My MBA journey begins with school visits and Forte

Yasss! A few weeks ago, I received notification from the Forte Foundation welcoming me to the MBA Launch class starting from January to October 2017.

As a woman unafraid to admit when I need help, I am thrilled to have the support of other people in DC during the arduous process of applying to the class starting in Fall 2018, and the guidance from MBA alumni and admissions experts. No one in my immediate family has an MBA, and neither do my friends. In fact, a friend I looked up to (who ironically has a JD from Harvard) tried to talk me out of my desire to get an MBA based on some assertions that really did not apply to me. Having read several blogs by both MBA applicants and admissions counsellors since January of this year, I realize that I need a team of people cheering me on and helping me through my journey. Forte provides that for a $500 fee and an application.

My very intense year couldn’t have ended better. I already conducted my own research into top programs (way ahead of the curve here!), reviewing 28 schools before even applying to Forte. I paid visits to four of them and sat in on a range of classes that confirmed this was actually what I wanted to do.

In April I visited the number 1 school on my list – Stanford Graduate School of Business. Of course I was impressed! Of course I fell in love with the quiet red-brick campus that reminded me of my Nigerian boarding school. And all that talk about “touchy-feely” and “vulnerability” warmed this hippie heart. Plus the school has MONEY. After each class a custodial crew waits outside with a large bin and cleaning supplies. They whisk into the room and frantically tidy up as the perfectly coiffed students mill in and out. That my dears is money.

After Stanford, visiting Berkeley was almost a let-down. Parking was a headache. As someone who doesn’t even own a car, and cannot parallel park to save my life, I felt really helpless in Berkeley. Plus, too many undergrads!!! That said, the class I attended on sustainable enterprise  was really interesting, and the students seemed nice. I’m hoping the admissions staff had an off day, because she was a bit snobbish. Still, I left California determined to apply to both programs.

Last month I flew to Boston to check out Harvard Business School and MIT. Initially the plan was to visit the Kennedy School as well, but I juuust could not get out of bed that unexpectedly cold and rainy morning (besides my reluctance to add an MPA to my existing masters in international relations).  I came away from HBS awed by the intellectual horsepower of the students in the class, concerned about some standoffish behavior I observed from another admissions person (sensing a pattern here), and worried about the intensity of the program. Question: Do I really want to spend more of my life trying to prove that I am good enough? How would the fear of being inadequate affect my career choices if I do get into HBS? Will it shuttle me into prestigious yet miserable work? I also noticed that the business school is located in a very remote environment and when it was time to leave around 5:30pm (already dark in Boston) I felt unsafe (and hella cold) walking back to the subway stop.

However earlier that day, I took it as a good sign that a white woman around my age observed my confused meandering around Harvard Square and proactively offered to direct me to where I needed to go. When I mentioned it was the business school, she said cheerily “I go there!” Plus, after the Financial Reporting & Control class, a male Nigerian student walked up to me and just started talking like we knew each other. It was pretty hilarious and super sweet. I felt like I landed an instant mentor without asking. In all, I am very glad I visited.

The next day was my trip to MIT. It’s important to note that I had no plans to apply to MIT. I’m not an engineer. All I’ve done is advocacy, philanthropy and fundraising. I’m no wunderkind – I’m a 34-year-old woman who dreams big yet does things based on entirely practical calculations. I’m smart, but no genius. I was one of those kids in high school who for the three years leading to graduation was kept in the home class for “challenging” students (i.e. dum dums). In my class, asking the teacher too many questions earned me taunts and insults from my fellow (male) students. So MIT isn’t for folks like me. I just thought it would be sensible to check them out since I was already in Boston instead of jumping to conclusions.

