Volunteering was very key to my growth; because in life before you can go up, you have to lay low.- John Oseni
The Climb Podcast, Episode 1, Season 1.
The Climb Podcast, Episode 1, Season 1 on Spotify
It was former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who famously said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” This powerful quote by Britain’s wartime leader and legendary statesman is a perfect embodiment of the story of our first-ever guest on the Climb Podcast – John Oseni, a young tech enthusiast from Akure, a small city in southwest Nigeria.
At the age of 17, John Oseni is living his dreams. Within a span of two years, he has catapulted himself from his small secondary school in Akure to the gilded halls of Dubai where he was recognised by the United Arab Emirate’s Minister for Tolerance and Coexistence, Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan as one of the world’s 100 child prodigies. John has also launched three tech startups, commanding a portfolio and staff across different countries, and he’s also actively investing in innovative ideas surrounding clean energy solutions in Africa, all while still contributing to the growth and development of over 16 international and local tech startups.
As awesome and inspiring as all these might sound, it almost never happened. Despite his passion for tech, growing up, John never had access to a computer as his parents could not afford to buy him one. Additionally, they could not also afford to pay for the computer classes which John needed to fuel his passion for tech. But against the odds, John prevailed, and indeed, what he has become today is a prolific attestation to the opening quote of this column – “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
To gain access to the computer his parents could not buy for him and to learn the skills they could not afford to pay for him, John took the bold step of volunteering his time for free to a tech organisation that visited his secondary school in Akure. Every day after school and on the weekends, John visited this organisation and performed mundane tasks ranging from sweeping and cleaning to running errands; in return, the organisation gave him access to their computers which he utilised to learn premium soft skills from the instructors at that organisation.
In the words of John on his Climb episode, “I was contributing to them, and through them, I was able to get my own laptop, and today, I am getting more. My mindset in life is to contribute to others because in life before you can go up, you have to lay low.” John’s extraordinary mindset gives true meaning to Churchill’s quote. Rather than working for free at this organisation which some young people today might consider ludicrous, John could have chosen to take up a paid mundane role where he could earn a stipend, or he could have chosen not to work at all, but he choose to look beyond the immediate gains and saw the bigger picture of where these acquired skills would take him in future, he chose to make a life.
Choosing to make a life and charting a clear course for the future is a very important decision every young person has to make early in life, and the importance of this decision is heightened by the ultra-competitive and fast-changing times that we live in. Gone are the days when all a young person needed to succeed was an education up to the tertiary level. Sadly, today, tertiary education and even a distinctive grade does not assure a young graduate of a job. Rather, young people, today must go the extra mile to equip themselves with contemporary skills that will set them apart from the rest or risk being lost in the competition for the very few available opportunities. So, in the face of these facts and in light of financial constraints which have hindered most young people from acquiring these much-needed skills, how do young people get their foot in the doorway of our hyper-competitive world?
Volunteering remains the most tried and tested way for young people starting off their careers to acquire skills that will set them up for numerous local and international opportunities. It remains the best way to grasp an early understanding of the workings of your chosen career, gain much needed skills and knowledge, and even shore up your resume straight out of school. Here are five ways volunteering can set you up for a skilled life of local and international opportunities.
Gain an early understanding of your chosen industry.
There is a great difference between theoretical knowledge acquired in school and what obtains practically in the day-to-day workings of the corporate world, and this difference has puzzled many young people as they settle into their careers. In a bid to stem this and make the school to career transition smoother, universities have programmes such as SIWES and industrial training (IT), and to a lesser extent, the Government conducts schemes like the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). The importance of having a solid early understanding of how processes work in the real world cannot be overstated and taking up a volunteer role within an organisation in your chosen field is an important way to develop this understanding. Your volunteer experience allied with your theoretical knowledge from school will set you up to become a well-rounded individual who can comfortably settle into the real world without much training or supervision – a trait that will set you apart from the stiff competition out there.
Shore up your work resume.
A volunteer role with an organisation will not only provide you with much needed skills and experience, but the experience acquired will also serve the function of shoring up your resume, making you more attractive to organisational headhunters across the spectrum. For a young school leaver, work experience is hard to acquire but a certain level of experience is still required by most hiring organisations. Volunteering remains the best way to get this much-needed experience that will boost your resume and set you apart from your peers who are also trying to make headway in the career market.
Grow your networks.
As important as your skills and knowledge are to your career growth, something equally important but often rarely talked about is your network. Your social capital, the people you know and continue to interact with professionally can be the difference between a blossoming career and a stifled career where your knowledge and hard work are rarely seen or acknowledged. Volunteering with organisations and building your social capital through the friends you make and the mentors you learn from can set you up for your next big opportunity and equally leave you with a pool of industry contacts who you can always reach out to for support and expansion.
Develop much needed skills and knowledge.
As eloquently foregrounded in the story of John and extensively covered in this column, one of the most important benefits volunteering offers is the opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge from other professionals, skills which will set you up for your own career. For the average young person today, skills acquisition programmes and courses are increasingly expensive and hard to come by, with government investments in skills acquisition schemes also dwindling significantly. By volunteering your time with organisations where you can learn, you stand the chance of learning for free what you can use to earn a living for life.
Get your foot in the door.
For many people, a volunteer role was the pathway to their first job or first big opportunity. This mostly happens in situations where a volunteer displays an incredible amount of commitment and dedication to their role which then causes the volunteer organisation to offer them a role as a paid staff member. This has been the career trajectory for many successful people in the world today and continues to be for committed volunteers.
While volunteering your time and acquiring much needed skills, it is also very important to keep two things in mind. First, it is very important to know your self-worth and guard yourself against abuse or exploitation by any organisation. While it is important to remain humble and focused on your duties to your volunteer organisation, if persons in the organisation become abusive, or exploitative or you realise you are not learning what you’re supposed to, then it is important to volunteer elsewhere where you will learn better and be better appreciated.
Secondly, it is also important to know when to pull the curtains on your volunteer roles and start applying for paid roles that build your career. Knowing when to make this transition is as important as the initial decision to volunteer in the first place. This point was emphasised eloquently at 06:52 of John’s climb episode where he engaged in a conversation with the host about leaving his volunteer organisation.
The world today is a very competitive one, and for the average young person, it is increasingly difficult to break into a career, carve a niche, or obtain a life-changing opportunity. But if there is anything that shines through in the story of John, it is that rather than having plans of immediate monetary gratification, having a grand plan and a futuristic vision for your life remains the best way to ensure a sustainable future. Remember, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”