Oluwashayo Tinuoye – or Shayo as most people call her – is a young Nigerian lady who has traveled to thirty four countries in her quest for knowledge and an opportunity to impact lives. And she isn’t done yet. She intends to visit as many countries as possible before she is too old to travel. But where did it all start from? To understand her will, we may have to go way back.
Shayo was born into a blended family, the daughter of a Reverend who lives in Kaduna and a retired teacher who lives in Ibadan. She is the first child of her father and the last of her mother. She has eight siblings in total, four from her dad and four from her mum. It’s a large family with Shayo as the middle child. I asked how she was able to cope with the drama that was likely to come with such family dynamics.
“Growing up, it was more challenging having to deal with separated parents and being caught up in the heat sometimes. But it is way better now.”
She had to balance her relationship with her family by spending time in Kaduna when school was in session and in Ibadan during the holidays. Despite the family issues she was facing, she always maintained her happy-go-lucky personality. In high school, she was ribbed a lot for being a tall girl – she was 5’7 at the time of graduation – and she found a way to tease back, making her a favorite among many of her classmates. Nothing, it seemed, could dampen the bubble of happiness that was Shayo.
Shayo knew she always wanted to travel but apart from shuttling between Ibadan and Kaduna, she didn’t really think much about it. It wasn’t until she got to the university that an opportunity similar to the start of a cheesy love story presented itself.
“So I was sitting on the walkway after a boring lecture one glorious day back in 100 level and a couple of cute boys walked up to me and my friends. And they were like, ‘What’s your passion?’. We couldn’t answer in a way that was convincing.
“So they told us about this amazing organization that helps people explore their leadership potential blah blah blah… But what I took out of all the mumbo jumbo they said was the fact that I could travel to work on a social issue. And I was very passionate about HIV/AIDS. So I was like ‘Why not? After all, na plant we dey study!’.”
You see, Shayo had written JAMB three times because she wanted to study medicine. When university admission was not forthcoming and she absolutely needed to leave home, she agreed to study Plant Biology at the University of Ilorin. This was a course she didn’t have any interest in, so her stay in the university was just to pass time. Cue cute boys to change the narrative.
The organisation they were raving about? AIESEC.
When Shayo found AIESEC, her university days finally became interesting. She was glad to have found something that was practical and she gave it a greater portion of her energy. She was not really clear on the objectives of the organisation until, at the 200 level break, she went to Ghana.
“I went to Kumasi, Ghana, for an internship where I worked on a project called ASK (Answers and Solutions around HIV/AIDS). It was mainly creating awareness in high schools. So I worked on this project alongside other interns from about 10 counties. We partnered with a couple of organisations focusing on similar issues in Kumasi. After I got back, I had more clarity on what AIESEC was about. So I became a super active member.”
Getting clarity came with a price. The internship was self-funded and unpaid, as all the participants were volunteers. I became very curious about how a 21-year old girl managed to travel abroad to work with little funds. How did her parents react?
“Haha! My parents were in full support, although my dad became skeptical at some point. And he was like, ‘What are you going there to do… blah blah blah…’ But I managed to go, being a stubborn head. Plus, mum was in full support. She paid for my transportation. So I went via ABC – longest trip of my life! And she also gave me pocket money. My dad also gave me some cash, plus I saved a little. So I managed.”
From that moment, the travel bug bit Shayo and she couldn’t be cured. Even though most of her trips have been for work, she has used every opportunity to enjoy the people and cultures of each country she has been to. So far, that number has been thirty-four. You begin to wonder how many times she travels a year.
“It’s hard to take an average – the reason being that my trips were totally dependent on my role. For example, when I was Director for Talent Management in Ghana, I traveled only twice. When I became Country Director, I traveled more and then when I became Director for Africa, I had to visit even more countries. So those visits were almost always work related.”
Shayo’s plate is clearly full, when it comes to travelling for work. I wondered if she had any time at all for personal vacations and leisurely trips.
“Yes I do. Every year. Two years ago I spent my entire vacation exploring Italy. Last year, Malta Island and Cambodia. Okay… let me answer your question. On an average, I travel thrice a year, at least.”
Isn’t she living the life?! Shayo’s job is certainly interesting because of the opportunities it provides, but don’t be fooled – it’s not an endless vacation. She worked incredibly hard to build herself from a young volunteer into the organisation’s Director for Africa. She talked me through her journey, and emphasised the importance of seizing opportunities and staying committed.
