Ayo Owodunni, a 38-year-old Nigerian from Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State was recently elected the Councillor of Ward 5, Kitchener, a city in Ontario Canada. He joined the list of Nigerian Councillors in Canada: Jibs (Jibola) Abitoye, PMP, who is the City Councillor in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta Canada, and Khadija Haliru, Ingersoll Town Councillor. Owodunni contested against four other contestants, Jon Massimi, Farah Muhammad, Ajmer Nandur, and Naveed Najmuddin.
The city of Kitchener needed a new councilor in Ward 5 as the incumbent councilor, Kelly Galloway-Sealock, did not seek re-election. As a counselor, there are three main roles to play in the municipality: as a representative, a policy-maker, and a steward. He can be called upon to consider and make decisions on issues that will sometimes be complex and controversial. Many of those decisions will have long-term consequences for his municipality that extend beyond the four-year term of office and such, should be made in the context of the municipality’s plans for the long-term health and welfare of the community.
Ayo Owodunni’s top three reasons for running for the office of a councilor are: tackling the issue of speeding on local roads, keeping taxes low, and housing affordability. Owodunni says speeding is an issue he has heard at the doors he knocked on during his campaign. “I’m pushing for safety on our local roads by implementing traffic calming measures, especially in residential neighborhoods and school zones”, he added.
He also wants to keep taxes low and make smart decisions when it comes to capital expenditures. For housing, he said the city needs to work with the region on solutions for affordable housing. “I am more aware than ever that our city is evolving rapidly, and the leadership needs to evolve to tackle urgent issues like road safety, cost of living, housing affordability, and climate change”, he said. In this interview with Taiwo Adekanye of The Podium International Magazine, Ayo Owodunni talks about his personal life, business life, success tips, and aspirations as Councillor of Ward 5 Kitchener.
Who is Ayo Owodunni?
I am a husband, a father, a son, and a brother. I was born and raised in Nigeria. I moved to Canada six years ago.
Which words best describe your personality?
Jovial, loving, and love to enjoy life, love spending time with family. I am also a happy personality.
Could you let us into your family background and childhood years? What memories would you like to share with us?
I lived in Ojodu in Lagos. I went to Ono-Ara Children’s School. After Ona-ara, I went to Supreme Education Foundation for one year (I believe it’s in Magodo). I attended Kings College, Lagos and I ended up going to college in the U.S. after that. I don’t have any negative experiences from my childhood. It was fun. I have nothing but good memories. The last born of six; it was a fun time growing up. My mum owns the school that I went to, so, that was a great experience all around.
What were your aspirations when you left Nigeria to relocate to Canada?
I think, just like many Nigerians that are currently relocating, we might not realize it but Nigeria provides a great education. We are exposed to excellence in different ways in Nigeria. We might not know it, we might not realize it, and we might not appreciate it. When we go out into the world we can compete at any level. We are just as smart as anybody else. So, leaving Nigeria to relocate to Canada, definitely for me the goal was to make sure my family was taken care of, and I have always been someone that believes in serving the community, and that’s something that has been in my heart for quite a while. There were aspirations and goals in my heart ahead of coming to Canada.
As a Management Consultant, why did you choose to focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural diversity in the workplace?
Well, that is just an aspect of what I have done. As a management consultant, we have done a lot of strategic planning for boards. I used to work for a company where we focus on team-building for board members of corporate organisations. I have done that aspect as well. I have done learning and development, and I have done DEI. It’s just a coincidence that the area I push and focus on is DEI because that is the area of focus I have been working on in my current role.
So, DEI, a big conversation has been taking place since the Black Lives Matter Movement and the murder of George Floyd in the U.S. about two years ago. DEI had been part of conversations before that but that was the turning point for (DEI) diversity, equity, and inclusion. It brought it into people’s social consciousness. Diversity is having a mix of people inside your organization while Inclusion is about making those people feel like they belong. The bigger challenge is around inclusion. Different cultures, sexual orientations, religious backgrounds, and different values. How do you make them feel like they belong inside your organization? How do you make them feel like they have a voice?
