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Be like Misan Rewane and Move Back to Nigeria to positively impact the lives of others
Please introduce yourself and tell us who you are and what you do?
My name is Misan Rewane, and I like to think of myself as a change agent, trying to make the world a better place. I was born in Lagos and attended primary and secondary schools here. After this, I moved to the UK to do my A Levels, and then afterwards moved over to the US to study Economics at Stanford University.
I was always fascinated by the idea of what economics is all about, i.e. maximising your utility, which is what I like to think of as satisfying your unlimited wants by making the most efficient use of your limited resources. I also studied economics in secondary school and realised I really liked the subject, and so decided to major in it going into university. Funny enough my dad and 2 siblings also studied economics, perhaps it runs in the family.
You mentioned you went to Stanford University; can you please talk about your experiences there?
It was a great experience for me. However initially there was a bit of tension because I did not want to leave the UK and go all the way to the US (not just the US but the west coast, where I knew no one!). My friends were in the UK and I didn’t want to start afresh and build a new set of friends in a different country as that was way out of my comfort zone. But my family (especially my dad) convinced me of what a great opportunity it was, and in the end, I enrolled. The school itself was really nice and it’s actually the second largest campus in the world, situated across over 8,000 acres. It ended up being a great place to really find myself. All of a sudden, I was no longer just Nigerian but African and more broadly, Black. In the process, I found out how much I didn’t know about other countries in Africa, and so one of my defining experiences was really learning more about the continent through friendships formed with other Africans and my involvement in the Stanford African Students Association (SASA). This was another benefit of going to Stanford, i.e. the diversity of students. I am grateful I went there and I really thank my parents for pushing me to go to Stanford.
What came next for you after graduating from Stanford University?
I wanted to continue along the same path of understanding how to make companies, organizations and countries more efficient and effective, so the most natural career path for me at that point was management consulting. During my A Levels, I had done a 2-week work experience program at Accenture in Nigeria, and I enjoyed it. I also tried out other internships in various industries during subsequent summer holidays, but it was the consulting experience at Accenture that excited me the most. By the time I was ready to graduate from University, I was convinced that consulting was for me but I wanted to do it in the US to see what it was like as my prior consulting experience had been in Nigeria. So the summer of my junior year, I interned with The Monitor Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts via a program called Sponsors for Educational Opportunities (SEO), which eventually led to a full time job offer with the New York office.
Brilliant! So what did you do at the Monitor Group?
I got to work on interesting projects across a variety of sectors and industries, from working with City Governments to catalyze social entrepreneurship efforts to solve social problems, to working with pharmaceutical companies and FMCG companies to enhance their marketing efforts. After working in New York for about a year, I moved to the London office and gained exposure to the European, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region. I worked on some exciting projects, including one in South Africa, and that exposure got me longing for more work in Africa. Also after a while in consulting in London, I got tired of helping rich companies get richer, and I wanted to do work that was more development-focused, and so I started looking for opportunities to do that. One option was to explore the possibility of doing a Master’s Degree in International Development at the London School of Economics, and the other option was to quit my job altogether and just move to the continent and I opted for the latter. At the time, I felt I needed a bit more work experience before embarking on a Masters. In the end I decided to take a 6-month sabbatical which was during the height of the recession, and my friends and family wondered why I would do this in such a bleak economic environment where employees were being laid off at alarming rates. However the beauty of the sabbatical was that it gave me the option to come back to my job afterwards and also benefitted the company given they didn’t have to pay me during this period.
Interesting! What did you do during your 6 month sabbatical?
I moved to Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire to be a volunteer consultant with Technoserve, which was quite the adventure (though scary at first). I got to work on implementing TechnoServe’s first francophone business plan competition, helping aspiring entrepreneurs work on a business plan and apply for funding. The scheme was sponsored by the World Bank and some other major corporates. Overall it was a great experience and I got to explore another part of West Africa, develop my French further, make new friends, among other benefits of operating out of my comfort zone. Most importantly, the experience with Technoserve was fulfilling because I got to see what development looked like in Africa (outside of Nigeria). After the 6 month sabbatical, I decided I was not going to go back to the Monitor group in London (this was in 2010), and instead I moved to Nigeria to join a newly-established public policy think tank.
What did you do at this public policy think tank?
At the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives (CPPA), I worked primarily on the human capacity side of things – from setting up recruitment and training systems for our research analysts, who were going to be the ‘manpower’ behind what we were doing, to designing performance review systems to incentivize and monitor employees’ value-add. I came in with different expectations of the kinds of work I would be doing but I very quickly realized our most critical success factor would be finding the right people. So that became my main focus. We found it quite difficult to find these research analysts and that was when I began exploring ideas around solving the human capital issue is in Nigeria. The problem I found to be partly due to the Nigerian education system, because we found graduates from the Nigerian system were not meeting the benchmark in terms of independent thought, critical thinking, problem solving, and so on. And so we had to train them and develop a lot of these skills…Also during my time at the think tank, I had registered for the NYSC, and was then officially posted to the CPPA for my primary assignment. NYSC was quite the experience but I am happy that I got actively involved in the community development program and was able to deliver on a building project. By the time the year was up, I had gained admission to Harvard Business School and won the first 7Up HBS MBA Scholarship which meant I would have the opportunity to study at Harvard on a full-ride scholarship with no strings attached!
