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‘Instigator of change’

Business student wins $45,000 award for activism and entrepreneurship

By Susan White

A Memorial business student and community activist has earned a $45,000 award that marks her among the best in Atlantic Canada.

Ijeoma Nicole Obiodiaka is the recipient of a 2022–23 Frank H. Sobey Award for Excellence in Business Studies.

The award recognizes entrepreneurial students for their academic achievements and university and community leadership.

Eight students from across Atlantic Canada have won the award this year. Ms. Obiodiaka is the 21st Memorial student to be honoured since the program began in 1989.

“I’m overwhelmed in the best way possible, and also very, very shocked,” she said. “I’m definitely very happy. Still in shock but overall, very happy and grateful.”

Ms. Obiodiaka will graduate with a bachelor of business administration (BBA) degree this spring.

Nicole Obiodiaka is flanked by Dean Travor Brown, left, and Paul Sobey, right.
From left are Dr. Travor Brown, dean of Memorial’s business faculty, Ijeoma Nicole Obiodiaka, and Paul Sobey, chair of the Frank H. Sobey Awards Board of Trustees.
Photo: Submitted

An international student from Lagos, Nigeria, Ms. Obiodiaka has made a significant impact at Memorial since she arrived in 2019.

She has been involved with the Memorial University of Newfoundland Student Union (MUNSU) in roles that saw her serve on Senate and organize Black History Month events. She was also instrumental in creating the Black Students Association (BSA) and served as its vice-president and president.

During her time with the BSA, the group hosted events and anti-racism workshops, produced a video series to address stereotypes Black people face and hosted equity, diversity and inclusion workshops to help others learn how to be allies to marginalized groups.

She is also the first Black student representative to serve on the Canadian Federation of Students Newfoundland and Labrador and she volunteered during events and as a mentor with the Student Volunteer Bureau.

CBC collaboration

Ms. Obiodiaka’s advocacy for the Black community extends outside the university, as well.

In 2022 she approached CBC about producing a video series focused on Black women leaders in the province, even though she had no prior media experience or training.

“It’s definitely important to have people that you can look up to that look like you.” — Ijeoma Nicole Obiodiaka

CBC agreed and the five-part series, Herstory: Inspiring Black Women in N.L., launched in February.

Ms. Obiodiaka researched and interviewed subjects and produced the series.

“When I came here, I was sure that there were a lot of successful women or marginalized women that were doing great things. However, it wasn’t in my face,” she said. “There wasn’t anywhere that I could go and search role models that identify like me or anything. That’s why I wanted to do it because it’s definitely important to have people that you can look up to that look like you.”

Ms. Obiodiaka says Newfoundland and Labrador’s lack of high-visibility diversity inspired her to work towards change.

She says that when she first arrived in the province it was “very welcoming,” but was not as diverse as it is now.

“My thought process was, how could I have an impact on the university so other people who are like me would feel more welcome in the student union and the student body? I knew that there was a lot of good potential and I wanted to be an instigator of that change.”

Watch the video below to hear more from Ms. Obiodiaka about what the Sobey award means to her and her business, Centra, and why she is staying to live and work in Atlantic Canada.

Supporting diverse entrepreneurs

In 2021 Ms. Obiodiaka landed a summer job at the Business Development Bank of Canada.

Through this position and her role at the BSA, she discovered many small, Black-owned businesses that were struggling to gain traction.

“I’m hoping to fill that gap for those entrepreneurs.” — Ijeoma Nicole Obiodiaka

This led her to create Centra, a non-profit organization that provides resources for under-represented entrepreneurs.

“I noticed that there was a huge gap, and more specifically for diverse entrepreneurs, between very early startup and the stage that they need to be more established to take on loans and grants. I’m hoping to fill that gap for those entrepreneurs.”

Centra’s first initiative was the province’s first Black-owned vendor market, held at the St. John’s Farmers Market in November 2021. A second market was held the following year.

“I found that a lot of people were not aware of these businesses, primarily because they were birthed during the pandemic. They were all online but the community culture prefers to be in person,” she said. “I can’t say one thing [inspired me] specifically, but I just know that I saw their troubles and I wanted to help in any way I that I could.”

Ms. Obiodiaka plans to put some of her award money into developing Centra. She hopes to expand it to offer workshops and networking opportunities for entrepreneurs who face barriers related to race and immigration.

“I really want to expand those services because it’s a bit hard to do what I want to do without capital or funding, so I definitely want to invest back into Centra and provide more services to other marginalized groups apart from just the Black community,” she said. “I also want to pursue my master’s degree and my career goals as a leader in diversity and financing.”

‘Why can’t I do it?’

Ms. Obiodiaka continues to work at the Business Development Bank of Canada as a client support co-ordinator.

She plans to pursue a master of business administration degree in the future.

“I do not believe in being complacent,” she said. “If I see something wrong or if I see something that could be done better or done in a different way, I’m not just going to sit and wait until someone else comes to do it. I’m going to be like, why can’t I do it? Why can’t I be that force for change?”

Ms. Obiodiaka received the Frank H. Sobey Award for Excellence in Business Studies at a ceremony in Halifax, N.S., on April 5.

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