Ayo Owodunni made history this month when he became the first black immigrant to be elected to public office in Kitchener, Ontario, a town about 40 miles west of the Toronto suburbs.
Why are you interested in this? Because Ayo is one of my dearest friends. “You’re part of the family,” he corrected me last week as we chatted over Zoom. But for you, more important than either of those two types of relationships, I share his story because it’s a story of integrity, drive, and bravery that’s filled with inspirational life and career lessons.
Don’t be afraid to get in touch
Ayo first caught my eye in 2014 when he tweeted me. At the time I was living in Tuscany and was building a wealth of content by blogging and posting on social media regularly. I don’t remember exactly what he wrote. But I think there was something complimenting about a blog I had written about great communicators. The young man was polite, engaging and thoughtful. So I wrote back. And he wrote back again.
In the weeks that followed, we developed a professional relationship. He shared that he lived in Lagos and was a manager of a Nigerian media company. He offered me the opportunity to provide weekly radio updates on European news via Skype (that was before Zoom, folks). And I took it. I enjoyed chatting with Ayo and the rest of the Radio Continental 102.3 FM news team. I found him smart, clever and innovative.
Don’t be afraid to dream
As a dramatic demonstration of his unconventional thinking style, Ayo one day told me he had a “crazy idea”. He wanted to take me to Lagos to talk.
(I could stop here and devote an entire column – or three – to giving you details of this incredible plan, but today is about Ayo’s election, not my tour. Suffice it to say, it happened.)
I went to Nigeria for six weeks and worked with thousands of business people, college students and media personalities. I also finally got to know Ayo and his equally impressive wife, Folake, in person.
Move to seize the opportunity
In fact, it was Ayo’s wife who suggested the couple move to Canada before starting their family.
Ayo was born and raised in Lagos under the harsh hand of an abusive father. “He hit my mother many, many times in front of us kids,” Ayo recalled, describing life with his five siblings. This besieged woman also possessed an indomitable resilience and became Ayo’s guiding star. Despite her difficulties, she somehow started the elementary school that Ayo attended as a boy. He went to college and got an MBA. Education remains a cornerstone for Ayo.
When Folake raised the idea of emigration, Ayo considered the future of his future children and agreed to the plan. Looking for a city that was close to universities and shops but not as big as Toronto, they settled in Kitchener, which is slightly smaller than Cork with around 200,000 people.
Their son Dayo was born in 2015 and their daughter Kemi followed shortly after. Folake worked for a software company, and when Ayo was not working as a consultant, trainer, and facilitator, he devoted himself to active volunteer work at his church and other community organizations.
He told me at one of our many meetings that he dreamed of holding public office. But first he had to obtain his Canadian citizenship.
Don’t wait for the perfect time
This year, Ayo achieved that goal. His ceremony took place just two weeks before the deadline for the city council nomination.
“There were so many things that had to happen to meet the many deadlines and Folake was out of the country leaving me alone with the two children. I rode them around in the car and bribed them with cookies while trying to get the 25 signatures required,” Ayo recalled. “It was more exhausting than doing the actual election yourself.”
At first he decided to just run “to learn”. But Folake interjected, “No, you’re going to run to win.”
It was an uphill battle, pitting Ayo against a field of more experienced candidates who had lived in town much longer than he had. But armed with a book on how to run an election, a team of volunteers and a commitment to courting the district and listening to its residents, Ayo pulled through amazingly earlier this month.
He is now an official Kitchener Ward 5 Councilor.
stay on the rug
The historic victory caught the attention of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who congratulated Ayo and Folake by name in a press statement.
I asked Ayo if the leader of his adopted country had congratulated him.
“No, Justin didn’t call me,” he joked, referring to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “Still.”
But Ayo is aware that power can be revealing. “I must be the same Ayo. I have a wife who will hold me accountable and tell me how it is. I also write down my values and read them every morning.
“I want to repeat that for other people. Immigrants from other cities have already reported who want to walk. We build a playbook for them. I want to help others reach their higher potential.”
Next time you hesitate about potential career planning or development opportunities, keep Ayo in mind.
https://www.independent.ie/business/irish/the-communicator-how-ayo-owodunni-seized-the-day-and-you-can-too-42158065.html The Communicator – How Ayo Owodunni Seized the Day and You Can Too