Career Talk - Episode 4 transcript: Esther Agbenla

Transcript of podcast episode with alumni guest speaker, Esther Agbenla 

Podcast length: 28:40

Cate: Welcome everybody to this episode of Career Talk. I am Cate Linforth, the International Employer Liaison Officer for Careers Network at the University of Birmingham, and I am so excited today because today we have one of our alumni, Esther Agbenla here with us. Welcome, Esther. 

Esther: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.  

Cate: How are you?  

Esther: I’m good, I’m good. How are you?  

Cate: I’m good, thank you. Thank you so much for joining us. It's really nice to see you again and I’m so glad that you're here and willing to chat to us a little bit about your career journey and what you're up to now.  

Esther: Sure, sure.  

Cate: So, without further ado I think we'll just jump right into it. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Introduce where you're from, what you studied at the university and just generally, what you do now and where you're at now?  

Esther: It’s lovely to be here, thank you so much for reaching out. Live here from Lagos, Nigeria. My name is Esther, as she said. I went to University of Birmingham, studied Public Health, and International Public Health was the primary focus in the postgraduate school.  

So, what do I do now? I currently work for a totally different sector but kind of have amassed the tools in the same place, but basically everything is through my social impact passion from the get go, but I work for Junior Achievement Africa, in the regional office. Basically, we’re interested in and really focus on entrepreneurship, work readiness and financial literacy. Impacting lives basically, that's what we do. I currently double as the Executive Assistant to the CEO, as well as the Nigerian Office Manager. So, basically that's what I’m doing currently.  

Cate: Amazing well thank you so much for joining us, it sounds like your role is so rewarding and I think you know we have a lot of people who will study one thing and think that they're going in one direction and change and just find themselves in a different place and it's like it was always meant to be. And I think that's really wonderful, and it sounds like your role is incredibly rewarding.  

We'll just kick right off there, with regard to your current role and broadly speaking, what does it involve and what do you do from a day to day?  

Esther: As my role depicts, I manage executive management for senior management within the organisation. I also manage the Nigerian, that’s the local office in Nigeria so with regards to partnership management, project liaison, things like that generally. Because we're a regional office we definitely have people working out of different locations so South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana. I think that's the thrill of it, that's really the thrill of it because I get to work with people with different time zones and we have to work around it.   

Cate: You've got such an international facet, and you wear so many hats and your role and I mean you, you briefly touched on this before when you were saying it's completely different to what you studied. When you were at university, what did you want to do as your career, what did you think that you would be going into?  

Esther: Wow okay, if you asked me this when I was younger... In Nigeria back in the day, we had three sectors of focus: lawyer, doctor or an accountant. So basically, I was put as the doctor at the time. So I think I was introduced to public health in my undergraduate degree because I don’t think I got in for medicine, but I was able to get in for public health and I was blown away and thought this was the interesting side of medicine so let’s just not get to the part where we need to cure any diseases. It was less stress. So WHO and places like that is where I wanted to work. I am still doing that, but in a different way basically. 

Cate: Just in a different side of it, that's fantastic. I think it's really important sometimes to just take some time, and when you're allotted that time where some of the decisions are made for you, it’s nice just to be able to take some time and actually think about what you want to do and try a few different things, and like you say you've got, as you say your fingers in different pies here, you're working on a lot of different things.   

So then tell me about returning back to Nigeria, what did you find was the biggest challenge you faced when you went home after your studies? Was there anything that you had really gotten used to in the UK or anything that you found more challenging when you returned home? 

Esther: I’d say the weather. It’s cold over there, it’s hot over here. I think when I came back, the first thing I thought was I couldn’t wear the same clothes, that was one thing that just hit me. It’s not easy, you have to stay under the AC for a long time because of the heat. I think that was the one major thing.  

So I think one thing I had to adjust to was the weather. Imagine being in one place for one year. I think by the end of the one year you are getting used to the cold, and now you have to leave again. Your body is like, ‘okay what do you want from me, pick one – do you want the cold or do you want the heat?’  

Cate: It’s just enough time to get used to it and then you’re thrust out into the heat .  

Esther: Exactly, right. So I think that was one major thing but, like you said getting right into having to transition into work wasn’t so easy. I think that was one of the reasons why I just said okay, let me go back and do my NYSC, and from there I worked with the legacy Ministry of Health. That's kind of like the local council in one of the states in Nigeria. So it wasn't really so hard and I had family and friends who supported. I still have connections with my personal tutor in the UK, Paul is amazing. Anytime I run to him, he's like Esther, you come back to me with different, unique, amazing sectors of your life. At different times you're doing different things.  

I’m just someone who's very resilient to be able to take every opportunity as it comes and make the most of it, so that I don't have any regrets eventually. So yeah definitely, I think there would have been some challenges, but I don't think it would have stopped me to achieve what I wanted. Well, I’m here right now so I guess we can say I’m doing good for myself. 

Cate: Yes, you’re thriving. I think you're doing really well. Did you find, like culturally, was it difficult to get back? Are there differences culturally in the work environment in the UK vs Nigeria? What was that re-assimilation like?  

