John Jay Welcomes Social Justice Advocates Tolu Olubunmi and Nathalie Molina Niño for Women Leaders Talk Series

John Jay Welcomes Social Justice Advocates Tolu Olubunmi and Nathalie Molina Niño for Women Leaders Talk Series

John Jay Welcomes Social Justice Advocates Tolu Olubunmi and Nathalie Molina Niño for Women Leaders Talk Series

John Jay College is committed to providing our immigrant students with the resources they need to achieve academic, personal, and professional success. In the classroom and through our Immigrant Student Success Center they’re learning to become fierce advocates for justice and finding the resources they need to thrive. And, at John Jay events, like the recent Women Leaders: Immigration and Entrepreneurship conversation with special guests Tolu Olubunmi and Nathalie Molina Niño on February 10, students are hearing inspiring firsthand accounts on how immigrants have transformed their communities and this country for the better.

Olubunmi and Molina Niño, two social-justice advocates who fully understand the immigrant experience, provided our students with an incredible example of how to continue chasing your dreams in spite of any obstacles. During a conversation moderated by John Jay students Lisa Cho ’20 and Brenda Joaquin ’21, Olubunmi and Molina Niño spoke of their journey from humble beginnings to global change-makers. They described the journey that led them to proactively advocate for others and pave the way forward for the next generation.   

Molina Niño and Olubunmi
Molina Niño and Olubunmi

Tolu Olubunmi Tells Her Story
Olubunmi, who went from an undocumented, non-paid volunteer worker with the National Immigration Law Center in Washington, D.C., to running the United Nations on Climate Action Campaign, began by telling the audience about her upbringing in Nigeria and her fascination with technology. “At home, I found my curiosity and passion for innovation. I was obsessed with movie credits, curious about where the words would go,” she recounted. The youngest of five children, Olubunmi immigrated to the U.S. with her siblings at 14 years old. When a guidance counselor told her she should forget about applying to private colleges, Olubunmi took it as a challenge. “When I was submitting my application to this distinguished $50,000 a year institution, I didn’t have the $40 application fee. Yet, I insisted that I was going to this college,” said Olubunmi. “I really had no way of paying for college. I was undocumented. I didn’t have any family money. But I knew what I wanted for my life, and I was going to continue doing the work to make that life happen.”

“I really had no way of paying for college. I was undocumented. I didn’t have any family money. But I knew what I wanted for my life and I was going to continue doing the work to make that life happen.” —Tolu Olubunmi

That tenacious, can-do anything spirit, is something Olubunmi has found incredible strength in; and, she’s had to call on that strength time-and-time again. When a college professor told her she didn’t have what it takes to major in chemical engineering, she took it as a dare and graduated with a degree in the subject. When she couldn’t get work in her field because of her undocumented status, she turned to a lawyer to find out her options; and when he told her the only pathway for her was to get married, she refused. “I was undocumented, scared, and broke, but I knew that I had the potential to have a thriving career and get it done on my own. My only option was to keep moving forward.” Her drive and incredible work ethic took her to Washington D.C., where she volunteered at the National Immigration Law Center supporting Dreamers. “I started my career as the first undocumented immigrant Dreamer in D.C. advocating for the Dream Act,” she explained. “I went from a non-paid volunteer picking up the phones, filing paperwork, and I ended up leading the Center’s work in communications and policy.”  

(left to right) Student Lisa Cho looks on as Olubunmi answers an audience question
(left to right) Student Lisa Cho looks on as Olubunmi answers an audience question

“The most essential ingredient to bringing about change in the world is having the knowledge that you are capable of creating that change through hard work and dedication.” —Tolu Olubunmi

From there, Olubunmi continued to advocate for immigrants, refugees, and displaced people, taking every opportunity presented to her and making the best of it. She started a company, so that she could hire undocumented immigrants and pay them for their work. “There’s a way to hire undocumented immigrants and pay them a wage that enables them to thrive. And for me, that’s what it’s about. When you’re doing well, you have to bring other people with you,” said Olubunmi, offering students inspiring words of wisdom. “The most essential ingredient to bringing about change in the world is having the knowledge that you are capable of creating that change through hard work and dedication. It won’t be easy but you can do it. You are capable of doing so much more than what anyone in your community, or in society says that you can do. You write your story. You have to know your core and who you are, and you have to know that anything is possible.”    

Olubunmi and Molina Niño during their visit to John Jay
Olubunmi and Molina Niño during their visit to John Jay

Nathalie Molina Niño Tells Her Story
Sharing her experience as a first-generation American, Nathalie Molina Niño, a technologist, storyteller, and entrepreneur, told the audience about the two worlds she learned to navigate. As the daughter of immigrants, Molina Niño witnessed firsthand the hard work and sacrifice needed to survive in this country. “My parents worked in sweatshops and sacrificed a lot for me to go to a prep school and get a good education,” she said, acknowledging that finances were a struggle at times. “When I was offered the chance to go to an elite college prep school, we couldn’t afford it. So we looked at the options and went with what we could afford.” It was moments like this, according to Molina Niño, where there is no other choice but to keep moving forward and make the best out of the situation that immigrants and children of immigrants are familiar with—and it’s how they learn to be innovative.

“As immigrants or kids of immigrants, that pressure of having no other choice but to keep moving forward can be a source of trauma or a challenge you overcome. It depends on how you view it. I see it as a super power.” —Nathalie Molina Niño

As a college student during the dot-com boom, she learned to create HTML codes and websites—a skill that came in handy following an accident during a semester break. “I couldn’t ride my motorcycle to school after the accident, so I had to trade it in for a car,” she recalled. But when she didn’t have enough money to cover the cost of the car, she offered to create a website for the car dealership. “The dealership owner was happy with the website. I got the car. And, then he told his friend who owned a dealership down the street about the website. The next thing you know, I had a web development company, my first start-up company, with 52 employees and I was 21 years old,” said Molina Niño. Circling back, she again noted the role “having no other choice” played in her ability to create opportunities when the chips were down. “As immigrants or kids of immigrants, that pressure of having no other choice can be a source of trauma or a challenge you overcome. It depends on how you view it. I see it as a super power. Where other people have safety nets, we have to rely on our own devices to get where we’re going. It’s a muscle that we exercise, and it says ‘you don’t give up.’”

Molina Niño speaking to the audience
Molina Niño speaking to the audience

“I have this expression: outcomes over optics. I’m focused on getting things done. I don’t care about making the next woman billionaire. Instead, I rather lift up a billion women.”Nathalie Molina Niño

At Columbia University where she went back to school to study playwriting, Molina Niño founded Entrepreneurs@Athena at the Athena Center for Leadership Studies of Barnard College, and launched a summer boot camp for high school girls interested in entrepreneurship, with the goal of closing the gender gap in industry and investing in women entrepreneurs. “I have this expression: outcomes over optics. I’m focused on getting things done. I don’t care about making the next woman billionaire. Instead, I rather lift up a billion women.” In an effort to encourage young girls to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams, Molina Niño has students at the boot camp do an exercise. “We ask students to name entrepreneurs they know, and at first you get the usual names, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. What we do is show them that entrepreneurship is everywhere around us. I grew up with a grandmother that made quinceañera and wedding dresses on the weekend—that’s entrepreneurship,” said Molina Niño. “Students start to see that entrepreneurship is something that’s happening every day in their communities. They realize that entrepreneurship looks more like us than what the world would have you believe, and being aware of that truth is a powerful thing.”