To my great surprise, I liked my visit to Sloan. First, the school was a short walk from the subway stop (looking at you HBS). Second, these guys provided lunch! And when I tried to sneak into the cafeteria and buy my own lunch (I’m super picky about food) the woman from the admissions office gave me a $12 voucher without me asking. Sloan provided my most positive experience with admissions staff. I enjoyed the Q&A with current students, and felt this was a top school were people were laid back. This shot MIT to the top of my list, before Harvard. And, based on my careful weighing of admissions data and the review of recommendation questions, I decided that an application to Stanford could be a waste of my time and emotional energy. That 6% acceptance rate is disturbing. Unless I get contradicting advice from MBA insiders in the coming six months, it’s bye bye Palo Alto.

So it’s December 21, almost 9 months from when my first MBA application is due, and I have narrowed down to six slots going to: MIT, Berkeley, Yale, University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, and Cornell /Duke/ Wharton (one of the three). The Canadian schools are non-negotiable because 1) Trump and 2) Work Permits post-graduation. I if I’m going to get an MBA in the US it better be a top 12 program. Otherwise I’m going to Canada where the cost is cheaper, and there is stronger possibility of achieving permanent residency within a few years of graduation. In future posts I’ll talk more about why I choose these specific programs.

You’ll notice that there are no Chicago schools and no Michigan schools. That is on purpose. Ha ha ha. I hate winter!!! I am applying to some cold schools out of necessity but really I wish all my top choices were located in California.

I guess I’m an entrepreneur?

I haven’t blogged in 10 months. Yet during that time, the mission of this site has not been far from my mind. I want to come clean on what I have been doing (and why I’m back).

Last November (2015) I couldn’t sleep one night. I think I woke up at 3 am one morning, and my mind was burning. I pulled out my journal and started writing “what if”. And the idea just poured out. What if there were a website where anyone could go to donate to local nonprofits in Nigeria, and lots of people used it to support human rights?

When I first started this blog, one of things I mentioned is that I used to have a weird habit of googling “best NGOs in Nigeria”. Call it my christian guilt, call it the embarrassment of having “abandoned” the NGO sector in Nigeria to instead prioritize my own financial stability by joining private philanthropy. Because I felt like a sellout, I kept trying to find a way to do more. There was so little information, and when I did come across an Nigerian NGO, donating to them involved a bank to bank transfer or the use of a sketchy weblink. No thanks.

So supporting NGOs has been on my mind for years. That night when I woke up and started writing, I realized that maybe this was a problem I could solve. I should mention that I used to donate to an American site called Watsi which uses crowdfunding to pay for medical fees of poor people in the developing world. Then of course there are organizations like Donors Choose or Kickstarter. The concept is not new. But in Nigeria, and for human rights?

I got excited because it hit me that few people could actually do what I realized I was going to do. Build the damn thing. My background in philanthropy gave me a clear understanding of how the mind of a donor works. What if I right-sized the things I used to look for as an institutional donor into the needs of a private individual donor? And (here’s the key part) I did not need money to do it. First, I could earmark money that I might have wanted to give to church or to charity in general and instead use it for this project. And second, I have such a strong savings rate that I don’t need to depend on this project in order to eat. In other words, the kind of people who might naturally be drawn to building this site  (nonprofiteers) probably can’t do it pro bono for long. And the kind of people who can do it pro bono, are unlikely to have the vision that a nonprofiteer may have.

That was last November. Since then, I’ve been reading, taking courses online, and writing. At one point I thought I was going to learn how to code. I took an HTML & CSS course, and spent many months agonizing between Python and Ruby. Eventually (by this summer), I admitted that learning to code was going to take too long to achieve what I wanted, and might drain me in the process. I was further chagrined to discover that WordPress programmers have already designed crowdfunding templates.

But the biggest change in me since last November is that I am fully converted to the Lean Startup philosophy. Over the next year or so, I hope to share what I am learning and how I am applying these principles. I’ve been advised to blog about my process – its a good reminder of how far I’ve come, and it also is something I can be accountable for (I have an accountability buddy!).

That’s all for now. Till next time.

