Kalu Osiri went from a chemistry lab to global education.
His multicultural upbringing in Benin, West Africa, laid the foundation for his current work as director of the International Business Program in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s College of Business.
As an associate professor of practice in management, Osiri works with Huskers to cultivate their global mindset, gain leadership and emotional intelligence and work through the ethical questions of international business.
In order to take what he’s learned in own his research and practice to a global audience, including his brothers and sisters in Africa, Osiri and his global associates recently launched Osiri University, which offers courses from a decolonized curriculum. Though mostly online currently, Osiri University is expanding its footprint by adding materials and modules that can be delivered and accessed anywhere, even in remote villages of Africa.
Recently, Nebraska Today sat down with Osiri to talk about his research, how curriculum must change to serve all people, and the importance of global immersion.
You started out as a chemist. What took you from chemistry to international business?
My doctoral work was concerned with developing tools, specifically microfluidic device, for rapid disease diagnostics. I published my work, but was not satisfied. I began to think about how to commercialize that research. That was what got me into business. I did a postdoctoral training at the University of Florida, and learned about how to commercialize scientific research. I really enjoyed it and delved more into the field of business, which led me to management, entrepreneurship and international business.
What brought you to the University of Nebraska?
Well, it’s a funny story. I was very happy at Washington State University, doing similar work that I’m doing now — teaching and helping students develop a global mindset. A friend sent me the link to the job posting, and said, ‘Hey, you need to apply for this. This really, I think, would be good for you.’ I didn’t think much of it. But he urged me, and I went ahead and put in my application in. I got a phone call, and the rest is history.
It’s been really great, because when I was at Washington State, I was directing a study abroad in France, Spain and Morocco. I was asked to come and do the same thing here in Nebraska, but expand to the global locations and options for students in the College of Business. It has really been rewarding.
Speaking of study abroad and your work to expand that in the College of Business, why is it important for students to have those experiences?
Study abroad, what we also call global immersion, is so important in helping students to develop what we call a global mindset. A global mindset is essentially being able to think globally, but act locally.
Traveling helps cultivate a global mindset. Working with people from other cultures helps your emotional intelligence which also contributes to a global mindset. But it is critical for students, and anyone for that matter, to have a global mindset but act locally, where they are.
It is mightily important for students to develop a global mindset in today’s 21st century global landscape. Unfortunately, a lot of companies are taking advantage of globalization, by abusing labor and using up resources from other countries because they can get away with it. Case in point, Shell, the oil company, has been wreaking havoc in Nigeria by spilling oil and destroying ecosystems. People have had to uproot lives as a result, meaning that they have devastated the ecology, social lives and cultures of the people. I challenge students to be ethical business professionals, so that they are making decisions not just based on the bottom line, but factoring ethics. Imagine a world where managers are humane and are good stewards of the responsibilities and privileges that come with their positions.
How did your childhood shape you?
I was born in in Cotonou, Benin, and my parents are from Nigeria. I had an international childhood, so to speak.
I grew up speaking Igbo, which is spoken in Nigeria, and Fon, which is spoken in Benin. I also learned English, and some French.
I didn’t know it at a time, but I was immersed in a very multicultural setting. My parents took us to church, but then our neighbors were Christians, Muslims, and practitioners of African systems such as Voodun. There was a mosque next to our home. And we would go out and hang out with the Muslims when they were breaking their fast. They would cook lots of food and we would break fast together. We were invited, even though we didn’t fast with them. I grew up in that type of environment — a multilingual, multicultural environment in Benin.
It’s very funny you asked me that, because thinking back now, I can see how my childhood has shaped who I have a become, and continue to become.
Speaking of food, is there anything you miss from those big dinners, or any food from home you haven’t been able to get here?
I enjoy most foods. What’s special about those big meals and the foods was not the food per se. It’s the environment, the people, the laughter, and the act of sharing that came with the meal. That was really beautiful.
