One man’s pursuit of the degree gives a whole new meaning to studying abroad, from regular 18-hour flights, middle-of-the-night team project calls and high-stakes culture shock.
Toyosi Orunmuyi has been leading a double life.
On weekends, he is a casually dressed executive MBA student at the University of Michigan in the US. On weekdays, he’s leading corporate presentations as an oil and gas executive in Lagos, Nigeria. The 32-year-old is chief financial officer of the GE Oil and Gas Sub-Saharan Africa subsea and offshore business, where he’s in charge of managing operations in the area.
He’s spent nearly two-years commuting from Nigeria’s largest city to a quaint American college town in the middle of the US.
“I always have to switch my mindset every time I travel,” said Orunmuyi who graduated earlier this month, earning his MBA.
A grueling commute
Unlike corporate travel, commuting for school has meant giving up precious weekends to complete coursework and then wearily heading back to work on Mondays.
I’ll pay $50 for a shower — that’s worth every penny
The result has been exhausting. Every other week, Orunmuyi arrived in Ann Arbor on Thursdays, taking classes all afternoon Friday and all day on Saturday. On Sunday, it was back to the airport for an 18-hour flight — always with a connection in some city like Atlanta, Houston or Amsterdam — back to Lagos.
In Detroit, the cultural shift began. For instance, Orunmuyi rented a car for the 30-minute drive to campus, reminding himself all along the way to take a calmer approach to the road. “I have to remember not to honk at everyone and anyone,” he said. Back in Lagos, just like most people, he’s more aggressive and less obedient when it comes to winding through city traffic.
GE covered part of the cost of Orunmuyi’s degree and travel, but he tried to be prudent. Even so, there was one splurge he indulged in: a business lounge pass between flights to help him recharge.
“I’ll pay $50 for a shower — that’s worth every penny,” he said.
I always have to switch my mindset every time I travel
To prepare for travel, Orunmuyi kept two wallets, one for America and one for Nigeria, each with copies of his passport, local driver’s licenses and health insurance information, as well as local credit cards and the respective currency in each to avoid conversion fees. As well, he stored local SIM cards and a small pin to change out the cards on his phone.
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Orunmuyi stayed with a local classmate and wore boots to keep him warm in the frigid Midwestern winter — even with dress socks — and headed to Bar Louie for a well-done hamburger topped with a fried egg. “It was sort of my welcome to America treat,” said Orunmuyi of his Thursday night ritual. In Lagos, burgers are expensive and inauthentic, he noted.
Later, he’d join his classmates to try various beers at the Grizzly Peak pub as part of the Mug Club. The next morning, he’d prepare for afternoon classes by completing his case study readings.
Back in Lagos, where he lives with his wife in the Lekki Phase 1 neighborhood, a 15-minute drive from the Victoria Island GE office, his wife welcomed him home with his favourite pounded yam or rice with ofada sauce.
“I’m usually able to sustain a healthier lifestyle at home. My wife keeps me straight,” he said.
To be sure, there are cultural differences between Nigeria and the US, particularly when it comes to social demands at work, he said.
In Nigeria, coworkers tend to share more personal information, while his rotations in the US (he’s lived in Houston and Cincinnati, along with his time studying in Michigan) are more formal.
“Everyone [in Nigeria] takes a coffee now and then,” said Orunmuyi, who was born in England but relocated back to Nigeria with his family when he was just a year old. “We talk a lot more in an informal way.”
In the US, the to-the-point culture can make it difficult to transition when his American colleagues are doing business in Nigeria. “[Nigerians] feel the need to give a long answer to the simplest questions,” he said.
It’s kind of exciting to just hop on a plane and find something new and something different
Living in Lagos, is an adjustment as well. Power outages are the norm and “there are very few rules” when it comes to traffic or queues.
During his typical 50-hour workweek at GE, Orunmuyi kept up with his day to day workload, but also with class projects, despite the time zone (all of his other classmates were US-based). “Team assignments end up falling at midnight or 02:00,” which means his MBA team often had to be supportive when he couldn’t join, he said.
Likewise, when arriving in Michigan on Thursdays, he stayed awake later to catch up with colleagues back in Lagos via phone to make sure he’s in the loop come Monday.
Why do it?
As he moves up the ladder at GE, his travel schedule is slowly changing to more regular regional travel interspersed with trips back to the US. Starting this fall, he’ll spend weeks traveling throughout Sub-Saharan Africa to Ghana or Angola (flying out on Monday and returning Friday) with occasional travel outside of the continent. He’s looking forward to the next phase.
“For me it’s kind of exciting to just hop on a plane and find something new and something different,” he said.