Originally on a path to become a medical doctor, Otto passionately redefined his career path to pursue human capital development and social entrepreneurship after witnessing a serious need for helping disadvantaged children access quality education and opportunities in his community in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
“The future generations are really counting on us, and we wouldn’t want them to come into the same space, or the same ecosystem, and face the same challenges we are facing and suffer from the same,” he shares with YALI Voices.
His organization Slum2School Africa provides educational scholarships and support to young students in need of schooling and development. Otto’s initial goal of enrolling 100 children in school has expanded to 11,000 children in the last five years.
He shares many of the practices that helped make him successful, as well as lessons learned in his early journey to founding the organization: fundraising, community advocacy, getting organized and using his network to find mentorship: “Before you go into any venture, make sure you have clear strategies in place,” Otto reflects. Sustainability is a major component of his work.
As a young, proactive leader with nearly 10 years of experience in social enterprise management, consulting and community development, Otto gained many of his skills along the way:
“We are all on individual paths … and when we are all moving in our paths, the resources that will enable us to succeed are at certain points on that path. But if you’re not patient enough to keep going until you get to the next path or to a certain milestone on that journey, you wouldn’t find the resources that are there.”
Otto’s story reflects the value of perseverance when creating your own path to success to help your community. Listen to hear more of his insights on how to be a successful social entrepreneur and never give up.
The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government. YALI Voices is a series of podcasts, videos and blogs contributed by members of the YALI Network.
ORONDAAM OTTO: OK. My name is Orondaam Otto. I’m a Nigerian, and I’m passionate about everything Nigerian and everything African.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICEOVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices Podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcast and visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up to date on all things YALI.
Orondaam Otto is a Mandela Washington Fellow and YALI Network member from Port Harcourt. And he is a passionate social entrepreneur. In this podcast, Otto shares his journey to creating Slum2School Africa. It’s an organization he founded to provide educational opportunity to orphans and vulnerable out-of-school and in-school children, through educational scholarships and other psychosocial support programs.
Otto credits his service in Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps for helping focus his attention on the needs of those less fortunate, which is where we begin our conversation.
ORONDAAM: And so I was posted to Lagos and I was working in a bank for the Youth Corps — it’s called National Youth Service Corps. And prior to being posted for my national youth service, I had been involved in so many youth-led programs and youth development programs. I was going to be a medical doctor because, growing up as a child, my parents realized that I was always very passionate about helping people. And I had so much love for humanity.
And the only career options as children were either a lawyer, an engineer, a medical doctor, an accountant. There were very limited courses. And so it was so obvious that I was going to be a medical doctor because that was the only course that had that humanitarian spice to it. And so my dad is also a medical doctor, so it was basically me taking over from him.
Going into medical school, I realized that I couldn’t really deal with the trauma that comes from you realizing that you were in the care of a child and somehow you couldn’t save that child and the child dies or you could save this woman and something happened. I couldn’t deal with that trauma almost every other day of my life. And so I decided that medicine really was not the only avenue I could use to make the world a better place.
And so my passion really was around human capital development, working with young people, working on providing opportunities for disadvantaged demographics and then showing that young people had an equal opportunity to have their voices heard.
ORONDAAM: So I realized when I was quite young, in my secondary school, that I could do something with all the passion and the emotions and the burden that was in my heart. And right from secondary school, what we call high school, I had started volunteering for organizations and so I volunteered with the International Red Cross. I volunteered with different associations. We went out to communities, we did community service, we volunteered. And I was around 13, 14 years old. For me it was fun at that point, but I just wanted to do something. And I just found myself being happy that I was being able to put smiles on the faces of others. And so when I got into the university I quickly found an organization which had a similar passion, and that was AIESEC. AIESEC is the world’s largest student-run organization.
And I became a member of that association, and that gave me the opportunity to travel and work with lots of young people who were similar-minded. And eventually I became the president of our chapter, and it gave me even more access to opportunities and more access to the network and experiences and exposure and inspiration. So as a student I realized that I had built a whole lot of skills that would have taken me four or five years after school to build.
And so that was when I joined the association and so I led different teams. I was a project team leader, I was an exchange team leader, I was team leaders for different projects, conference team managers, vice presidents, presidents. So I found myself leading my peers in so many different teams and different capacity. And in all of that experience, indirectly or unknowingly, I was building soft skills and technical skills and leadership skills.
VOICEOVER: But it wasn’t long before Otto decided that the job at the bank, while rewarding and a great opportunity, was not where he believed he could make an impact.
