Sixteen-year-old Bijou Abiola ’07 had decisions to make. She had come all the way to Brooklyn from her childhood home in Lagos, Nigeria, to go to college. After starting at Brooklyn College on an Accounting track, she made an early shift in majors and graduated with a degree in economics. By her early 20s she was working as a junior economic adviser for the Nigerian Mission to the United Nations. The job was weighty, and she had what it took, even at her young age, to do it. But again. she made a shift, this time to the fashion business. And it stuck.

Abiola has since taken on many executive level roles in the fashion and luxury industry. Here, she talks about how she got into fashion with virtually no experience, how mentorship and support at Brooklyn College led her to her dream career, her experience as a person of color in luxury, and her thoughts about giving back to the next generation.

You grew up in Lagos, attended a boarding school and came to the United States at 15. What was it like arriving in New York City?

I had been to New York every year on summer breaks. It was an opportunity because only some people I knew had the chance to come here. The city felt a little bit like home when I got here. I wanted to start college but was only 15 and it was recommended I redo my last year of high school. My family really wanted me to go the doctor route, so I went to Science Skills Center High School for Science, Technology and the Creative Arts in Brooklyn.

So tell us all about your career, from Brooklyn College to where you are now. Why Brooklyn College?

I had come to live with my aunt and uncle, and my uncle had gone to Brooklyn College. Because I was young, they were hesitant to send me away to school, but I really admired my uncle, so Brooklyn College was a natural choice. The plan was to transfer to an Ivy league school when I turned 18 and was old enough to be away from “home.” In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t because I got a top-tier education at Brooklyn College. And when it was time for graduate school, I went to Columbia. I left Brooklyn College with no debt. And the college gave me a chance to shine because my professors were very invested.

You were mentored by Marge Magner, the founder of the Magner Career Center at Brooklyn College, as well as Natalia Guarin-Klein, the center’s director.

The Magner Center was pretty new at the time. I got [an internship] stipend, and then I got to intern at Citigroup, where Ms. Magner was CEO [of the Global Consumer Group]. And Natalia was always attentive, always supportive. Whoever came through those doors knew that Natalia was there to help.

You worked at the United Nations. How did you go from diplomacy to fashion?

I was so young, 22. The job wasn’t really for me, but the U.N. was where I started believing in my abilities in the workplace. I was working in a room full of older men and held my own. I decided to wrap up the U.N. job. Ms. Magner was setting me up on interviews at Citigroup, even while I was at Columbia, but I needed a job to pay for grad school, so I worked for J. Crew. It was supposed to be an interim job until the banking job came through, but it was there I found out about the fashion business, the merchant career track—buying and planning. I was sold. I decided that was the business I wanted to be in.

After your revelation, what did you do to get on the fashion business career track?

I Googled and saw that Lord & Taylor had an executive training program. I’d been there maybe once. The post had a name, job description, email address, and telephone number. I called and said, “Can you hire me please?” The recruiter hired me, and the rest is history. I worked there as a merchant and senior buyer for nearly 12 years.

What has it been like as a woman of color in a leadership position in the luxury brand and fashion industry?

 I’ve never shied away from asking leaders the tough questions around their commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’ve been very fortunate to work with leaders who are very committed–their actions often speak louder than their words. Are there still challenges in the industry? Absolutely. But more people want you to succeed than want you to fail. Unfortunately, sometimes the ones that want you to fail are louder.

It’s so important to pick the right boss, the right leader, not just the right job, especially as a person of color, because it can make all the difference if you have a leader who sees your potential and is ready to fight for you.

You have been an executive adviser for the Koppelman School of Business. Would you encourage fellow alumni to come back to campus and mentor?

Absolutely. The more people give, the more they receive in return. Having an open hand is so important. You never know whose life you’re going to touch, whose life you’re going to change. I wouldn’t be here today if people like Marge Magner, Natalia Guarin-Klein, and Brooklyn College faculty and alumni mentors hadn’t taken me under their wings. So, I think going back and giving back to today’s students is essential. Someone in the industry I’ve come to admire is the CEO of Chanel, Leena Nair. We share one of the same mantras “lift as you climb.” I believe in that wholeheartedly. There’s nothing more fulfilling.