When Toheeb Abolaji Alabi finished his national youth service in 2014, he had just one thing on his mind: securing a white-collar job. After facing several rejections, he took the advice of a friend to seek greener pastures abroad.
Today, the Political Science graduate works in the information technology space and has built a successful wristwatch brand in the United States.
BlackBox Nigeria had a chat with Toheeb to learn more about his interesting journey.
Tell us about your humble beginning.
I was born in Lagos, Shomolu Palmgrove axis to be precise. I attended Shewa Nursery and Primary School, after which I proceeded to St. Gregory’s College in the Ikoyi-Obalende axis. I had my first stint of tertiary education at the Federal Polytechnic Ilaro, where I bagged my National Diploma in Business Administration. I had my Industrial Training at Intercontinental Bank PLC.
I went back to school, to the Lagos State University to obtain a bachelors in Political Science. I’ve always had the penchant to study Law, but the Nigerian factor set in and I had to settle for a similar discipline so I chose Political Science.
Being a brilliant chap, I was on a scholarship throughout my stay in LASU. I graduated top of my class. I was also the Best Graduating Student in my set. I did another internship immediately after graduation. I spent four months at IPNX Communications in the Victoria Island area of Lagos.
I had my mandatory NYSC program in Nsukka, Enugu. After service, there was no job, and I had to look inward so that I could do something better for myself. Amid the wait for the nonexistent job, a good friend of mine suggested that I travel to the United States for my masters. Even though I didn’t have the resources at the time, I had fate and hopes. I forged ahead and fortunately for me, things worked according to plans.
I finished NYSC in March 2014 and left Nigeria on December 31st of the same year. I got to the US on January 1st, 2015. That was how the new journey started.
At what point did you decide to leave Nigeria? Tell us your ‘japa’ story.
Let me give you a background. During my undergraduate studies, I was working as a part-time research assistant to Mr Hakeem Onapajo who was a PhD student in South Africa at the time. He was also mentoring me, so I thought I would follow his steps and that of my lecturer and second mentor, Mr Fatai-Abatan (Baresi) and join the academia. Both of them had advised me to go for my Masters at the University of Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa. Since I was a “scholar”, the plan was for me to become a lecturer but I didn’t know what God had in stock for me.
Completing my university education and the futile job search scuttled my plans. Though I got a job at KPMG but my age got in the way of the opportunity because I was already above 26 years old and there were age barriers in the areas of recruitment. And of course, I got some ridiculous job offers which I rejected.
I was still in the middle of deciding the next thing to do with my life, when this good friend of mine told me: “Man, you should consider moving to the US. Why would you risk going to South Africa and come back to Nigeria to look for a job?”. I followed his advice, gave it a try and God said Amen to it.
Just to let you know, I never planned to japa. In my final year, which was in 2012, I planned to go to South Africa for my masters. But after NYSC in 2014, I met my very good friend who suggested that I apply to a US school, Arkansas State University. I applied and I got in. The rest, as they say, is history.
Though you have a background in Political Science, you work as a Senior IT Risk and Compliance Professional at a biotech company. Why the switch?
For me, the switch was one of the lessons I learnt in my life journey. And I think studying Political Science in the first place was a failure of mentorship. I say this because in a country like Nigeria, we churn out thousands of graduates yearly and these individuals studied courses that cannot be readily put to use. Not everyone will be lucky to lecture or get the opportunity to work in government agencies or related establishments that would appreciate the skill set of a political scientist.
Again, studying Political Science for me was a product of the mentorship gap. Many of us never thought about what we studied from the standpoint of the return on investment and opportunities available to us. So I try to mentor people to put their brains on while choosing their disciplines at the university.
Back to your question, on getting to the US, I was very fortunate to have gotten into the circle of people who were IT professionals. That was my second week in the US and I already got the roadmap that I would end up in the tech space. So I started studying and obtained different certifications.
And that was how I got myself into the IT world. Asides enjoying it, I am very passionate about it that I even take my time to teach and mentor younger folks how to get into the space. One thing I must say here is: that when you get to a new country, the people you meet determine your path in the country.
Also, I must clear the misconception that Nigerian degrees are useless. It’s completely false. Although I came to the US for my masters, I didn’t end up completing the programme, and I still don’t have a master’s degree. Just so you know, I got my current job with my Nigerian degree. Let me use the opportunity to tell Nigerians at home that their degrees can be put to use. Just gather the relevant skillset, certifications and some level of experience, and you’d find yourself employable abroad.
When did you develop a passion for entrepreneurship?
I have never imagined myself becoming an entrepreneur. My very close friends would tell you that Toheeb is best suited for the 9-5 lifestyle. But growing up and getting to understand life from a different perspective, I realized that depending on a single source of income isn’t entirely a good idea. You wouldn’t want to put your survival and future in the hands of a single employer. It’s one move that comes with serious consequences.
When the pandemic hit, I had friends who lost their jobs because companies were reducing their workforce. Though I had my job intact, I knew I had to create another stream of income asides my salary. In my introspection, it dawned that I’ve always been fascinated by wristwatches. Then I decided to create my own wristwatch brand, Flexaago, so my kids can have something to inherit and also make young Nigerians see the possibility that they can become anything in life.
You built a successful wristwatch brand, Flexaago, what’s the story behind the company?
As a young boy in Nigeria, I had a classmate “Obinna” in kindergarten who wore a wristwatch to school every day. One afternoon on the playground, I accidentally broke the watch. Sadly, my parents could not replace the watch due to financial hardships. However, Obinna’s parents were kind enough to let it go, and as a result, Obinna and I became good friends. The friendship made both of our parents enrol us in the same elementary school.
Unfortunately, Obinna had Lymphoma and passed away during his last year in high school. This childhood memory endeared me to wristwatches and, ultimately, the desire to own mine in memory of my dear friend. I maintained the penchant to own a wristwatch brand. The desire was further ignited amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant uncertainty. These events metamorphosed into Flexaago, established in San Diego, California, in 2020.
Our goal at the company is to repose hope in the underprivileged kids in developing countries, that the impossible does not exist. A fraction of each purchase on our website goes to charity efforts across the globe.
You’re the author of a best-selling book, “The Immigrant’s Quest”, what inspired the book?
I have always wanted to write. I recall that while in high school, I wrote a novel that never got published. Looking at journey to the US and my personal struggles, I felt it was important to tell the story of young immigrants leaving their home countries to seek greener pastures abroad.
With the book, I wanted to establish what’s obtainable in under-developed countries like Nigeria and why citizens are forced to japa. I used the story of “Dele”, an immigrant who left Nigeria in search of survival and opportunities in the US, highlighting his challenges and how he managed to surmount them and eventually used his exposure and skillset to contribute to the development of his home country. Though it’s a fictional story, it was influenced by some of my personal experience.
Do you have plans to return to Nigeria someday?
Yes. Maybe not to live, though. Nigeria is home after all. However, business is one of the key things which would bring me back to Nigeria. At Flexaago, we are taking baby steps to expand our business to Nigeria. Though we are already registered there, we are working on building a physical presence in the country.