OE WOMEN WATCH| MEET PHOBAY KUTU-AKOI, AN OLYMPIAN FROM LIBERIA

International Women’s Day is a global event dedicated to women’s accomplishments and leadership. It is officially recognized by the United Nations as “a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.” This year's International Women’s Day fell on March 8. Please join Olamild Entertainment this week as we celebrate phenomenal African women making positive impact around the world.

The below interview was featured on Ernst & Young's website and published on Olamild Ent with the permission of Phobay Kutu-Akoi.



Phobay was born in Monrovia, Liberia, and moved to the United States in middle school. She graduated from St. John’s University in 2009 with a BA in psychology. She is the Liberian national record holder in the 100-meter dash and the 1,600-meter relay. Phobay competed at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London and served as the official flag bearer for Liberia. She is currently a team lead in the Ernst & Young LLP Shared Services Center.

When did you move from Liberia to the United States, and can you describe what that transition was like?

When I was 12 years old, I moved to Maryland with my mom and my older sister and my younger sister. It was December 15, 1999. We came for our Christmas break, and my dad convinced my mother to let us stay. Although Liberia was currently stable, we had gone through about four different civil wars. He wanted us to get a better life and education, and to go to school in peace.

When did you start to run track and realize that you were good at it?

I remember making the high school team and just saying, “Okay, well, this is fun.” At practice, I was always competing with the guys. I was the only girl from my school to qualify for the State Championships in the 100-meter dash.

In high school, I had no fear. My coach, Kevin Monroe, was very motivational, letting me know I can do anything. I never felt that I wasn’t capable. I just knew I had to train harder.

When did you get aspirations to go to the Olympics?

I saw Marion Jones [former world champion track and field athlete] at the USA against the World Meet, and I saw all the relay teams from different countries run. My next thought was, how can I get to college for free? I wasn’t focused on going to the Olympics in high school; I was focused on going to college and getting a better education.

It wasn’t until my junior year when Yvonne Harrison, my college coach at St. John’s University in New York, told me I could probably run for Liberia after I graduated. I was a permanent resident of the US but still a Liberian citizen, and a Liberian National record can be broken at any IAAF-sanctioned track and field competition. So I said, “Well, I think I can,” but I knew I had to run faster times.
The following summer I put in a lot of extra work and worked hard on my nutrition. In May of my senior year, I broke the Liberian national record. That’s when it occurred to me, “Okay, well, if I can break the national record as a senior in college, maybe I can set my sights on running after college.”

Had you been studying for a specific career?

I got my Bachelor’s in Psychology. I was applying for grad school when I ran the fast time in the Liberian records.

So you trained after college from 2009 until the London Olympics? Were you working throughout that time?

Yes. I never wanted a break with my work history because I knew that at some point track and field would be over, and then I would have to get into the working world. My only availability for work was 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. daily. The jobs weren’t necessarily my dream jobs, but I needed to gain experience.

What was the London Olympics like? You were the flag bearer for your country, right?

 Yes, I was. It was very humbling to be the flag bearer. Walking with the Liberian flag reminded me of all the things I went through living in Liberia, but at that moment, all I could focus on was just celebrating being there.

The Olympics was such an amazing experience that sometimes I still can’t get over it. I have to pinch myself and say, “Wow, you’re an Olympian.” It was just so surreal.

What is it like after going through something so amazing, and then coming home and having to figure out what to do next?

 The Olympics gave me so much confidence because I knew I had accomplished something that most people can’t do. You can’t buy being an Olympian. You have to earn it. At the same time, I told myself I needed to find a real job, something that could possibly be a career. So I filed with a temp agency and ended up with EY in October 2012.

When you interviewed with EY, did you tell them that you were an Olympian?
 The temp agency knew. I had to put it on my résumé just to explain why I didn’t work full-time for the past three years, but it didn’t come up in the interview. Later on, because of my schedule, everyone kind of found out.

I’m also training for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. My schedule at EY is different than most to accommodate for my training schedule. Like this morning, I had training, and then I came in at 1:00 p.m. I work up until 10:00 p.m. or 10:30 p.m., and do some work on the weekend.

Is it difficult to manage work and training? Aren’t you exhausted?

Physically my body is just beat by the time I get to work, but having that part of my day done, I actually feel better. When I didn’t have training, I felt more sluggish mentally when I came to work. I feel grateful to EY for working with my schedule and being so flexible. I still work the hours required for my current position; I just don’t have a normal 8:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. schedule.

When I started at EY, I was very open and detailed with my manager about my track goals. I think it is very important to have work-life balance, and a main component of that is letting your employer know what your other priorities are in addition to your duties at work.

Part of your job is interviewing people. A lot of Olympic athletes have never been on a job interview before. Is there advice that you could give to someone who’s being interviewed for the first time?

 Professionalism is everything, because you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

For female athletes who have never worked before, I think just being really open minded and willing to learn is important. Show them a little bit of yourself, and focus on your strengths. Anyone who has played a sport has learned something great from being a team player. Let the interviewer know what those qualities are.

When you were at the Olympics, did you come across people who were worried about their next career move?

 Not specifically at the Olympics, but I have a lot of friends who are athletes, and this is one of our common discussions. A lot of athletes only did their training. They’re always saying, “I don’t know how you do it. You come to practice, you train hard, and then you have to go to work the next hour.”


What I try to tell them is we can’t play sports forever. Do something to keep your résumé updated. Volunteer for the Red Cross or have something to show that you have something else to offer.

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