From Aduloju to America: My Fairytale 2019 (review)

Ogunbowale Olugbenga
18 min readDec 31, 2019

Asides from what I had seen in movies and heard on the news, the only place I had ever seen USA was in my affirmation.

“From Accra to Ankara and from Warsaw to Washington, kings and queens request for my presence and I bless the world with my essence”.

I coined that years ago when I didn’t even have a passport and the only country I had ever visited was Benin (I strolled across the border when I accidentally visited Badagry, Lagos with a friend).

How did an Ibadan boy from Aduloju end up in the United States of America?

The answer to that is a bit long because the journey did not start today. If you’d like some background gist first, I have written reviews on every single year since 2013. Catch 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 & 2018 now.

Backed by numbers and never seen before commentary, here is how my 2019 went down:

Books

I set a goal to read 2 books a month. I am (not) happy to announce that I missed the target. While aiming to read plenty books is a good thing, I have found that it's smarter to read a fewer number of books deeply, draft action points & actually act on what you learn. No point reading 52 books and remaining the same person. It’s why I’ll be reading only 1 book a month in 2020, but I get ahead of myself.

In 2019, I read a total of 8 books.

Hooked by Nir Eyal:

What compels us to check our phones up to 80 times a day? Or automatically go to Google when we have a question. Hooked breaks down how to Build Habit-Forming Products by associating users’ emotions and routines to a product, prompting us to return to it time after time, without having to resort to expensive advertising.

Hit Makers by Derek Thompson:

Why do some musical artistes and authors churn out hit after hit? Is there a formula for making hits in entertainment, business and life? Hit Makers essentially provides compelling research and exciting case studies to deliver the formula.

Winning Streak by Mene Blessing

Written by a serial award winner and fund raising professor, Mene Blessing essentially breaks down the process of raising money for your business in simple, practical terms. I strongly recommend this book.

Make your contacts count by Anne Baber And Lynne Waymon

It is the ultimate networking book of all time. It has tools to supercharge your career and boost your bottom line.

Find your why

Its Simon Sinek’s follow up guide to his hugely successful Start with why Book. The examples in the book for finding purpose were jaw dropping and eye opening.

The other books are Deep work, Small business, big money by Akin Alabi (a good read for anyone trying to start or grow a small business in Nigeria) & Priceless.

Movies

I did not set any goal for movies (who does?). Movies happened during meals at home and during my downtime. I saw 11 feature length movies & 6 seasonal movies.

Searching was compelling. A Dad’s search for her missing daughter showed just how search and social reveal what we do, what we care about, and even where we are.

Perfect Match was romantic to the T. Hot, stewed sex. Dope lines.

Fearless. Very compelling detective series. She was always a step ahead of her adversary even though it didn’t initially seem like it. She continued to believe in and fight for his innocence even in death.

Hobbs & Shaw was crazy! Idris Elba, the rock & Jason Statham combined to deliver mind bending stunts, memorable lines and pure action. I saw it in a cinema and I can still hear the audience gasp for breath.

The Widow:

How 1 woman refused to accept conventional belief that her husband died on a plane crash (especially when His body was never found) and embarked on a dangerous journey to DRC Congo to find her husband. She nearly got killed multiple times only to find that He was a beneficiary of the corrupt government, now living in Rwanda. With his help, She brought the Major General responsible for the crash to justice (not before He killed himself though). Very compelling storytelling and so many lessons.

Bodyguard

Dear lord……the storytelling was mesmerizing! A soldier turned police officer was assigned to protect a controversial politician. He not only put his life on the line multiple times, his professionalism was flawless (until She fell in love). The action, plot twist and casting was excellent.

Game of Thrones:

Even though season 8 was received with mixed feelings, episode 3 was phenomenal. OMG! Just when the night king was about to execute Bran, Arya jumped out of nowhere (Jet Li style) and nearly got herself killed. With the Night King’s hand on her throat, She let her sword slip from her left hand, She caught it with her right and killed the Night King! Melisandre was very instrumental in giving the living a fighting chance by conjuring magic fire to keep the white walkers out.

Others are Gringo, Proud Mary, Spiderman far from home, Tomb Raider, Captain America: the first avenger, Money Heist, Navy SEAL, Covert Affairs, Oceans 8, US and Equalizer

Documentaries & TED

Documentaries are essentially books on steroids. I indulge to learn and stimulate my brain. I saw 6 documentaries (with some having multiple episodes).

