerian at heart. I may speak English in quote because the first 12 years of my life I spent in the UK, then I came back to spend another 10 years of my life and I went back to the UK. Coming home, I was not expecting 22/7 power. I was not expecting the roads to be fantastic. In fact, I think one of the turning points was when I came for my mum’s 60th birthday and that was when I was like you know what, Nigeria is not so bad, because we were trying telecoms wise.

The biggest challenge for me with Nigeria was more communication rather than the power sector. In my own case, I was pleasantly surprised because when I came home, I was able to get a flat that didn’t have a 24 hours light but I was able to have light most evenings. This is the thing that I tell people that want to relocate. When you left Nigeria, how was Nigeria? Yes, you may have risen to a level where you can stay in an estate that has 24 hours power, but that is not reality. That is not how Nigeria is. So if you can just get your head around that.

Career transitions and challenges in the IT field

From Oando, I was approached to go to Virgin Nigeria, and that was like to be one of the pioneer people. I always like startups. Yes, I want to do things for myself, but I also want to make a difference in Nigeria. It is good to be part of a movement, pretty much like what we are doing in Wakanow. In the whole of my career, I have been a techie person; the only things that are challenging are the materials things. We need power to run. And again, because I’ve got varied experiences, I tend not to have people challenges. I think it’s because I am a reader. If I have a challenge, the first thing I will do is pray and then there is a book where somebody has gone through that challenge. So by the time I read how somebody overcame that challenge, it is usually very easy to resolve.

When you build up to a level that people have confidence in you and they know that when you go to complain or talk about a challenge, everyone knows that the challenge is genuine. When I was younger in my career, if I had a challenge, would rather go and meet my mentor. Before I take up the challenge of heading an organization, I have mentors who I could talk to and ask questions. It is all about what I call effective networking. I may never have met someone before, but I will look for someone who knows that person and say look, this is the role that I am going to take, I need help. I just need someone to sound me out.

Wife, mother, woman

I honestly don’t believe these days that Nigerians believe it is a big deal for a woman to be something. I have gone to so many women conferences and I see so many amazing women around. I think it is now becoming the run of the mill for women to succeed in their careers and businesses. You just need to look at Ibukun Awosika for instance. She is a major role model.  Some of these things were instilled in me when I was growing up. You can still manage your home, be a good wife and a good mother. Not everybody has the same resources, but there.
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