Tunji Akintokun, alumnus, MSc Information Systems EngineeringFrom living in a hostel to carrying the Olympic torch, Tunji Akintokun’s story is one of overcoming adversity. Now he’s focusing on helping young people to do the same
There are some people whose energy and warmth lights up a room – and Tunji Akintokun (MSc Information Systems Engineering, 1993) is one of them. On the day of our interview, he arrives, buzzing with enthusiasm. ‘I’ve just had coffee with someone I met through a workshop for women returners run by TechUK and everywoman,’ he says.
‘She was finding it challenging getting back into work after having children, so I introduced her to one of my colleagues at Cisco, who gave her some great advice. She told me today that she’s just received a job offer. I’m so happy for her. I also had a chat with Foluke Akinlose MBE, who founded the PRECIOUS Awards for Women – Cisco is one of the sponsors – and with Margaret Casely-Hayford, who chairs the charity ActionAid about a charitable art project for Black History Month in October.’
It’s a brief but telling insight into his modus operandi. There are no frills, and no formality. In Tunji’s world, it’s all about making connections: finding people who share his desire to bring down the barriers to equality of opportunity, and galvanising them into action.
His is a network that’s growing all the time. Tunji’s involvement with everywoman – he’s a judge at their annual technology awards – is only the start of a long list of extra-curricular commitments that includes sitting on the Business Leader Council and mentoring for Teach First, working as an ambassador for national education and careers provider STEM Learning and judging the Black British Business Awards. He is also a patron of the autism charity CASPA and a Vibrant Economy Commissioner at accounting and consultancy firm Grant Thornton.
Then of course there is his first highly successful social enterprise Your Future, Your Ambition, which between 2012 and 2016 engaged over 3000 young people in inspiring events and activities designed to help them pursue their STEM-related career ambitions, and provided mentoring for 600. All this on top of a demanding day job as Cisco’s Director of Mid-Market Customers and Partner Organisations in Africa.
So what is it that drives him? ‘My belief in the power of education to transform lives is based directly on my own experiences,’ he says.
‘I’m proof positive that it doesn’t matter where you come from. Given plenty of determination and a bit of support at the right times, you can get to wherever you want to be.’
Tunji’s own childhood and early years were characterised by turbulence and upheaval. His parents – both well educated, determined people – arrived in the UK from Nigeria. When Tunji was born he was very soon fostered out to an Irish family in Essex. ‘It seems shocking now,’ he says. ‘But it wasn’t that unusual in the 60s.’
Sadly, Tunji’s father, who had sickle cell anaemia, died when he was just two. He stayed with his foster parents until he was eight, when his mother remarried, but tragedy struck again when she died just three years later. Tunji’s relationship with his stepfather was a difficult one, and at 13 he found himself homeless when his stepfather returned back from Nigeria and sold the family home. He sought refuge in a hostel in Forest Gate, where he stayed until he finished his O-levels.
Through all this, school represented the security and stability that was so lacking in his domestic life. While the school itself – a comprehensive in Canning Town, in London’s Docklands – did little to raise its pupils’ aspirations, it did provide Tunji with a life-changing experience. ‘One day IBM came in,’ he recalls. ‘The engineer had this massive computer and basically said, “This is the future”. I was fascinated. I remember going to him afterwards and asking, “Right, what do I need to do if I want to work with these things?” That was it. I ditched all the languages and arts subjects, and focused 100% on sciences and maths.’
It’s an experience that has stayed with him. ‘Pretty much everything I do is about bringing down barriers,’ he says. ‘It’s about helping people see what’s possible, and getting them excited about what they can achieve. I was fortunate to have people that saw the potential in me and gave me a helping hand. My story could easily have turned out differently – which is why I do what I’m doing now.’
The idea for Your Future, Your Ambition, for example, was born out of a growing recognition that the digital gap was growing. ‘There was already a shortage of talent in the industry, and the numbers studying STEM subjects was falling too. As a result, the UK was moving down the innovation league table. I wanted to do something about that – and recreate that “Aha!” moment that I had for as many children and young people as possible.’
