Oare Ehiemua (Full Time MBA, 2014) is a social entrepreneur working in Nigeria to provide education and training to the youth in her country, so they can pursue a career in the blooming construction sector and have an impact on their lives. Her initiative and her project, OPL Academy, just won the MBA Leadership Award at the AMBA & BGA Excellence Awards. The award recognises the work of these alumni through their achievements and performance.
In a conversation with Esade Business School's dean, Josep Franch, Oare Ehiemua talks about her experience on entrepreneurship, education and focus on having a positive impact on society.
Josep Franch: Hello everyone and welcome to a new podcast on Do Better by Esade. My name is Josep Franch, and I am the dean at Esade Business School. I am today sharing this podcast with one of our most successful MBA students – Oare Ehiemua – who has just received the MBA Leadership Award from the Association of MBAs and the Business Graduate Association. Together we will talk about her experiences in entrepreneurship, education, and having a meaningful impact on the world. First of all, congratulations Oare for your award, we are very proud of you, and thank you for being with us today.
Oare Ehiemua: Thank you so much.
Josep Franch: Let me ask you a first question: the MBA leadership award by the AMBA and BGA is a recognition of your impact in the business world. Could you please tell us a little bit about you and your project?
Oare Ehiemua: I am thrilled to have received this award and recognition from AMBA and the BGA. I am Nigerian and a proud returnee to Africa. I left Nigeria in 2012 to get an MBA from Esade. But I always knew I would return home. I have always been passionate about youth development and helping people achieve their full potential. I do not like seeing potential go to waste. In Nigeria we have a population about of 200 million people, some 64% are aged 24 and younger, and so we have an extremely high unemployment rate. And so it is a constant challenge to place young people in jobs. I worked in human resources for six years following my graduation from university, but then I started to feel restless and I thought I had the capacity to do more and reach more people on a larger scale. I decided to go to Esade to do an MBA and then I took the experience I had gained back home to Nigeria, and started working in a private equity programme. I had reservations about joining a private equity firm to be honest with you. I found it was heavily profit-driven, and at first I wasn’t sure that it was something that I wanted to do, but I was attracted to the job because it had a dual role – and in addition to working in external relations I was also responsible for managing a foundation that they had created to fund NGOs in Nigeria. I did this job for about three and a half years and it completely changed my views on finance. Now I am fully aware that finance can be used as a tool for good. I decided to resign and start the OPL Academy – and that is what I have been doing ever since. OPL stands for One Precious Life Academy and it has been an interesting journey so far.
I have always been passionate about youth development and helping people achieve their full potential
Josep Franch: When did you decide to start the OPL Academy? Was it during or after the MBA? When did you decide that you were going to go ahead with your own NGO?
Oare Ehiemua: It was about a year before I resigned from the private equity firm that I really started to think about the concept of OPL. I was earning a seven-digit figure at the time, and so I was living very comfortably. But I felt I wanted to be on the ground and make an impact at the grassroots level. And so that’s when I decided to take the lead and start the OPL Academy.
Josep Franch: Okay, that is a fantastic project. And you are giving access to training and job opportunities for construction professionals in Nigeria. How is this changing their lives and changing Nigerian society? What is the reward for you?
Oare Ehiemua: Basically we are providing training and access to job opportunities. We focus on construction because in Nigeria the construction industry is the third largest employer. We thought about the time it would take to upskill a young person and get them to contribute meaningfully in work. In the construction industry, the time needed for training is much less than in some other industries. And so that is why we decided to go into construction. The space where we work is very niche. We identify high potential tradesmen and tradeswomen, who already have a technical background from technical colleges or polytechnics. And we take them to a finishing programme that focuses heavily on soft and professional skills. It is intended to help them become better rounded professionals who are able to easily relate to clients and start and run their business more successfully. We focus on things like communications, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, problem solving, leadership, and ethics. These are critical skills for technicians that are not taught in schools in Nigeria. So, basically that is what the curriculum looks like.
In terms of impact we have been able to train about 700 tradesmen and tradeswomen so far. Their average salary is about 100 dollars, and this is about twice the minimum wage in Nigeria. We are doing what we can to train people out of poverty. We are also focusing on bridging the gender divide. In Nigeria about 2% of women currently work in the construction industry. We started with an extremely low rate and it is slowly building. We have had a 40% increase in female participation in our programmes since we started. The last thing I would say is that we are very proud of the work that we are doing in creating a better lifestyle for artisans. In addition, we are giving them access to study jobs, and we are partnering with third-party solutions to get them access to microcredits and micro health insurance – and so now they can purchase power tools and equipment at affordable rates and this improves the quality of their finishing and helps them get repeat jobs.
