Tolu Olubunmi: Teaching the Lion to Write
Ladderworks is a publishing platform of diverse picture books and online curriculum with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews by our interplanetary journalist Spiffy with inspiring Social Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Builders, and Changemakers who are advancing the UN SDGs.
Hey, friends! It's Spiffy, back again on Planet Earth with an eye on changemaking leaders building a more equitable world! I have another great interview for you this week. Today, I’m excited to cruise around with Tolu Olubunmi, the founder and CEO of Lions Write. Are you ready to be inspired?
Spiffy: Thanks for joining me, Tolu! Tell me, what challenge are you addressing through your organization?
Tolu: Glad to be with you, Spiffy! My organization’s name, Lions Write, comes from my favorite African proverb: “Until the lion learns to write, all the stories will glorify the hunter.” We believe that those directly affected by the problems we want to solve must be active participants in the process. We partner with corporations, governments, and non-profits to develop innovative solutions that are grounded in reality and promote a sense of pride within affected communities. Our work focuses on migration, education, technology, and climate change.
Spiffy: What motivates you to do it?
Tolu: I studied chemical engineering (go science!), and, until recently, I was undocumented in the US. I began my career in social impact when life demanded I engage in the debate over my future and that of other undocumented youth (also known as Dreamers). I felt challenged to think about my responsibility to the country that has shaped my ideas of democracy and civic participation. So, I built a career out of a crisis in my life to give face and name to the plight of many, to create space and foster dialogue, shift culture, and get us closer to eradicating the hatred of the other that keeps us divided.
Spiffy: What would you say is the impact of your work?
Tolu: I'm generally a fan of people, so we help people. We help people, regardless of nationality, to work, live, and thrive wherever they choose. These are migrants, refugees, and displaced people in need of safety and security. These are families and individuals impacted by climate change, the digital divide, and a lack of quality education. We fight to give power and autonomy where it has been taken away. We teach the lion to write!
Spiffy: Tell me about a recent milestone or initiative by your organization. What impact does that make?
Tolu: One exciting project that we started in 2020 is a partnership with Microsoft to launch the UN Innovation Room Series, a docuseries highlighting how UN organizations are embracing a culture of innovation to reignite the SDGs in trusted, responsible, and inclusive ways. In helping to produce and host the series, we’ve been able to showcase the need for and power of collaborations with corporations. As the host, I take a lot of pride in shining a much-needed spotlight on the life-changing work of the UN agencies that we feature.
Spiffy: Is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Tolu: To the young people reading, I know that the problems facing our world can feel overwhelming. And, you might feel intimidated by the adults to blame for those problems. But, the fact that racial injustice persists, the refugee crisis has worsened, and the climate crisis is escalating means that these “adults” don’t have all the answers. We need you! There is no age of entry to begin living every day with purpose. There is no requirement to be of a certain race, gender, or nationality to change a life, a nation, or the world. But what is required is a willingness to push past any fears and act.
Spiffy: Thanks for speaking with me today, Tolu—it’s been an honor!
Tolu Olubunmi is a Nigerian-born, American-raised social innovator working at the intersection of public policy and social impact. She began her career building the largest immigrant-youth movement in US history. She was named by the World Economic Forum as one of 15 women changing the world and an outstanding woman entrepreneur. (Nominated by Martin Samaan of UNDP. First published on the Ladderworks website on February 2, 2023.)
© 2023 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by George Romar. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Launchpad: Creative Entrepreneurship Workshops for K-3 Kids and their caregivers here.