Opening up opportunities
The opportunity he’d been looking for came in 2012. Cisco, an official supporter of the London 2012 Olympics, had installed a state-of-the-art structure, Cisco House, high above the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford. ‘I went to a meeting of The Network of Networks (TNON) – it’s where the multicultural networks of some of the biggest UK companies come together – and told them, “I want to get loads of kids into Cisco House to see all this cutting-edge technology, and open their eyes to some of the opportunities that are out there.” I managed to secure support from 15 companies, and three months later we were able to host our first event, for 400 kids.’
Since then, the initiative has snowballed. Now, an annual marketplace event is held at the Emirates Stadium, with around 25 blue chip companies from Accenture to Barclays to National Grid. ‘It’s very hands-on,’ says Tunji. ‘We’ve had scientists from Procter & Gamble showing the kids how toothpaste is made, and engineers from BT demonstrating how to lay a fibre optic cable. It’s about providing positive role models, too. Meeting a black female nuclear physicist, for example, is a really powerful thing.’
Unsurprisingly, Tunji is also actively involved in pushing the diversity agenda within Cisco. He’s quick to credit his employer for their willingness to support him – and to face uncomfortable truths head on. ‘I remember when we were first setting up the Black Employee Network. Some people wondered why we needed it. So we got a facilitator in to do some reverse mentoring, which really opened people’s eyes to the issue of unconscious bias and paved the way for the network to be launched.’
It’s an example that goes a long way to explaining why someone as dynamic as Tunji has spent 18 years of his career with the same employer. ‘Cisco is very open, and very willing to examine itself,’ he says. ‘Also, every time I’ve considered the possibility of a new challenge outside of the organisation, Cisco has responded. I’ve had some amazing opportunities and experiences here. My unofficial motto is “Disrupt yourself before someone disrupts you”.
It’s important to keep moving, otherwise you won’t keep growing as a leader.
Good business sense
‘I think some people wondered why I wanted to take on the role in Africa. It’s true that many countries still face major economic and socio-political challenges, but the opportunities digitalisation can bring to a continent that’s now connected to the rest of the world by undersea fibre cable and where half the population is under 35 are enormous. There are some amazing transformational infrastructure projects going on too. I want to be part of all that.’
Looking ahead, there’s plenty still to aim for. ‘It’s great that companies are starting to take diversity more seriously,’ he says. ‘They know now that it’s not just nice to do – it makes good business sense. Cisco is doing well: I think we’re the first and so far the only IT company to hold the National Equality Standard. But there’s still a long way to go.’ Outside work, he plans to launch a new globally backed STEM initiative later this year, building on the work of Your Future, Your Ambition. ‘The system still isn’t fair,’ he says. ‘I was fortunate, but there are still a lot of bright kids that don’t make it through. When we talk about creating more diversity at these top levels of the corporate world – well, that’s where it all begins.’
What’s been your proudest moment so far?
There have been so many! I was really honoured to win a National Diversity Award for my work in diversity, mentoring and STEM. And I’m really proud of what we achieved with Your Future, Your Ambition. But it’s hard to beat being chosen as a torchbearer at the 2016 Rio Olympics. That’s a truly once in a lifetime experience.
What’s the most useful thing you’ve learned recently?
In 2013 I was lucky enough to spend time at Stanford University, studying design thinking. The idea is that you can learn to be innovative by taking risks and rethinking and remodelling until you come up with something that works, rather than sitting around waiting for a brilliant idea. Basically it comes down to the old cliché about inspiration vs perspiration, and it’s something I draw on every day.
What’s your office like?
I work across six Cisco locations in Africa – so usually it’s just wherever I can find a desk! But my office at home in London is full of African contemporary art and sports memorabilia that I find very inspiring. Also, most of the time I work standing up. I find I feel less restricted and more energised that way.
How do you know when it’s time to move on?
I have a three-year rule. The first year you’re in a role, you’re working out how to do it. The second year, you start to become competent. And in the third year you can start to get a bit complacent if you’re not careful. Once I start to feel like I’m mastering a role, then I know it’s time for a change.
Get in touch about STEM
If you’re inspired by Tunji’s commitment to increasing the number of young people studying STEM subjects and their access to opportunity, let us know. The University works with local schools, including our own South Bank University Academy of Engineering and South Bank Engineering University Technical College, to help inspire young people to study STEM and build local networks of support. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.