ORONDAAM: Because I had built those skills in the past. I wasn’t just doing it out of some excitement. It was well thought-out, and that’s why I always advise young people, before you make any decision, make sure you have a plan in place. Before you go into any venture, make sure you have clear strategies in place. Don’t always think with your heart, think with your mind, think with your brain, and we say, think with your head. That’s where the thought process should begin because emotions could be very short-term.
But logic, in so many instances, is what sustains any venture. But it begins with your emotions, it begins from the heart. But at some point you need to leave your heart and get into that well-structured process. And that’s why we see lots of projects starting and after three years it’s no longer there, because it was just an excitement, it was just the spur of the moment. And after a few years, when push gets to shove, you realize that this young people can no longer continue with it because there was no very well thought-out sustainability plan from the onset.
And so I knew that this was going to be a very important part of my life. I had already built what we could call a leadership development plan, and I knew that five years down the line I should be doing something around this, providing opportunities for people, helping the underserved communities, inspiring young people, inspiring my peers. And that would not happen at the bank, so it was part of my plan and that was why I was inspired enough to pursue it.
ORONDAAM: So after I left the bank, we had a project. The plan was to get 100 children into school, which was the first goal, and which was still part — because I had told the officials that we want to see how these children can get into school before my service year is over. And that was what gave them the liberty, if I should use the word, to say, OK, let’s give you a chance to go pursue this dream. If it works, good for you. If it doesn’t work, we’re going to query you because it’s based on this premise that we’re giving you the opportunity to leave the job and leave the bank.
And so I had to get my friends together and we came up with a strategy to raise funds because, apparently, we were nobody. There was no organization that was going to invest in us at that point, or invest in me. It was basically me, myself, and my friends. And I got them together and that also speaks to relationships. My friends trusted me. They knew that what I was going to do was not just about me, it’s about the larger picture. And somehow they all keyed into that vision, and so we launched out and went out together to raise funds on social media. And in about two weeks we were able to raise enough funds to get 118 children scholarships to get into school. And so it was a huge success story that I got awarded by the state governor as the most outstanding Corps member.
And that was when it really hit me that this was the right thing to do. And so I decided I wasn’t going to take the job opportunities, but I took the money and the award, apparently, and it’s opened greater doors, bigger opportunities, larger awards and recognitions. I got a scholarship to SOAS in London, which I didn’t go for because I felt it was still very early to leave this very young project and go pursue a one-year master’s. It would look like this was just about me. And so that was a sacrifice that was made and we kept working on the project, working on building the volunteer network.
And in about five years, today we’ve had over 6,000 volunteers from 25 countries. In so many instances volunteers come into Nigeria to work, and we are scaling up into different parts of the continent. We’ve reached out to over 11,000 children across 10 communities in Nigeria. We’ve built computer learning centers, computer development centers, early childhood development facilities, health centers, e-libraries and different learning spaces for these children. And so we’ve seen this project gradually grow from nothing, from just an idea into a movement, which is really phenomenal and really exciting.
ORONDAAM: So the first — there are different levels of fundraising, which is key for the YALI members to understand. First is personal funding. Second is friends and family. Third is corporate donations or corporate investments or what you get from partnerships. And the fourth is return on investments. So these are different levels of funding. And so whatever you want to do, you should be the first person to be able to invest in that enterprise. You can tell me you want to launch a business and you’re looking for someone to give you startup capital of, say, $100.
In so many instances, money is never the first need. I always tell young people, if you want to write a book, what you need is not money to publish the book. What you need to write the book is a pen and a piece of paper. And that’s how you start writing the book. You get to the point where you have the manuscript, maybe 500 pages, and it cost you really nothing to write that book. And then you don’t have a laptop, you could find someone who has a laptop, you could find someone who is going to help. So money is really not the first need in any enterprise. Money is not the first need in any business idea or project or venture. You need to have the passion to pursue that dream and pursue it against all odds.
And so I had saved a little money, which was what we used to begin the community advocacy programs, the sensitization, the profiling, the advocacy and all of that. And when we needed to fundraise, I got my friends together, and that’s where friends and family comes into play.
But what we did was what we call crowdfunding. Crowdfunding, it’s a different approach, which in most cases runs on the friends and family network. And so I got about 100 of my friends, which is a huge number for someone who says, “I don’t have 100 friends.“
I had a huge network of people who I knew, and it’s not just about them knowing you, it’s about you knowing them. It’s about managing the relationship, it’s keeping in touch, it’s finding out how you can be of service to them and not how they can be of service to you. Because when I find out — when I call you in the morning and ask you, “How are you doing? How can I be of service to you?” I don’t necessarily have to ask you. I could just be interested in what you’re doing: “How is your project coming up? I hope it’s going well.”
