Close Up

Becoming a Change-Maker

Idrees “Lanre” Ajakaiye ’95 says the example of his father and his URI education are what spur his work in social entrepreneurship and leadership.

What remained of the building was blackened with soot—the first floor and part of the second had been gutted by fire. It was a knockdown, an eyesore, the picture of urban decay.

That was what then-11-year-old Idrees “Lanre” Ajakaiye ’95 thought when his father pulled up to the property he’d just purchased. Ajakaiye listened as his father shared his plans for this property on the corner of Cranston and Superior streets in Providence. As his father talked of his vision for the building, Ajakaiye felt something shift inside himself.

“That was the genesis of my loving real estate: That building seemed so ugly, but my father, with his big West African accent, said, ‘No, don’t worry.’ That was social entrepreneurship happening right in front of me.”

Ajakaiye now heads a major development of his own: the 25 Bough Street Community Initiative in the Olneyville section of Providence, a $1.8 million redevelopment project. The abandoned 15,000-plus-square-foot space will house an interactive cultural and heritage museum, youth and women’s empowerment programs, an athletic facility, businesses, and a multipurpose function hall—a state-of-the-art public structure. “It will be a community-anchored facility providing spaces for youth education and empowerment, for entrepreneurship, and for the celebration of life events,” Ajakaiye says. He has devoted four years to the project thus far.

Recruited to URI by the Talent Development program and the track team, Ajakaiye says he developed the habits of mind, tenacity, and leadership skills to tackle a project the size and scope of 25 Bough Street as a URI student. Ajakaiye successfully balanced the demands of studies and athletics with several other activities, including becoming a resident assistant and an orientation leader, while also deejaying for WRIU and taking advantage of experiential learning opportunities, including the Washington Leaders Fellowship, which gave him the opportunity to work for U.S. Sen. Jack Reed and also for BET, the Black Entertainment Television network, where he did public relations and marketing. “While I can’t say I reflected on it much at the time, looking back, I see I developed great leadership skills at URI,” Ajakaiye says.

After college, he began his career as a real estate broker in Manhattan, then earned a master’s in marketing and worked for nationally known corporations MetLife and AAA Northeast. Ajakaiye is now head of membership for the National Fire Protection Association, an international nonprofit organization located in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Helping people—that’s another calling Ajakaiye first learned from his father and mother, who immigrated to the United States from Nigeria in the 1970s.

“I saw my father take an abandoned property, buy it back from the bank, renovate the whole thing, and put tenants in it. I have that same purpose. My father was a change-maker and that’s how I am—a person seeking to positively impact the lives of youths and underserved populations. Helping people do whatever they want to do—that’s a reward that makes me feel good.” •

—Marybeth Reilly-McGreen