Oluwabusayo Temitope Folarin, or “Tope” as he likes to be called, was born in Ogden, Utah. He has four younger siblings-three brothers and a sister. At the age of 14, his family moved from Utah to Texas. Although he completed his undergraduate degree at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, he spent a year at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine and a semester in South Africa studying at the University of Cape Town. He also worked for an NGO where he interviewed Parliament members about including anti-child prostitution laws within the South African constitution and aided in the development of HIV/AIDS training clinics for rural South Africans. During the summer of 2004, before heading to Oxford, he was a Galbraith Scholar dealing with issues of inequality and social policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He finished his studies at Oxford last summer and he now works for Google in London.
The first part of our exchange was conducted via email. We then continued the conversation by phone.
Does your name (Oluwabusayo Temitope) have any meaning?
My first name means “to God be the Glory” (roughly translated).
You’re the oldest of five children. As the eldest child, did you feel any pressure to succeed? How big of an influence were your parents? Was one parent more influential than the other? Did your parents give you any advice, or piece of wisdom that has stuck with you throughout these years?
Both of my parents are from Nigeria; fortunately (or unfortunately) for me, they brought their disciplinarian instincts with them across the Atlantic. My story, I’m sure, is familiar to most first-generation Americans: as the first born, I was expected to travel amongst the stars, move heaven and earth, read every book that had ever been published, and at the end of all of that, become a medical doctor. So yes, I was definitely expected to succeed. My parents expected nothing less. My parents didn’t allow my siblings and me to watch television (and, by extension, play video games), and we couldn’t listen to popular music. My father insisted that we develop perfect penmanship and become well-versed in the classics because, as he put it, we were “desperately blessed to be in the US.” Dad never let us forget that we had an opportunity to excel (unlike our countless cousins abroad); to do anything less was, in a word, sinful. I am convinced his evocation of religious vocabulary was intentional — not only because he was quite religious, but also because he wanted to emphasize the importance of taking advantage of all the great perks that accompany being an American citizen. This ethic remains with me to this day. As you can probably tell from my responses above, my father played a very important role in my life (my mother became very ill when I was young, and moved back to Nigeria. My step-mom entered the picture a few years later, and we all lived together until I left for college).
Did you have anyone inspiring you (outside of your parents) while growing up–a mentor perhaps? Please talk about any role models you had and currently have.
Good question. I think when I was growing up, my primary inspiration was my father. We moved around a great deal, and he was one of the few constants in my life. I was also a basketball fanatic (still am) and found myself especially attracted to two basketball stars — Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon: Jordan because of his work ethic (anything is possible) and Hakeem because he is a Nigerian like me, and he was one of the most respected basketball players around (My heritage is ok!). The latter point was empowering because I struggled with my own identity issues as a child. I spent many of my formative years in Utah, which is predominantly white, and I spent a great deal of time attempting to bridge the massive cultural schism that existed between home and everywhere else. Of course, I briefly battled with the temptation to conform (culturally) to one side or another (most likely the ‘everywhere else’) because I sensed, intuitively, that it would be much easier to play for some ‘team,’ as it were, than to be hopelessly lost in the nosebleed seats somewhere (you will, I trust, excuse the sports analogy). Hakeem taught me that my heritage was acceptable within the American context, that I could focus on being me, and others would learn to accept me.I have a few mentors now; some are professors I had while in college, others are people I worked with when I spent a semester abroad in South Africa, and I have a few professional mentors as well. I’m not a big fan of compartmentalizing in general, but I think it serves me well, at this point anyway, to interact with people from all walks of life, people who have succeeded in numerous endeavors, so I can get a flavor of what it is I might be doing in a decade or so.
What drove you to do more than the average teenager?