In terms of impact we have been able to train about 700 tradesmen and tradeswomen so far
Josep Franch: Quite impressive. I am sure that you have found many challenges, but also many allies in this fantastic journey. Could you tell us a little about the challenges that you have found, and which allies helped you to overcome those challenges.
Oare Ehiemua: Yes. One of the first things you learn when studying at Esade is the importance of gathering and analysing data and using that to make critical business decisions. And so I was definitely wearing my MBA hat when going back home and trying to see how I could work in this space. Unfortunately, Nigeria has little access to data and that is one of the major challenges we face. I had to rely on my local knowledge to scope the challenges and size the opportunity. The other really pressing challenges are finance and getting access to funding. We have a plan to skill 20,000 tradesmen and tradeswomen over the next five years, and that is going to require funding. In Nigeria, and other parts of Africa, we often do not have the visibility to connect with international organisations or individuals who are interested in our market. There is no platform that gives people that visibility. And so this is one of the challenges that we constantly grapple with as local NGOs. A big major challenge is talent. World-class talent is very expensive. We are finding creative ways to partner with individuals and organisations to get access to what we need. And I am really hoping to take advantage of technology to increase access to people everywhere and lend support.
Josep Franch: You mentioned that you came out from Esade looking for data and analysing data before making decisions. How did your MBA at Esade prepare you to pursue your dreams and objectives?
Oare Ehiemua: Esade is one of the best experiences of my life. I left Nigeria in 2012 and moved to Barcelona, and it was certainly a change in environment. Just being in a class of about 150 students from maybe 50 different countries was amazing. And even more amazing was working in small groups of five or so – with everyone being from a different country. I learnt how to work with people whose approach to work was different from mine, who were different from me, and who communicated differently. This helped build my emotional intelligence and made me more adaptable. I was also in Barcelona which is one of the most progressive cities in the world, and so I got the chance to see how things worked. I really tried to see how I can bring that focus on excellence back home. I realise that Nigeria is not going to change overnight, but I can bring a certain level of rigour and excellence to the OPL Academy and how we do things within the organisation. These are some of the ways I feel Esade has really helped. Esade provided me with a well-rounded curriculum that enabled me to experience different facets of business, and it made me a more rounded professional who can wear different hats when required within the company.
I realise that Nigeria is not going to change overnight, but I can bring a certain level of rigour and excellence to the OPL Academy and how we do things within the organisation
Josep Franch: Let me ask you a final question, I am sure that we have many students listening to our podcast today. And probably some of them are considering creating their own venture, their own company, their own project. What would you recommend to any student who wants to become an entrepreneur and make a meaningful impact?
Oare Ehiemua: Great question. I should probably explain again that the OPL in OPL Academy means ‘one precious life’. The name is derived from a poem by a famous poet, Mary Oliver, who asks what are you going to do with your one precious life. It is a constant reminder to me of how far I’m willing to go to follow my passion. And it also speaks to every young person and tells them to dream and hope for a better future. To every young person and every entrepreneur who is looking to make an impact I would say ‘just go for it’. You already have the skills because Esade prepares you adequately – and it is important to try even though you may fail. Give it a shot and if you fail you will learn from those experiences – and learn how to do things better next time. I think grit is required to be an entrepreneur. You must prepare yourself to hear people say ‘no’ because you are going to hear plenty of people saying ‘no’. It is important that you work with the strong network that is available within Esade to get access to the right skills. There are so many people who are willing to spend time helping you think through your idea and nurture it. You should take advantage of that.
Josep Franch: That is awesome, thank you very much. I can see the passion that you have for what you do. And this recommendation to ‘go for it and follow your dreams’ reflects the Esade entrepreneurial spirit that we like to see in our graduates. As an organisation that is preparing professionals, we aspire to have a positive impact in society and there is no doubt that you have achieved this. You are managing a fantastic project, this One Precious Life. It is good for Nigeria, and it is helping us build a more just society – which is one of the Esade values that is reflected in our mission. So again, congratulations for your project and for your achievements. It was fantastic to talk to you. And I am sure that there are many people in our network, including students and alumni, who will be inspired by what you have achieved. Thank you very much Oare.
Oare Ehiemua: Thank you, thank you for the opportunity.
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