When it was Aanuoluwapo “Aanu” Omoleye’s turn to pitch her business idea at the recent BisonTank competition — hosted by Gallaudet’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute (GIEI) — she strode onto the stage and began to tell a story: “Meet Chioma. She is from Nigeria, a six-year-old girl in elementary school. Chioma is deaf and uses a wheelchair. She loves reading, but when she reads books, she feels like she has no connection to the characters.”

It’s a feeling that Omoleye understands quite well. “I grew up in Nigeria and I never saw a book that spotlighted a deaf or disabled character in a positive way,” she explained. That’s why she wants to launch Ablebooks Africa, which will publish children’s books featuring characters like her, first focusing on Nigeria and then expanding to all of Africa. “Representation is important,” she added.

The judges agreed and awarded Omoleye first place, which comes with a $5,000 prize to fund the winner’s business. She hopes to start getting books into the hands of kids like Chioma as soon as possible. “I’m ready now. I don’t see a reason to wait,” she says. “I feel a drive to move forward.”

 Aanuoluwapo posing in front of a brown concrete wall with a blue shirt on, smiling.
2023 BisonTank winner Aanuoluwapo Omoleye.

Persistence and ambition have been the defining characteristics of Omoleye’s personality since she was born in Ekiti, in the southwest of Nigeria. “Deaf people are really looked down on there. Most folks are not encouraged to go to school. They stay home and learn hair braiding or car repair,” she says. So when she became deaf at the age of seven, her options abruptly narrowed.

Omoleye had always wanted to become a doctor. But at the school for the deaf that she attended, she was told that was impossible. “I felt depressed. I cried a lot,” she remembers. Her parents tried to negotiate with the school to get additional instructors, so she could receive the training she needed in biology and other subjects. When that failed, they encouraged her to take advantage of the resources her school did have.

Following their advice, Omoleye became the first deaf female from the only deaf school in Ekiti ever to attend university — and she went to Nigeria’s top school, the University of Ibadan. There were only a handful of other deaf students on campus, and accommodations were lacking. She picked a major in special education, with a minor in economics, to have access to interpreters. But she was often unable to get an interpreter for more than two or three classes per week. “I would sit in class and just see professors’ lips move,” Omoleye says. Fortunately, she received help from classmates, who let her copy their notes. Some learned Nigerian Sign Language so they could interpret for her too.

Being in an environment with so many high-achieving people was motivating for Omoleye, who strove for excellence despite the obstacles. She organized a career orientation for deaf high school students, so they could have role models to emulate. She also got into the habit of entering as many competitions as possible. “In most contests, you see hearing person after hearing person. I really wanted to be involved,” she says. Omoleye was especially drawn to anything related to spoken word and writing because she loves to express herself. And usually she would win.

When Omoleye graduated in 2021 with first-class honors — meaning, academically at the top of her class — media from all over Nigeria shared the accomplishment. From Omoleye’s perspective, she hadn’t done anything all that special. “I just pushed through,” she says. “That’s the life of a deaf person, pushing through barriers. Deaf people have to work 10 times harder.”

She needed to figure out which barriers she wanted to push through next. All Nigerian university graduates under the age of 30 must join the National Youth Service Corps program for one year, so Omoleye spent that time applying to graduate schools around the world. She was thrilled to receive a scholarship for the International Development Master’s Program at Gallaudet. “All deaf people know Gallaudet. I was jumping for joy,” she says.

Her trip to Washington, D.C., last fall was her first time ever outside of Nigeria. Adjusting to the new culture was easier than she expected. “What’s amazing is everyone signed. I felt an incredible amount of support,” says Omoleye, who immediately made friends with both students and faculty. She began to co-host monthly International Tea Parties with the International Development MA program, the English Language institute, and the Office of International Affairs. The idea is to learn about world cultures by sharing a different country’s tea and snacks each month.

She now serves as vice president of the African Student Union. “I want to improve the student experience and make folks feel connected,” Omoleye says. She has ideas to increase the number of activities, such as cultural programs and events that bring in African professionals.

Omoleye has expanded her network beyond campus by being selected for the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area Graduate Fellows Program. The group meets each Friday to have discussions, meet with mentors, and take on projects related to UN functions. The experience has encouraged her to continue toward her goals of earning a PhD and pursuing a career in development in Africa. “I want to work with international organizations to even out the playing field for deaf people, and focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion on an international level,” Omoleye says.

Ablebooks Africa is a key part of that vision. “It’s not just about making money, but making an impact on people,” she says.

Deaf students, particularly in Africa, are in need of more resources, she adds, which is why she is also proud to fundraise for the International Development MA Program International Student Scholarship. “If the Gallaudet community wants to see more international students, we have to be proactive,” she says. “Untapped talent exists.” Omoleye hopes to see more students like her — and Chioma — get the same opportunities she has had.

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