Keno Omu

Explorer, Engineer and Educator

Hi Keno! Can you tell us a bit about your early life and education?

I was born in Nigeria but moved to England with my parents when I was 4 years old. We moved again when I was 7, this time to Kuwait, where my parents still live. At 16 I enrolled in a boarding school and moved back to the UK. When I finished high school, I was not sure what I wanted to study, so I decided to move to the US for undergrad, as their educational system allows you to explore different topics before you select a major. I ended up studying Chemical Engineering at Princeton University. When I finished my undergraduate studies, I applied for a few jobs in consulting and banking in the US – I felt this was what a recent graduate from Princeton was expected to do by default. However, my applications were unsuccessful and frankly speaking I don’t think I would have enjoyed it in any case. At the same time, I did not really want to stay in the US, as I felt it was too culturally different from what I was used to in the UK and Kuwait. I didn’t feel at home.

So, what did you do after your undergrad?

I ended up deciding to continue studying and so I went back to the UK and enrolled in a Master’s in Environmental Technology at Imperial College London. Frankly speaking, I didn’t really have a passion for either chemical engineering or environmental technology fields and did not really know what I wanted from my professional career at the time. However, I did enjoy the strong research component of my degrees, and so decided to pursue a PhD to explore this further. At the time I was interested in staying at Imperial College to do a PhD in their Sustainable Futures program, but I did not get a place. So, while I was browsing online, I came across a PhD position funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which was focused on the design of energy efficient cities. The climate crisis is on everybody’s minds now, but this was nine years ago, so it was a forward-looking project. My project consisted of using mathematical modelling to design energy efficient systems and reduce energy waste. The topic was definitely of interest to me, but I chose it mostly because it came with almost full funding. I also got some top up funding from an engineering consulting firm which sponsored me – BuroHappold Engineering. I guess I was lucky in the sense that I had a comfortable PhD, at least from a financial perspective.

And how was the PhD experience to you as a whole?

Looking back, I wish I had spent some time working in between my degrees instead of going straight from Bachelor’s to Master’s to PhD. When I started my PhD at 23 years old, I wasn’t mature enough, either personally or professionally, to deal with the demands of independent research. I think that if I had waited a bit longer, I would probably have gotten significantly more out of it than I did back then. A PhD entails technical work, but also emotional maturity. I had a lot of doubt in myself at the time. I was not confident enough in my abilities to make a lot of progress. I tried to be as independent as I could, to show I could do it by myself, which was of course a mistake. As you grow older you learn where to go and who to ask for help when you need expertise in a certain topic.

What is your field now and what do you love most about it?

After my PhD, I was keen to try something different, so I went to Nairobi in Kenya to work at IBM Research. However, soon after, I realised I did not want to work in Industrial research as they focus more on business needs and there is less freedom compared to academic research. So, I have moved to Switzerland to do a postdoc at ETH Zurich in a topic which was very similar to my PhD research. When I was coming to the end of my postdoc, I naturally started to wonder about my next steps. I enjoyed the topic of my PhD, but there was something missing. I could not see myself following a traditional academic track and I had also decided that energy was not the thing for me. However, I knew that I still wanted to somehow be involved with teaching and working with people’s development and learning. I came across an article about a new university in Mauritius called the African Leadership University (ALU) and I talked to a few friends who knew them to learn what they were doing. And so, I applied to a faculty role in the engineering department and got the role. During the first year, I was mainly teaching entry-level courses, and after a year I applied to become the Dean of Faculty. At such a young age, I was suddenly in charge of overseeing the academic operations of a university with 300 students and 23 faculty members. I was used to solving engineering problems, but now I was managing people and I had to deal with very different kinds of issues. After some time, I experienced severe burnout and decided to leave the job. This was probably my biggest challenge – to be able to step away. I took a 4-month break from ALU, but then decided to come back because I truly believe in what we are doing – trying to develop a scalable, low cost, high quality higher education model in Africa. I am now responsible for the design of a new personalized degree, where students get the chance to explore their interests in different subject areas in order to determine the impact that they want to have on the world. It is a sort of a next step from the American system. I love that I can see the impact of my work directly on the students and witness their accomplishments in the real world. I am thrilled that I get to have a tangible positive impact on driving change for the African continent.

What drives and motivates you?

I am motivated by the need to have a purpose in life and the desire to have a positive impact in the world. I get to work with so many young Africans who, like myself, have a passion for the African continent and are eager to work hard to solve some of the serious challenges that are stifling our potential. The work I do is difficult and extremely physically, emotionally, and mentally gruelling, but I persist because it feels like this is more like a mission, as opposed to just being a job.

What are your ambitions for the future?

My ambition for the future is to learn as much as I can during my current role, and then start my own organisation within the next 5-10 years, focusing on capacity development, leadership development, and STEM education for African women.

What can you tell us about your own experience as an African educated woman working in STEM? Have you faced any particular challenges or difficulties that you would like to share with us? From your experience, how are Universities and developed countries doing regarding achieving equal rights and responsibilities for women and, particularly, for black women?

I am a woman, I am black, I am young, I am African. Sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint what is the specific factor that plays a role. What I can tell you is that I often find myself in situations where people do not value my expertise. “Why should I listen to you?”, sort of thing. I think people do not expect a lot from Africans in general – I often see the look of shock when people realise that I have a PhD degree. As such, I think it is key to establish your authority early on. Men are often raised to be more forward, and it is easy to get talked over, particularly if you are a young woman. Do not assume people are right. Question what they say to you. I come from an academic family, so in a way I had the advantage to know how this dynamic works from early on. I think one of the biggest barriers for Africans in terms of education is their restrictions to travel, but because I lived in the UK I always had easy access to conferences, networking events, and so on.

What about in your work in Mauritius? How easy is it to be a female Dean of Faculty and Academic Affairs? How is to be a woman in STEM in Africa?

There is still a big gender gap in certain areas, particularly in engineering, but the growing awareness of this fact is a global phenomenon. I would say that industry in general is still male dominated, but at the African Leadership University, I work in a very diverse environment.

What is your advice for young ambitious women?

Work hard and make sure that you know your stuff, because people will question your competency purely because you are a young woman. Put yourself in situations that will allow you to grow, and listen to constructive feedback. Ask for help. Having a strong support system (especially of other women) can help you to get through some of the most challenging times.

Keno was interviewed by Íris Luz Batalha.

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