What an achievement! How did you find things at Harvard Business School?
Transitioning back to school was quite an experience; but it helped that I had spent that 1 year in Nigeria prior to business school, because it gave me an additional lens with which to view everything that I was learning in the classroom. By then, I knew that I could live and work in Nigeria. For me the MBA was my last stop along the ‘straight and narrow’ patch as I had the traditional background in consulting but after the MBA I knew it was time to go into things that I cared about – making a difference in the world in a positive way. This was part of why I applied to go to Harvard Business School because the motto: “We educate leaders who make a difference in the world” really resonated with me. My summer internship during the MBA program was at a really innovative organisation called the Bridge International Academies, which is the largest network of private schools in Africa. They educate over 100,000 students per day, have close to 200 academies in Kenya, and were looking to expand into Nigeria. It was exciting and I got to help them understand how their model could expand into other countries such as Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria. I spent the first part of the summer in Kenya to understand the model in depth and then the second part of the summer in Nigeria to really understand the low cost private school segment of education. In my second year at Harvard, I connected with a couple of classmates who were also interested in international development. We met and thought about ideas for what we could do to make an impact in Africa, and quickly realized we were all passionate about youth unemployment, and solving that problem. We met frequently to come up with various ideas on solutions to the youth employment issue and started designing what eventually became the WAVE model. We applied for the Social Enterprise track of the Harvard New Venture Competition and won the runner up prize, which provided us with the initial funding we used to launch the organization – West Africa Vocational Education (WAVE). After graduating from business school in June 2013, I moved back to Nigeria and currently run the business from Lagos.
Cool. Tell us about West Africa Vocational Education (WAVE)
WAVE is a skills training and job placement platform focused on screening, training and placing self-motivated unemployed youth in entry-level jobs in high-growth industries. We ran our first pilot with 12 remarkable young people in a flat we rented for 18 days and I’m glad those 12 trusted us when we promised to get them a job at the end of the program. We had a great time with the first class, I was able to get friends to participate as guest speakers and we brought in some hospitality and soft skills experts to join the faculty and run certain parts of the curriculum. The program combines a mix of technical and employability skills. At the end of the 3-week training program, we worked on getting these WAVE graduates jobs. The first 6 months was spent testing out the service delivery – screening, training and placing people in jobs, and proving the concept. Once we proved the concept, we got some additional support from the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation and it’s been a rollercoaster ride ever since. 2014 has been great; we have expanded the team from 2 to 8. Since we started, we’ve trained over 100 people and placed 75% of them in jobs, and additional 5% of alumni have gotten jobs on their own without our help. Our students are earning at least twice the minimum wage on average and they work primarily in the retail and hospitality sector. But we also have alumni in logistics and financial services. We are starting to change the paradigm and show that young people can add tremendous value to the workplace. 70% of our curriculum covers general employability skills, problem solving, communication, team work, managing expectations, negotiation ethics, cash management etc and 30% focuses on technical skills.
Wonderful! So how do you go about finding your graduates jobs?
We have 2 sets of clients – students and employers. We have an outreach coordinator who goes to the local governments to target the unemployed, who are the key beneficiaries of our program. We also do radio interviews to spread the word and advertise on online job sites such as jobberman. On the employer side of things, we have an employer partnership manager, who reaches out to employers to build relationships where we help meet their people needs. We work with large and small companies, including Wheatbaker, Spar, KFC, and so on.
In other areas, how are you finding the general day to day living In Nigeria?
While I was away, I came back to Nigeria to visit as often as possible, so I always kept in touch with my friends and what was happening here, so the transition was not so bad. Running an organisation and having people who you depend on while still being accountable for their actions is still a learning process. I have a solid team of people, whom God has blessed me with, and they have all really stepped up to the challenge. When people come by the academy, they are impressed by it all and the big thanks go to the team for that. I will say that living and working in Nigeria has heightened my ability to visualize things and anticipate what might go wrong or may not turn out as planned, what I like to call “worst case scenario thinking”, which I think is essential for my sanity here.
Thanks. Finally, what advice would you give people thinking of moving back to Nigeria?
Know what you are moving back to do, and most importantly, why you are doing what you’re doing, because that’s what will drive you and keep you going (or should I say, staying) when the going gets tough. Know your ‘true north’.