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Hear My Story: Olukayode Alao

Category: BAME, black history month, EY

As part of our Black History Month celebrations we are talking to role models from the UK BAME community in order to offer an insight into their lives as well as help advise candidates and employers on how best to represent and encourage equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace.


Olukayode Alao

Procurement | Civil Engineer | Sustainability


“Moving out of our comfort zones helps to improve us in the long run, by building life experiences and stories which we’ll go on to tell the next generation.” Olukayode

I had always looked for that mentor, someone like me, in the same pay bracket, with similar aspirations. This was not available to me when I moved to Italy. This is another reason why sharing stories can really help as it can be easy to feel alone if you don’t have access to people experiencing similar things. I’d like to provide my story so that others can see my journey and find out about the positives and negatives and face their own challenges with a bit more clarity.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey

I am Nigerian, I grew up in a household where my Dad was serving in the military which meant that we moved around a lot to new cities and countries. Within this nomadic lifestyle, I had to quickly make new friends, fit into new schools and make new alliances. In the early-mid 2000s, I pursued engineering as the subject matter for my journey into higher education. Originally, I had the intention to study petroleum engineering, but just before I made my study choice I was lucky enough to meet one of the top executives at Total, who told me that petroleum is a limited resource. He informed me that there is a move towards renewables and sustainable infrastructures, where investments will only grow over time. So this is how I ended up on the civil engineering course, a less specialised subject, with more adaptable skills for a changing market and links to vast opportunities.

I worked for a construction business in the oil and gas industry in Nigeria for 18 months through the end of my degree, graduating in 2011. Working and studying was a great experience and opened my eyes to the professional setting. It also made me realise that I wasn’t quite ready, I still hadn’t gained all the tools I needed to be the most capable engineer that I wanted to be. This led me to look into doing my masters, which I looked to do abroad. I looked in the Americas, Europe and Africa, finally securing a scholarship in Cape Town, South Africa. This ticked a lot of boxes for me allowing me to gain experience working with concrete materials and working on-site, areas which I wanted to improve in. 

I started in 2013, moving to Cape Town which I called my home for two and a half years. I forged many new friendships, made lots of new acquaintances and it was the first time I lived in a city which wasn’t made up of predominantly black people. Up to this point I had been relatively secluded from the cultural differences and social subtleties that come from a very mixed racial city. I’m so glad that I had this balanced experience, as Cape Town offered a mix, rather than going from one cultural extreme to another. My friendship group had expanded to include people from over seven nationalities. This is where I found an affinity with Europe and a wider Africa. I believe this to be an important foundation for where I am now.

After graduating from my masters my plan was to stay in Cape Town and make a life. However, life thought differently and offered me two choices. One was an engineering opportunity to join an Italian company based in Johannesburg. The second opportunity was to move into a totally new space with a start-up which was working in the financial technology sector in Cape Town. I spoke with friends and family at length but in the end, I decided to choose Italy as I had invested so much in my engineering education. I impressed my bosses and after just two months after joining the Italian company I was offered the chance to move to the headquarters of the company, in Bologna. 

What was it like moving to Europe?

Initially it was exciting. I thought about all the opportunities to travel around Europe and see new places. Even after making friends with a number of Europeans in South Africa, I never thought it would be Italy where I would end up. The first day I arrived in Italy was a real shocker. I was located outside of the city centre and thrust into a culture which was less cosmopolitan than I was used to in both Nigeria and South Africa. The first thing I noticed was how wreckless my driver was, hurling us around roundabouts without due care and racing down narrow roads. When I arrived in the suburbs it had a less vibrant, youthful population than I was used to. I had no wi-fi and couldn’t even buy a train ticket to travel to the city centre until the following Monday. On Saturdays, by lunchtime every store was closed and on Sundays there was nothing. It was a culture shock. I was totally unprepared and at that moment I thought I had made a big mistake. To be honest I felt unsure for the first four months, which was made harder due to the fact that my colleagues spoke little English, even though I had been informed that much of the business would be conducted in English. At this point, I thought I would have to move back to South Africa. 

