One would think that a lady who has bagged so many awards, accolades, degrees and who is a Harvard fellow would be snobbish or pompous. But not Funke. She’s quite the opposite: earthy, super friendly, open minded, zealous about life, fun loving and possessing of an intellectually stimulating sense of humour.
She’s a great talker and when I say great I don’t mean she talks with irrelevance or too much. I mean a profound and inspiring talker. A simple chat with her can change your life.
Nigerian-by-Birth, Kenyan-by-Marriage: Olufunke Nnennaya Michaels-Miano has over 21 years ‘hands-on’ sales, marketing and advertising experience – with multi-million budget brands like Coca-Cola, Peugeot, Rothmans, Heineken, Subaru and Samsung.
Despite getting pregnant with twins just ahead of school resumption, I had stubbornly refused to defer my admission or postpone some of my courses. I went into labour the night before my Calculus exam, which also happened to be my last paper for that semester. I managed to get through the night by studying, and drove to campus for my exam in the morning
She has worked globally across Sub-Saharan Africa, North-Africa/Middle East, Europe and the UK, Latin-America and the Caribbean as a Creative-Communications practitioner.
Funke speaks 7 languages and she has also been a cross-functional resource for African, Caribbean and North American markets.
She is committed to fostering development and industry through collaborations between academia, entrepreneurs, and leaders of the corporate, political and humanitarian frontiers.
Funké is an MIT Sloan Fellow, a Harvard Mason Fellow; and a Fellow of The Nigerian Institute of Marketing and Brand Management. She co-founded the MIT Africa Investment Forum and The Pro-NICHE Network, a not-for-profit organization providing free concept incubation, niche-networking and consulting services for African start-ups.
I come from a multi-tribal Nigerian family. So I learned Yoruba, Igbo, Ewe (spoken in Togo, Benin, and Ghana) at home. My mum is Yoruba from Ondo. My paternal grandfather was from Arochukwu in Abia state. He was a vastly travelled soldier who spoke better French than English and my earliest French came from him. He married a Lagosian from the Brazilian quarters in Lagos Island. Her mother was half – Hausa, half Ijebu and her father was half Togolese, half Lagosian of the old ruling house of Porto Novo.
Funke is on the project board of The Singing Torah in Boston, an MIT-affiliated tech start-up for the preservation and teaching of Hebrew Oral Culture. She is a member of The MIT Think Tank, and a USAID ‘Young African Leaders Initiative’ (YALI) Partner. Funké is also an author, adjunct lecturer, public speaker and culture coach.
And yet she also takes her ‘home’ duties very seriously. She’s a loving wife, mother and enjoys numerous outdoorsy activities.
NEKITA: Bearing all your achievements in mind – both educational and vocational – what gave you the balls in the first place to pursue so many degrees and business endeavours? How did it all begin?
FUNKE: I was born with a huge pair of balls! (winks) My father never allowed me the luxury of thinking that girls can’t do certain things. He had expected a son as his first child, so he raised his daughters who came forth instead without any mental limitations. It sure made a strong woman out of me.
Besides I come from a family of high academic acheivers. My grandfather Festus Olawoyin Awosika wrote the strategy for free education in Nigeria’s western region during the first republic. He started the first free school in Nigeria, and rose to be a Minister and diplomat but he remained a humble, people-oriented man.
My mother is a professor of finance. My journey and hurdles pale in comparison to hers. Yet she is a strong humble activist for education. She retired as Vice president of an American university, moved to Nigeria and built one of her own to provide subsidized training for young school leavers.
NEKITA: Wow. Amazing background. How did you get into one of the most difficult to get into American universities – Harvard?
FUNKE: My husband Mike insisted I apply. It was during a tough period in our lives and it seemed like a good time to get immersed into something new. I applied and wrote like a million essays with daily prompting from my husband. I lost myself in books again and surprise, surprise my acceptance letter finally came through.
