Tolu Olubunmi came to the US and had to hide because of her immigration status. She got a brilliant degree, only to never use it. She is now a famous social entrepreneur, immigrants’ rights activist and an inspiration to those hiding in the shadows like she used to. 

Who is this girl?

“Her misfortune has been our good fortune.” United States Senator Richard Durbin chose those 7 words to capture her unlikely journey from an unemployed, undocumented chemical engineer to a respected immigrants’ rights activist and an internationally recognized social entrepreneur.

Tolu Olubunmi, an entrepreneur and global advocate for migrants, refugees, and displaced people. An innovative thinker and determined change-maker. She has established and led numerous NGOs and campaigns focused on immigrant integration, employment, access to technology, and education. Tolu has shared her expertise and inspiring personal story with a variety of entities, including the United Nations, Gates Foundation, World Bank, TIME, and the White House.

She serves on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Future of Migration and co-chairs the Mobile Minds Initiative – advancing cross-border remote working as a 21st century alternative to physical migration. Tolu consults with corporations, governments, and NGOs on building inspiring and effective global social impact campaigns.

She was also named an outstanding woman entrepreneur and one of 15 women changing the world in 2015 by the World Economic Forum.

And what is that inspiring personal story of hers?

Olubunmi was brought to the United States by her parents when she was 14. Seventeen years later, she was still an undocumented immigrant there, unable to use her chemical engineering degree or even leave the country for fear of being banned from re-entry.

“Having dreamed of being an engineer since I was eight years old, brought to the United States at the age of 14, and relentlessly pursued that dream until I held that diploma in my hands at the age of twenty-one, words fail me to express the heartbreak of such a dream deferred. As an undocumented immigrant, I could not accept any of the many job offers I received even though my training and talent proved me capable.”

But instead of living in fear and well below my ability, I have the privilege of spending my days advocating for immigration reform and supporting efforts to achieve that more perfect union that we all desire

“I started as an unpaid volunteer [in 2008] knowing nothing about immigration policy,” she said. “I went into it thinking perhaps it will give me something to do and I will be able to help in some little way, but it really did change my life.”

For years, she volunteered full-time advocating for passage of pro-immigrant legislation at the state and national level. Tolu had no formal training in advocacy, policy or communications, so she spent every waking moment educating herself on the pertinent issues and creating opportunities to prove my competency. Tolu worked diligently, without pay, for the cause backed by her band of undocumented idealists. They founded the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the nation, the United We Dream Network (UWD).

To survive, Tolu lived on what she earned doing odd jobs. She tutored math and science, edited books, and even created and sold her own line of organic hair care products. Tolu rarely had enough to provide to the already strained household where she lived with her sister.

“In under a decade, I made the unlikely journey from an unemployed, undocumented chemical engineer to a respected immigrants’ rights advocate and an internationally recognized social entrepreneur.” When asked why she does what she does, Olubunmi replied with a quote by John Wesley:

Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can

“We all carry the same burden of not being able to be ourselves, to live free and without limitations, to pursue our dreams. That’s what this great nation was built upon,” she said. “It’s difficult to live here and be told every day that you can do whatever you want in the land of dreams, yet you stand there knowing your dreams are beyond your reach. That’s difficult for anyone to live with.”

The many projects of Tolu Olubunmi

Tolu founded the consulting firm that launched and managed a communications task force of 25 nonprofit organizations and labor unions instrumental in the 2010 passage of the DREAM Act in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the unprecedented support for the bill in the Senate. I co-founded Welcome.us — a charitable, non-political organization. As Welcome’s founding executive director, she helped establishe June as Immigrant Heritage Month — a federally recognized celebration of our nation’s immigrant heritage.

Tolu also is a founder and CEO of Lions Write that builds and manages social ventures that give voice and value to the voiceless. Inspired by the African proverb, “Until the lion learns to write all the stories will glorify the hunter,” Lions Write’s founding principles dictates that those directly affected by the problems we aim to solve be active participants in the process.

Tolu was asked to join the Board of Directors of USAIM for IOM, the U.S.-based partner of the UN Migration Agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has a storied history of taking on this challenge by supporting humanitarian relief programs for vulnerable populations displaced by natural disasters and conflicts; as well as assisting survivors and victims of human trafficking around the globe. She welcomed this uncommon privilege to positively impact the state of the world by giving voice and value to the voiceless.

I plan to use my unique perspective as a migrant living through the struggles that millions across the globe also face, in support of innovative solutions that are grounded in reality.

To add to Tolu’s long list of ventures, The undocumented immigrant worked tirelessly on the 2013 U.S. Senate immigration bill, stood with the Senators in the bipartisan Gang of 8 at the introduction of the bill, and introduced President Barack Obama at the White House on the day the Senate began debate. When the president asked her to share her story, Tolu felt that it was another call to arms to heed this legacy, and she took it.

The incoming administration brings uncertainty for all immigrants, but since Tolu have never believed in sitting silently when her voice could make a difference, she will continue to lend her perspective in support of efforts focused on immigrant integration, women’s empowerment, employment, access to technology, and education — whether in the United States or elsewhere:

I’ll never let fear tempt me to retreat to the shadows again.

Subscribe to WM Daily. Be In Touch With Rebellious Voices