“But when I got to Nigeria, we were doing household surveys village to village, and we randomly entered a village in northern Nigeria, and there was a girl who had been in labor for a couple of days. And she was about my age and people were waiting for her to die.”
—Temi Giwa-Tubosun MPA ’10
P: You’re listening to Midd Moment, a podcast of ideas from Middlebury’s leaders, independent thinkers who create community. I’m Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury and professor of religion.
G: Hi, good afternoon.
P: My guest today is social entrepreneur Temie Giwa-Tubosun. It’s so nice to hear your voice, we don’t see you, can you turn on video?
G: No, because it would sort of slow down my internet.
P: Got it, okay, yeah, we totally get that. Temie is an alumna of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. She is the CEO and founder of LifeBank, a social enterprise that saves lives across Africa by ensuring access to essential healthcare products to hospitals across the continent.
In 2014, the BBC named her one of the hundred women changing the world. We are so proud that Temie is part of our Middlebury community, and she exemplifies the best of what it means to be a global citizen. We spoke about how a book can change your life; what inspired her to become a global problem solver; and why maternal mortality should be at the center of healthcare systems around the world. I reached Temie over the phone at her office in Lagos, Nigeria.
Thank you so much for being here with us and sharing a conversation with me, Temie.
G: Thank you for having me.
P: Your life story is really quite remarkable. Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and the people that served as role models for you in your childhood?
G: I was born in Nigeria in a tiny little city, even Nigerians don’t know of it. My dad was a professor, my mom taught English.
When I was 10 my mom won something called a visa lottery. And we became Americans because of that. So five years later, after my mom moved to the U.S. and my dad and my siblings, I got the opportunity to also join them in the U.S. I went to high school in Minnesota. My parents lived in Minnesota at that time. I finished high school in Minnesota, went to college, and basically completed my growing up in the U.S.
When I was growing up, my parents were my big heroes. My father sacrificed an amazing career in academia in Nigeria to ensure that his children had excellent education and a better life in the U.S.
Basically, my parents’ sacrifice was the big break that I had in my life and something that I’m immensely grateful for.
P: When you went to the University of Minnesota, at that point did you feel American or did you feel like you were sort of both? Because I know that’s a big conversation for folks who grow up in two different cultures.
G: Yeah, I think for me when I was growing up, I think I had two stages. When I was brought to the U.S., I went to high school, I graduated. I always thought of myself as American. I think at that time I was just really happy to be in the U.S.
I threw myself into American culture. I loved the fact that you could decide what you wanted to be and then start pursuing it from day one. So I didn’t start having this confusion until I graduated. The incident that started the debate around who am I, am I American? Am I Nigerian? Am I a global citizen? What exactly do I think I am? I randomly picked up Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. It was the process of reading this autobiography that first gave me an example of an African who was committed to his own people. And then I joined something called Model United Nations. And then I realized that, I was African, I was American, but I could have a global career. Which was what brought me to Monterey, this need to join the UN and to be a global walker in that sense.
P: I love the fact that you read a book and then joined the Model UN.
Those are two things that most educators dream. My entire educational philosophy is—what I think liberal arts and sciences is all about—is any book can change your life. So did you read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography in a class or did you just pick it up because a friend recommended it to you?
G: It was over the summer and I was perhaps maybe a bit bored. My mum being an English teacher always made sure we read. So what you did when I was growing up was, if you’re bored, if you so much as mentioned being bored, you have to read a book and you have to write a summary of the book you read. So I think I sort of like had those two things in my head—if you’re bored you pick up a book. So I went to the library, picked up autobiography of Nelson Mandela. And I just remember taking it home and reading it over a weekend and it was really incredible. It was a life change.
P: I know that after your first year at Monterey, you went back to Nigeria for the first time for the Department of International Development. And you weren’t bored then. You had an incredible experience that we’d love to hear more about in terms of what transformed you into this amazing social entrepreneur that has developed LifeBank. So talk to us a little bit about that experience.
G: Absolutely! So the summer between year one and year two in Monterey, I think, if I remember correctly, I’d taken Beryl Levinger’s class, DPMI class. I think during that process she said, the goal that we have here is to drop you in the middle of nowhere and have you sort of solve major problems in those places. That’s one of the big lessons I had, that I got from my time in Monterey. That the idea is you’re global problem solvers and that you come to Monterey to get those sort of skills that will allow them to solve problem with that skill anywhere in the world.
So when it was time to sort of spend my summer break somewhere, I chose to come back to Nigeria—it was my first time back that when I left as a child. And when you think about your life in hindsight, everything starts making sense. It’s not as neat when you actually live in it but when you’re thinking back, things start falling into place. For me, going to Nigeria was one of these crossroads. It was during my time in northern Nigeria that I had an experience that really changed my focus. It changed my life. I always thought that I would be an international diplomat, somebody who worked at UN, somebody who sort of had a global career. But when I got to Nigeria, we were doing household surveys village to village and we randomly entered the village in northern Nigeria and there was a girl who had been in labor for a couple of days. And she was about my age and people were waiting for her to die.
So she had been in labor, the labor had not worked out well. And everybody was just waiting for all of these things to end, and the way they expected it to end was with her death. And she held on for three days in excruciating pain and I just never forgot her.