BBC documentary: the icons

Was brought to tears by the inspiring stories of Nelson Mandela, Theodore Roosevelt, Wiston Churchill & Margaret Thatcher. Mandela spent 27 years in prison, TDR had Polio…..yet, these leaders ditched excuses, delivered results and altered the course of history.

Inside Bill’s Brain

Bill Gates blockbuster Netflix documentary was a revelation. Bill revealed his routine, his habits and more importantly, his love for humanity as seen through his philanthropy. Bill is the reason Nigeria and several other countries around the world no longer struggle with Polio. Don’t just aim to be a billionaire, be like BILL.

Others include Formula 1, Sex life, The Mind Explained, True story of the internet & a Bloomberg documentary on Steve Jobs!

I teamed up with 5 friends to subscribe for Masterclass, which is essentially a constellation of the most successful people in America teaching the secrets of their success. My favorite video is Paul Krugman’s Economics Masterclass (hint: He is a Nobel laureate).

TED Talks

I saw a record setting 70 TED videos in 2019 (I can’t believe it myself!). Anytime I was in a hotel or anywhere with free Wifi, I would download TED talks. They are typically shorter than 20 mins and usually full of insight.

My favorite ones are:

How to Achieve Your Most Ambitious Goals” by Stephen Duneier

Why happy Couples Cheatby Esther Perel

A broken body isn’t a broken person” by Janine Shepherd

4 larger-than-life lessons from soap operas” by Kate Adams

Epower

When John C. Maxwell said “team work makes things work”, He was referring to the Epower team. From our Monday weekly meetings to happiness at work, and from good food to a sense of ownership, we fired on all cylinders.

As a web & app agency, we worked with Google on her Google Digital Skills for Africa Program. Even though it was short lived, it was a valuable lesson on how to secure business with a global giant. We kept talking to people who knew people in house & we kept knocking on doors for 5 months non-stop! Relationships matter.

Our biggest project came from far away Sweden. And it came through a friend I met at a YALI event earlier in the year. Even though they were skeptical to do business with a Nigerian firm (of course Nigeria has a divisive reputation), He vouched for us and we got the contract to build 2 mobile Apps for a major player in the non-profit space (IOGT International, now Movendi).

Epower’s Voice of Naija challenge caught fire. We had about 11 participants & thousands of voters. And we essentially set twitter on fire for Nigeria’s Independence Day.

Opportunities & Rejections

Since you’ve made it thus far, you may begin to think my life is perfect. I wish that were the case.

I usually joke that once you receive an email that begins with “thank you for applying to xyz”, you might as well save yourself the stress of reading the rest of what is sure to be a heartbreak.

I applied for several opportunities related to my areas of focus. A lot of these applications went up in flames. Some at the very last stage.

So, why do I keep applying? First, you miss every shot you don’t take. One opportunity can change your life. Second, every rejection is feedback. A call to tweak something, improve something or even stop something. That said, some huge opportunities clicked (hint: check the title of this review again).

Mandela Washington Fellowship:

At my 4th attempt, I was selected as 1 of 55 outstanding young leaders out of 11,000 applicants from Nigeria alone and as part of 700 Africans out of 55,000 applicants!

What changed this time? Overwhelming evidence of social impact through our quest to reduce unemployment by empowering thousands of youths with digital skills at Epower as well as my volunteering experience as the founder of The Orphan empowerment society, working hard to reduce orphan poverty across Africa. I prepared for my interview like my life depended on it. I prepared for every possible question, read my essays all over again and kept my mission & vision right in front of me.

You like hot gist? I have devoted an entire section to my MWF experience.

Also, I was selected as a YALI Network influencer alongside 25 others (out of a pool of thousands of Mandela Washington Fellows).

I got selected for Kravis Lab’s Moonshot House Boot camp in Thailand. The timing was bad for me (because of MWF), I had to defer.

GIST TECH-I

I was selected as one of the top 24 young entrepreneurs in the world by the US Department of State and I got to pitch Polivoice at Bahrain.

We flew from Lagos to Abu Dhabi, and connected to Bahrain. Abu Dhabi airport was really beautiful.

Bahrain was squeaky clean and charming. We even visited the Formula 1 racing center and toured the country.

Even though I didn’t win the top prize, I met so many amazing people & made top 6.

Immigration Brouhaha

Meanwhile, I nearly missed both trips.

I got selected for both opportunities around the same time. My passport had expired and I wanted to renew. Getting my passport renewed became impossible. I had paid online (a ‘crime’ according to insiders) and no one paid any attention to my file. I kept going nearly every day, for weeks. Realizing that I might miss 2 life changing opportunities because of the lackadaisical attitude of the immigration service, I wrote a scathing account of my ordeal. I also published what happened to be my first twitter thread and mobilized retweets. Momentum started building. Concerned friends called & chatted me up too. I shared my story with several media outlets. The Cable published my story.

