The Most Successful Ethnic Group in the U.S. May Surprise You
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you don’t know what it means to hustle … until you meet a Nigerian-American.
By Molly Fosco
This feature has been updated. It was originally published in June 2018.
At an Onyejekwe family get-together, you can’t throw a stone without hitting someone with a master’s degree. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors — every family member is highly educated and professionally successful, and many have a lucrative side gig to boot. Parents and grandparents share stories of whose kid just won an academic honor, achieved an athletic title or performed in the school play. Aunts, uncles and cousins celebrate one another’s job promotions or the new nonprofit one of them just started. To the Ohio-based Onyejekwes, this level of achievement is normal. They’re Nigerian-American — it’s just what they do.
Today, 61 percent of Nigerian-Americans over the age of 25 hold a graduate degree, compared to 32 percent for the U.S.-born population, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Among Nigerian-American professionals, 45 percent work in education services, the 2016 American Community Survey found, and many are professors at top universities. Nigerians are entering the medical field in the U.S. at an increased rate, leaving their home country to work in American hospitals, where they can earn more and work in better facilities. A growing number of Nigerian-Americans are becoming entrepreneurs and CEOs, building tech companies in the U.S. to help people back home.
It hasn’t been easy — the racist stereotypes are far from gone. In 2017, President Donald Trump reportedly said in an Oval Office discussion that Nigerians would never go back to “their huts” once they saw America. But overt racism hasn’t stopped Nigerian-Americans from creating jobs, treating patients, teaching students and contributing to local communities in their new home, all while confidently emerging as one of the country’s most succesful immigrant communities, with a median household income of $62,351, compared to $57,617 nationally, as of 2015.
Nigerian-Americans are beginning to make a mark in sports, entertainment and the culinary arts.
“I think Nigerian-Americans offer a unique, flashy style and flavor that people like,” says Chukwuemeka Onyejekwe, who goes by his rap name Mekka Don. He points to Nigerian cuisine like jollof rice that’s gaining popularity in the U.S. But more importantly, Mekka says, Nigerians bring a “connectivity and understanding of Africa” to the U.S. “Many [Americans] get their understanding of ’the motherland’ through our experiences and stories,” he adds.
The Nigerian-American journey is still relatively new compared with that of other major immigrant communities that grew in the U.S. in the 20th century. The Nigerian-American population stood at 376,000 in 2015, according to the Rockefeller Foundation–Aspen Institute. That was roughly the strength of the Indian-American community back in 1980, before it emerged as a leading light in fields ranging from economics to technology. But Nigerian-Americans are already beginning to make a dent in the national consciousness. In the case of forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, he’s helping fix hits to the brain. The 49-year-old Omalu was the first to discover and publish on chronic traumatic encephalopathy in American football players (Will Smith played him in the 2015 film Concussion). ImeIme A. Umana, the first Black woman elected president of the Harvard Law Review last year, is Nigerian-American. In 2016, Nigerian-born Pearlena Igbokwe became president of Universal Television, making her the first woman of African descent to head a major U.S. TV studio. And the community has expanded rapidly, up from just 25,000 people in 1980.
Traditionally, education has been at the heart of the community’s success. But success isn’t so easily defined within the culture anymore. Nigerian-Americans are beginning to make a mark in sports, entertainment and the culinary arts too — like Nigerian chef Tunde Wey in New Orleans, who recently made headlines for using food to highlight racial wealth inequality in America.
It was education that brought an early wave of Nigerians to the U.S. in the 1970s. After the war against Biafra separatists in the ’60s, the Nigerian government sponsored scholarships for students to pursue higher education abroad. English-speaking Nigerian students excelled at universities in the U.S. and U.K., often finding opportunities to continue their education or begin their professional career in their host country. That emphasis on education has since filtered through to their children’s generation.
Dr. Jacqueline Nwando Olayiwola was born in Columbus, Ohio, to such Nigerian immigrant parents. Her mother is a retired engineer, now a professor at Walden University; her father is a retired professor, now a strategist at a consulting firm focused on governance in Africa. “Education was always a major priority for my parents because it was their ticket out of Nigeria,” Olayiwola says. Her parents used their network of academics to get Olayiwola thinking about a career in medicine from a young age — by 11, she was going to summits for minorities interested in health care. Olayiwola was constantly busy as a kid doing homework and sports and participating in National Honor Society and biomedical research programs, but it was the norm, she says; her Nigerian roots meant it was expected of her.
Today, Olayiwola is a family physician, the chief clinical transformation officer of RubiconMD, a leading health tech company, associate clinical professor at University of California, San Francisco, instructor in family medicine at Columbia University, and an author. Her new book, Papaya Head, detailing her experience as a first-generation Nigerian-American, was published in 2018. Olayiwola’s siblings are equally successful – her older brother, Okey Onyejekwe, is also a physician, her younger brother, Mekka Don, is a lawyer turned rapper, and her sister, Sylvia Ify Onyejekwe, Esq, is the managing partner of her own New Jersey law firm.
But Olayiwola feels she needs to do more. She doesn’t want America’s gain to be Nigeria’s permanent loss.
