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Shegun and Mary OtulanaIn 1998, entrepreneur Shegun Otulana, ’03, arrived in Birmingham from his native Lagos, Nigeria. He followed his older brother to Birmingham and to UAB but found scholarships for international students hard to find—and even harder to find as a student coming from West Africa. 

As a student at UAB, Shegun struggled to make tuition some semesters. After Shegun’s younger brother also chose to attend UAB, his parents were at different times paying three international students’ tuition—more expensive, even, than out-of-state tuition. Many international students couldn’t qualify for scholarships offered because they were not yet U.S. citizens. Shegun put his college tuition on credit cards and delivered pizzas to make ends meet. One semester, he just couldn’t afford tuition, so a friend of his, a doctor at UAB, paid it instead. It was the only way he was able to continue his education—and he never forgot that kindness. 

Fast forward: Shegun graduated from UAB in 2003; founded his first startup, Zertis, in 2004; founded another company, TheraNest, in 2013; and, last May, sold TheraNest’s parent company, Therapy Brands, to global investment firm KKR reportedly for $1.2 billion. (Therapy Brands is a leading provider of software solutions for mental and behavioral health providers and serves more than 28,000 practices nationwide.)

Not bad for a guy who once delivered pizzas in order to earn a degree from UAB.

Now, Shegun says, it’s time to give back and invest in students, just as someone once invested in him. Alongside wife Mary, ’06, ’07—whom he met while an undergraduate at UAB and who is an accomplished forensic accountant and entrepreneur in her own right—the Otulanas gave $1 million to create the Shegun and Mary Otulana Endowed Scholarship. Each year, the scholarship will provide tuition for:

  • An international student (with a preference for a student hailing from Nigeria or West Africa).
  • An underrepresented student with a preference for those in STEM-specific majors and first-generation college students or students with challenging life circumstances.

"Through their generous gift, the Otulanas have demonstrated the important role alumni play in shaping UAB's future," said Tom Brannan, UAB’s Vice President for Advancement and Strategic Initiatives. “We are grateful for their support of both international students and underrepresented students through the creation of this transformational scholarship, which will help cover the cost of their tuition. Their gift will help generations of students earn a college degree, and we are grateful for their generosity, vision and loyalty to UAB."  

The first two recipients of the scholarship will be awarded in fall 2022. From there, two new students—one in each category—will be added every year for a total of eight students recipients by the 2024-2025 school year.

"Education is a priority for our children and others,” Mary said. “The more knowledge you gain, the more opportunities will follow. And that’s something every child, regardless of their circumstance, is deserving of.”

“It’s a driving force for us—there are certain areas we believe in strongly as a family, and one of those is education,” Shegun said. “There is a big challenge around affordability of education in college. We feel these scholarships can help resolve that.”

The Otulanas’ decision to focus on international students is obviously deeply personal to them, as this is “a segment of the population that really struggles when they get here,” Shegun says. “We know these students are very, very smart. When they get a break, they do great things in this country. How many are we leaving behind that get here and can’t finish and afford tuition? [International students] contribute to the story and success of this country. [We’ll do] whatever we can do to give them a leg up.”

As UAB welcomes more and more international students, the Otulanas’ gift is a welcome one, said David Hofmann, executive director of INTO UAB, an initiative aimed at increasing the global diversity of the student body.

“UAB has always welcomed international students from around the world,” he said. “As our international population grows, the Shegun and Mary Otulana Endowed Scholarship will only help to fulfil the university mission to be a top-tier global institution.  Many Nigerian students will benefit from this scholarship and the quality education that UAB provides.”

Though the Otulanas give generously to many causes close to their hearts, UAB is particularly special to them because it's not only where both received degrees and where they met, but it is a critical part of Birmingham, where they've chosen to plant roots and raise a family. Shegun's older and younger brothers also attended UAB; Mary's sister is a fellow graduate and former president of the National Alumni Society. Both of Mary's parents are longtime professors at the university and have had notably influential careers at UAB. Mary’s father, Dr. Fouad H. Fouad, retired this past July after 40 years on the faculty in the School of Engineering and 25 years as chair of the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering. Her mother, Dr. Mona Fouad, is Senior Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion in the UAB Heersink School of Medicine and Professor and Director of the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine. She is also the Founding Director of the UAB Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center (MHRC).

Their whole family, they say, are Blazer fans; they find joy in seeing UAB thrive. As a student here, Shegun was deeply involved in international programs at UAB, specifically the Smolian International House; the couple is looking to expand giving to UAB in this realm, too.

“You have an obligation to two things in life—the people around you and the places where you find yourself,” Shegun says. “You have the obligation to leave both of those things better to the extent you can. UAB is critical to the future of Birmingham. So, for international students that come here, whatever we can do as part of our giving to elevate this place is one of our responsibilities.”

Both Shegun and Mary were raised to be givers. Mary says it’s their credo that, when you see someone facing a struggle and you know there’s something you can do, you step in and do it. When it came to giving to students who are struggling to pay tuition at UAB, the couple didn’t hesitate in giving back.

“Everyone can be a giver,” Shegun said. “When you’re in a position to be a giver, you have an obligation that is, for us, driven by our faith and our responsibility as humans to lift other people up. It’s not a complete life if it’s a life that only consumes and doesn’t lift up others. That’s not a full life. Many people gave for us to get to where we are. Part of our obligation is to continue that. We also want to raise a family who considers giving as a core value—and you show that by example.”

Since exiting Therapy Brands last year, Shegun has gone on to found Harmony Venture Labs in Birmingham to support the development of new technology platforms, an idea hub driven by his passion to have more startups and more founders in the Magic City. Mary runs one of the Otulanas’ philanthropic efforts, the property management company Blight Free Birmingham, founded in 2019 to reduce blight in underserved neighborhoods throughout the city. The company purchases abandoned homes, renovates them, and rents to families who may not otherwise be able to afford a home through a rent-to-own program. The company educates them about homebuying, how to increase their credit, and how to save, with the goal of the renters eventually becoming owners of the home they live in. 

“We hope [the scholarship] translates into them doing really great things in the future and continuing the journey and coming back and impacting other people’s lives, writing a positive story about what it means to have African ancestry,” Shegun said. “This is not just about you being able to pay your tuition. It’s about you being able to have an impact in life, whatever way that is.”


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