Tell me about your research. What do you study?
There are two main streams of my research.
The first one is in the area of what I call the neurochemistry of leadership. In that domain, I am trying to understand how leaders activate or deactivate the neurochemistry of their followers. It’s very important, because if we understand that, as leaders, we can literally make people around us physically well or sick because of how we are leading them, and then it will cause us to think about our approaches to leadership.
Recently, I worked on a paper where we developed what we call the Personal Sustainability Index (PSI). We looked at the PSI of executives and compared the results to those of non-executives, and we found in that study, that there are certain activities that leaders do in order to remain effective. Things like meditation, taking a walk in a park, playing with a child, playing with a pet — those little things that we often would think don’t really matter go a long way in renewing out spirit, and help us sustain our effectiveness. We found that leaders who engage in a lot and a variety of these types of activities are more effective at work. They tend to have greater empathy and work satisfaction, and their stress level is low.
Also, we found that it is better help people change by having conversations with them about their development and positive future instead of watching backs and evaluating them. You can see how the first approach can activate positive emotions and the second, our negative emotions. That is one stream of research.
More recently, I’ve been preoccupied with another area of research where we’re looking at the decolonization of curriculum. We’re looking at how and what we teach, interrogating that and asking ourselves, ‘does this curriculum really empower everyone?’
What do you mean by decolonizing curriculum?
What we find is simply that the curriculum that we use both in the U.S. and across most of the world — even in Africa — teach a certain, may I say, one — Eurocentric narrative. Important narratives and perspectives are being left out, and not told.
Let me give you a quick example. People are earnestly waiting for the COVID-19 vaccination to arrive, right? If I tell you that the concept of vaccination was developed in West Africa, would you believe that? It is something we don’t even teach in schools. It turns out that in 1721, there was an enslaved African in Boston, who shared with his enslaver, a minister in Boston, a procedure that he undertook in West Africa. A procedure in which fluid specimen from a sick person was used to inoculate healthy people so that they don’t get the disease. The innovation upon which vaccination came from is from Africa, but credit is giving to the Johnson and Johnson Brothers who popularized it after they caught wind of the idea. So decolonizing the curriculum means setting the records straight. And by the way, the story of the enslaved African who introduced the concept of innoculation is captured in Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson’s book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent.”
A decolonized curriculum is not just to empower Africans or non-Europeans, it’s good for people of European descent as well. I believe that a “colonized” curriculum can tilt people, especially those of European descent, towards having racist inclinations because they haven’t learned about the contributions of the other people. They’ve only learned about themselves. Our current curriculum, I believe, encourages that mindset.
We’ve just experienced a year of upheaval, including a summer of racial justice protests. What can we do as campus to do a better job of addressing racial equality?
It’s a very complex question, to be honest with you, and I think, what happens in any organization is that we don’t clearly articulate who is responsible for doing what. It’s important to ask that question in a very precise manner. What should the leaders do? What should the Chancellor be doing? What should the deans be doing? What should the chairs, the faculty members, the staff, the students be doing? We should be very clear about that. And then you see how complex it is, because the role of students and leaders are going to be very different.
To answer the question in a very simple manner, there is an African-American spiritual, that begins with a line, ‘lift every voice and sing.’ So, if you’re asking what we should be doing, I think we should ask ourselves, ‘are we lifting every voice?’ How is this curriculum lifting every voice? How is this process lifting every voice? That’s what we should be doing.
And I really want to make an appeal to my European-American brothers and sisters, because oftentimes, they will feel and act a little defensive. They’ll say, ‘what am I supposed to do, you know, I wasn’t here when my ancestors created this situation and I’m trying to help now.’ Well, we have to understand that the structures that were put in place then are still having an effect on people today. We need to start interrogating these structures, and not pretend as if everything is fine. We need to tear those structures down and rebuild again. Let’s ask ourselves, ‘are we lifting every voice?’