Someone put it on Nairaland. I was trending. Dr Joe Abah (thank you Doc) engaged Immigration on twitter. Next, I got a call to pick up my passport. Apparently, my petition had gotten to the comptroller and they wanted to put out the firestorm quickly. Even though they spent hours looking for my file and berating me for ranting online, I walked out of their office with my passport.

The Cable then followed up my story to push for immigration reforms.

Awards

I was honored with Merit Awards courtesy of the following organizations: Mindset Network Academy, World Speech Day, Hultz Prize, Field of Skills & Dreams, Derayo Vocational limited & Sustainable Initiative for Human Development (SIHD).

Mandela Washington Fellowship, USA

Asides from what I had seen in movies and heard on the news, the only place I had seen USA was in my affirmation.

“From Accra to Ankara and from Warsaw to Washington, kings and queens request for my presence and I bless the world with my essence”.

I coined that years ago when I didn’t even have a passport and the only country I had ever visited was Benin (I strolled across the border when I accidentally visited Badagry, Lagos with a friend). It’s safe to say that I spoke this trip into existence.

Before we travelled to the US, we were hosted by then Senate President, Bukola Saraki.

It was a very warm reception. He listened patiently to all of us.

Flight: Lagos to London, London to Chicago.

My MWF experience was awesome!

First, the struggles:

I mistakenly set off the alarm in Loyola University & managed to get myself trapped in the elevator. Chicago police was at the scene in less than 5 minutes! They were professional and simply asked what happened. It was a little disturbing that I set off the alarm bells within 1 hour of entering the building. But I found it really interesting that the police made it to the scene in less than 5 minutes. Our emergency response system in Nigeria has a lot to learn.

The very first time I got hungry, reality hit me: America runs on burger! I tried and hated Chick-fil-A food. Chinese food didn’t help too. During week 1, Mcdonalds fries saved my life. During weeks 2–6, Indomie, Garri & Groundnut were my best friends. I even made a video to acknowledge the lifesaving powers of Garri & Groundnut.

Work brought Koye-Ladele Mogbekeloluwa (who works at Accenture UK) to Chicago. He hosted me at Grand Hyatt. I got to ask about his schedule and learnt how heavily regimented it was and how super disciplined He is.

We also reminisced on our secondary school days and our dreams (from Ibadan to Chicago). We took tons of pictures and even shot a video (that sadly, turned out to be muted!).

The fun

In the very first week, we had a scavenger hunt (and my team won!).

I was practically cashless. 99.9% of my transactions were via card. Train & bus rides were via Ventra card.

Classes were fun and interactive. The lecturers at Kellogg School of management even encouraged us to voice our reservations.

We Had a phenomenal session on getting investor ready with David Anderson.

With David Anderson

Prof Meghan dazzled us on social entrepreneurship. In one of the classes, we took the Clifton’s strength test. Unsurprisingly, my strengths were Strategic, Activator, Discipline, Significance & Communicator (in that other). I highly recommend you take the test and read up on your strengths. When a man knows & taps into his strengths, then He works with the strength of 1,000 men.

We visited several places including mhub Chicago: an innovation center for physical product development and manufacturing.

Northwestern University gave us two angels to guide us. Tiffany & Meagan were wonderful and helped with ensuring fellows with special needs got the very best care.

Meagan (left), Tiffany (Right)

From receiving amazon packages, to organizing field trips, and ensuring we never ran out of money (thanks to IREX), they made our stay in the states hitch free.

The one time I decided I was going to church in Evanston, I chose the ‘wrong’ metric: nearness. Lake Street Church turned out to be full of old people. The choir band was made up of people in their late 60’s. The songs were good though and to be fair, the Pastor told stories and relatable jokes in a sermon that surprised me.

During AFCON, there was no DSTV to turn to. I successfully streamed Nigeria’s match (the internet was lightning fast). Algeria won: incredible free kick, magical last touch of the game.

Graduation came too soon. We received 2 certificates: one from Kellogg and another from US Department of State signed by Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo!

MWF Summit

After spending 5 weeks in Evanston, all 25 of us proceeded to Washington DC for the Summit.

At the Airport, guess who I ran into?

Wayne Rooney!

It was amazing meeting all 699 fellows from other African countries! USAID featured me on Instagram. The Nigerian contingent visited World Bank HQ. Selected fellows visited Facebook in DC. I also visited the white house!

