We had the good fortune of connecting with Afam Onyema and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Afam, do you have a favorite quote or affirmation?
There is a powerful piece of scripture that I hold close to my heart. I encourage people of any faith or of no faith to consider its counsel: Do not despise small beginnings, for the Lord [or the World] rejoices to see the work begin. It is okay to start small. It is perfectly fine if your idea to change the world begins with trying to change one region, one community, one family, even one person. There is power, even magic, in that small germination from which mighty forest grow; that quiet spark from which blazing fires begin. For in those small beginnings lie all the propulsive power necessary for you to grow, to draw in more support, more funding, more partners, more of everything you need to accomplish your audacious, heart-warming goals. So snap the chains of inertia that cause so many transformative ideas to remain stillborn, and witness how your courage, tenacity, and faithfulness are rewarded – if not right away, then in due time. When I was deciding between lucrative job offers from multiple corporate law firms and leading full-time my nonprofit, the GEANCO Foundation, many people told me to work for a law firm first. “Build up capital and establish yourself first”, they said. “Then you can transition into that ‘save the world’ stuff.” While this advice was sensible and financially very tempting, I knew I had to take the plunge and start running GEANCO right away, even though we did not have a bank account yet, let alone any money to put into it. I had to make my small beginning. I had to break my own chains of inertia. I had to endure the lean, lonely, scary early years and keep fighting to build my community of support and forge my GEANCO Foundation Family. Looking back, I am so glad I made that decision. Those initial struggles and challenges gave me courage. They confirmed that I could endure, that I could persevere, that I could succeed.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
I was born in Chicago, IL to parents who emigrated from Nigeria. My father is a doctor (OB/GYN), and my mother is an Emergency Room nurse. They left Nigeria so the children they would soon have could experience better opportunities to succeed and achieve their dreams. Through hard work and a huge dollop of luck, I was accepted into Harvard University. After Harvard, I attended Stanford Law School. I had my own dreams of professional success. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about Nigeria and how many people, including my own family members, were suffering terribly there. So, I turned down several lucrative job offers from corporate law firms in order to help my family save and transform lives in my parents’ homeland. I was thoroughly terrified yet absolutely resolute about that critical life decision. It’s the best one I have ever made. Since graduating law school in 2007, I have served as CEO of our GEANCO Foundation. We lead regular complex surgical missions to Nigeria. We established a Clinton Global Initiative program to fight anemia in the country. Since 2014, we have screened and treated over 14,000 women, including vulnerable pregnant women, for the dangerous blood condition. We have also built a network of rural maternity centers where indigent pregnant women safely deliver healthy babies and children receive critical vaccinations. Through our Leadership Scholarship for Girls, we provide tuition, medical care, and social & psychological support to young female victims of terrorism and gender inequality in Nigeria. We started with 3 girls at one school in 2015 and have grown to 34 girls at 4 schools, one in each major region of the country. Our supporters include Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie, Benedict Cumberbatch, Charlize Theron, Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Oyelowo, Chris Rock, Zoe Saldana, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Kimmel, Thandie Newton, Andrew Garfield, Jeff Daniels, Daisy Ridley, Forest Whitaker, Cynthia Erivo, Bryan Cranston, The Oscars, Disney, Google and Netflix. I have been profiled and/or interviewed by BBC News, National Public Radio, US News & World Report, Forbes.com, Newsweek, Hollywood Reporter, Huffington Post, American Lawyer, NBC News, Harvard Magazine, Stanford Magazine, and Ebony Magazine. In 2020, I was named one of the Top Ten Most Influential Africans in the Diaspora.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Depending on the time of year, we would definitely take in a sporting event, a Dodgers game, or a Rams game. We would hit up some of my favorite food spots – The Waffle in Hollywood, Mastro’s and Crusteacean in Beverly Hills, my neighborhood Thai place in west LA. We would chill at Soho House, take in a movie at the ArcLight, walk around Rodeo Drive, and enjoy the beach at both Venice and Malibu. We would go to the Huntington Library and the Getty Museum. And we would spend a day at Disneyland and enjoy the magic that place has for kids of all ages. Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
My Mom and Dad have always been my greatest supporters and cheerleaders, along with my three siblings, Gozie, Ebele and Nche. Since I started leading GEANCO full-time in 2007, I have worked closely with my dad. I always loved my dad, but I didn’t know how much I liked him until we started working together. While such a scenario can be a nightmare for many families, it has been a joy for me. Together, we have hosted fundraising events around the country, led medical missions to Nigeria, met with government officials, recruited board members and supporters over coffee, had long lunches with key donors, and kept each other inspired and encouraged on long flights and bumpy bus rides through rural villages. I cherish all of that, and so much more. I am also forever indebted to my high school football, Dave Mattio. He had two maxims that became the north stars for my life. First, he implored me to “bring an energy” to absolutely everything I did. Never do anything without passion or enthusiasm. If something is worth your time and effort, then give your full commitment. Be fully present. Second, he demanded that we “take ownership”. An owner shows up early and stays late. An owner cares deeply about the minor details, since no detail is actually minor in his eyes. An owner leads and inspires by what he says and what he does. If I have had any success at all in leading GEANCO, I’d like to think that it is because I take ownership and bring an energy to this work every single day. Finally, I want to thank each and every single person who donates to GEANCO. Our donors are my fuel, my inspiration, my great joy. They allow me to partner with them to save and transform so many lives in Africa. There is no greater gift then that.
Other: Meet Afam Onyema, the man responsible for helping to change lives in Nigeria – https://uk.style.yahoo.com/afam-onyema-geanco-charity-nigeria-140015865.html GEANCO’s Unbreakable Joy Virtual Gala: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tk_197VeFM4 Afam Onyema’s KTLA television interview – 9/14/15 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkwWQkLEKDA&t=
Credit images to “The GEANCO Foundation”