Esther: Oh, wow okay. It's not everywhere you can call people by their first names because we’re a different culture or type of people here so you have the Mrs, the Ma, the Sir, so all the type of things really. I had the privilege of working with people that understood where I was from. And funnily enough, I met some University of Birmingham alums there. It was really amazing.  

I think it wasn’t so hard because globalisation has made a lot of people try to understand that what you grow up with is different from other people, so your background is different from mine. I think the only place where work needed to be done is when you have to work with a superior person and then you have to understand how the structure of the organisation works. So I work for Junior Achievement. It’s a global organisation, we are a first name basis, so I call my boss, who is way older than I am, by their first name.

So yeah, I think each place I have been able to work and, glory to God it has just been two, it’s really been easy to transition across cultures and as much as it’s different, we still have people that have diversified so it’s a very holistic and embracing space.   

Cate: That's wonderful and I would imagine that a lot of times when you go and experience a different culture and really immerse yourself in it, then the returning, we talk about this reverse culture shock sometimes. So I'd imagine being able to be in a position where you're fortunate enough to work with other individuals who understand that and who also are open minded and, like you say, working for very well rounded and holistic and organisations and people make that transition back so much easier. 

So then talk to me a little bit about the transition from studying at university to working, how did you find that transition and were there any elements of it that you were surprised about when you entered the workforce, or that you found to be challenging in the day-to-day or that you were surprised about?  

Esther: I think it wasn't so hard, I would say. So at my undergrad we were prepared for the job market. At University of Birmingham, I attended at least some webinars and some seminars, physical seminars about recruitment and stuff, so it prepared me, I would say that.  

Right, but at the same time, I think there were just available opportunities to learn different things. So, while in school some of your things being covered by family and all that, but now I began to work you begin to understand that things cost money. I have to budget my money, I have to save and the things I need to get are more than the money I’m making, so what do I do.  

So yeah, these are particular things that come to mind when I remember transitioning. Like I said, when I started the makeup business, decisions had to be made. Back in this side of the world, they say to you your life is in your hands right so you got to make decisions that make the most of it so that later on you can be good enough to live with the consequences.  

Cate: Well yeah, I think that's the thing and I think that for some, the gravity of that is quite a shock when you then go from studying where you know for all intents and purposes a lot of your scheduling is done for you, a lot of decisions are made for you and, yes, there are a lot of things that you do have control over whilst you're studying, I’m not suggesting that you don't, but your primary focus is to get your education and that's what you are most concerned about.  

That's, not to say that a lot of people don't have other concerns like financials and things, but I think for a lot of students when they then graduate and enter the world of work, you’re suddenly hit with like you say the budgeting and the life admin that have very real time consequences to them, and I think it can be daunting when you have lots of decisions to make and you're not necessarily sure which path to go down and it sounds like you're one of those type of people that just grab every path and take every opportunity and think well at least I can say that I've tried it, which I think is fantastic and it's such an entrepreneurial spirit that you have.  

It's something that the world is moving towards definitely I think you know, even those that go and work for large corporations and things, there's a reason that at University of Birmingham, we still have a large focus on enterprise and entrepreneurship, because we want people to have that enterprising mindset to really be able to make the most of the opportunities that they're given.  

Esther: You should come and work for Junior Achievement because you’re saying exactly what we do.   

Cate: Thank you! I don't have a visa to come to Nigeria, unfortunately. 

So that's a really good segway actually, talking about Junior Achievement, what do you enjoy most about the organisation that you're working for, what do you enjoy most about Junior Achievement and your current role, what's your favourite part about it?  

It doesn't have to be something very specific; it can be more broadly, you know just what elements of working for Junior Achievement that make you feel as though you've made the right decisions in getting to that path.  

Esther: I think you know when you see the life of a child that had nothing, one big example is one of the children that came from Ajegunle - and Ajegunle it really is one of the, forgive me for using the word, the craziest sides of Lagos right. One would think that nothing good can come out of this, and you see this particular young boy, ended up with an MIT scholarship, and you’re like, this is what I live for. To help people to bridge the gap between what the experience and the potential that they carry on the inside, so that people can see that it's not about where they come from, it’s not about the colour of their skin. 

It’s about the potential that they carry, and as much as they are at a disadvantage, we call it lower middle income right. Giving them the opportunity to come to your own side, see and leverage all the opportunities that you have so that we can build their capacity to be able to pay if forward, because such a person will come back and do the exact same and it's like the opposite of a domino effect. Rather than crumbling down, it is building up a lot of things right.  

Cate: You build a web don't you.   

Esther: Exactly. It is amazing.  

Cate: That’s so inspiring and you can hear it in your voice when you talk about it as well, you can hear how much you have a real passion for it. It must be just so completely fulfilling as well to witness this change happening in real time and knowing that you've had some part in that, in helping people achieve their goals, in helping people reach for their passions and their dreams and then seeing them come back and, as you say, pay it forward or replant those seeds so that other people can have similar opportunities. I think that's fantastic.    

So then tell me a little bit about Lagos in terms of the job market. Do you think that there are many opportunities for UK educated graduates in Lagos? Does there tend to be a preference with employers for a graduate to have stayed in Nigeria or those that have gone abroad to study? What's the market like?  

