When you graduate from college, you usually have an idea of what you want to be doing, say, five years from now, and you’re thankful to get any job that is remotely connected to the career you envision for yourself. Olivia Iloetonma, who graduated with a double concentration in international studies and Latino/a American studies, is one of the lucky few who landed exactly where she wants to be.
“I’m working as a financial analyst for D. Capital Partners which is an impact investment advisory and innovative finance company,” says Iloetonma. “For the first six months, I worked on two projects in Washington, DC, advising a global health organization on the use of innovative financing instruments and advising a family foundation on impact investments--investments that have both a solid financial return and a social return--in the renewable energy market. I’ve since moved to the London office where I will be through 2015.”
D. Capital Partners is one of the companies that comprise the Dalberg Group. Founded in 2001, Dalberg has worked on over 1,000 projects in 90 developing countries all over the world that aim to raise the standard of living in those countries and address global problems. “At D. Capital Partners, we are looking to develop completely new financial products that can be used to invest in developing countries,” Iloetonma explains. “We are creating development impact bonds, for example. These bonds bring together donors, private sector investors, and NGOs into one financial structure. As opposed to just giving grants to these NGOs, you create a product that pays on performance and also pays premiums on the bond, so you are holding everybody more accountable.”
She learned the ins and outs of the bond market in economics professor Sarah Pearlman’s class on financial markets. “But I want to think about bonds differently,” says Iloetonma. “I want to think about a bond for malaria—what would that look like? A bond for HIV and AIDS—how would I design it? So these are bonds that you could buy on Wall Street, bonds that make money, but that also make a difference in how people in developing countries experience aid money. How does someone who is living in my hometown, Aba, in Nigeria experience your good intentions in New York? That’s what I want to work on.”
Iloetonma came to Vassar from the African Leadership Academy in South Africa. She was in the very first class in the academy, a pan-African institution that aims to develop a cadre of out-of-the-box thinkers to become the next generation of leaders on the continent. The first class comprised 100 students recruited from 42 different countries across the continent. Iloetonma was the only student selected from her school.
“It was fun!” she says. “I was at a place in my life where I was looking for something different, and I was excited to be in the first class at this school. I think it takes a combination of curiosity and naïve exuberance that you only achieve in your teen years to jump into something like that, but I’m glad I did. That’s really where I developed a curiosity about other people and other perspectives.”
She met J.C. Tesone, director of admissions at Vassar, at a college fair hosted by the academy and became interested in the college. “I didn’t visit Vassar, but I looked it up on the Internet, and it looked beautiful,” she says. “I have to say, what really attracted me was the student-professor ratio. I knew that I really thrive in an environment where I can learn directly from my professors and have a personal relationship in addition to an academic relationship. So all I knew was that it was small, and it was beautiful. And Vassar turned out to be as gorgeous as it looked on the Internet. It’s a place where you can sit down outside surrounded by the beauty of the campus and reflect on what you’re doing so far away from home.”
Two professors were particularly helpful in guiding her academic journey. “Tim Koechlin is the director of the International Studies Program,” says Ileotonma. “I don’t know what he thought, having this Nigerian freshman walk into his office proclaiming that she wanted to be an international studies major, but he was one person that I immediately connected with and remained close to through senior year. And later on, Samson Opondo in the Political Science Department ended up becoming one of my thesis advisors. He combines academia with reality in a way that really helped to ground my intellectual aspirations. I took two courses with him and found them to be particularly mind opening.”
Iloetonma says she learned two really important lessons at Vassar. “The first is to know what you know and to know what you don’t know. By that I don’t mean `know your limits,’ but know what else you need to learn in order to form an opinion. And the second is to figure out the difference between what you are passionate about and what you’re skilled at. You can be passionate about so many things—issues about race, about gender, about sexuality, about class—but what can you actually do? You don’t want to be in the position where you stand for everything, but you don’t know what to do about anything. So I can be passionate about those issues, but what I can translate into my day-to-day life is how development happens. If we’re giving aid to something or putting money into a particular cause, what does that mean up until the last mile? When I wake up and go to work, I want my work to reflect that passion.”
And her five-year plan? “Right now, I want to learn as much as possible because this is really the foundation for my entire career. Impact investment is it for me. I plan to do a JD/MBA program but I don’t see it as a step to doing something else. Everything that I do from now on is only going to make me a better, more efficient, more successful impact investor. In five years, I want to most likely move back to the continent. It doesn’t have to be Nigeria. It really can be anywhere. But being back on the continent will make me feel a lot closer to home. I have a huge family—two brothers and three sisters, and my parents are luckily still alive. And we are very close, so being closer to home and able to visit more than once a year will make me very happy.”
--Julia Van Develder