From chemistry major to CEO: Alumna shares her career path

Tolu Olubunmi, ‘02, discussed the impact a liberal arts education had on her career advocating for immigration reform

Emma Stoffel

On March 5, students gathered in Stackhouse Theater to see the second speaker of Washington and Lee’s Washington Term Speaker Series, Tolu Olubunmi, ‘02. 

As the advisor to the United Nations Department of Public Information, Olubunmi is dedicated to giving voices to migrants, refugees and internationally displaced people. She is the CEO and founder of Lions Write, a social venture aiming to reshape American immigration policies. 

Her success in entrepreneurship and global advocacy earned her the distinction of being one of “15 Women Changing the World” according to the World Economic Forum.

After graduating from Washington and Lee with a degree in chemistry and engineering, Olubunmi’s dream was to seek a job involving chemical engineering in the United States. But Olubunmi said in her speech that coming from Nigeria inhibited her from pursuing her career goals, due to her immigration status in the United States. 

She refers to this time in her life as “living in the colorless.” Olubunmi said she was “shrouded in fear and living in the shadows.”

Olubunmi was inspired to change the laws that prevented her from pursuing her dreams of becoming an engineer. She began researching how she could initiate political change.

She got a job working on the DREAM Act, a bill for immigration reform. Olubunmi said her empathetic and scientific approach to her advocacy has helped her understand multiple political perspectives and “redefine immigration.”  

In response to a question about the difficulties of her work, Olubunmi said she maintains a positive and independent attitude, despite being a black woman in politics.  

Olubunmi advised students to take time for themselves and find a strong support system. 

“I move forward with my family, my faith,” Olubunmi said. “Without Jesus I could not stand…it is how I keep going…you have to have people in your life to keep you going.” 

Olubunmi spoke about how to encourage people to shift their perspectives on policies. She said she uses strategies like storytelling to help people better understand issues. 

Olubunmi came to the United States from Nigeria a few years before starting at Washington and Lee. She said she struggled with being the only African-American woman in the chemistry and engineering department. 

 “I did not understand the complex history of race in the United States and at W&L,” Olubunmi said. 

But Olubunmi said Washington and Lee taught her about the complexities of race in the United States. She said the school also improved her problem-solving and communication skills. 

Olubunmi also emphasized how beneficial the liberal arts education has been toward her life, saying the experience “made a difference” in how she can read, write and communicate.

Assistant professor of politics Brian Alexander thanked Olubunmi for coming to campus.

Alexander said Olubunmi was “moving and inspiring… an incredible woman.” 

“In a university, so many students are conditioned to have a plan,” Alexander said. “[Olubunmi’s] plan was completely thrown out the window, and she made it into something inspiring.”