I’ve always had this drive to be the best, to excel. Part of that drive, undoubtedly, comes from my dad. He was a man of many sayings (as I intimated above) and of his faves was “second place is first loser.” He always told us we were special, that we all made it to America for a reason, and that we would be underachieving if we didn’t excel. I am also just naturally competitive. I enjoy contests, and I enjoy the opportunity to match my wits with others. Competition doesn’t have to be pernicious; to the contrary, it can help isolate passions, hone goals, and develop talents. Competition has served all these purposes — and more — in my life. I am also a dreamer — even as a child, I saw myself singing with the Harlem Boys Choir (I loved to sing as a child) or attending some fancy prep school . . .even though my parents never had any money. I always wanted to be where the action was.
What do you think your strengths or talents are? (How did you develop them?) And what is your view on failure?
Strengths and talents . . .hmmm . . .always a difficult one. I think, on the ‘strength’ side, that I am a hard worker, and I don’t give up easily. I think I’m quite persistent. I am a perfectionist (could be a negative, I know). I also think I’m a clear thinker. I developed my talents by working hard — I spent much time (most of my college career as a matter of fact) in the library. I read and re-read if I didn’t get something, when I discovered some tidbit of information about one thing, I read even more.As for failure, I think its essential. Never pleasant, but keeps one honest, I suppose, and hungry. Like everyone else, I have experienced my fair share of failure and I am thankful for that. I don’t work hard to avoid failure, just to be the best I can be in any particular situation.
What are you most passionate about now?
My favorite question! It’s hard to say now . . .I am passionate about development in Africa, literature (contemporary at the moment), independent film, writing, basketball — most of all, finding a way to make a contribution. Finding my own little niche. The typical concern that most of us have in our mid-20s :-)
[Below is our phone conversation.]
You said you moved around a lot? Why is that?
We lived in Utah until I was 14. My father wanted to be around members of a Nigerian diaspora and he used to visit Texas frequently, because he had some friends from Nigeria who lived there and he had opportunities work-wise as well. There’s a vibrant Nigerian diaspora in Texas, both in Houston and Dallas. I think he just felt he would be more comfortable there.
How did your parents balance that disciplinarian approach with love? How did they keep that soft touch, yet strictness?
I’m not sure if they did initially. My father is a very unsentimental person. He’s more sentimental now. I might have mentioned this in email: because I was closest to him, he did a really good job of making me feel special. He took some time off when I was in kindergarten. It was [during] an especially hard transition for us, because my mom was going through some [difficulties] at the time and we had been shuffled around to various places. He was like the PTA dad. He always came to school. We would have a track and field day and he would be the only guy at the end of the track race, handing out the ribbons. He was involved all the time. He constantly told me that I was special. I guess that’s a form of love, but it’s not the traditional American, cue-the-violins-let’s-hug-each-other type of love. It was love with a purpose. Our relationship was really strained in high school, but that’s an international phenomenon. I don’t think it’s something unique to our relationship. He would argue that he was a disciplinarian, because he loved us and that was his way of showing his love.
What were your parents’ educational backgrounds?
We lived in Utah, because my father had a scholarship. He had me as he was completing his degree. But he never completed [it]. He is a few credits away from his bachelor’s [degree]. My biological mom was not as educated. She had some learning disabilities when she was growing up, so she was actually working on her GED when she left.
And your stepmother?
She completed her college degree in Nigeria. She went to nursing school, so she’s a nurse now.
Did you have a rebellious streak in you at all?