I was pregnant with twins while in the school, went into labour the night before my calculus exam, waited and wrote my paper while timing my contractions then drove to the hospital and had my lovely girls.
You see, I got where I am because of the amazing love and support system that envelopes me.
NEKITA: Was your husband at any time intimidated by your academic prowess?
FUNKE: Michael Miano is my husband and my personal redemption. The reward of my faith and proof that God does make a partner for everyone. I met him in the US.
I think it takes a lot of unnecessary effort for a man to be intimidated by the achievements of a woman. Especially of a woman who has set aside the pedigree of her birth, education, beauty or other social qualifiers and submitted herself to love. What more could one offer?
I am exceptionally fortunate to have met a man who sees ME. Period.
When a man works willing to support his woman’s dreams, he automatically earns her loyalty. To give him less is to value myself as unworthy of the gift I have been given.
I know that our sons will have the capacity to support their partners and that our daughters will not be afraid to rise and will recognize good men by looking for the same traits they see in their father.
This is how to raise a generation that is gender positive. Teach boys that it’s okay to love a strong woman. It’s actually profitable. (laughs)
NEKITA: So how did you get to learn 7 languages, and which languages are these?
FUNKE: It happened quite naturally actually. As you already know, I come from a multi-tribal Nigerian family. So I learned Yoruba, Igbo, Ewe (spoken in Togo, Benin, and Ghana) at home. My mum is Yoruba from Ondo. My paternal grandfather was from Arochukwu in Abia state. He was a vastly travelled soldier who spoke better French than English and my earliest French came from him. He married a Lagosian from the Brazilian quarters in Lagos Island. Her mother was half – Hausa, half Ijebu and her father was half Togolese, half Lagosian of the old ruling house of Porto Novo.
My life’s journey took me to Haiti and there I learned Haitian Creole as part of my job but it became a part of me.
I lived happily on different parts of the Island, loved and helped the people through the devastation of the earthquake. I actually put my salary together with that of a friend of mine from the Building Goodness foundation in Virginia – Taylor Quarles – and we got the drawings done for a new house and built it with our bare hands and with help from some neighbours to build a house for a family of five that were living in a shack there.
Haiti is as much home to me as Kenya.
My first daughter (non biological) came to us a as a result of the war in Sierra Leone.
We are all orphans of one war or another and our survival as a specie has always depended on our ability to take care of one another. Wherever our biological origins may lie, we are all called to stand with one another.
My house rings with many languages depending on who’s home; the kids speak Kiswahili, Kikuyu, English, some Yoruba and pidgin. It’s a fun life.
It’s easy to see how multi-lingual families raise more open-minded individuals. Society benefits from when we build bridges. I am the result of many such bridges.
NEKITA: Describe yourself in two words.
FUNKE: I need help with that one. My hubby says: Charming and Fierce.
NEKITA: What’s your best quality?
FUNKE: My smile. The ability to see the positive side of every situation.
NEKITA: What’s your worst quality?
FUNKE: Impatience. I can’t abide unnecessary delays or the lack of initiative to prevent them.
NEKITA: What do you hope to be doing in the next 5 years?
FUNKE: In 5 years, I shall be a full professor and shall have established the 5-point entrepreneurial project I am working on at the moment.
NEKITA: What has been your major career milestone?
While I have had quite a few milestones that made headlines both at home in Nigeria, and in the US, I would say my most precious one is “Mounting the stage as valedictorian of my Harvard class.” Despite getting pregnant with twins just ahead of school resumption, I had stubbornly refused to defer my admission or postpone some of my courses. I went into labour the night before my Calculus exam, which also happened to be my last paper for that semester. I managed to get through the night by studying, and drove to campus for my exam in the morning. More than any other achievement, that degree means a lot to me because I am proof that women can do both home and career without foregoing one for the other.