And you’re like, “No, the first phase we failed.”
I’m like, “Oh, just be patient, things will go well.” Just keep putting in so much effort.
And then the next time you try and you succeed. If I call you the next day and say, “I want to raise funds, would you like to be part of it?” Of course, you would join me. And so it’s about managing relationships. And so I got about 100 of my friends and said, if we can raise 10,000 naira each — and that’s to say if we can raise about less than $100 each — if each of us can raise $100, we will be able to raise $1,000 as a collective. Or, say, $10,000 as a group. And that would be able to get those children to school.
ORONDAAM: So when we launched Slum2School Africa, and I mean when we launched the community advocacy phase, because one of the first things we did was to sit down, I had about five friends who I brought together who were experts in their own fields.
And I said, would you like to volunteer for a day or two, let’s just think about this? And they were like — it’s a huge honor when someone who you call a friend invites you to be part of something that’s bigger than you or bigger than them. And so we all came together and we sat down and we put some structure together. Because I had already done lots of projects in the past and for me structure was very key. And so we had what we called integrated operational circle that had eight different stages.
And so we knew that from Stage 1, you’re going to Stage 2, to 3, 4 and up to 8. And so the first things we did were the community entry, where we had advocacy, where we met with the community leaders, the community youths, the community women, the community elders, the chiefs and the bales, the royal kings and all of those kinds of people. We met them and had meetings and told them what we wanted to do and made sure they were all part of the vision.
I think that’s very key, because when people buy into your vision the process becomes seamless. And so we found them giving us their community center, having their youths join us for advocacy, having their children even be part of our team. And so the process was quite easy at first. And so after advocacy we had built what we call the community-based volunteer team. And this was a group of about 30 young people who were from the community and who were ready to volunteer without being paid or wanting to get paid.
And so these guys were foot soldiers in the community because they understood the languages we didn’t understand. They understood the terrain we were not used to. And so those were the young people who went into different centers and called the children who were out of school and said, on these particular days for a week, seven days, we are going to be profiling out-of-school children and you guys should come over. And we had planned to enroll 100 children into school. In three days we had over 700 children profiled. And the process that was going to last for a week, we had it end in three days because we didn’t have the capacity.
And so after profiling, what we did was the verification, where we went into the community to visit all the 700 children we had profiled to ensure that we met them and met their families. If you said you were a maternal orphan, we want to find out what happened to your mother. If you said you’re from a child-headed household, we want to find out who was the child taking care of you. If you say your parents are dead, we want to find out what your grandmother is doing. And that helped us to verify and select the most vulnerable out of all of them.
Because we didn’t have the resources to put all of them in school. We didn’t have the money to provide all the things they needed to go into school. We didn’t even have the capacity of schools that were going to take them. And we didn’t have the capacity to build the school as well, and so we had to prioritize. And that is where verification came into play. And so after verification we went back to the office, which was my house at that point. In fact, it wasn’t even my house, it was my friend’s house because I was staying with my friend.
And we sat down with a huge bulk of papers and it was just sorting and selecting. So this child doesn’t have a mom, doesn’t have a dad, she’s 8 years old, she’s never been to school, she has more importance than a 6-year-old who has a father and who doesn’t have a mother, but has been to school and dropped out. So we had that priority list and that was how we came out with the 118 as against 100 because we realized that we couldn’t even drop the 18. They were as vulnerable as — and five years down the line some of those children are going into senior secondary school today.
We have a whole lot of them in junior secondary school, and we’ve gotten sponsors for the ones going into senior secondary school. We feel like we wanted to support them up until — and I always say consistency is very key. Today we really do not even have to go out there to look for corporate partners. We have corporate organizations writing to us every other day, and these are some of the multinationals, because we built a brand, we built an institution that was not about one person, it was about a system. It was not about Orondaam Otto, it was about the sustainability of that organization.
And so everybody came on board and held the vision like it was theirs. In fact, there were times when some volunteers were even more passionate than I am. And I’m like, hold on, is this your vision? Like, you’re even more passionate than myself. And we could see that energy, and it’s still the same energy that is being played till today. We have volunteers applying from everywhere wanting to be part of the organization because they connect with the vision.
In fact, in so many instances we go out for fieldwork, especially with new volunteers, and most of them do not even know who the founder is. And I try as much as possible, in so many cases, to take myself backwards. Step back and allow the team leaders, team managers, the departmental directors, who are volunteers working in multinational organizations, but giving their time to lead other volunteers. So I let them, in so many instances, drive the organization without being micromanaged or micromonitored.