“First, AIESEC is an organisation that I define as a playground where you can learn, unlearn and relearn. I realised every opportunity or role comes with a lot of learning, exposure and exciting challenges but also comes with a lot of sacrifice as well.
“I knew I had no chance with Plant Biology and I saw AIESEC as an organisation that could help me achieve my goals. So I capitalised on every open opportunity. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of AIESEC applications I have written, the number of conferences I had to attend etc. It’s incredible! And yes, I grew in ranks because AIESEC is an open organization.
“Discrimination doesn’t exist in AIESEC and just like every other organisation, it had its own structure because it needs to be run in a sustainable way. You need to apply and compete with the best and you can imagine an organisation present in over one hundred and twenty four plus countries and territories, with over eighty thousand members. It’s the survival of the fittest.
“So anyone can be anything in AIESEC. You just need to work for it and the only way to show that, is to be relevant. And being relevant can be achieved in anyway; delivering quality and good results, leaving the right values etc. For me, what worked was the fact that I had clarity of mind. I knew what I wanted, why I was doing it, and what needed to be done in order to achieve the vision which I had. And that was it.”
The next line of thought had to be where she felt she had made the greatest impact, since that is at the heart of what she does. She contemplated this question for a while before responding.
“Hmmm… I would say when I was Director for Talent Management in AIESEC Ghana. That experience was special because I had just graduated from school when I applied and was selected to head Talent Management in Ghana.
“I had no clue what Talent Management was really about even though I did a couple of stuff back in AIESEC Ilorin. But when I look back at the crazy days and the results achieved I would say it was an amazing experience. Someone who had no clue about Talent Management making the country top 1 in AIESEC network, Africa. I would say that’s something I’m proud of.”
Anyone who has heard of AIESEC has probably heard that volunteers pay for all their trips. Why people pour a lot of time, money and energy into an organisation that isn’t paying them is worth musing about. When asked, Shayo laughed off these concerns but assured me that the initial investment is absolutely worth it.
“Yes, there are so many trips and sacrifices at first. But it’s also a well-known organisation and so, it is easy to get sponsorship. Almost all my trips were paid for by sponsors, alumni etc. When I became Country Director, then I had a travel budget. In the beginning, it is quite demanding but when you climb up the ladder, it becomes a full time job and you get paid and all. It does get better.”
Shayo has lived and worked with people from various backgrounds and has been exposed to some of the cultures and ideologies that make different people what they are. She has learned so much about humanity and she sums it up as follows.
“There is one lesson which I call the greatest of all: different is different, there is no wrong or right.
“I learnt this even more while I was in the Netherlands where I worked with twenty-three people from seventeen nationalities. The fact that someone acts in a way different from how I act doesn’t mean they are wrong and it doesn’t also mean that I need to change who I am in order to accommodate them. It just means we are different and that doesn’t make it wrong.
“Imagine if everyone in the world has the understanding that it’s fine to be different; it’s fine not to have the same opinion. The world would be a better place! We will live together with understanding. That’s the greatest thing AIESEC taught me.”
Hard not to dab the eyes at that. Anyway, Shayo might have seen the world but she hasn’t forgotten home. She tries to make it to Nigeria once a year. Despite her many travels, she still says Nigeria is her favorite country.
“And it’s simple. No place like home. I mean. I fall in love with almost every country I go to but I miss home all the time.”
Shayo currently lives and works in Brussels, Belgium, a town she describes as “glorified Lagos”. She loves the town because she gets to eat her favorite food – pounded yam and Egusi soup – every weekend.
“Belgium is super diverse and you can find anything here. We have a huge African community where you can buy just about anything. In fact, after this interview, I have to rush to the market to get kpomo so I can cook soup!”
Shayo is inspiring because she found her passion, pursued it and has advanced in her career. At first, it wasn’t financially sensible to pour her money into developing herself and impacting lives but eventually, it has paid off. Now, she can soak up in the sun in Malta, drink in the beauty and romance of Italy, be humbled by the temple in Guangzhou and bask in the sights and sound of different African communities. She has truly become a global citizen. If, like Shayo, travel is your thing, she has one final piece of advice.
“Never make money an excuse not to travel. Once you set your mind to do it, you will find the right way around it.”
Seems like pretty good advice that will do anyone a great deal of good, whether you’ve caught the travel bug or not.