Nagela Nukuna is many things: a fourth-year student in Georgia Tech’s Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE), an aspiring Harvard Business School (HBS) attendee, a figure skater who once wanted to make the Olympic team, an introvert, and – perhaps what she is most known for on Tech’s campus – the Student Government Association (SGA) president.
Hailing from the state of Delaware, Nukuna came to Tech as a computer science engineering major, then switched to ISyE. She has interned with both Boeing and IBM and enjoys the supply chain engineering side of industrial engineering.
In this interview, she talks about her role as SGA president – a position that she’s held since April – and what she’s learned about leadership through her experiences at Tech.
What specifically motivated you to run for SGA president, and what have you learned in this role about leadership?
As a freshman, I told myself that I was going to be president. I am very aspirational, and I decided it would be cool to go for it. And then that changed over my years at Tech – I got deeper into my studies, and I was focused on attaining a high GPA.
There were also activities that I found I liked, such as being on the SGA cabinet during my sophomore and junior years. I also served on the Black Student Experience Taskforce, which was great. The idea of being president went off my radar for a couple of years, but then the time to decide came along. And Jennifer Abrams was SGA president last year; I also think it helps seeing people who look like you and who you’ve known for a while do it and how they have developed.
I keep telling people it’s been both the best and the worst thing I could have done for my fourth year here. It’s the worst thing because of the time constraints that I now have – they can’t really be anticipated and can’t be predicted until you’re in the job. And it’s the best thing because you learn so much: soft skills, networking, how to handle stress and emotion, how to put other people’s needs first, how to organize a team, how to motivate, your leadership style, how an organization or school is run from the back end, the difference between funding a building versus funding a program versus funding a school. There’s so much – and this is just within the first few months!
It’s also such an honor to represent students from Tech; they are so inspiring and intelligent. I’m definitely learning a lot.
What defines a good leader?
The best leaders are the ones who are open-minded and listen, who take into account what other people say before making a decision. There are so many ideas others bring to the table that you might not have thought about. Your ideas aren’t always going to be the best.
We’re living in a world that needs more innovation and more creativity, and that’s not going to come from just one person; it’s going to come from everyone.
You participated in the Harvard Business School Summer Venture in Management (SVMP) because of your interest in pursuing leadership opportunities following graduation. What was that experience like?
Anyone who knows me knows that HBS is my favorite business school in the whole wide world! But more specifically, I’m drawn to schools and companies that have a global impact and a global footprint. I like Harvard because they develop leaders to go out into the world and truly have an impact.
I applied specifically for SVMP to get a feel for what HBS is like. I’m considering both business school and getting a public policy graduate degree. In the SVMP, you run through case studies – something like 12 or 13 – throughout a week. It was super intense but also a lot of fun. I fell in love with the school all over again.
During that time, we went through cases on organizational development, international experience, the role that corporate America has to play in international companies and emerging nations, and sports media and entertainment cases. We broke down business problems and looked at them from the lens of a CEO or somebody in a high position.
Something else I also saw there was the diversity present in the room, which is something I’ve always been a strong advocate for. The case goes nowhere if you don’t have a diverse body of different experiences and different ages and backgrounds. Of course I knew it was important, because I am a black female, but the incredible value had never really struck me in that way until I saw it in that scenario.
What do you hope to be doing after graduation next spring? What is your five-year plan?
My five-year plan: Consult for two years at one of my dream companies, then get admitted into Harvard Business School’s 2+2 Program. After I’ve worked for two years, I want to attend HBS and do a dual degree in business and public policy, get out, and hopefully venture into the public sector.
I’m also applying for a Fulbright, so we’ll see how that goes. I’d love to get some international experience straight out of my undergrad.
I know that I will be trying to work in Africa within five years. But I want to be well-versed in how we do things here in the U.S. and why we’re so successful at what we’re doing, and implement it in places I’m familiar with, being able to help people who look like me get here.
Specifically, I want to look at emerging markets, such as in Cameroon, where my parents are from, and develop supply chain processes there. How they provide resources to people and improve infrastructure there is such a crucial area of growth. And not just in Africa, but in places like India as well – the developing world – because we’re only becoming more and more interconnected, and some areas need more help than others to get on the same level playing field.
I’m also balancing these ideas together because I think it’s really important not to place value on and define success as purely achievement – success should be what you’re happy doing and being able to support yourself comfortably.
Obviously I’m not quite there yet, but when I get there, hopefully I’ll be okay with whatever comes my way.