She survived because our team was able to move her from the village down to the big town, the big city, and she had emergency C section. The baby unfortunately did not make it but she survived and I just got obsessed with maternal health care. I read everything that I could, I completed my degree in three semesters, and it was through my experience in northern Nigeria that I changed my focus from a global diplomat to somebody who wanted to do real work in the field.
G: It’s such a moving story, Temie, and part of what it inspires me to think about is, you mentioned that the young woman is your age. I think so often when we meet a person who we can somehow identify with, even if it’s not just age, that are in circumstances that are totally different than ours, it makes us think, well, it might be a situation that I could have encountered. Or that could have been my sister or me, or whatever that might be, and my guess is that that was what pushed you to say, wait a second, now I’m curious in a different way, in a sort of grounded life-changing way about this topic, which before this was just an intellectual exercise.
G: Absolutely, absolutely, and I think you brought it to life in a way that I couldn’t look away from. And the reason why I couldn’t look away was cuz I saw myself. Even while I was living in Nigeria, I had the intellectual understanding of Nigeria’s problem, but I never saw it because my parents, for what it’s worth, put us in a—we lived in the university campus. We were covered, we were protected. And we really never saw what was happening in Nigeria. It was when I came back after living in the U.S. that I actually experienced it, and I just couldn’t look away.
P: Take us through how you built LifeBank, because you had to become familiar with technology, AI, apps, data to match blood to patients. So tell us a little more about how you gained and gathered around you that expertise. Because you can’t, of course become an immediate expert and all of that. And who did you bring together to make that happen?
G: The amazing thing about the impact community all over the world, my tribe, like I like to call it, people are incredibly generous. They’re incredibly generous with their expertise, incredibly generous with what they know. So it was this generosity of different types of people from all walks of life, from different countries, that I relied on to really build LifeBank in the early stages.
I remember I asked a contact who had worked in Liberia for many years and I asked him, how do you move vaccines in sub-Saharan Africa? And he mentioned a product, and I went to do a little research around the product, and I found something that would fix blood. And there it was, I had solved a major problem for LifeBank. It was this set of conversations that helped me figure out how to build LifeBank.
P: One of the things we know about you is that you describe yourself as a reluctant entrepreneur. That you gained the confidence over time to do all of these different things because they’re absolute needs for your company and your company also meets an absolute need. It’s almost as if that simplicity is what keeps you going. And I know that you said in an interview once, “When you find your life’s work, it helps simplify your life. I don’t have to save everyone in the world, it helps organize me,
it keeps me focused completely on this one problem I’ve decided to solve.” So this podcast is gonna be going out to 30 or 40,000 Midd alums and Monterey alums before Monterey became part of Middlebury. So as I think about our listeners and many of whom may have, be either current students, or future students, or past students, how did you know that this simple problem was the one thing that you wanted to stay with for the rest of your life?
G: Wow, that’s a great question. It’s really hard to also answer. I think that I’m not sure how I knew, but I knew when I knew. I think what happened was I couldn’t stop thinking about it. After meeting Aishi in northern Nigeria, I ran away, I came back to the U.S. I completed my degree. I went to Switzerland for six months, I went to Uganda, I came back to Minneapolis. So I really lived almost a full life after that incident. And I felt like I was running away from it. And then I had a baby myself.
And it was the process of giving birth to my son and having all these issues that I shouldn’t have had that got me thinking more seriously about maternal health. But even all through those years when I was running away, I still could not stop thinking about maternal health care. I dreamt about it. I wrote random business ideas about it. I had a folder called Future Ideas that I would sort of jot random things about maternal health care. And I would just leave it in a box. And I carried that box all over the world. And I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. And I think that’s how you know. When something captures your attention so fully and it’s consistent over time, then that’s the problem you are going to solve.
P: As a poet, I think about the fact that every memory that endures, that keeps coming back to me is therefore an invitation to a poem.
It’s a very similar idea, right? Which is that what is it your mind keep returning to over and over again, and how do you create a frame for that so that it gives meaning to yourself as well as to others.
Related to this larger question of the thing that you keep returning to, the idea of that box of thoughts and memories and questions that you carry with you, one thing I always like to ask everyone who appears on this podcast is very similar to that which is, what is your question? The one you will spend your entire life trying to answer, and you’ll never get tired of asking. So how would you formulate that question for us?
G: To be honest, LifeBank saves so many people, right? We save children, we save people with sickle cell, cancer patients, kidney dialysis patients. The need for blood is so wide. The need for oxygen is so vast that we end up saving all sorts of people. Why am I in it? What’s my question? It is how do we solve maternal death? How do we stop maternal mortality permanently?
P: You immediately understand it’s the same kind of spirit as what educating a single woman does. That immediately there’s a web of impact that is so much greater than we ever think. What your question does is place women at the center of that web. Thank you for taking the time to share your life and your work with us. We are so grateful that your time at Monterey and the ideas that really came to you through your classes and professors at Monterey allowed you to create this fantastic enterprise.
G: Thank you for having me and getting the word out about doing impact in this side of the world.
Hi, this is Erin Davis, producer of the show. Midd Moment is produced by myself and Juliet Louini, Class of ’18.5, with help from Chris Spencer. If you have a Midd Moment to share, a time when things came together in a particularly Middlebury way, share your memory on social media using #MiddMoment or record a voice memo and email it to us at email@example.com. We’d love to include your Midd Moment in a future episode of the show. For more conversations like this, subscribe to Midd Moment on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening.