13 Apr 2017
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Solving Nigeria’s Skilled Workforce Challenge

Innovative vocational education program fills gap between school and jobs
Re: Navid Rahimi (MBA 2013); Karan Chopra (MBA 2013); Bryan Mezue (MBA 2013); Jemine Rewane (MBA 2009); Clayton Christensen; Kathleen McGinn
by Jill Radsken

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Photos by Kunle Ogunfuyi

Even a college degree couldn’t help Temi Abiola, who grew up in Nigeria, land a job. Though he speaks fluent English, he lacked the problem-solving and customer relations skills required for his dream job in the hospitality industry.

Abiola’s struggle is one shared by millions of young adults in West Africa who are eager to embrace better opportunities through WAVE Academy (West Africa Vocational Education), an ambitious vocational program that finds entry-level jobs for its participants within six to eight weeks of completion.

“We are trying to rewire the entire education and employment systems,” says Misan Rewane (MBA 2013), a native of Lagos, Nigeria, and cofounder and CEO of WAVE.

In its first three years, WAVE, which only charges a fee once alumni secure a job, has served more than 1,000 young people. Abiola was able to parlay an internship at the Golden Tulip, a four-star hotel in Festac, into a position as a telephone operator at the Radisson Blue Hotel in Victoria Island.

WAVE is expected to train 25,000 people by 2019. “We have to start leveling the playing field. It should matter that employees have the competency or leadership skills for that job. It shouldn’t matter that it’s not packaged in a degree of four years,” says Rewane, who was recently named a Social Impact Fellow by Gerson Lehrman Group Inc.

Her enthusiasm for the project began in earnest at HBS, where she met her WAVE cofounders, Karan Chopra and Bryan Mezue. The three shared the experience of having grown up in Africa and a desire to help solve the problem of unemployment among youth. Navid Rahimi, another classmate, joined the team along with two classmates from an HGSE course on entrepreneurship in education. In all, their combined creative synergy earned WAVE runner-up status in the 2013 Social Enterprise Track of the New Venture Competition at HBS.

“I didn’t expect to be a social entrepreneur when I came to HBS, but our team viewed the problem as a ticking time bomb,” says Rewane. “We started WAVE with a pilot group of 12 young people, and I promised not to sleep until I got them all a job.”

Her extraordinary dedication to education began when Rewane was only six, when, enamored of her first-grade teacher, Mrs. Gbayisomore, she told her parents of her strong desire to follow the same path.

“I remember my dad saying, ‘If you want to be a teacher, you’ll be poor, unappreciated, frustrated.’ He painted a very unappealing picture, but it didn’t add up. Mrs. Gbayisomore helped me to learn things that made me smart in school. I knew I wanted to fix the system someday. I didn’t know whose job it was, but I wanted to do it,” she recalls.

While an undergraduate at Stanford University, in 2007, Rewane began to put her thoughts into action. She set up an initiative with her sister, Jemine Rewane (MBA 2009), and some friends, called the Impact Initiative (Inspiring Minds, Perceptions, and Attitudes to Change Tomorrow), which helps teenagers in Nigeria maximize self-discovery beyond the classroom.

“We recruit children every summer for a week-long program of workshops about leadership and empowering change. It’s all volunteer-run,” Rewane says.

Upon graduating from Stanford, she took a job with the consulting firm Monitor Group. Rewane spent her first year in New York and then moved to London, where she worked on projects in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. In 2010, she took a sabbatical, returning to West Africa to volunteer with TechnoServe’s Ivory Coast office, where she helped launch the nonprofit’s first francophone Business Plan Competition.

“It was my first time living in another African country, and I felt more alive than I had felt in a long time,” she observes. Rewane left the Monitor Group to join the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives (CPPA), a think tank based in Nigeria started by Harvard Kennedy School graduate Folarin Gdabedo-Smith. Though she anticipated her job would be researching and designing policy recommendations, Rewane quickly found herself engaged in the human resources realm, recruiting and building capacity for the organization.

“I spent months focused on recruiting research analysts and then designing extensive training programs. That’s when I started thinking again about the mismatch between the education and employment systems,” she says.” We couldn’t find good talent, and yet we were meeting so many young people who couldn’t get jobs because they didn’t have the skill set.”

In 2011, Rewane was awarded a full scholarship to HBS, sponsored by the SevenUp Bottling Company. She found the HBS curriculum and the student, faculty, and alumni networks equally empowering. In Professor Clayton Christensen’s course Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise (BSSE), she was immersed in the principles of management theory. In Professor Kathleen McGinn, she found a strategic thought partner who has since served as WAVE’s board chair.

“I didn’t realize HBS would be that powerful and integral in implementing our idea,” Rewane says. “Sometimes feels like we’re building a cathedral that could take hundreds of years, but there is happiness in the daily pursuit of making a difference.”

Rewane sees the transformative power of the program every day as hopeful, hard-working students—some micro entrepreneurs, many unemployed youth who lack post-secondary education—arrive knowing only how to hustle on the street for a couple of dollars a day.

“The minimum income here is about $45 a month. When they graduate, and find work, they are making $90,” Rewane says, adding that WAVE Academy is poised to pilot a new soft-skills training program among high school students.

She shares the story of Frank, a visually impaired man of fierce determination who completed WAVE two years ago.

“At the end of the academy, he said, ‘WAVE has transformed me and I want to be a trainer so I can help transform others. I said to myself, ‘You will always wonder if you could do more. Go get a job and come back to WAVE in a year.’ He did get a job, but eventually returned and started preparing to be a trainer. Today, Frank has trained more than 600 unemployed youth, who know him as Mr. Frank. He exemplifies the WAVE story, and is now part of a team of 30-plus young people making a difference to other young people.”

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Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2013, Section A
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