NEKITA: You appear to be a staunch believer of the educational system – then what do you think of radical but brilliant minds like Ted Turner, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and others who shunned education and still made a positive impact on their social environment? Or of the new age (growing) belief that the educational system is messed up and doesn’t necessarily help a special breed of youth harness their unique talents/abilities. And that not everyone fits into a box. Some are circles, some are rectangles?
FUNKE: I do believe that the educational system can be better than it is now. And that goes on for more systems on this continent. Yet those flawed systems produced people like myself. We cannot abandon the educational system because of its flaws. I believe we are better served as a society by rather seeking to improve our methods and values to suit the changing needs of our populace.
Unique talents and abilities need education to see their dreams into reality and see the ‘working parts’ of the concept. People often forget that none of the Big Dropout successes came to ‘uneducated’ minds. I always say, get as much training as you can, then apply it to your passion.
NEKITA: Which female inspires you the most?
FUNKE: My mother, Professor Abiola Awosika. Before her, I had the privilege of being raised by my grandmother Bai Abiodun Jonah. Granny was of Dahomeyan descent, and she gave me the strength of purpose, the wisdom and the fierce historical pride that I carry.
NEKITA: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learnt in life?
FUNKE: To walk with FAITH as the guide to my every choice. Faith in myself expressed as my capacity to achieve goals and surmount the hurdles that life may put in front of me. Faith in my fellow man’s ability to do good expressed as love for as many as I encounter; and faith in God because such a beautiful life cannot be a coincidence.
NEKITA: What has been your biggest accomplishment in life?
FUNKE: The most precious would be MOTHERHOOD. Even there, I cannot take credit for the experience, nor for the way it has enriched me as a person.
All I have, and all I have done, pale in the light of my parental responsibility.
NEKITA: What has been the most trying obstacle that you’ve overcome in life,
and how did you overcome this?
FUNKE: MORTALITY. I have lost children, lost organs in my body, and had to contend with the reality of my own mortality. Second, would be my FEMININITY. Professionally, I have refused to apologize for succeeding in a man’s world and excelling in a male-dominated industry. I overcame social and professional gender barriers by being ‘one of the boys’ and also by being a strong, supportive ‘sister’ on the job.
NEKITA: Everyone has a sense of fashion and personal style. What’s yours?
I call it ‘Comfy-Classy’. I don’t do trends much, but I like style that endures, quality that is tangible, and a look that is generally expressive of my belief in myself. I do NOT have label fixations, and I prefer to dress African whenever I can.
NEKITA: What is unique about you?
FUNKE: I am ME. That’s a whole lot of unique creativity rolled up into one human (smiles)
NEKITA: Tell us a secret about yourself that no other person knows.
FUNKE: Lolllllll. Only one other person probably knows, and I made sure I married him to keep my secret safe: Under all that high-achieving, grammar-speaking magic is a little naija girl who just wants a better life to be enjoyed in a better world. I am a chest-high wrapper-tying housewife in my leisure time.
NEKITA: Tell us in two sentences what you think of sex, love and marriage.
FUNKE: SEX is a fun physical activity to be enjoyed without inhibitions, and which works better if those involved are in LOVE, while MARRIAGE is an expression of that preference, fondness or desire for one another. For me, it is essentially the heady feeling that Michael gives me with just a word or a look…even after the years have taken their toll.
NEKITA: (Tearing up…sigh…)
NEKITA: Which movie has inspired you the most?
FUNKE: I am not much of a movie-inspiration kind. My inspiration comes from people and places all around me. Life is often more inspirational than even the best-written fiction.
NEKITA: Which popular personality inspires you the most?
FUNKE: Nelson Madiba Mandela for his fortitude; Barack and Michelle Obama for their class and shared values despite the challenges that they faced in dispensing their duties.
NEKITA: What’s your life slogan?
FUNKE: Love conquers all!
NEKITA: If you had the power to change the world in one way, what would you do?
FUNKE: Exclude the gene for CORRUPTION from the DNA of all humans!