Recent Grad and Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence Winner Reflects on her Journey to Google
BY LEIGHANNE TOOLE
One might not expect that a young girl born into poverty in rural Nigeria would be destined for Silicon Valley—much less Google—but Gika Okonji’s journey has always been far from ordinary.
At eight years old, Okonji and her family relocated to the United States, and after moving several times, they finally settled down in northeast Cincinnati, where she later graduated from Sycamore High School. “UC was home,” she explains when recounting her decision to attend the University of Cincinnati. Even though her parents persuaded her to pursue engineering, she sought out the admissions office at the UC Carl H. Lindner College of Business after her first day of classes. “I felt like Lindner allowed me to explore both my analytical and creative interests,” says Okonji when asked why she was drawn to a career in business. This past spring, she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of finance and marketing degree.
Okonji, BBA ’17, is one of six undergraduate recipients of this year’s Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence, a prestigious honor bestowed by the University of Cincinnati’s president to outstanding graduating students who exemplify the ideals of the university. While accepting her award, Okonji attributed her success to her supportive parents as well as the amazing UC staff and faculty who helped her along her journey. “I did not get to where I am today alone,” she revealed. “I am forever indebted to my alma mater.”
I am forever indebted to my alma mater.
Okonji has always set her sights beyond just the academic standard. After five cooperative education (co-op) rotations at world-leading companies such as Macy’s, Clorox and Google, one would think she would stop there. But during her five years at UC, she was also awarded nine honors and scholarships, she participated in five international study and volunteer programs overseas, she was involved in a myriad of student organizations and leadership positions and somehow still found the time to establish her own art company.
Among her many achievements, Okonji was a proud Darwin T. Turner Scholar, a Marvin P. Kolodzik Business Scholar and a member of the Lindner Business Fellows program. The honors programs at UC and Lindner gave Okonji the platform to craft her own unique path. “Put yourself out there,” she suggests when asked what advice she would provide prospective students considering Lindner. “Anyone can graduate with a general business degree and then go into the workforce, but the UC Lindner College of Business offers so many opportunities and in-house resources for you to create your own path.”
Okonji was also admitted into Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a national professional trajectory fellowship that partners with more than 100 leading corporations, entrepreneurships, social sector organizations and business schools to empower a new generation of diverse leaders. With the support of Lindner staff, she was able to recruit UC’s largest class ever to be accepted into the program.
During her initial college years, Okonji served with Peace Corps volunteers in Central America. She also organized several successful fundraising events for the UC African Student Association (UCASA), which supported travel expenses for UC students pursuing study abroad and service experiences in Africa. When she became president of UCASA during her junior year, she worked alongside Vanessa Allen-Brown, a 2005 Fulbright Scholar, to curate a service learning experience to Ethiopia geared toward minority students. According to Okonji, there’s minimal minority participation in study abroad opportunities at most public institutions. “And I was dedicated to change that narrative at UC,” she affirms. Last year, UCASA received four times the number of applicants for Ethiopia than the organization had slots for.
Okonji’s ambitious drive can be seen in the way she recounts her international experiences, which she says contributed to her decision to acquire a minor in International Business. “I’ve learned that the way we grow up shapes the lenses of how we live our lives. We’re not aware of the perspective we have unless we experience something more. That’s why global engagement and service became a part of my every movement at the University of Cincinnati.” As a means to enhance her global perspective and innovative abilities, she also spent time studying abroad as an exchange student in France, Slovenia and Dubai. “With business becoming so globalized, it’s important that we learn to accept other cultures and backgrounds. We underestimate how hard it is to work cross-culturally.”
Today, she’s setting her sights on giving back and paying it forward. After graduation, Okonji will be moving to Silicon Valley to start a new marketing and consulting position with Google. “Google is one of the first companies where I felt as if I really fit in,” she says. “I’m a very quirky person and they allow me to be exactly who I am.” Prior to her start date, Okonji will continue her commitment to serving others by dedicating one year to educating women and children in developing countries all over the world. “As a child born in rural Africa, this was not where I was supposed to end up,” she says as her motivation for why she decided to serve. “I’m passionate about giving back and storytelling. Something has been pulling at my heart that I need to go tell people’s stories.” In the future, she hopes to promote global awareness through the narratives she captures.
Undergraduate Programs Spotlight
Record Incoming Student Quality and Record Enrollment (Again)
Each of the previous four years, the University of Cincinnati Lindner College of Business has set a new all-time record for the number of freshman applications received. This year, freshman applications for the fall 2017 class were so high that for the first time ever in its 100+ year history, the UC Lindner College of Business stopped accepting applications months ahead of the official deadline.
While the record number of applications is a strong measure of the ever-increasing student demand for Lindner, it is only part of the picture of the transformation that has been occurring at the University of Cincinnati. More important than the quantity of this year’s applications is the fact that the quality of this year’s applications is also record-setting.
The new benchmarks aren’t limited to just the applications portion of the enrollment equation. A record number of accepted 2017 students have confirmed their intent to enroll at Lindner this year, and as a result, this fall’s incoming freshman class will be the largest ever in the history of Lindner, breaking the previous record (set just last year) by more than 25 additional students.
The recent trend of record applications, enrollments and student quality is likely the result of Lindner’s continual focus on real-world experiences as part of its undergraduate curriculum. As freshmen, Lindner students participate in:
- Project Strategy: Freshmen perform strategic analyses of a real-world client company such as Procter & Gamble, Macy’s or the Cincinnati Reds and then present their findings to executives from that organization.
- Project Innovation: Freshmen develop their creative, innovation and entrepreneurial skills by dreaming up a new product or service and building a complete business plan to support the launch of that concept.
- Project Impact: Freshmen utilize their newly acquired business skills to help a United Way partner organization achieve its goals and improve the Cincinnati community.
After their freshman year, many Lindner students gain real-world experience by working for leading national and global companies. This past academic year, more than 1,400 students worked in 200 cities around the globe for varied companies such as Google, Toyota and Disney. Additionally, many other Lindner students took advantage of the school’s business-focused study abroad programs in countries ranging from Chile to Australia to the United Arab Emirates.
Undergraduate Snapshot (2016-2017)
708: Largest Freshman Confirmations in Lindner's History
100% Service Learning Participation
All 640 Freshmen Partnered With the United Way
523 Undergraduates Studied Abroad
33 Countries Visited by Undergraduates
+1400 Student Co-ops and Internships
Provided Real-world Work Experience Before Graduation