L-R, World Bank, White House, Facebook (with Fatu Ogwuche)

Earlier at Northwestern, I had emerged as the representative of my cohort for the Ignite talk: a TED style talk that a representative from each institute gives at the summit. I delivered a riveting talk on feedback.

During my time in DC, I met Jessica (a Fulbright fellow), who assisted me with my last minute shopping and drove me from Maryland to Washington so I won’t miss my flight (thanks Jessica!).

The Struggles

I had a bike accident in May

I was unfortunate to ride a bike with a careless driver. He was on top speed and it crossed my mind to caution him but I kept quiet, next thing I know, I am on the floor with my hands bruised, right knee bruised, jeans condemned. Thanks to helpful bystanders, I got water to wash away the blood, then found a taxi to convey me straight to a nearby hospital. The driver of the car did not even come down. I could have died or lost a leg. I am grateful for the gift of life. The wounds healed completely barely 2 days before my trip to the US.

I struggled with Sore throat for months

What didn’t I throw at it?

All kinds of antibiotics. Countless visits to the Doctor. I finally settled for tonsillectomy. The week after the surgery was pain incorporated. Drinking a cup of water turned into a seasonal movie of unimaginable pain. Close family & friends checked up on me. With all that love, my throat had no other option but to heal fast.

Media & speaking engagement

Interview by Voice of America

In 2019, I was featured by 10 media houses: BCOS, Voice of America, USAID, NTA, Premier FM, IBR Fm, TVC, IATV, Tribune & The Cable. The combined reach here is in millions.

I spoke at 25 events reaching about 3,470 persons directly.

Fake News was the #1 topic the media houses sought my opinion for.

At events, I spoke on Leadership, Social media & Entrepreneurship.

I shared the stage with former governor of Oyo state, Senator Abiola Ajimobi at a YALI Learns event (He spoke right after my session). I trained 600 women on digital marketing & finance at the invitation of the first lady of Ogun state, Mrs Bamidele Abiodun, in conjunction with She Leads Africa.

I was a judge at Hult Prize OAU alongside Achenyo Idachaba-Obaro of Mitmeth and some rockstar judges.

I spoke at numerous Pacesetters Leadership Club meetings including the sold out GET Funded Series.

To give back to society on my birthday, I organized the Spectator to Spectacular conference which had over 150 youths in attendance.

Together with amazing Oyo Mandela Washington fellows Ako Eyo & Wuraoluwa Ayodele, we organized a MWF application guide and followed up with a completely sold out YALI learns (Grant Writing) master class.

If you want to get featured by the media, ensure you build a brand around your core strength. Consistently share useful content on social media and whenever you get a chance to speak at an event or on TV/radio, deliver a stunning performance that leaves your hosts wanting more. Finally, network with media people. They will seek your opinion if you are good at your craft. Like my brother, Oladayo Ogunbowale once told me “when you are loaded, you are needed”.

Philanthropy

Minting Millionaires

As a Tony Elumelu Fellow, I prepared a free guide to help aspiring fellows and coached a few applicants. About 20 of those got in. I have written an updated version for 2020. Get it for free here.

The Orphan Empowerment Society

20% of orphans experience chronic disability due to lack of medical intervention. A whopping 95% will wallow in a continuous cycle of poverty without intervention. This is why The Orphan Empowerment Society (TOES) is working hard to reduce orphan poverty in Africa.

In 2018, our biggest feedback from orphans & care givers was that our kindness should not be seasonal. They asked that we go beyond December to Remember to making every month one to remember, for the orphans. In 2019, with the support of our volunteers & partners, TOES successfully empowered nearly 1,200 orphans with vocational skills, over 500 orphans enjoyed free medical care and over 1,350 enjoyed 3 months’ supply of food & provision across 19 Nigerian states and 8 African countries.

From catering to Ankara accessories, from Computer training to Bead making, from Purse making to Tye & dye, and from Liquid soap making to visual drawing, these orphans can now design, create, bake, sew, craft & sell their skills. In other words, they will rely less on aid and rely more on their new found skills to start small businesses, and with their improved finances, access better feeding & better education. A major step towards ending orphan poverty in Africa.

There is so much work to be done & we need your support. You can volunteer here. You can donate here.

In closing

I hope my review did not just entertain or engage you. I hope it inspired you to dream more, do more and leave a dent in the universe. Your dreams are valid.

Kindly share your thoughts on this review and your biggest lessons from 2019 in the comments section below.

See you in 2020!

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