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Quest to improve world, empower community leads to Texas A&M – AgriLife Today

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Head and shoulder picture of Wunmi Ilesanmi, Ph.D. She is wearing a white blouse
Recent graduate Olawunmi Ilesanmi, Ph.D, is passionate about bringing positive change to her native Nigeria and the world. (Courtesy photo)

Olawunmi Ilesanmi, Ph.D., believes that if everyone followed the “golden rule” people would be able to accomplish things to not only benefit themselves but their neighbors, communities and ultimately the world.

“This mindset would trickle down and have a multiplier effect on the world and lead to people caring more about our natural resources, the environment, financial access and quality well-being for all,” Ilesanmi said.

Ilesanmi recently earned her doctorate with a focus on international agricultural development from the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences  Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications.

As impressive as that accomplishment is, after speaking with Ilesanmi, you begin to understand this milestone is just one cross-section of the golden path she’s paving on her life’s journey to better the world and empower people.

“I want my legacy to be that I made the world a better place, walked my talk and was known as a transformational leader, entrepreneur and lifelong learner,” she said.

Drive and passion

Ilesanmi is driven to help her native homeland Nigeria, as well as underserved communities around the world. She wants to help bridge the gap to achieve sustainable development goals, particularly related to ending poverty and hunger while improving education and gender equality.

“I really am passionate about helping my country to develop by fostering economic opportunities and building capacities,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons why I’m excited about my doctoral degree because as an expert, whenever I am called to serve my country, I can.”

Ilesanmi earned her bachelor’s degree in home science and management with a major in nutrition and dietetics at The Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria.

Wunmi IIesanmi and her family wear formal wear. She and her daughter are in gowns while her husband and two sons wear Nigerian clothingWunmi IIesanmi and her family wear formal wear. She and her daughter are in gowns while her husband and two sons wear Nigerian clothing
Jack Elliot, Ph.D., regional director for Africa in the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture with Olawunmi Ilesanmi, Ph.D., and her family. Ilesanmi worked with Elliot at the institute as the women and youth economic empowerment analyst. (Courtesy photo)

After earning her master’s degree in nutrition science at Texas A&M, an internship followed working on a U.S. Department of Agriculture project with Joseph Sharkey, Ph.D., professor in the Texas A&M School of Public Health.

From there Ilesanmi was inspired to continue her educational journey at Texas A&M and earned her doctorate while working with Jack Elliot, Ph.D., regional director for Africa in the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture as the women and youth economic empowerment analyst.

Becoming a leader among leaders

This year, as a Texas A&M doctoral student and an entrepreneur in Nigeria, Ilesanmi was selected as a fellow of the Presidential Precinct Network. The mission of the international network is to build a better future by harnessing the trust and knowledge of the world’s most influential and emerging leaders who are on the frontline of positive change with the common goal of building a better future.

She spent two weeks recently meeting with 14 other leaders representing African nations as part of the inaugural cohort of the Presidential Precinct’s Corporate Leaders Program.

Ilesanmi also served as the point person for Matt Baker, Ph.D., head of the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication, in the launch and organization of the inaugural class of the LEAD AgriLife program. Baker described her as “a bright light for good and change in the world.”

“No one can do all the good needed single handedly,” Ilesanmi said. “But to be able to spread that energy and find the kindred spirits and build that critical mass around people who believe in that, then it is actually possible for us to make the world better. It starts with love – loving your neighbor.”

Path to success

Growing up in Nigeria, Ilesanmi’s parents had jobs that took the family to different parts of the country. That led to her speaking two major Nigerian languages — Yoruba, her native tongue, and Hausa.

“In Nigeria my parents were always seeking opportunities and my dad was a chartered accountant, so we followed opportunities wherever they led,” she said.

Ilesanmi’s mother, an entrepreneur who ran a variety of businesses including a small grocery and convenience store and a transportation business, would often start working by 4 a.m. Ilesanmi considers her mom her “hero” and is thankful for the example she provided. While still a teen, Ilesanmi started her own business running a mobile call center and selling cloth and textiles.

