Sola Olaniyan-Bright

I was recently offered an opportunity I didn’t feel worthy of because it was really BIG. I told my Mum about my fears and she asked a question that really set things into perspective for me… “Isn’t BIG what you want?” Sola Olaniyan-Bright for me serves as a reminder that if BIG is what I decide to go for, I can get it. She identified something BIG that she wanted and she went for it head on! Getting accepted to Harvard Business School is no small feat, particularly when you’re coming from a “third world country”. Sola is a perfect example that all things are possible to one who believes and works hard for it.

Sola is a MBA graduate from Harvard Business School who was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. She obtained a bachelor’s degree from Covenant University, Nigeria after which she worked in asset management at ARM Investment Managers, where she became a qualified accountant with the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), and then served as a consultant at McKinsey & Company working with banking, oil and gas, and agriculture-focused clients across Sub-Saharan Africa.

She has worked with startups such as, a fast fashion e-commerce startup, and Africa Courier Express (ACE), a tech-based logistics service provider, both based in Lagos Nigeria. She also serves as a coach for African entrepreneurs via the HBS Africa Business Club Entrepreneur Mentoring team.

5 Practical Lessons we can learn from Sola Olaniran-Bright

Know exactly what you’re up against and evaluate carefully what it takes

In a recent interview with She Leads Africa, Sola was asked “What area of your application did you spend the most time on and what was your strategy?

She said “Definitely my essay. Having graduated from a Nigerian university from where no graduates had ever been admitted into Harvard, I knew my grades wouldn’t be enough. I knew I was up against stiff competition globally (with a 12% acceptance rate at HBS) and felt I had to work to overcompensate with the quality and authenticity of how I told my story.  I also wanted to make sure what I shared was different from but at the same time complementary to what my recommenders had to say about me in showing a full picture of who I was as a person. I know it takes some successful applicants a much shorter time to write their essays but that was certainly not the case for me.”

Notice she said “I knew my grades wouldn’t be enough”. The moment you identify that BIG thing you want, you must do a detailed analysis identifying what you’re up against and what it will take you to scale through. It’s not enough to want it, have a strategy and clear direction on what it will take. Don’t pursue your BIG thing blindly, identify what it will take and then get it.


Stretch yourself

According to Sola during her preparation time, “Security guards were never surprised to see me at the office on Saturdays and Sundays Wi-Fi is much better at the office and thankfully my office was open to the idea of people coming in on weekends as long as you were meeting performance goals. With traffic and an intense work schedule and TRAFFIC, I spent a lot of time worrying about finding time to study and sometimes, I resorted to solving questions on my mobile phone just so traffic time was not such a waste. The combination of traffic and late hours typically made me so tired on weekdays that I ended up doing most (>90%) of my studying on weekends at the office.”

“Your time will become, by far, your most valuable asset in this journey. Be tactful about how you spend it. Minutes here, hours there, weeks here, months there, they all add up. Knowing what you can do productively within each ‘unit’ of time will prove very useful in your MBA journey. e.g.  Being stuck in traffic on 3rd mainland bridge can be turned into a 5-question review session where you read ‘Question of the day’ solutions from GMAT prep sites (if you’re not driving, of course) Early days off work can be turned into a 1-hour nap and a 2-hour practice session in an empty meeting room

Unexpected public holidays (thank you, Nigeria) can be turned into a half-day study session in your room

A weekend at home can be turned into one day of introspection and writing of short paragraphs about yourself that answer ‘typical essay questions’.”

If your schedule hasn’t changed since you identified that BIG thing you want to pursue, then you’re not serious or alternatively, your BIG thing is not BIG enough. Sola worked really hard to turn that dream of going to Harvard a reality. If you want to turn yours into a reality whether it is a dream to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or to be the President of Nigeria, you’re going to have to work really hard.


Live a wholesome life

According to Sola “Relationships, Extra-curricula’s, Hobbies are aspects of life that make you not just a great MBA candidate, but that help you live a balanced life. Admissions committees are looking for candidates that other classmates will have fun learning and living with for 12-24 months.

When I started my MBA application, I went about it by describing how great I had been at school, my professional qualifications in accounting, my career in consulting, my transition to a global consumer goods company, etc. When I shared that version of my profile with my MBA-experienced colleagues, they all said the same thing and it was along the lines of “So, you’ve had a great career. But, who are YOU?”. Remember that your application to b-school is not just your CV, it is your entire story. A revised (and more successful) version of my profile included aspects that revealed other sides to me such as my love for music, my passion for learning, and my relationship with my family. Bottom line: Give your work your best but don’t lose yourself in the process.”

“Give your work your best but don’t lose yourself in the process”…. We must not sacrifice our “wholeness” on the alter of a career/relationship or even fun. It’s important to live a balanced life. Even on this column, you will notice that in every WCW feature banner we have a list of things our crush is involved in because we understand that balance is key. Imagine if Sola had neglected all other areas of her lie whilst pursuing a career, she might have lost the opportunity to get her BIG thing. Whether you like it or not, your work cannot be all there is to you, neither can your relationship. Develop all areas of your life.



According to Sola “I’m continually amazed at how ‘afraid’ many people are of their Ogas at the top. Sometimes it’s so bad that when the Ogas are walking past them, they try their best to avoid eye contact and then walk very briskly past. I’m sure many of you are familiar with this. What many people don’t realize is that building relationships with your senior colleagues (up until CEO-level) could give you insight on matters that are of primary concern to them and to the organisation which could help you;

  • Be more effective in your role
  • Make it easier for you to approach them for assistance when you need it e.g. letters of recommendation to your choice programs
  • Help you build an influential professional (and sometimes, social) network that you will carry with you for the rest of your life

I’m sure there are many people (especially in Naija) who would say that getting close to senior management is ‘eye service’ or ‘busybody’. However, in case you didn’t know already, ‘many people’ don’t get into the most prestigious MBA programs.”

If I may add, ‘many people’ don’t get their BIG thing. In case you have not noticed, a good network is an important determinant of success in the 21stcentury. Practice your ability to network across the value chain. Like my mum always says, there are three important relationships you must harness; relationships with your superiors, relationships with your peers and relationships with your subordinates. None of them should be taken lightly.


According to Sola, “Reading the words “…we wish to welcome you to the MBA class of 2016 and we would be delighted if you accepted our offer of admission…” signed by the ‘Deans of Admission’ of two Ivy League MBA programs within the span of one week put me on a very high high, to say the least. After months and months of suffer-head with taking standardized tests that make you question your secondary school education, writing and rewriting essays till wee hours before hitting Third Mainland Bridge, and jumping from cybercafe to cybercafe in the quest for stable internet, I finally had my own Lupita Nyong’o moment. Can I get a Hallelujah, somebody?!” The support I received from family, friends, colleagues and sometimes, strangers, was invaluable when it came to my success with the process and I consider it a great privilege to be able to pay it forward.”


Most of the information shared here was gleaned from a blog Sola started Here to share her experiences in the hopes that it will help MBA hopefuls with backgrounds similar to mine see their dreams of getting into a top Business School become a reality. I find that the tips she shares apply not only to applying for a spot in a Business school but attaining any BIG goal that a person desires.

Sola paid it forward, I am paying it forward and now I ask that you keep the cycle running by paying it forward to!

This post was culled from the Thresh woman WCW Column. The ThreshWoman WCW is a column I manage with the goal to celebrate and encourage the successes of women all around the world while inspiring other women to chase their dreams fiercely. 


One response to “Sola Olaniyan-Bright”

  1. Superwoman!


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