By Matt Windsor
Over the course of several months in 1998, three teenagers left Nigeria to begin their college careers at UAB. They made the 6,000-mile journey with a few bags, big dreams and the accumulated expectations of the families that had sacrificed to give them a chance at an American education.
Although they did not know each other before they arrived in Birmingham, Stephen Odaibo, Bolaji Kukoyi and Shegun Otulana quickly met at UAB’s Smolian International House, which Otulana calls “a place of refuge” for many of the nearly 700 international students enrolled at UAB at the time. (In fall 2022, UAB had more than 1,100 international students enrolled.) Over games of ping pong and volleyball, they discovered a shared affinity for entrepreneurship.
“That’s where we all hung out,” Kukoyi says. “You could always go to the I-House and meet new people. As a kid in a foreign country, those relationships are very important. Your first few months in a foreign land means everything. Do you get connected to the right group of people or the wrong group? We made it out of Lagos [Nigeria’s largest city] and we knew we had one shot to get it right.”
Twenty-four years later, Kukoyi, Otulana and Odaibo clearly got it right. Otulana (B.S., Management Information System, 2003) has sold one of his software startups for $1.25 billion and now leads several other companies as a major player in Birmingham’s innovation ecosystem. Kukoyi (B.S., Mathematics, 2002; B.S., Civil Engineering, 2003; M.S., Mathematics, 2008) runs an engineering firm that has helped design and build many of the most recognizable new spaces in Birmingham and on UAB’s campus, including the Regions Field ballpark, Protective Stadium, the Collat School of Business and the Abroms-Engel Institute for Visual Arts. Stephen Odaibo, M.D. (B.S., Mathematics, 2001; M.S., Mathematics, 2003) is the founder, CEO and chief software architect of RETINA-AI Health, which has developed an automated screening device for diabetic retinopathy, the leading cause of blindness in working-age adults.
Life as an entrepreneur “is challenging and uncertain,” Odaibo says. “Family members say, ‘What are you doing?’ I left a great-paying job to pursue RETINA-AI, and with startups it is not clear that things will work out. It is unsettling by decision, because you are trying to unsettle something.”
“We came to Birmingham as immigrants and then were able to take advantage of the environment we found ourselves in,” Otulana says. “In many places, the opportunity is not there. The gift that America has given the three of us is the ability to merge the skillset and the opportunity. And once you have succeeded, you should turn around and say, ‘Who’s next?’”
Each of these notable alumni has established scholarships at UAB to assist future generations of students, including a $1 million gift in 2022 from Shegun Otulana and his wife — and fellow UAB alum — Mary, to establish the Shegun and Mary Otulana Endowed Scholarship. (Mary Otulana holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting from UAB.)