Alumni profile - Seye Odukogbe
In its first year Cycle to Class, the company I founded, gave out just over 350 bicycles, and today, we’ve impacted over 3,000 lives, worked with more than 20 communities in rural places, and trained over 500 children how to cycle and do basic maintenance of bicycles.
Why did you study Biomedical Engineering at Queen Mary? My parents were keen for me to study medicine but after I didn’t get the required grades, I thought Biomedical Engineering would act as a good pathway should I still wish to pursue medicine later. The more I researched Biomedical Engineering, the more appealing it became; I found it an unusual, hybrid mix of engineering principles that would allow me to explore different sectors and different employment opportunities, compared to more traditional engineering degrees like mechanical engineering. Besides the fact that it is located in London, and I wanted to remain in London, I chose Queen Mary as an institution because of its good reputation, and because it offered a good mix of educational and co-curricular activities outside of my course.
What was your favourite part of studying in SEMS and were there any academics that helped shape your journey in particular? Overall, I enjoyed the notion of being part of a big cohort and the practical side of my degree which involved learning difficult concepts and problem-solving. Engineering can be very abstract at times, particularly when looking at formulas, but the practical experiments were really useful because they helped you link these abstract concepts to real life examples. I also enjoyed the practical side of my degree that involved projects, both group projects and my individual masters MEng project. The latter was when I really started to make sense of what the real world of work expectation looked like in terms of delivering assignments and it was the first time that the skills I’d learned in my degree aligned together. I really enjoyed the MEng project and saw it as a culmination of my years of studying. And there was lots of studying! During my final years the Mile End library opened for 24 hours and there were lots of spaces to do group study and revise, which I really appreciated.
There are quite a few academics who had an impact on my time at Queen Mary. Professor Dan Bader and Professor Martin Knight were both very helpful and gave good advice, but someone that I worked closely with and who was very instrumental in shaping my penultimate and final year was Dr Tina Chowdhury, my third-year project supervisor. Dr Chowdhury was relatively new compared to other academic staff at the time, so it was easy to relate to her and she was really supportive of me both academically and personally, especially when my Dad was in his final stages on earth. If I was interested in further research, I would definitely have worked with her; I liked her approach and her energy and she taught me the fundamentals of getting research work done and how to write and explore my ideas. I appreciate the direct and indirect contributions she has had on my journey to date.
Can you describe your career path to date and touch on the current roles you juggle as Founder of Cycle to Class, Head of Strategic Ventures at Genesis Energy Holding and Co-Founder of Routemasters? I graduated at the turn of the recession in 2008 when getting a job was very difficult. After applying for numerous roles in consulting and banking, I ended up in a transport infrastructure consulting firm which has played a big part in my career trajectory. In this role I did a lot of work globally and I had the opportunity to travel to a lot of places in Africa, including Nigeria, the Middle East, North America, and the UK. I found my projects in Nigeria, my country of origin, very impactful and they opened my eyes to the bigger picture that through your work, you can give back and make a real impact, not just financially, but socially, in the lives of other people. I have always had that drive in me to do good and my first graduate role confirmed that I was interested in working in emerging countries and cities.
I was then headhunted for a high-profile role in Nigeria to work to advise ministries, departments and agencies on transport and infrastructure issues. This role was challenging but strategic and involved meeting a lot of high-profile people which I really enjoyed. Around this time, I was struck by memories of stories my Dad told me- about his childhood experiences, growing up in rural Nigeria and waking up very early in the morning to walk very long distances by foot to go to school. I realised that sixty years later, this was still an issue in some of the countries I had been working in and it was at this point that Cycle to Class was born. This enterprise is an intersection of my transport experience, but also my interest in, and passion for, education and development. Prior to Cycle to Class, I had been doing several things in the education sector; for example, I had been a school governor and I had a social enterprise where I connected young people from low-income backgrounds in the UK with mentors in the workplace and provided them with work experience to help them on their way to success. These experiences only added to my realisation that a lot of rural communities in Africa were getting left behind and that something needed to be done about this.
The concept behind Cycle to Class is simple - we give children from rural communities access to bicycles so that they can ride to school and, in turn, their journey times are decreased and their attendance is increased, which ultimately improves their attainment and attitude towards life. This has been pioneered by myself and a number of people. In our first year we gave out just over 350 bicycles, and today, we’ve impacted over 3,000 lives, worked with more than 20 communities in rural places, and trained over 500 children how to cycle and do basic maintenance of bicycles.