I did, but it was a nerdy rebellious streak. My parents worked long hours, so they would drop us off at the library before they went work and afterwards they would pick us up. My father would instruct the librarian that before we read anything else, we would have to read a biography and a non-fiction magazine. After that, he didn’t care. After my father left, I would look at the librarian with a sad face and say I really want to read this science fiction book instead. And she’d let me. So my form of rebellion was reading science fiction and fantasy novels. I read so many; now, every time I go to a bookstore I don’t see titles I haven’t read already. I watched a lot of Star Trek as well. My father didn’t let us watch television either. As we got a bit older, he said if we wanted to watch television then we’d have to make a case for the show, why the show had any educational merit and how the show can help us. I was okay with that until he said we couldn’t watch Star Trek, so I requested a [mock] tribunal. He put on a robe and I was the defense attorney. I argued for the merits of Star Trek and he allowed us to watch it. That was my younger, pre-adolescent form of rebellion.When I was in high school, I rebelled by participating in lots of extracurricular activities. He was a bit myopic in his perspective. He wasn’t convinced that extracurricular activities were important, so I just did a lot outside the classroom. He had always wanted me to graduate top in my high school class and I think on a subconscious level I rebelled against that as well. Grades became less important to me as time went on in high school. Not to say that I did poorly, I did really well, but I checked out of the rat race by my junior year and he was quite disappointed with that actually. He made that pretty clear to me on graduation day. I never unfortunately did anything that was really unsavory. I wish I had. But I was pretty straight most of my life.
Did you travel a lot before you got to college?
Not as nearly as much as I would have liked. I haven’t been back to Nigeria since I was born, really for my naming ceremony. That’s something I feel is missing in my life. I feel this significant hole in my life. All of my family is there. A lot of people I’ve never met, people who are just to me voices on a telephone and to this day still are, so I haven’t really been there. I played a lot of basketball so I traveled around for that, for example. When I was debating, I traveled as well, but nothing outside of the States until college.
Once you started traveling in college and of course, when you were at Oxford, how did the travel change your viewpoint, if any?
Even though I didn’t travel a lot, I’ve always wanted to travel. That was one reason going to Oxford was really important to me. Once I was able to [travel], I discovered much more about myself and the way the world works. I’m trying to avoid giving all the clichés, but they all ring true in this case. I satisfied this curiosity that I had from years of reading about different places and different people.I was always interested in foreign policy as well, so it was just an opportunity to discuss and engage with people. Of course, traveling is an opportunity to see oneself through the eyes of others. It’s sort of a mirror. You’re taking yourself out of your natural milieu, your natural environment. You’re going places and, in effect, giving people an opportunity to interact with you and at some point give you impressions of yourself. That was the aspect of travel I wasn’t prepared for-learning to interact with people and learning how they perceived me. This is something that came up especially at Oxford, because I was inevitably the only black man and they would in some ways treat me differently than they treated my friends. It wasn’t anything bad, but as an American black man, they have an initial perception of me and the way I should be. It was something I first experienced in South Africa, of all places. It’s still a recurring theme; something I still encounter.
So what are the perceptions? Can you cite an example of how you were treated?
When I first went to South Africa, I wasn’t aware that everybody essentially looks at the [United] States for their cultural cues. In South Africa (I went there right after my sophomore year), you’d walk through the streets whether in a township, or a city like Cape Town or Johannesburg, and everyone’s playing the same music you heard when you left the airport in the States. They heard my accent and they automatically would start talking to me in a certain way and expect me to say certain things. I think it is human nature to initially perceive somebody as a caricature if you haven’t interacted with anybody who resembled that person before and only after a while, do you get to accept that person as a person. That happened many times in South Africa where somebody would come up to me and say “hey” in exaggerated black person speak, for a lack of a better way of putting it. I didn’t take any offense to that at all. It was interesting to me, because they would treat my friends differently. That wouldn’t happen to my friends. If anything, it was a way of expressing camaraderie. It was a way of saying I sense a connection between you and me. That’s not only about stereotype, that’s about our cultural connection as well. And it wasn’t something I was necessarily ready for. I wasn’t ready for that cultural dialogue, because I didn’t know that there was another conversation to be had. And that happened throughout my travels.I remember going to Morocco with a group of friends during my first year at Oxford and there were a number of funny moments. Either our guide in the desert, or somebody who would talk to me would reference something they heard in a song, or something. I tried to be good-natured about it, because I was not offended at all. As an intellectual exercise, it was interesting to think about the reason I was being treated this way and everyone else wasn’t.
So it was a lot of Hollywood and hip hop references?