My three goals for 2016

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

I returned to the US this weekend after a whirlwind holiday in Lagos that left me thoroughly inspired, yet longing for QUIET.

 

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Source: Hyperbole and a half

But thanks to all the thinking I did and conversations I had, I came up with three fantastic goals for the new year, all related to giving.

First, blog. This won’t be easy, as my job takes up so much time and energy. But I have to do it. No excuses.

Second, experiment with transparency. I’m going to share more about how I give and (God help me) how much, at least percentage-wise.

Third, and most exciting, learn to code and apply those skills towards developing or co-developing a product that inspires people to give. I have not yet decided whether to blog here about my experiment with learning how to program (as a busy Nigerian woman who failed science in secondary school). I may need to start a separate site for that.

It’s going to be a fun year.

Do foundations fear Nigeria?

Merry Christmas one and all! As my people say, “Compliments of the season.” I hope you are enjoying a peaceful holiday, whether with family, friends or just yourself.

While in Lagos for vacation, I had the opportunity to meet with the head of an amazing women’s rights organization that provides medical and referral services to victims of sexual violence. This nonprofit operates in a small and shabby set of rooms on the campus of the state university hospital, and has treated over a thousand clients in the past 2.5 years, using limited resources. I had one or two suggestions to enhance their fundraising, which led to a fun and very familiar discussion about the broader philanthropy sector.

Nonprofits by definition struggle to generate income. If you start a nonprofit, you will not make a profit. In fact, you will not even charge nominal fees for your services. For their income, human rights nonprofits in the African continent, especially women’s rights service organizations, have to compete for a small pool of charitable funds, to be provided by rich foundations in the West (the few indigenous African foundations rarely invest in human rights) or western governments. Nigerian nonprofit organizations feel particularly disadvantaged because they perceive that foundations, especially in the US, find Nigeria  a difficult place to work in, and don’t provide as much grant opportunities as one might expect. Amongst ourselves, nonprofiteers say that donors prefer to work in East Africa because East African governments issue more “appreciative” sounds from their mouths, and their people are nicer.

Head in Hands

Stereotypes aside, this accusation of bias is not completely fair. I took a cursory look at the top ten human rights foundations in the U.S. Three of the biggest foundations – Gates, Ford and MacArthur have offices in Nigeria. Ford is in Kenya only out of the East Africa giants, Open Society Foundation is in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, Rockefeller is in Kenya, and Hewlett and Hilton are in none of the countries above.

Kenya wins, but Nigeria isn’t doing so bad.

Further, geographic representation is only one element foundations use to screen African nonprofits. Each of the largest foundations has a collection of carefully consulted “strategic plans” which specify the tiny slices of human rights and development work that the foundation is committed to funding for several years. Even if Ford Foundation is active in Nigeria, it does not mean that Ford will be interested in writing one a grant for human rights sensitization of children or public advocacy on prison reform. The financial difficulties faced by nonprofits in Nigeria may simply result from the law of demand and supply. There are more nonprofits working on a particular issue than foundations available to support them.

Still, I believe there is some truth to the complaint that foundations don’t want to work in Nigeria, and I admit to having voiced this complaint myself. When I worked at a foundation, I was amazed to learn of the process it took to select priority countries. Factors considered were as follows: 1) Where have the decision-makers of our new foundation worked in the past? 2) Which countries are in the news right now, which African presidents do we like (the disappointment and betrayal years later when these charismatic presidents turn out to be corrupt or ineffectual)? 3) Where can we easily separate the impact of our potential grants from the work of the government or other foundations?, and 4) Some stuff about UN development indicators and choosing countries that are not too poor and not too rich, yet meet the other three criteria.

#Notallfoundations?

Even if a foundation has a clear, documented and rigorous process for choosing regional and thematic priorities, it will still be the case that many worthy nonprofits will be left out, because they work on issues that do not fit the Strategic Plan, or in countries that have not been selected. This is why individual philanthropy at the local levels is important.