VOICEOVER: We asked Otto how he is managing the growth of Slum2School Africa as it receives more donations, identifies more need and aims to help more students.
ORONDAAM: I wouldn’t say it’s been easy. I didn’t go to school to study growth management and sustainability; I learnt on the job. And so there were areas where I had weaknesses. I call them the known knowns, the known unknowns, the unknown knowns and the unknown unknowns. And so there were stages — there were times when I had my known unknowns, the things I know that I did not know.
And so I had to go study, I had to take online courses, I had to meet mentors, meet organizational directors in similar organizations who were experts and, in so many instances, who already knew about what we did. And so when I call someone or I send an email, “Oh, I know you and you’re doing a great job,” and it was easy to learn from their own wealth of experience.
And so it’s been learning on the job, but most importantly, being able to put a benchmark with certain standards of organizations. And so there’s something we have in our office that shows us the top three organizations we want to be like. And I wouldn’t call their names, but we have these organizations and every day I walk in and look at what they’re doing.
But these are organizations that share the same passion. When you see the way they work, it reflects commitment, it reflects passion, it reflects — I feel God places us in different places for different reasons. And wherever you are is the best place you could be, it’s the best place you could function. And so when I see young people who are like, “Oh, I don’t think I’m supposed to be in this place.” No, you are there for a certain reason. Find out what is in your hand, find out the resources that are under your feet, find out what is within your environment, make the best out of it, and I’m very certain that you will excel.
We are all on individual paths. Your path cannot be the same with my path. My path is not the same with the next person’s path. And when we are all moving in our paths, the resources that will enable us to succeed are at certain points on that path. But if you’re not patient enough to keep going until you get to the next path or to a certain milestone on that journey, you wouldn’t find the resources that are there.
I always say that life is like a staircase with different floors. In so many instances we climb up to the end of one floor and we try to open the door and the door is difficult to open. It doesn’t mean that door would never open, but if you’re patient enough to keep trying and keep trying and keep trying, the door eventually opens and then you find yourself on a different level.
It’s patience, perseverance and purpose that takes all of us to that victory in life. And so whoever you see who’s successful has put in the work. Success is not an error, success doesn’t happen by chance. I always say that wherever you see that is excelling in life, if you go back and find out where they’re coming from, they have their own success stories. And so don’t be intimidated and don’t compare yourself with someone else’s journey.
VOICEOVER: As we end our conversation, Otto offers some advice to YALI Network members interested in social entrepreneurship.
ORONDAAM: I’m excited about the quality of leaders we have in our YALI Network, and I have so many of them as friends. I’m part of that network as well. And what I would advise them, especially those who were thinking of starting social impacts projects, what we call social enterprises, there’s a difference between a nonprofit organization and a social enterprise.
And quickly, the difference basically is that a social enterprise has the social before the enterprise. The enterprise comes next because it’s going to be a venture that supports the social. And so you want to have a venture that is sustainable. You want to have a venture that generates funding.
And first you must put the social before the enterprise. You must put the impact before the financials, or before the — I wouldn’t want to even call it profits. But you should be committed and interested in solving the problem more than making money. I think one of the challenges or one of the mistakes that people make is to think about what they can get before what they can give. They think about who they can be before what they can do.
I’ve seen young people who say, “Oh, if I can just be the governor or the president, this is what I’m going to do.” But you realize that you forget that you are a president or a governor where you are. If I had waited to be a local government chairman or a counselor or a state rep or a senator before going to help the constituency that I had no relationship with, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
And today I find myself sitting on the board of the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund. I find myself working with different agencies consulting and advising, helping to shape policies and helping to also improve the policies that affect those vulnerable groups. And that was because I realized that I could be the change I wanted to see in the world and not necessarily wait for the change I wanted to see in the world. And so young people need to realize that wherever they are, they have the power, they have the capacity, they have the resources, to do whatever they want to do, to be whoever they want to be, and to go to wherever they want to go.
The power is in their hands, the power is in our hands, and we need to maximize that power. Because there’s something we say, if not now, when? And if not we, then who? So it’s up to us to stand up and take that bold step and start being that change the world needs to see. The future generations are really counting on us, and we wouldn’t want them to come into the same space, or the same ecosystem, and face the same challenges we are facing and suffer from the same problems we are suffering from. It’s up to us to build a world that is going to be more comfortable and more conducive for them.
VOICEOVER: Thank you, everyone, for tuning into another YALI Voices podcast, and thank you Orondaam Otto for sharing your wisdom and being an inspiration to young leaders all over the world.
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