Precisely. Exactly. I am a big fan of hip-hop music, so I’m not trying to say I’m not. I was a caricature [to them], because I have an American accent and automatically people assume that black people in America act [a certain way]. That’s the only model they’ve been exposed to. I think the same goes for all of us. After watching Borat, I’m sure if a number of people met somebody from Kazakhstan, they would assume a whole lot of ridiculous things about that person. That’s unfortunate, but that’s the only form of exposure a lot of people have had. People hadn’t heard about the country before the film, I’m sure. It’s something I hadn’t really thought through before traveling at all.
What has been your favorite place that you’ve been to and why?
South Africa to me is my favorite place, because it was my first bit of international travel as I was coming into my own intellectually. It was the first time I was grappling with all these thoughts and issues and ideas. Everything came to a head in South Africa, because I’m really passionate about human rights. I’d read a lot about human rights, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and some of the work he did, and obviously, Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. For me, going to South Africa was the fulfillment of that promise made to me a long time ago by teachers, who were convincing me how wonderful reading was-when you read, you can travel to places and experience new places. So everything came to life; furthermore, I had this intellectual context that I brought with me to South Africa. A lot of what I had learned wasn’t necessarily true, but I was armed with a certain way of thinking about the problems there and the way to approach the problems. I did some NGO work there. It was good; one, to understand what was happening and two, to have to revise a lot of my thinking once I interacted with people there. It was the first time that sort of dynamic process happened, where I am being forced to question some of what I thought was true as well as my reading. I was learning a lot from people, but I was also able to be a part of the conversation in the first place, because I had some understanding of the issues.
Are you still considering politics in the future?
Public service is really important to me. It’s hard to say how things will turn out. I will say that I’m certainly trying to learn as much as I can about the way the world works right now and meet as many people as I can, so if and when that time ever arrives, I would be ready for it. I mean I’m not living my entire life for that. But I am interested.
Are you religious now?
I’m a Christian. It’s something I struggle with a lot. My parents are Evangelical Pentecostals, so they are very vocal in their beliefs. There’s nothing like being in a church while the music is pumping and everyone is believing at the same time. It’s this amazing, transcendent experience that really can’t be replicated anywhere. I appreciate that aspect of it.Obviously, there’s always this internal debate between the stuff that you’re learning and the beliefs that you’ve had for a very long, long time. Like anyone else, I really struggled with that in college. I read a few books when I started college like Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I was really angry after reading that book for a number of things. Religion was one of those things. I saw my parents as accepting a framework that had been foisted onto them centuries ago, not really questioning that at all, so I did. But by the end of my college experience, I had come full circle. I had a financially difficult time in college. Although it ended well (getting the scholarship), I had actually been kicked out of school for financial reasons when I got the scholarship. I entered my senior year and I wasn’t even sure if I’d graduate. The only thing that really got me through was faith and the belief that it was not going to end that way. There was a reason I was going through the trouble. There was a reason it wasn’t going well. I just had to persevere. There’s no way I could have done that on my own, just believing in my own ability or faculties to get through it. It was a help to believe in something external and higher and more powerful than I.
I asked before what are you passionate about, but what inspires you now?
I’m not sure. I know I vacillated a bit in my response to that question, because I think I’m confused as anybody in their mid-twenties. Right now, I’m really inspired by people who go against the grain. I don’t know if that sounds ironic, or not. One thing about doing well academically is this paradox: you’re praised for thinking outside the box and writing a great bit of interesting, analytical paper, but then as you continue on, your only source of validation is rising in these institutions that have been around for a very long time. I am inspired by people who continue to think outside the box even when inertia would lead them to doing more conventional things.
So that leads me to the question, what would you recommend to someone young about leading a pretty full life-going beyond the mediocrity that’s so easy to fall into?
