01 Jun 2002
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Up to the Challenge: Demola Gbadegesin - In the Right Direction

by Susan Young

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Democracy. Family values. The promise of technology. The themes that arise when talking to Demola Gbadegesin are ones that many Americans assume to be their own. But for this native of Nigeria, their potential for creating change carries added meaning. Although Gbadegesin has lived more than half of his life in the United States and speaks perfect English with a slight Midwestern accent, he is still at heart a Nigerian. Armed with his MBA, he will return home to launch an identification system designed to increase access to credit for individuals and small-scale entrepreneurs.

“If you don't give it a try, you can't know if it's possible.”

“If you don't give it a try, you can't know if it's possible.”

Gbadegesin and two Nigerian classmates, all of whom were officers in the HBS Africa Business Club, plan to set up an infrastructure that will offer financial institutions the technology to identify customers using fingerprints and smart cards. “In much of the developing world, there is no system of identification,” he explains, “and that makes it virtually impossible to grant credit to individuals.” While he is pleased with the feedback they have received on their business plan as well as with the contacts they already have in place, Gbadegesin is realistic about the difficulties ahead. “We know it's a big risk, but we're committed,” he says. “If you don't give it a try, you can't know if it's possible.”

Gbadegesin spent his first four years in Okeho, a town of about 2,500, before his family moved to Wisconsin so his parents could attend graduate school. When he was eight, the family returned to Nigeria, where Gbadegesin experienced culture shock in reverse. “I didn't fit in initially,” he says with a warm smile. “A lot of people didn't understand my accent, and I had to readjust to Nigerian culture — relearning Yoruba, making new friends, understanding how things were done.”

In 1990, Gbadegesin, then seventeen, came back to the United States to study engineering at Howard University, where his father is now the chairman of the philosophy department. Next he went to Stanford, earned a master's in electrical engineering, and worked in California for several years, starting at Hewlett-Packard before moving on to Sprint PCS. Gbadegesin says HBS has given him the opportunity to build on his work experience and to be closer to family members who are living on the East Coast.

During most of the 1990s, Gbadegesin was unable to go back to Nigeria because his family was blacklisted due to their involvement with the pro-democracy movement. “There is a cost to being opinionated and standing up for what you believe. At times that means not being able to do things that are important to you,” he says, citing the fact that his family could not return to tend to his ailing grandmother as one example.

In 2000, however, after the military government was replaced with a democratic one, Gbadegesin and his family went back to Nigeria and held a memorial service for his grandmother. Since then, several members of his family have been considering returning home. “A lot of people involved in the pro-democracy movement have moved back and are making positive changes,” he notes. “We still have a long way to go, but at least the steps are in the right direction.”

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2002, Section F

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