But the ROI on diversity and inclusion is creating better products and services for customers and clients, resolving conflicts, innovation, and productivity. Diversity and Inclusion should be a huge imperative for organizations and it’s something that leaders should focus on. Diversity and Inclusion is something every organization around the world needs and should demand inside the organization. I worked for an organisation at that point where the focus was on DEI and the demand for DEI soared significantly from the different organisations that needed it. So, that was something that we worked on.
What has been your most challenging job as a consultant?
I would say the most challenging part was working with an organization that also had to do its own internal thing. You’re talking about turning a ship around, steering the ship in a different direction, or tweaking the direction of a ship. It sounds very simple but it takes a lot of work to be able to do that sometimes. You’re working with corporate organizations, you’re working with the senior leadership, you’re working with sometimes the board, you’re working with mid-level managers, the noble managers, you’re working with entry levels, and with every consulting work.
There’s the change management piece, there’s the training piece, and there’s the sustainability piece. So the whole aspect of consulting, just pushing to build trust and work with clients is something that is important and needs to be done. So I will say that the challenging part is the change aspect of the consulting; getting people to not just get trained but to improve behaviour. To go through recommendations, implement recommendations, and sustain the recommendations.
As an immigrant in Canada, what were the obstacles you faced, and how did you turn them into stepping stones?
Just like many immigrants, we go through different phases. There is the survival phase, there is the developing phase and there is the thriving phase. Under the survival phase, you have your initial moment of euphoria when you first arrive. And then you’re headed to a period of shock and then from the shock you now venture into survival. Searching for a job, applying several times, and not getting a callback. Keep in mind many of us when we leave Nigeria, are leaving mid-management positions or executive positions, and then you are coming to a new country where people don’t know some of our brands. Or our brands don’t have any equity or people don’t know much about them over here, so you are trying to convince people about the work that you can do through a piece of paper which is a resume.
So, that is why I always try to share with people the importance of networking. Building a strong network and building it as fast as possible. Expanding beyond just your ethnic group and going outside of that as well. Joining associations; just finding ways to constantly network with people because, for me, most of the jobs and opportunities that I have received came through people that I knew not necessarily applying for jobs. So, the hard part initially was the settling down phase and the survival phase but most of the time once people go through the first two years of learning and understanding how things are done, learning the culture, getting your first job, after that, we are a very relentless people as Nigerians; we scale and we move quickly. However, just that beginning phase is usually the tough part.
What motivated you into writing your first book Values, Culture Period?
Values Culture Period was a research that I started putting together. I have always been someone that has been intrigued and interested in addressing gaps that I see. I had a chance to work in organisations and I just noticed the gaps in their culture. The strategy was solid but implementation was not strong. They had visions and strategies they want to do but the culture was not there or the turnover was higher.
This led me into asking questions. I am sure you know that as consultants we are very curious people. On one hand, while you are doing work with a client, on another hand you’re always constantly curious. You are constantly looking to learn more and grow and develop yourself and that was what led to Values Culture Period. I had a chance to meet Corey Atkinson the Vice-President of Learning and Development at a consulting firm, CSPN in Toronto, and one conversation led to another. I talked about this new intrigue that I had and he was interested we ventured into doing this research together for two years or so and then we decided how do we share this information with people.
One author that I’m very passionate about is Patrick Lencioni. I’ve read possibly all his books. I just love his style of writing and we decided to emulate that style of writing. Values Culture Period was not written as a business book, it was written as fiction that you can learn the business.
What motivated you into contesting for the office of Councillor in Kitchener?
