Looking back as a graduate student, Tolulope Omokaiye was amazed by all that she didn’t know when she first graduated from college. Even with a business degree, for instance, she knew how to manage her money, but not how to build wealth through investing.
She wouldn’t be the first person to decry the lack of life skills among college graduates – from stocks to healthy eating to networking. But unlike most, she decided to create her own solution.
While still earning her MBA at Meredith College, Omokaiye founded Evolve Mentoring, a nonprofit aimed at training young people in the skills they’ll need as independent adults: managing money, furthering their careers, maintaining good health and serving their communities.
“These are things that people are leaving school and they don’t know about, because the colleges don’t teach them,” says Omokaiye, 35. “I thought maybe someone else should be stepping in to do that.”
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In the seven years since she founded Evolve, the organization has expanded to include younger students, namely high schoolers, and in all has served more than 200 youths.
Evolve runs mainly through a network of volunteer mentors and teachers who, along with Omokaiye, teach workshops and meet one on one with young people. Evolve also holds an annual summit and other educational events throughout the year.
The group has gained support from a number of well-known businesses, including PNC, Citrix, and IBM, and is working closely with colleges, in particular historically black colleges and universities such as Shaw University and N.C. Central University, where Omokaiye earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Lately, she’s been recognized for her work with an award from a national financial literacy organization.
David Summers worked with Omokaiye doing financial literacy volunteer work with younger students when they were in college. He went on to be a board member, and now a tutor, with Evolve, and says her wasn’t surprised to see his former classmate pour her efforts into such a project.
“She’s someone who has had a lot of success in her own education and career, and I think she was always very aware that she was fortunate to have people who lifted her up and helped lead to that success,” Summers says. “She wanted to help empower others in the same way, and she’s been passionate in making that happen.”
From conversation to action
Omokaiye was born in Chicago, the youngest of four children in a family headed by her Nigerian father and American-born mother. Her family moved south when her brother was attending college at N.C. State University.
Omokaiye started her own college career at Bennett College, but found the financial obligations of the private school were too much.
She would earn her bachelor’s degree in business, with a concentration in marketing, from N.C. Central University, and went on to work for the Tupperware company in Florida. She worked in sales for a large area, and enjoyed forging her own path in a new place – an experience she counsels her mentees to seek out as well.
She would go on to work as a sales representative for the beauty company Goody in Atlanta. As a self-professed “product junkie,” she says she particularly enjoyed promoting multicultural hair products in mainstream drug stores.
But her time there was short. When the recession spawned layoffs at the company, she was still one of the most recent hires, and hence one of the first to lose her job. She was stunned and distraught.
“I thought that being laid off meant that I had failed or done a bad job,” she says. “I didn’t know any better.”
You see this generational lack of knowledge. I wanted to break that cycle.
Tolulope O. Omokaiye
She returned to the Triangle to regroup, and enrolled in Meredith’s MBA program. It was there that she started talking to others about their post-college lives, spawning a series of “I wish I had known ...” conversations.
“Everyone I talked to was like, ‘I had no idea what I was doing,’ ” she says. “And we all wanted to pass on what we had learned.”
It’s a common complaint, often directed at colleges and high schools. But Omokaiye saw a need for education and mentoring that could be filled outside of, or in partnership with, educational institutions. Often she is filling in the gap for students whose parents also lacked strong financial and professional skills.
“You see this generational lack of knowledge,” she says. “I wanted to break that cycle.”
Evolve started as a pilot project at her alma mater, N.C. Central, where she developed and taught courses on financial literacy and other life skills, and has since expanded to work with several universities, churches, nonprofits and businesses.
The financial aspect of the program covers the basics of saving money and credit, and includes Youth Investment Club to help youths learn how to build wealth. In the pilot of the club, sponsored by N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Company, students saved $10,000.
In the professional realm, students learn to build their resume’s and professional networks. Evolve, whose partners include American Underground and HQ Raleigh, also emphasizes entrepreneurship.
The group recently held a “Shark Tank”-style entrepreneurship contest; the winning entrant is launching a gaming company. Another entrant is creating an app to help recent college graduates find jobs.
Health-focused classes center on gardening, healthy eating and the importance of regular check-ups and managing chronic conditions.
Over time, Evolve’s focus expanded and changed, including a diverse array of programming from networking events to political conversations and building homes for Habitat for Humanity.
And mentoring, of course, is an important component. She says she hopes to instill the importance of the mentoring relationship to all involved.
“We all grow from sharing our experiences,” she says. “It’s not just a one-way street.”
The group runs largely on grants and fundraisers, including a jazz brunch and other gatherings that also serve as networking opportunities.
Omokaiye says many of her events respond to requests from the community, and her plans for the future are even more ambitious. Ideally, she says, she’s like to start a school with a life skills curriculum, and she’s considering earning a doctorate degree toward that end. The school would also grow and cook its own food.
She’s also considering other audiences who would benefit from its life skills curriculum, such as people being released from prison.
As she counsels young people about their futures, she urges them to consider that change is inevitable – as her own path attests.
“This is definitely a shift from what I saw myself doing,” she says. “But it’s exactly what I should be doing.”
Tolulope O. Omokaiye
Born: June 1982, Chicago
Career: Founder and CEO, Evolve Mentoring
Awards: National Financial Educators Day award for North Carolina, National Financial Educator Council; Emerging Leader Woman of the Year, Spectacular Magazine, 2016
Education: B.A. Business Administration, N.C. Central University; M.B.A. Meredith College
Fun fact: Omokaiye's last name means “many children,” which she says is appropriate since she now works with children, even if she doesn't yet have any of her own.