In summary, I started in transport advisory, and expanded to advisory across other sectors, and then to the University of Oxford to get my MBA, and then I joined Genesis Energy because I wanted to explore the commercial side of infrastructure development and investment. Oh, and I qualified as a chartered engineer! I have been privileged to have been involved in a lot of interesting, impactful projects while pursuing entrepreneurship on the side.
It is amazing that you were headhunted for your second role after graduation. How did you find this transition? I was lucky even in my first graduate role as the senior consultant I was working with had to leave to pursue further studies, so I doubled as analyst and project manager of a multi-million-pound project! I delivered the project successfully and that put my growth and development squarely on a fast-track, so I felt comfortable transitioning into this new role at a relatively young age. I had learned a number of transferable skills, which helped me settle in and the fact that I had worked on different projects in Africa meant that I was culturally intelligent and could understand some of the cultural context in my new head office.
You are clearly very driven and ambitious. What are your career plans for the future? Currently I am skilled in the tech, transport, energy and infrastructure industry, in emerging cities and across the UK. I still see opportunities for growth in these regions, so I see myself continuing to bring my expertise and value proposition to work in these areas. Most importantly, I like that I enjoy the work that I do. The path I am taking now with Routemasters, a start-up that I co-founded with my MBA classmates at Oxford, focuses on emerging cities, especially in Africa, and is all about driving and sustaining growth and development through technology. Routemasters is developing a transport and mobility data platform that will deliver digital maps, journey times and transport modes and other key information for city planners, and a mobile transit planning application for consumers to navigate their cities.
What are some of the challenges of being an entrepreneur? And what are some of the rewards? Entrepreneurship is not romantic. The journey is tough and like in my case, it often involves trying to create and build something alongside other full-time commitment, which could be family or studies. In addition to this balancing act, another challenge is trying to build a compelling and robust business model that consumers and investors will buy into. There are also challenges around finding the right talent to help support your vision, product market fit, cash flow, and constantly monitoring the competition.
Despite these challenges, the rewards involve being able to add value to people’s lives and to businesses – these are the things that really keep your dream going. I also find the constant problem-solving exciting and, overall, it is fulfilling to see a dream start from small and grow. I’ve enjoyed each and every step in my entrepreneurial journey and it has made me who I am today.
On Twitter, you describe yourself as an ‘Educator at heart’. In your opinion, why is it important that education is made accessible for all? To quote Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world”. I truly believe that if you give the gift of education to someone from a low-income group, anywhere in the world, you give them the power to be able to advance themselves and it leads to discoveries and innovation for those individuals. When we first started Cycle to Class, the bicycle was a simple tool to improve the education of children in rural communities. However, the bicycles have since unleashed sheer ingenuity and creativity in these communities. Children have used the bicycles to reinvent sports days beyond simple track and field events, to run errands to support their parents, and to make journeys to the market or faith centre. These additional uses mean that they can save time and learn more in school and, ultimately, increase their employability. Education also has the underlying impact of increased confidence and self-awareness in these children. I am interested in changing the world, so why not through education?
How has your degree and your time and studies at Queen Mary been transferrable to your career? My degree, especially a module I took outside of core engineering, which focused more on business, helped confirm that I enjoy the business side of an idea or role, as well as the practical, analytical, engineering and problem-solving side. Group and individual project work instilled in me a strong work ethic, an ability to plan my work thoroughly, the ability to meet deadlines through good time management, and strong teamwork skills. My extracurricular participation in societies, sports and volunteering helped me to build my leadership skills and to understand who I am as a person, my likes and my dislikes. Overall, Queen Mary gave me very strong foundations upon which I have built my life and career in the last decade. I don’t regret choosing Queen Mary at all.
What advice would you give to current students and recent graduates considering their career options? Be open-minded. Even if you think you know what you want to do, embrace challenge, don’t just follow the path of least resistance. Also accept that you will continue learning throughout your lifetime, your degree is just the first step. Read widely on issues outside of your core sector/interests to make yourself a well-rounded individual and if you have the chance, give back by mentoring others and also find yourself a mentor in your chosen industry.
Why would you encourage a prospective student to study Biomedical Engineering at Queen Mary? It has been over a decade since I graduated so I can’t talk in terms of specifics, but generally, the Biomedical engineering degree is the perfect intersection if you are interested in different areas such as engineering, health and tech. These areas have grown so much but there is still a lot of opportunity for development. Fundamental skills you can gain from this degree, based on my own experiences, are analytical skills , teamwork and the ability to communicate and problem solve. This degree is transferable to all different aspects of life.
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Seye or engage him in your work, please contact Nicole at email@example.com.