It’s important to tune out the noise. There’s so much noise. Society on some level benefits from the noise, since a lot of the noise is about buying stuff. We’re all acculturated to listen to the noise and follow the noise. I didn’t really begin to understand what my purpose in life is…obviously, I haven’t resolved that question, but I didn’t get close to answering that question until I tuned out the noise. If there’s anything that I gained from my year in very, very cold Maine is disengaging for a while. It’s been incredibly helpful for me and it was painful and not very fun initially, because you’re aware of the fact that there’s a lot of noise happening and you can literally hear the noise, people having lots of fun and you’re not.But after a little while, I started to think a lot more. My inner life became really important and that’s something I had ignored my entire life up to that point. I’m not saying to become a hermit or disengage from society, but it’s important to try to discover what makes you sing, what makes you hum, what makes you happy, what makes you sad, what makes you cry. Discovering those things is important, beyond the very sort of superficial stuff that we get now. It’s beyond going to a movie and crying, or getting into an argument and crying. It’s discovering why that actually is. That’s a really important variant and if that leads to wanting to become more intellectual, then so be it. If it means you wanting to be more artistic, because there’s something in you that needs to be expressed, that’s good as well. But I think you never get to that point if you don’t subject yourself to that creative silence.
When did you go through that period of silence?
My sophomore year in college when I was at Bates for a year. I moved to Maine to Bates College. I completely disengaged and I think it was the best thing I could have done for myself. That’s not to say I didn’t have friends or didn’t travel. During the week, for example, I dedicated a lot of time, if I wasn’t reading, to just thinking about where this is all going and trying to come to terms with myself about leaving adolescence, leaving high school, struggling with my own identity. It was something I needed to do to resolve a lot of questions. I’m still on the journey, but at the end of that initial phase I learned a great deal about myself and other people.
What made you go to Bates for that year?
I was not very happy at Morehouse my first year. I actually went to Morehouse, because I thought I would find myself there, literally and figuratively. I thought I’d find a lot more Topes at Morehouse. I thought I’d become more comfortable with who I was after a sort of weird childhood. None of those few things happened, because I found lot of people who were obsessed with what it meant to be black and acting out what we thought blackness was. I found that kind of unappealing initially. I wanted to go to a place that was the exact opposite and I succeeded. I had debated at Bates. One of the most influential presidents of Morehouse was Benjamin Mays. He graduated from Bates in the 1920s. Bates was one of the few schools back in the 20s that accepted African-Americans and Mays wrote fondly about his experience at Bates in his autobiography. I went there and I jut felt something I can’t explain. I sensed that I needed to come back, so I wrote a letter to the dean I met there that I was really interested in coming up there my sophomore year. There was some wrangling, because the program Bates had was only for juniors, but thankfully we were able to make it work and I went there the following year.
And then you went back to Morehouse to graduate, right?
After Bates and South Africa, I went back to Morehouse for about a year or some change, then I graduated.
Is there anything else you want to bring up that I haven’t asked yet?
I think it’s interesting that a lot of people whom I’ve met at Oxford and who have done well in life up to this point went through something really traumatic while growing up. As we became more familiar or interacted more [with each other], stories came out and you got the backstories. It’s interesting how people respond to adversity and difficult times. I think a lot about my own future family and how I would like to raise my kids, because my parents raised me in a certain way. Obviously, I’ve learned a lot since then and I’m trying to reconcile all the stuff I’ve learned as somebody who went to school, who went to graduate school with my upbringing, and what I want to take from each experience. But if there’s one thing that I am resolved to do is to ensure that my kids never forget what it means to be a human being. I know that sounds a bit obtuse. I’ve met a lot of people who are disconnected from a lot of things, because they’ve had this really comfortable, middle class existence. Certainly, to us, western society has been to ensure that we all get a very comfortable experience in which all of our problems are emotional, psychological. They are not about having to find something to eat or drink or anything like that. That’s great, but in the process of so doing, we have disconnected ourselves from a lot of really, really, really important things. It’s interesting, either you have people who’ve had a really tough time, or people who are trying to have a really tough time. People who want to go to Africa and starve themselves for a few years to help people. It represents wanting to get to what’s real and I think that’s important. It’s something I think about a lot. Excuse me if that makes no sense. It’s my existential riff for the day.