Imagine a simple cell phone platform that connects millions of impoverished people in Ghana to banking systems for the first time. Or a mobile-phone based reward system to bring garbage removal to the 17 million people living in the trash-heaped city of Lagos, Nigeria.
These possibilities have inspired 2012 Olin College of Engineering graduate Bukky Adebayo. "I'm good at math and science but my passion has always been about people," she says. "At Olin, I learned how to translate my natural aptitude to my interest in people--I learned that I could solve people's problems using math and science."
Adebayo, who moved to the United States from Nigeria when she was 9, first realized this in her Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship (ADE) course. "To say that ADE was the most transformative course of my Olin experience is an understatement," she says. In ADE, she joined a team of students tasked with building income-generation tools to help people living in poverty in Greensboro, Alabama.
As she worked to help Greensboro residents through easy-to-use technological solutions to pressing problems, Adebayo began to think about the people she could help back in Nigeria. "I felt a new sense that Nigeria is my country and if I can make the country better, I'm making life better for my family."
"At Olin I learned that engineering doesn't have to be all about cool robots, but about finding ways to change things," she says. "Lots of Nigerian problems don't need high-tech solutions."
So a year after college, Adebayo, having cut her teeth at a Boston start-up, hopped on a plane and joined the entrepreneurial African company Swifta to work on "mobile money," or financial transactions on mobile phones in which digital money replaces cash. It's taken off in many parts of Africa, transforming the lives of millions of (largely uneducated) people who didn't have access to banks.
Not every student can walk away from a steady job to pursue her dream; Adebayo gratefully acknowledges her Olin scholarship, which left her debt-free on graduation. "The Olin scholarship gave me the freedom to explore opportunities like these," she says. She considers the scholarship a key way to ensure diversity at Olin. "A really cool part of the program is that it brings in other people like me, who grew up in immigrant families and aren't as well-off as some, and who are navigating their way through the American story."
Adebayo was willing to "push pause" on her own American story, feeling "a strong call to return to my mother country." She started at Swifta in Ghana before moving to Nigeria, developing mobile payment systems. "In Nigeria we went from having no mobile phones 10 years ago to over 80 percent of people having them today," she says. "We can use those phones as a platform for financial inclusion."
Now Adebayo works at the Nigerian-based social enterprise Wecyclers, which rewards people living in poor areas of Lagos when they recycle their household waste, preventing it from piling up. In densely populated low-income areas, people throw trash into streets, leading to health problems and flooding, which causes malaria. "People earning $1.25 a day can't pay for trash removal," she says. The company picks up bags of recycling from members, who earn points based on the trash's weight. Their points are accumulated on their mobile phones and can be cashed in for rewards like food items, household goods or even money.
Adebayo loves her job, but isn't quite ready to close the book on her American story. "I might head to New York," she says. "If it weren't for Olin I wouldn't have had confidence to find my own voice and not do what everyone else is doing. I've developed the confidence to drop myself anywhere and figure out how to make a life for myself--and I'm always going to go for it."
Note: Since being interviewed, Bukky has left Wecyclers and returned to the Boston area. She realized she needed to save some money, and she also saw how much more she had to learn. She is hoping to do that in some kind of combined business and emerging technology role with a US company. She might even want to do grad school in a few years.