For NRECA’s Tolu Omotoso, 2022 was a year of unparalleled opportunities. As director of energy solutions, he’s been helping members prepare to apply for grants from the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law, which will make historic investments in the energy sector.
But a major highlight came just at the end of Omotoso’s busy year: an invitation from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to attend the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., as an exceptional young leader from Africa. The department selected Omotoso to participate in the African and Diaspora Young Leaders Forum held Dec. 13 at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In addition to Blinken, Vice President Kamala Harris and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan spoke at the forum, along with several members of Congress and African heads of state. The forum included breakout sessions on higher education, the creative industries and environmental equity.
Omotoso spoke with NRECA after the forum about his path from Lagos, Nigeria, where most of his family still lives, to Linden, Indiana’s Tipmont REMC to NRECA, where he’s an expert in distributed energy resources.
Tell me about your journey from Lagos, Nigeria, to NRECA. How did you learn about electric co-ops?
Omotoso: I came to the United States from Lagos in 2011 to attend graduate school at Purdue University [in West Lafayette, Indiana] and got my master’s degree in civil/environmental engineering, and I’m on track to get my Ph.D. in civil/environmental engineering. I worked at Purdue’s Energy Center and, among other projects, was leading an energy workforce development project—the Duke Energy Academy at Purdue primarily sponsored by Duke Energy. Tipmont REMC was also one of the sponsors, and that’s how I got to know them. It was a great opportunity working for Tipmont’s members. My best days were the ones that included direct interaction with the member-owners—from basic things like answering questions on energy usage to more complex/technical tasks like helping members and their contractors design and site distributed energy resources.
I was the co-op’s manager of smart grid before I left in December 2021 to be the director of energy solutions in NRECA’s Business & Technology Strategies department.
With your background, you could work at a large corporation. Yet you describe yourself as being attracted to purpose-driven work. What made you decide to work at a co-op and later, on their behalf at NRECA?
Omotoso: That’s true. Before I joined NRECA, I had verbally accepted a job offer from a subsidiary of Koch Industries, the country’s second-biggest private employer. I thought about what I was trying to do and then consulted my industry mentor [Curtis Wynn, CEO of SECO Energy and former NRECA president], and we talked about the impact that I would be able to make in the cooperative space…working directly with the members and improving their lives as opposed to a big corporation where the focus is more on satisfying their shareholders. Ultimately, I chose to join NRECA and so far, it’s been a great decision. It’s an awesome feeling being able to use my technical training to help people directly. I also love the cooperative principles…my favorites are No. 6 and No. 7, Cooperation Among Cooperatives and Concern for Community. Being able to help one another and improve people’s lives is just something that I really connect with.
Also, I had met my current boss, Paul Breakman, at a conference back in 2018. He was engaging, respectful and seemed impressed by me, so he made a joke about my coming to work for him in the future. I guess the future came through.
How did you learn about the African and Diaspora Young Leaders Forum? What did you learn and how do you think you’ll benefit professionally?
Omotoso: The State Department was seeking out exceptional young African leaders to participate in the U.S.-Africa Leader’s Summit, so I sent in my résumé and got an invitation directly from the secretary of state.
In the general session, they talked about power and the environment and strengthening the partnership between the African diaspora and U.S. leaders in terms of how to improve people’s lives, especially those in Africa. I was part of the breakout session on environmental equity that was led by the EPA administrator and Sabrina Dhowre Elba, United Nations Goodwill Ambassador.
It was valuable to listen to and collaborate with African counterparts on key areas the United States and Africa define as critical for the future of the continent and our global community.
Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer for NRECA.