Since I arrived in Kitchener, I always say Kitchener has been good to me and it was a great opportunity to serve Kitchener. Also, I have served in different capacities and worked with the Nigerian Association here, Nigerians in the region at Waterloo; I was part of the executive team. I have worked with a bunch of African leaders. We came together to form the Coalition of African Associations which eventually merged and became (ACAWRA) the African Canadian Association Waterloo Region. I’m on the Board of Leadership Waterloo Region and several other boards. Adventure for Change, I’ve done some work with them, helping them start a project and build mentorship for black youths in the Waterloo area. So, these are things that I have done before running and for me, this is an opportunity for me to serve on a larger scale. I’ve always been passionate about serving in the community and this was a chance to do it on a bigger scale for the City of Kitchener.
What were the challenges you faced while contesting in Kitchener?
Kitchener is such a diverse city. I contested against different people. In terms of challenges, I think number one was getting volunteers together. Secondly, I got my citizenship before the deadline for contesting. We were planning to run four years from now because we weren’t expecting the citizenship to come that early. But then it came. Putting together our team, putting together our strategy, in a short time although this is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while, so it wasn’t that hard. It was just a very short time.
I will say that just trying to get the ball rolling at the early stage was tougher. But then you also have to know that everybody is busy and people have so many things to do and for you to be able to gather volunteers you have to have a compelling vision. You have to be able to motivate them and inspire them to be able to want to go out to campaign with you and for you. We were able to do that at the end of the day. I also think it is important to give kudos to those that I ran against; they all ran a fantastic campaign. Every single person that I ran against John Massimi, Ajmer Nandur, Farah Muhammad, and Naveed Najmuddin; ran an excellent campaign, and just as I said, every single one of them pulled out the best in the other competitors, and it was a great race.
What were your success stories?
It was great to have amazing conversations with the people by going door-to-door. I remember one event vividly well where one couple called me and the husband said, “I can’t believe you came and my wife did not invite you in to come to grab a coffee and to chat” and the wife was in the background laughing and we all had a really good conversation. Another individual called. They put my lawn sign in their front yard but people were stealing my lawn sign and destroying it and throwing it away.
So, they called thinking I took it away and they were so adamant saying “we said we will vote for you, we like you. Why did you take your lawn sign away?” I said No, I did not take the lawn sign away. It was probably stolen. So, for me, for people to reach out and share their thoughts was amazing. Many emails came in, people asking questions, and I did the best that I could to be able to respond to their questions. It was good and I will say those were some amazing success stories that I’m proud of.
What are your success tips for immigrants?
One, develop a five-year plan. I think it’s so easy to only focus on today and what we are going through and not realize that it is important to have a plan for the future as well. So, develop a five-year plan. Where do you see yourself in your career? Where do you see yourself financially? Where do you see yourself in terms of position? How much money do you see yourself saving and where do you see yourself when it comes to an investment as well? Five years will arrive whether you like it or not, it’s going to come.
Five years from now it’s going to come so when you arrive five years from now, did you have a plan that you have accomplished or you are looking back saying oh, I did not do anything? We must be able to put a five-year plan together and be very intentional. Be very intentional about your plan and be very focused on your plan.
Another success tip is the importance of building a very strong network. I can’t stress enough how important that is. You need a personal support network. What I mean by personal support is who are those people that you can go to and cry to? Who are those people that you can call when you are going through things? Who are those people that you can drop your kids off with when you have emergency meetings? When you have emergency job interviews when you have to work long hours, who are those people you can turn to in your time of need? That is your support network.
They are there to support you personally. They are there to put a smile on your face. Those people you can hang out with in the evenings. But then you also need a career network; a professional network. Those are the people that will help you find a job; that will help you get a promotion, and link you up here and there. So, your community associations and things like that. And then you need to start looking at your five-year plan network. What do I mean by that? What do you want to be in five years and who are the people that will help you get there?
So, four years ago I knew that I wanted to run for office. That needed me to build a strong network of people that can support me when I did decide to run for office. I did not know that I will get my citizenship in four, or five years despite the prayers, but it came at the right time. Before that, the network had been built. So, ensuring you have a plan, ensuring you have a very strong network. It is so crucial; those two things are so crucial. Also important is being so intentional with what you are doing. Head-down intentionally! It is so key, so important to what you are doing.
Are you an Inclusive Leader?
