by Roxane Cassehgari
Photos by Haruka Sakaguchi
August 29, 2016 All
Tayo Rockson is a recent MBA graduate from Fordham University in New York. He is a writer, social entrepreneur and social media genius who could advise you on how to market your next brand. Born in Nigeria, he had already lived in Africa, Europe and Asia before the age of 17. Now, based in New York, Tayo is on a mission to show third culture kids that their differences can make a positive change to this world. He recently launched a digital media platform Use Your Difference (UYD) to enable millennials and third culture kids to interact.
You are a prime example of a third culture kid (TCK). You grew up in five different countries. What is your story?
I was born in Nigeria and since my dad is a diplomat, I started living abroad at an early age. We moved to Sweden when I was one and we lived there for two years. We then moved back to Nigeria where I went to elementary school and spent the most part of my childhood there. When I was a teenager, we left again for Burkina Faso. Although Burkina Faso is a French-speaking country, the middle school I attended was American. This is the first time I was exposed to different cultures simultaneously and to different accents. My family and I went back to Nigeria before relocating again, this time, to Vietnam. At 17-years-old, I left Hanoi to go to college in Virginia, United States.
Are you often asked where you are from?
Everyone asks me that question all the time. Even in Nigeria, I often hear: ” You don’t look Nigerian, you don’t sound Nigerian, you have an accent, an American accent”. Most people in Nigeria think I am African-American.
What is your typical answer to this question?
My immediate answer is “How much time do you have?” If they do have time, then I tell the whole story. However, if I was to give one simple and short answer: I am from Nigeria. I first and foremost identify as a Nigerian.
Growing up did you ever consider yourself a misfit?
Growing up as a teenager in Burkina Faso, I did not feel that I fitted in so I had to find a way and I found it through sports, mostly playing soccer and basketball. I would study the history of all these sports and search for ways to get involved. I asked the best basketball player in school to teach me how to play. This is how I got committed and invested in school life. I went back to Nigeria to go to boarding school and this is when people started asking where I came from and if I was Nigerian. Apparently I looked different. I went through an identity crisis.
How did you overcome your identity crisis upon returning to Nigeria as a teenager?
At first I would get mad because I felt my identity was being denied. People would treat me differently and sometimes were even deferential because they thought I was American. I realised that getting mad would not change anything so I had to find ways to come to terms with who I was and that I had several influences.
When I first moved to the US, I again was questioned about my origins. My college mates would think I was African American and once they found out that I was from Nigeria, they would assault me with questions about Africa. I found myself having to teach people that Africa is not like in the Lion King, that we drive cars and also have urbanised cities with buildings and highways.
What prompted you to continue exploring other cultures, travelling and immersing yourself in unknown cultures?
Having to explain constantly where I was from and educating people about Nigeria and Africa made me realise the potential of education. Learning about other countries and cultures is the way to build bridges. In my junior year of college, I also took a trip through Europe and travelled to Rome, Turkey and Greece. I realised that I needed to be in this constant multicultural immersion. I became sure that I wanted a career that would expose me to more multiculturalism and cross-border interactions. It started in college when I had the opportunity to help friends who were creating non-profit organisations. Their goal was to raise awareness on specific issues – HIV, access to education – in African countries. I would help them build their social media campaign to attract publicity.
Why did you decide to come to New York?
My first job out of college was at a software company. It was not what I had aspired to do. My life changed when I nearly died in a car accident. I realised life was too short to sit and wait until I could do what I really wanted to. I quit my job and decided to move to New York and pursue an MBA. I chose New York because it is the land where dreams are achieved. I was looking for the spark. I was of course inspired by the movies and a romantic notion of the city. I wanted to reach for my dreams.
Another life event had to happen before I would fully embark on my mission. During my MBA, I interned at a start-up company and got fired in the middle of my internship. I then decided to change direction and fully commit to defending the values of being multicultural.
How did you decide to embrace your TCK identity and to make it your day-to-day commitment as well as a personal brand?
While I was still working for the software company, my mentor and former boss who had moved to New York invited me to attend an event where Arianna Huffington was speaking. She told the story of how she felt self-conscious about her accent when speaking in English. She tried to change it until people started advising her against it because she would then lose her identity. This was inspirational to me. I related to her story and realised I was not the only one struggling with asserting my identity. This gave me the idea of interacting with TCKs.
I contacted Arianna Huffington and told her about my projects and interests. She then made me a contributor to the Huffington Post. Little by little, I made my way into the sphere of social media. My first step was to create a blog (tayorockson.com) where I would discuss topics that TCK can relate to.
Today, you still have your blog but you also host a podcast and have built a media company, all of which celebrate TCKs. You are making TCK identity a social and entrepreneurial mission. How did this come about?
I started by holding Skype conversations with TCKs that I would meet through social media. I would interview them about their stories and pick their brains about what being a TCK is, what the challenges and strengths are. I would record the conversations and turn them into podcasts. This is how “As told by Nomads” came about. Entrepreneurs.com found out about it and ranked my podcast programme the N°2 podcast in 2014. I would never have imagined the podcasts would have so much success and get so many people’s attention. Soon enough, aspiring interviewees would reach out and ask to participate in the programme.
My goal is essentially to target the millennials, which is the most diverse group of all age groups. I want to prove that being from a diverse cultural background, you can use your identity to solve problems in the world. TCKs can solve problems because they can be bridges, educators and entrepreneurs. “Use your difference to make a difference” became my motto. After I was fired, I decided to fully develop this concept and bought the domain name “Use your Difference” (UYD). UYD gathers a TCK community online that can share and celebrate the values of being a TCK. This is also how I have become an editor-in-chief by accident. TCKs from everywhere will contribute to creating content for the platform and we are determined to post something new every day.
What are the strengths of being a TCK?
The UYD project aims to form and bring forward the next global leaders. TCKs are the most enlightened youth and they can, in turn, build cross-cultural skills. As a TCK, you don’t have to choose, you are a combination of everything. You always have to navigate between different cultures, people, values, understanding and you are skilled at adjusting and reconciling. This also helps you become a natural multi-tasker and avid learner. I know how to do multiple things at the same time and I have used that as an asset in my entrepreneurial initiatives.
What is your message to them?
I have summed up the ideas I want to defend and the TCKs to embody in three letters: DBC.
J’ai résumé tout cela en trois lettres alphabétiques : DBC.
D – defeats the “supposed-to” syndrome. Nothing comes as definite. There is nothing you are pre-determined or supposed to be or do.
B – break down the Berlin Wall. These are the stereotypes you want to take down because they are the worst at understanding different cultures.
C – Connect. Social media is a force in this regard. I have used it as a vector and a powerful tool for TCK culture. Social media is a way to have a voice. TCKs don’t find their place easily so they have to create their own ways, their own platform to be listened to. Most communities are close-knit but TCKs do not have that. Most of the time, their parents do not understand it either. TCKs have to explode the barriers to find their own voice. Being creative is therefore a natural trait.
You just graduated from business school and while studying, you managed to launch UYD and continue your podcast programme. How do you manage your daily schedule?
I do have to wake up very early, 5 or 6 am! I try to release a podcast per day so I have to work on editing an episode. I also schedule the next interview so it keeps on moving. Every day I attend meetings, answer emails and discuss potential partnerships. I like to watch TedxTeen conferences once a day. And, yes, during my MBA, I had to go to night classes to be able to keep up with my schedule.
Classic job interview question: where do you see yourself in five years?
I want to do more multimedia content! I am hoping to become a staff contributor for the Huffington Post and at some point, a Tedx speaker. I see myself based in the US and making back and forth trips between the US and Nigeria.