However, nonprofits then face the very difficult task of convincing wealthy Nigerians to support human rights.

 

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Exactly.

 

 

 

 

 

The occasional personal post

A very smart woman came up with this idea of mobile financial planning. Marsha Barnes hooked up and outfitted a school bus, named it the Finance Bar, and got regular everyday people to pay a small monthly fee for financial advice while chilling on the bus in South Carolina. From Good News Network:

To date, the business, which has just been approved as an official nonprofit, has 300 virtual members, and Barnes has worked with 4,500 people on the bus. The status will allow her to apply for grants and be able to raise funds to serve more people.

I love the name “Finance Bar”. It sounds like something that has always existed. We just needed to be reminded about it. I dig her hybrid fundraising model, mixing grants with membership. The disadvantage however is that membership can be very unstable. People who join the member club may quickly decide that they’ve learned all they need to, or no longer want to part with the $10 next month, and would leave. Its not clear from the website if the monthly fee is paid upfront or spread over a year. Still, I envy her brilliance!

I have been reflecting about my career and where its going. I find myself revisiting dreams I thought had died a decade ago. Dreams I imagined too difficult, or was too lazy to work for. I’ve contemplated a return to my original idea of going to business school. Not to pursue investment banking as my 17 year old self dreamed. Instead, to gain tools, skills and confidence that I can use to really impact ordinary people’s lives. I see myself in maybe 5 years working with a select group of organizations and companies in Nigeria that are of different fields, advising them on finance, donor or client relations, public communication, and organizational strategies. I see myself being so damn good that I can choose who I want to work with and who I am not interested in.

Source: Hello Beautiful

What if there’s a reason why I have so many interests? What if in a given week of my work life I could meet with a group of prisoners’ rights activists, then advise the CEO of a social entrepreneurship fund, and the next day teach young people in their twenties how to manage money? What if I also sat on the board of a women’s rights NGO that, through innovative out-of-the-box thinking and cross-sectoral partnerships, has found a way to keep the proportion of its budget funded by grants at no more than 50%, while maintaining a stable base of long-term wealthy donors?

My current job pays me well, and is providing valuable experience that will be useful. But it is far removed from ordinary people’s lives, and I sometimes find the culture of the organization hierarchical and a bit too cutthroat for my comfort. Yet I feel I can benefit if I stick with and give this job my all for the time being.

In the interim, I am learning French, learning to build websites (yours truly is my first of many test cases), and slowly, carefully conducting a search for the right next thing, whether it be business school or returning to the foundation world, or something else entirely. I’m also saving a lot of my money, as I want to be able to take on work in the future with few worries about my financial bottom line. For me, financial independence and serving others are intimately connected.

Mirabel Centre in Lagos may shut down

Nigeria’s only rape crisis centre is in dire need of support.

Source: Aljazeera

Mirabel Centre was opened a few years ago with funding from UK DFID, but this funding is expected to end by the end of 2015. Unfortunately, sexual assault and domestic violence centres find it difficult to sustain funding in the long term. Unlike certain issues like microfinance or agriculture, private donors in Nigeria shy away from what they see as “controversy” surrounding gender-based violence. This is a shame. If there is no controversy that GBV is wrong, there should be no controversy around supporting the handful of community groups solely dedicated to addressing it.

Support the Gofundme campaign to keep Mirabel open. Blog, tweet, and like the centre on Facebook. Reach out the founder to see how you can help.

Compassion is a powerful force for good

There’s a beautiful post by Sir Elton John from earlier this week on how an act of compassion can save someone from feeling cut off from society and alone. While the post is focused on the stigma of HIV/AIDS, I think his message applies to other ways that society and culture and sometimes even religion shut out people. I like to think that philanthropy i.e. giving time and money out of a love for humanity and with little hope of gain, is a way to connect us to those who are suffering. Check it out.