2022 Best & Brightest Executive MBA: Madonna Okpaleke, University of Oxford (Saïd)

Madonna Okpaleke

Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

Age: 39

“An avid reader and writer who is passionate about Women empowerment, African development, and Arsenal-FC.”

Hometown: Lagos, Nigeria

Family Members: Florence (Mom) and five siblings (Elvis, Helga, Charles, Henrietta, and Jeffrey). My Dad is deceased.

Fun fact about yourself: I am currently writing a fictional paranormal book. My favorite subject in High School was Literature, which is how I fell in love with reading and writing.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Cornell University (Master of Laws – LLM), Nigerian Law School (Barrister at Law – BL), University of Lagos (Bachelor of Laws – LLB)

Where are you currently working? I currently work for Reckitt as Head of Legal for Sub-Saharan Africa.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: I have volunteered at humanitarian organizations such as Miami Rescue Mission, Feed my Starving Children, and Ananda Marga Universal Relief Team. I co-founded ‘Christmas on the Streets’ (COTS) Nigeria, which feeds people on the streets of Makoko in Lagos State during Christmas through crowdfunding. My siblings and I are currently setting up a computer lab for the students in our village primary school to increase their proficiency and development speed, acquire knowledge and improve their skills. I also serve as a mentor for young women in FMCG.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I was awarded the 30% Club Women’s Scholarship which covered 50% of my EMBA tuition. I was one of Diligent Corporation’s Modern Governance 100 global honourees recognized for exemplifying purpose-driven transformation and ensuring effective modern governance practices. I also participated in the Saïd Business School Liber project, which supports UK-based start-ups, scale-ups and SMEs to solve concrete business challenges in a tailored business development programme. I was a mentor for the Oxford University Innovation Mentorship Program (OUI) which pairs business expertise with social enterprises, where I advised and mentored some amazing companies.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I was proud to be a member of a national think-thank whose recommendations influenced public policy, government processes, and transformation in Nigeria.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Michael Smets. I first met Professor Smets at the Saïd Business School when I enrolled in his course, Leadership Fundamentals. That course had such a profound effect on my management style. When Professor Smets was appointed as my Academic Advisor, I got to learn more about his research and passion for female leadership careers, women transforming leadership and reconstructing institutional complexity. This inspired and energized me as it is a passion that we both have in common.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? As an African woman, it was important to choose a program that would develop my leadership capabilities and give me the opportunity to collaborate with like-minded individuals on projects. I considered factors such as diversity of the cohort, experience of the school’s teaching faculty, and African student societies. My conversations with alumni, current students and Jonathan Dover (Head of Recruitment for Africa) were also instrumental. I am happy that I chose Oxford because the EMBA has been instrumental in my career journey and personal growth. It has provided the environment and framework I need to generate solutions that will improve my community.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? I think the biggest lesson I gained was confidence. Black women are stereotyped as “angry or unreasonable” when we disagree with decisions at the workplace or speak out against bias, inequality, and discrimination. The EMBA has given me a platform to voice my opinions and speak up without shame. At work these days, I know that my opinion not only matters, but is impactful and valuable. This level of confidence allows me to lead and make better decisions because I trust my own intuition.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? I started a new job six months into my EMBA. It was the most intense year of my life because I was committed to not only attending classes but crushing my objectives at work. Months later, a fire broke out at home which caused significant damage. I recall waking up one morning tired, grumpy, and drained – eyes red and swollen. Not only had I contracted malaria, but I had a deadline at work, a school group assignment that was almost due and I was living out of a suitcase with my mom in a hotel as renovations to repair the fire damage were at a fever pitch at home. I literally stayed up late every night playing catch up on school, work and managing laborers. I had a sit-down with my line-manager and was honest about my struggles and the need for adjustment. She gave me time off work to deal with my school deadlines and focus on the ongoing construction work at home. My EMBA study group was also very understanding throughout the entire experience. Despite these challenges, our department at work achieved a best practice recognition for innovations that I had introduced in compliance. I think the most important thing for me was that I was surrounded by people at home, work, and school who understood and supported my journey.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program?  Choose a program that aligns with your future goals and is right for you. Do not be afraid to network or go outside your comfort zone. Speaking to alumni and current students is very helpful and gives you an insider’s perspective.

What was your biggest regret in business school? I barely had time to explore or take advantage of resources, activities, and opportunities available to students due to the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions imposed by most countries.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I would have to say Kayode Olatunbosun, Adenike Kuti and Masego Mbaakanyi, but since I have to choose one, it would be Kayode. On the fifth day of our analytics module, I walked behind the auditorium and sat on a chair, bewildered, and forlorn. At the time, there were a million and one things going through my head, chief of which was that I had made a mistake by enrolling in an EMBA program that was kicking my behind. I remember Adenike followed me out (She’s a finance guru) sat with me, and we just talked about the situation. She assured me that it would get better and recommended that I speak with Kayode. Kayode (Also a finance guru), who would later take out time to tutor me for hours on end, breaking down courses like Analytics, Accounting, and Business Finance in such a layman’s way that literally blew my mind. These tutorials and conversations made the first two quarters of my EMBA program exciting and less intimidating. I admire Kayode because, even though he lives a very busy life, he always finds time to tutor fellow classmates on courses and concepts that are foreign to them.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives?). I tend to learn and function better in a structured environment. I chose an EMBA program over online because I wanted to be in class learning from others, benefiting from the in-person discussions that take place in and out of class and taking advantage of resources (such as the library). I believe that face-to-face communication creates more personal connections and builds a strong professional network.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? According to an African Development Bank report, women are the bedrock of food and Agriculture production in Africa, supporting its population by producing 60% of the food. However, women rarely own land in Nigeria or usually have access to it through male relatives. This means that a divorce or even death can leave a woman destitute. My long-term goal is to design a Women in Agriculture Empowerment index that migrates women farmers from analogue systems of farming to a digital platform. This insight into the extent and sources of agricultural disempowerment will assist the Federal Government in preparing budgets that encourage women to pursue careers in the food and agri-business as a revenue-generating activity. The goal is to successfully train thousands of women farmers across Africa on sustainable farming technologies and methodologies. Hopefully this will lead to more women becoming financially independent and taking on leadership roles in their communities.

What made Madonna such an invaluable addition to the class of 2022?

“We are honoured to have Madonna as one of our students with her philanthropic outlook achieving some amazing outcomes helping those in need across a number of countries and regions. Her achievement as one of Diligent Corporations Modern Governance 100 honorees in 2020 was outstanding and in recognition of her resilience and empathy in a complex global environment. She brought her expertise with her to Oxford by supporting start-ups and small businesses through the Said Business School Liber Project, and the Oxford University Innovation Mentorship Program (OUI). Madonna has championed diversity in class and is a true leader in perseverance and commitment to longer term goals of positive sustainable change in livelihoods. We are also delighted to see how her confidence has grown tremendously through participation in the EMBA program.”

Kathy Harvey
Associate Dean, MBA and Executive Degrees
Saïd Business School, University of Oxford


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