Celebrating Black History Month: A Captivating Conversation with Ruky Toje

As we celebrate the Black History Month of October, which aims to promote and recognise the invaluable contributions of individuals and initiatives that champion cultural preservation and diversity to British society, Student Enterprise, the entrepreneurial wing of the University of Surrey also employs this opportunity to spotlight and celebrate the achievements of the Black community.  

We are thrilled to spotlight Ruky Toje, a young entrepreneur with a mission close to her heart. Ruky’s venture, UroLang is a powerful catalyst for the preservation of native African languages and cultural heritage. Her dedication to the cause of safeguarding the linguistic and cultural heritage of her country Nigeria is a testament to the transformative potential of innovative student-led initiatives. 

In this exclusive interview, we dive deep into Ruky’s personal motivations, her passion for Black culture and heritage preservation, challenges, and advice to aspiring student entrepreneurs. 

Join us as we uncover the synergy between Black History Month and student enterprise and uncover how Ruky Toje is making history of her own through UroLang.  

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? 

I’m a postgraduate student at the University of Surrey, studying Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management. I am also the President of the Nigerian Student Society. I come from the South-South region of Nigeria; a beautiful state called Delta. Prior to starting my masters in February 2023, I have about 7 years of professional work experience as a Human Resources professional where I specialized in Organizational Development, Talent Acquisition, and Learning and Development. I like to think of myself as an adventurous person, personable, as I have been told, terribly optimistic, a great listener, and a jolly good fellow all round.  

What does Black History Month mean to you?  

Black history is a powerful narrative of resilience, strength, and unyielding determination. It represents a legacy of triumph over adversity, celebrating the countless contributions, achievements, and the rich tapestry of cultures that have shaped the world. To me, black history signifies a beacon of hope and inspiration, reminding us of remarkable accomplishments against all odds. It’s a legacy that instils pride, unity, and a vision for a future where diversity is not just embraced but celebrated. 

What inspired you to come up with the Urolang idea? 

Ha! This is an interesting one. The name UroLang stems from my native mother tongue “Urhobo.” I took out the ‘H’ to form Uro and just added Lang from Language, and that gave birth to “UroLang” – kinda sounds cheesy. I was inspired by my mum, she is deeply passionate about the Urhobo language, culture, and people, she even taught the language for a couple of years in a school. In addition to my HR role, I had the opportunity in 2018, to be a product and project manager for an in-house initiative to develop and roll out a new Learning Management System for my employer, the whole experience was exciting, so I dabbled into the idea of building a digital Urohobo dictionary – I figured my mum would love it considering that she and my Dad had gifted me a hard copy dictionary a few years ago. Sadly, that project did not see the light of day. Fast forward to 2021, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic, in my strive to build a closer relationship with my nieces and nephews, I started teaching them Urhobo on weekends. I noticed they were learning the language and the cultural, geographical, and historical facts about our tribe gradually. Beyond this, I saw how my language lessons had a significant impact on my older niece (14) and nephew (11), when they visited Nigeria for the first and second time respectively. I noticed a certain sense of belonging emanating from them, they were excited to identify items and actions in the language, even places.

I thought to myself, if my immediate family members felt this disconnect or gap, I wonder how many other Nigerians or Africans out there are going through a similar experience. It was these separate events that convinced me that there is a gap between one’s connection to their roots and how language is one of the steps in bridging that gap. This is how the journey of building UroLang began.  

Could you share some challenges you see in the preservation of these languages and cultural heritage in the current times? 

So far, the most significant challenge I have faced is the lack of resources and materials for these languages, specifically, the endangered languages in Nigeria. Migration is another one that poses a major threat. As the third and fourth generations, especially those in urban metropolitan cities migrate to other countries, it is imperative that we acknowledge the fact that they too are not vast in their own language and culture because as generations evolve, some of the culture and historical facts are being watered down. Another challenge is the re-orientation of most people, as a lot of people think it is uncool to be able to understand, speak, and be knowledgeable about their tribe.  

How do you envision UroLang making a positive impact on preserving native African languages and cultural heritage? 

UroLang will be designed as an ecosystem for the preservation of African languages. One of UroLang’s many features is that beyond learning a language, users are also educated about the selected language’s origin, the tribe that speaks the language, what region of the country it is spoken, the historical, geographical, and cultural facts as well. Using my niece and nephew’s experience, I believe that UroLang would have the ability to propel users to travel to Africa more because while learning the language, there are nuggets that would pop up to enrich the users’ learning experience. This would have a positive impact on the tourism industry in Africa.  

What advice would you offer to aspiring student entrepreneurs looking to make a positive impact through the Student Enterprise at the University of Surrey? 

The list is long! I will advise aspiring student entrepreneurs to sign up to Student Enterprise first, so they do not miss any valuable information. All info from SE is important! They should participate in all the SE events and activities if their schedule permits. The SE runs programs throughout the year so there is never a dull moment. Another thing is to reach out to the SE team, for guidance and counselling, networking, and funding opportunities, do not be shy to ask one hundred and one questions – Kat, Geoff, and Kate love it! In the end, I think being involved with SE is whatever you make of it. 

Is the Student Enterprise accessible to all students even if they do not have entrepreneurial ideas? 

Oh yes! If I did not have a potential business idea I would still get involved with SE. I have been part of several programs such as Hackathon17, Boot camp, Building an Entrepreneur, Propeller fund competition, personal branding workshop and so much more. These are some events that the SE organises that I think both student entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs can benefit from. SE operates an inclusive, diverse, and equitable model that welcomes all students whether they have a business idea or not. It is a great place to pick up transferable skills that would help any student succeed in the workplace and with their personal brand. 

Thank you for joining us for this insightful interview. We hope you found it engaging. Stay tuned for more exciting content and don’t forget to subscribe for updates. Until next time, keep learning and growing with us while celebrating the rich history and contributions of the Black community. You can also learn about the Foundership programme which caters to funding for Black founders. Find out more about Student Enterprise by visiting our website.