Esther: So right now the job market, I think since forever really Nigerians have not really- or should I say that the Southwest have always been a set of people who have really harnessed education and if you have an undergrad, that’s not enough. And now, if you have a Masters it might not be enough, you need qualifications and now people are going for a PhD and I’m just like, ‘I’m sorry no. Let’s slow it down people.’ Like I said, one of the reasons why I went to University of Birmingham was to gain the experience and the expertise and work with people in the field. I think one of the people I was opportune to have in class for International Health Protection was someone who was a med student at the time of Ebola.  

So imagine someone having that experience in medicine. Let me put it in Nigerian terms, he became “hot cake”. He was wanted everywhere because he had experienced a pandemic. They were able to help Sierra Leone, manage it, prevent it. So that’s kind of what I mean, definitely more people that have gotten that exposure, that capacity that is out there to come and change how things are done, to do things better in a more creative way. When I live here, I don’t see certain sides of things, when you have another person from another sphere, with another culture, you see things from different perspective. So like everyone is really embracing diversity, inclusion and stuff, so yeah, definitely.   

Cate: So you definitely need to have a global mindset and really some experience, just different perspective I think is what you're saying is really key. I think that's great, that's such a progressive way of thinking as well, and I think it's really important for any society to recognise, without getting political, to recognise that diversity is so beneficial to the success of any society because you have different perspectives and different mindsets and different solutions. 

So what do you think, in terms of going back to your role and your sector, what do you think are the top three skill requirements for working in the sector that you're in? 

Esther: I would say one thing is passion, the passion for what you do is really important so I’m currently working with I would say, an education and financial inclusion sector right. But at the same time, I still haven't forgotten the health sector, I think, last year before the pandemic or during the pandemic, I applied for a grant and I got it and it's basically for gender-based violence and a menstrual hygiene webinar because one of the things I found was that the rates increase during the pandemic, because one of the reasons is lack of access to certain insightful information. So if there's no passion for it, even though the money's not coming in for you, it's about the impact. 

I think another thing is being creative, being innovative is really key. Like you said, whether you go into a start-up, or you study business or you're working in the corporate sector, a lot of people want people that would be innovative, have critical thinking, design thinking, to be able to solve different problems. Because right now, we can see the problems don't come in one week, the COVID pandemic showed us that. We had to go digital, we’re doing a podcast miles away from each other. Before, we never would have thought.

As much as it was a “bad thing”, it brought a lot of new and innovative ways of doing things right, so it is basically being able to have whatever comes to you, “being a change”, leverage from it, learn from it and improve the sector that you're in.  

Cate: That’s wonderful, thank you. It was actually a really comprehensive one.  

And then just finally, I’m aware that your time is precious and that and we're coming to the end of our time, but I really just wanted to touch on one final question. What recommendations do you have for other international students who are currently at Birmingham for making the most of their time studying, both in the UK, but also at Birmingham? 

Esther: So I currently still serve as a postgraduate mentor with University of Birmingham. You're asking me the question that everybody asks me, especially those in Nigeria who say they are in Nigeria and want to apply to University of Birmingham.  

I think all through this podcast you hear that I am one person that will expect everyone, just every opportunity, take the moment the most of it. You're in Birmingham, in the UK. I think one thing I really did not, I really did not take advantage of was to travel and see places. So every time anyone is telling me that they want to go, I’m like you have to go to different cities, do different things. Explore, go out, meet people. Because now the currency is not money anymore, it’s the social currency, it’s social, it’s societal. How do you network and build relationships with people. Enjoy and visit places because people are as unique as the exposure they allow themselves to take in. It’s influences, creativity, innovation. So yeah, that’s one major thing I would say to people.  

Another thing is leverage the use of the school services - really key. I remember the University of Birmingham platform, I literally just used to enjoy going on there, looking at whatever news that was posted. I followed University of Birmingham on LinkedIn, on social media. I still keep in touch with Paul who was my tutor.   

I will say this again, people are important, so make the most of connecting with people and it makes you think in different ways, because well they’re different people from different backgrounds. 

Another thing, especially with international students coming from a different culture, different backgrounds, so that would be a great means for you to learn a new thing, learn a new skill, meet people, have fun.  

Cate: Just throw yourself in.  

Esther: Exactly, just throw yourself fully into it. There’s this saying that says “to whom much is given, much is expected”. Pay it forward also, you are there, make the most of it. One really big thing that I always tell people is that you are the picture of where you come from so present yourself in a good way to other people, so that when they see someone from your country, “oh my God, I had a Nigerian friend” or those type of things. I think that that really would change the issues we have with different people from different places, having issues so yeah I think those are two major things, or three, I've lost count. Make the most of it really.  

Cate: Well, Esther, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been really, really, really nice talking to you. I really enjoyed, I feel like some of your inspiration has rubbed off on me now and I really feel very invigorated and refreshed. That mindset is contagious so thank you for all that you do, and thank you so much for joining us, it's been so lovely talking to you. 

Esther: Thank you so much for having me I really, really appreciate it. Thank you, Cate, anytime, I’m available for you. 


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