The family’s movement between the south and north exposed Ilesanmi to different cultures and landscapes.

“We are a nation of different tribes, so those experiences made me open to diversity and eager to explore opportunities,” she said.

Ilesanmi credits God and her Christian faith as a guiding force in her life and her ability to forge a path to help others. She believes some form of the “golden rule” is found in all major religions and it is a concept that can unite people of different faiths, countries and cultures.

Helping to fuel Nigeria

Ilesanmi grew up in southwestern Nigeria but eventually moved to the nation’s most populous state, Kano. After earning her bachelor’s degree, Ilesanmi worked briefly in Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja, before moving to Lagos and growing a business two hours south of Abeokuta, where she grew up.

Ilesanmi established a highly successful business, 3LCinovate Energy Limited, a petroleum logistical and producer support company, in her native country. Although her background wasn’t in energy, she saw a need that she could fill and worked diligently to educate herself on all aspects of the business. Now, the decade-old company has generated around $20 million in revenue and serves reputable brands in the country.

She knew, thanks to technology, a dynamic culture and a strong team in place at her company, that she could come to the U.S. to study while still running the business back home.

“We engage in the supply and distribution of refined petroleum products in the downstream oil and gas sector of Nigeria,” she explained. “We cater to the fuel needs of businesses and homes and institutions.”

Power is a monstrous challenge in Nigeria, and Ilesanmi is one of a few women working in the field. She said her company works to reliably supply the gas oil and gasoline people need for power generation, mobility and services related to it.

“I went into the field knowing it is a male-dominated industry, but I was committed to building the value that we wanted to drive,” she said. “And I knew my core values of integrity and innovation and excellence would shine through, especially in a sector rife with complex difficulties.”

Helping to feed Nigeria

While working on her doctorate, Ilesanmi wanted to better understand the experience of small-scale female farmers, so she created another business – 3LCi Farms.

“Right now, I have grown maize and cassava and that is contributing to food production back home and furthering my understanding of the challenges of farming and agricultural production from a woman’s perspective,” she said.

The organization is also innovating ways of processing farm wastes into functional input for companies. The organization’s vision is to provide sustainable solutions for a dynamic ecosystem and to improve food security by embracing innovation in agriculture.

“We are intentional and strategic to tackle the ravaging hunger, unemployment and gaps evident in our agricultural landscape in Nigeria,” Ilesanmi said. “As we drive farming best practices within our farms, we are sharing and adding to the library of knowledge as well as bridging current gaps in the data available for research.”

The organization also fosters collaborative partnerships to promote adaptations for modern farming through fair trade and environmentally friendly practices. The business oversees and explores opportunities to be a leader in identified agricultural sectors and markets globally.

Standing up for women’s rights

As an offshoot of her corporate beliefs and social responsibilities as the CEO of 3LCinovate Energy, Ilesanmi started the Elcinovate Foundation, with a focus on advancing sustainable development goals and addressing poverty and hunger while empowering and providing life skills training to women and youth.

“The foundation aims to serve the underserved populations across Africa and the world with compassion, empathy and equity,” she said.

Women’s rights are another area that both the Elcinovate Foundation and Ilesanmi bring awareness to.

“It’s painful to actually realize that some people see women, especially where I’m from, as second-class citizens,” she said. “Women do not have the same rights as men, and there are cultural norms and traditions such as son preference that hurt women and are so very discriminatory and limiting. I am committed to changing that narrative.”

Ilesanmi has always challenged the status quo. Right after secondary school, she learned to drive – something not typically done by girls. The ability allowed her to help her mother with her various businesses by delivering goods.

Leaving a legacy

At her recent Texas A&M hooding ceremony, Ilesanmi was chosen to read her “expression of thanks” speech. It included the following words:

“I am deeply honored to have had the privilege of learning and thriving because Texas A&M and Aggieland set me up for success. As with all of you, I enjoyed several defining moments of scholarship and friendship. Those life-changing conversations strengthened my identity, calling and purpose to advocate and advance the visibility and voices of women in practice and participation at the growth table. I came here for an education and received a transformation and legacy.”

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