I hope so, I believe so. The reason why I believe so is that it’s something I’ve been so passionate about. It’s something that I try to share everywhere I go, with people that I speak with and I hope that it’s something that I live out as well. In my previous workplace when I had multiple people reporting to me, I had what I called the “heart one-on-one” that happened once every month. And there was a list of questions that were shared with my team members during that “one-on-one”, they already knew what the questions were. How am I doing as your leader? What can I do differently? What challenges, what hindrances am I putting in your way? How can I get out of your way?
It was an opportunity for them to share with me. For me, that was an opportunity for me to be inclusive in my thinking. I also pushed to ensure that my team was psychologically safe. I always asked how they were doing, I always checked in on them, and listen to them when they spoke. Also, when I think about the diversity of the people that are around me, whether it’s on my team, on the board that I’m working with, or on the clients that I’m consulting for, I always ensure that I put on the diversity lens and try to share in terms of inclusiveness as well.
How do you move beyond diversity into inclusiveness? It’s something that I preach regularly and I hope it’s something that I’m also living out. But just like everything else in life, we might think we are doing a great job but those around us might see otherwise. I don’t think I’m the best to answer this question. I think it’s those around me that will be best to answer this question and provide that feedback. I hope that they are open, bold, and courageous enough and love me enough to be able to share that with me.
What are your plans and aspirations for your new office?
First, it’s a four-year term, so there are a few key things that we put together as a strategy for the role. There’s the relationship aspect of things, there’s the technical aspect of things, and there are other areas as well. In terms of relationships, I need to build key relationships with other council members, with the Mayor, the staff, the regional council, the other political leaders that are in my region, my members of Parliament, and my members of the provincial government as well. All these relationships are so crucial; because a lot of the issues we are dealing with in Kitchener are multi-layered complex, and you need the ability to be able to go to different tiers of government to be able to have the right conversations. That is important.
Building those key relationships is important as well as learning the rules, understanding the bylaws, understanding the different aspects of things, and learning the system within the city as well. So all those things are so crucial to learn. I think people tend to forget about those areas and just want to dive into the job itself. Kitchener has a strategic plan that has been put in place. I must learn that and I’m able to plug into the mission of the city as well, knowing why we exist, understanding our key pillars, and being able to live that out.
We are currently going through our budget season. We want to ensure that our budget is passed for 2023 and we are hoping to get that passed soon. The budget is public information; people can go online, and it’s already online for people to see. We have our proposal there and we have public consultation that will be taking place in January where residents of Kitchener get a chance to connect with the council to share their concerns and thoughts, ask questions, clarification on the proposed budget.
As a council, we are also going through it with staff members. So we are looking to approve the budget in January. There are some other key things that I’m hoping to do. I’m hoping to ensure that I’m able to start building relationships with my ward. Getting to know people in my Ward. There are some really big projects that as a city we’re working on and planning in different wards as well (mine inclusive). We have a library that we are currently going through and that’s public information as well. We have the community centre that should be coming out as soon as well, sometime in the year. That is public information that people are aware of as well.
So, we are just going through the consultative period at this point as we continue with the planning of this area. We just opened up a community centre in my Ward. It’s called The Huron Community Center. The Huron Community Center was opened by Kelly Galloway-Sealock, my predecessor. I’m also representing the city on different boards and different committees, and so that’s part of my portfolio. So the goal of that is to learn more about my portfolio, get to meet the board members and get to build those relationships with them, understand where things are, the strategic direction of the committees, and then also ensure that I’m serving and doing my part and with the city.
I am a person of faith, and the Bible says whatever you find your hands doing, do it well I want to make sure that I make the residents of Ward 5 proud of their councillor, make the city proud of their councillor, make my family proud, make my birth nation Nigeria proud as well, and most importantly make God proud. The portfolio that he has handed to me at this point in my life. That is the plan, and the aspiration is to do my job, do it well, and as Nehemiah said in the Bible, “God remember me”. God remember the work that I have put together and have done.