01 Mar 2017
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In My Humble Opinion: Arunma Oteh (MBA 1990)

Nigeria’s Iron Lady goes global
by Julia Hanna

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(Photograph by Stephen Voss)

World Bank VP and Treasurer Arunma Oteh (MBA 1990) has a clear sense of why she likes her job: “You bring very sophisticated finance tools to tackle the world’s most challenging problems.” Originally from southeastern Nigeria, she grew up with Nigerians from several different ethnic groups in the country’s north, along with Indian, Chinese, European, and American expats. “My early exposure to people from diverse backgrounds is probably the reason I enjoy such environments,” says Oteh, who served for 17 years at the African Development Bank before her 2010 appointment as director general of Nigeria’s Securities and Exchange Commission.

Today, Oteh and her World Bank team manage more than $150 billion in assets. “Our leadership understands that you can bring innovation from the private sector and capital markets to solve the world’s most difficult challenges,” says Oteh. She describes visiting World Bank projects in India that mitigate risk in tsunami-prone areas and help rebuild stricken communities: “In one instance, I met a couple who, for the first time, owned the title to their newly rebuilt home. As a result, they had enough collateral to start a small business. That is the real change that makes what I do so special.”

Dinner-table finance: “We used to grumble as children because my father would make us read through the annual reports of companies he had invested in, but that was an early influence: realizing I had an education and holidays because my parents complemented their income by investing in the Nigerian stock market.”

Nickname: The Iron Lady, for her tough antifraud stance as director general of SEC Nigeria. “We made sure that the cost of wrongdoing was very high and that there were no sacred cows. I knew that the Nigerian capital markets could be transformative—that this was a role where I could really contribute to the development of my country.”

Pathbreaker: “I admire Madam C.J. Walker, an African American woman who became a millionaire by creating and marketing hair products that she couldn’t find for herself.”

On corruption: “When you read the press on Nigeria you assume that everybody is doing things that aren’t proper. The reality is that there are only a few bad eggs. If you do the right thing and people see that you are making a difference, you will get support beyond what you can imagine.”

Hometown returns: Oteh has built a football arena in Item, her hometown in Abia State, in addition to funding scholarships and providing medical services to the underserved. “I’ve been blessed, and I believe very strongly in the importance of giving.”

Smart money: The Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, a new World Bank financial program that provides surge funding to prevent a disease outbreak from becoming a more deadly, and costly, disaster. “Because the money was not immediately available during the Ebola crisis, we had more human losses than we should have, which rolled back development gains made in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea.”

High finance, wide impact: The Mulan bond market, which added the Chinese yuan to a basket of four international currencies with special drawing rights for development projects. “We named it for the Chinese woman warrior to signify the World Bank’s focus on gender issues.”

One for all: “Last year, donor countries and the World Bank put together a fund to assist Jordan and Lebanon, two countries whose public services and infrastructure have been most directly affected by an influx of Syrian refugees. The refugee crisis is a global problem, not just that of a few countries.”

Native tongue: Igbo. “My parents were very particular about us speaking our mother tongue. I also speak French, having lived in Tunisia and Côte d’Ivoire while working for the African Development Bank.”

Of note: Oteh has been awarded the Officer of the Order of the Niger as well as two Chieftancy titles: Ada eji ejem mba (in Igbo, “a worthy ambassador of her people”) and Ada di ora nma, “a sister her people are proud of.”

Special treat: A Parisian pear tart with ice cream. “A sweet tooth is just one tooth. I have a sugar mouth.”

Good times: Listening to music, playing piano and guitar, dancing with family and friends. “I like musicians such as Angélique Kidjo, Bono, and Bob Geldof who use their music to advocate for the less privileged.”

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Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1990, Section C
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