I endured and found a new position changing companies and moved to Milan, where I have now lived for three years. I would say that career-wise and development-wise I have really found the Italian system to be quite open in giving opportunities when they thought you were skilled enough. I haven’t found this so apparent in other European countries so they are doing well there. It’s quite a challenge personally as for most companies I have worked for I have been the first black employee. So, in terms of feeling like a minority it was quite impactful.

Do you plan to remain in Italy and settle or do you want to continue to travel?

Yes, for sure. I would love to experience more travel professionally. However, one thing I am very proud of is how in just four years I got fluent in Italian. This was professionally guided as well as personally. As my career evolved, I was required to interact and work with people face to face, rather than some of the more software-based work of my early role. Moving to procurement within the construction sector I needed autonomy, negotiation skills, people management, relationship building and many other traits. Having the language skills and learning the cultural idiosyncrasies helped me to forge a successful position for myself. I’d like to experience new cities and I’m interested in opportunities on the African continent as well; especially with all the exciting start-ups. Italy was completely out of my comfort zone and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. 

What advice would you give to someone looking to take their skills to a new city or country?

I’ve pondered on this a lot and actually wrote a blog on this which you can find at the end of this feature. To distil it I would say - prepare, prepare, prepare. Learn the basics of the language to start, even if the role doesn’t demand it. Prepare yourself a ‘survival kit’ with toiletries, familiar favourites, books, basics - things to help stabilise you in the initial few weeks and months. As fast as you can learn the language and integrate into the community. It is crucial to establish a feeling of home wherever you are. 

You mentioned obstacles in the workplace. Have you examples of prejudice and if so how did you tackle this?

My story is different, in a way because I grew up in a predominantly black country. I had never attached much value to racism in my youth, often seeing any negative advantages/disadvantages as being attached to nepotism or plain old corruption. Moving to a country like Italy, where black people are very much a minority; especially when compared to countries like France, where you’d have black people in the whole range of professional roles, from bankers to chefs. In Italy, you still find that most of the black population are either working menial jobs or they’re begging on the street, or as the media likes to say - ‘we are bringing crime into the country’. And so from this perspective I have experienced people crossing the road to avoid me, people clutching their bags tightly when they are close to me, looks of surprise when I walk onto the Metro dressed immaculately in a suit. Over time the cumulative effects can get to you, so I try to focus on the positives and come up with ideas for what I can do to make things better. I have immersed myself in the language and culture, joined societies, and in my own way tried to show your average Italian that there’s more to being black, more to emigration/immigration and a richness to other cultures. Things have improved over the last decade but there’s still so much to do. 

What figures from Black History inspire you?

First of all, I’d say Nelson Mandela. He played a huge role in my life as I connected with hi, through reading his books and seeing his speeches. Sadly he died December of the year I moved to South Africa, as I would have loved to have the chance to meet him. He’s had a huge impact in terms of forgiveness, looking beyond common problems and focusing on solutions. Secondly is Muhammad Ali. At times I do feel concerned about our future as black people globally, and you need strong voices to change the way our stories are told over time. Someone I have followed a lot is Malcolm X. His call for action over complacency was affecting for me. The most important person I feel, who is sadly also late, speaks words of wisdom is Louis Farrakhan. He was a Muslim convert and American minister who spoke with a deep motivation to the black people. He spoke to the people to understand black history and take pride in building a better future. 

Any final thoughts?

My life and my choices have been deeply affected by where I’ve come from. I don’t think I ever would have been open to moving out of my comfort zone if I did not grow up in a family where I was constantly moving from place to place. I think this set the foundation for my flexibility. My final words come from a saying from my culture, which loosely translates as: 

‘if you don’t get out of your father’s farm you think it’s the largest. Until you move out to somewhere else where you can see with perspective and relativity, you will not understand that where you’re coming from is little, and there’s so much more to experience.’

As young professionals, Millennials or Generation Z, the world has become more open to us. We have more access to opportunities and the only way to grow is to take up new challenges. Moving out of our comfort zones helps improve us in the long run, by building life experiences and stories which we’ll go on to tell the next generation. 

Further reading

Home away from Home - https://medium.com/@qaurde/home-away-from-home-b4ca07237482

Medium - https://medium.com/@qaurde


Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kayodealao

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email [email protected] for more information.

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