Olayiwola and her brother, Okey, stay active in the Nigerian-American community. In 1998, they co-founded the Student Association of Nigerian Physicians in the Americas, which organizes at least two medical mission trips to Nigeria each year. Between 2000 and 2004, the siblings often flew the nearly 8,000 miles to Nigeria to perform screenings for preventable diseases. They took blood pressure, advised patients on diabetes and obesity prevention, and provided prenatal counseling in rural areas.
“I feel a tremendous sense of wanting to go back [to Nigeria] and help,” says Olayiwola.
It’s a sentiment shared by many in the Nigerian-American community. But it’s easier said than done for some of America’s most qualified professionals to leave world-class facilities and a comfortable life to return permanently to a nation that, while Africa’s largest economy, remains mired in political instability and corruption.
In the 1970s and ’80s, some foreign-educated Nigerian graduates returned home, but found political and economic instability in a postwar country. In 1966, the country’s military overthrew the regime of independent Nigeria’s first prime minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. It was the first of a series of military coups — again, later, in 1966, then in 1975, 1976, 1983, 1985 and 1993 — that were to deny the country even a semblance of democracy until 1999.
“My parents were expected to study in the U.S. or U.K. and then go back to Nigeria,” says Dr. Nnenna Kalu Makanjuola, who grew up in Nigeria and now lives in Atlanta. Her parents did return, but with few jobs available in the economic decline of the 1980s, many Nigerians did not. Within a few years of their return, Makanjuola’s parents too decided it was best to build their lives elsewhere.
Makanjuola, who has a pharmacy degree, works in public health and is the founder and editor in chief of Radiant Health Magazine, came to the U.S. when her father won a Diversity Immigrant Visa in 1995 — a program Trump wants to dismantle. Makanjuola’s father moved the family to Texas so his children could have access to better universities. Makanjuola intended to one day pursue her career in Nigeria as her parents had, but it’s too hard to leave the U.S., she says: “Many Nigerians intend to go back, but it’s impractical because there’s more opportunity here.”
As an undergraduate student in Nigeria, Jacob Olupona, now a professor of African religious traditions at Harvard Divinity School, was a well-known activist in his community. He considered a career in politics, but a mentor changed his mind. The mentor told Olupona: “Don’t go into politics because you’re too honest and don’t join the military because you’re too smart.” So Olupona headed to Boston University instead, to study the history of religions — a subject he had always found fascinating as the son of a priest. Like Olayiwola, the importance of education was instilled in him from a young age but so too was the importance of spreading knowledge. “When you educate one person, you educate the whole community,” Olupona says. That belief is what translated into his career as a teacher.
Olupona stresses that Nigerians have also achieved a lot in their country of origin. Moving to the U.S. isn’t the only route to success, he says. Still, he believes the many academic opportunities in the U.S. have benefited Nigerians. “There’s something about America and education that we need to celebrate,” he says.
Marry those American opportunities with an upbringing that emphasizes education, a drive to serve the U.S. while not forgetting their roots, and a growing penchant for success, and you have a unique cocktail that is the Nigerian-American community today.
Anyone from the Nigerian diaspora will tell you their parents gave them three career choices: doctor, lawyer or engineer. For a younger generation of Nigerian-Americans, that’s still true, but many are adding a second career, or even a third, to that trajectory.
Anie Akpe works full time as vice president of mortgages at Municipal Credit Union in New York City, but she’s also the founder of Innov8tiv magazine, African Women in Technology (an education and mentorship program) and an app called NetWorq that connects professionals. Raised in the southern port city of Calabar, she had the Nigerian hustle baked into her upbringing. “There was no such thing as ‘can’t’ in our household,” she says. Akpe’s banking career fulfilled her parent’s expectations, but she wanted to do more. Four and a half years ago, she launched Innov8tiv to highlight success stories back home in Nigeria and throughout the African continent. Through her magazine and through African Women in Technology, which offers networking events, mentorship opportunities and internships, Akpe is helping propel women into careers like hers. “Africa is male-dominated in most sectors,” she says. “If I can show young women there are ways to do things within our culture that allow them to grow, then I’ve been successful.”
Like Akpe, rapper Mekka Don took a traditional career route at first. He got a law degree from New York University and worked at a top-10 law firm, but he had always wanted to pursue music. At 25, Mekka, who is the younger brother of Jacqueline Olayiwola, and Sylvia and Okey Onyejekwe, decided to take the plunge.
Fellow attorneys ridiculed him, asking incredulously: “Who leaves a law career to become a rapper?” But his family was understanding — part of a shift in attitudes that Mekka says he increasingly sees in his parents’ generation of Nigerian-Americans. “My parents see how lucrative music can be,” he says, adding, “They also get excited when they see me on TV.”
The lawyer turned rapper has been featured on MTV and VH1, has a licensing agreement with ESPN to play his music during college football broadcasts and just released a new single, “Nip and Tuck.” He still has that law degree to fall back on and it comes in handy in his current career too. “I never need anyone to read contracts for me, so I save a ton on lawyer fees,” Mekka says.
The community’s drive to succeed sounds exhausting at times, particularly if you never feel you’ve reached the finish line. Omalu, the forensic pathologist, was recently in the news again after his independent autopsy of Sacramento youth Stephon Clark showed that the 22-year-old was repeatedly shot in the back by police officers, which conflicted with the Sacramento Police report.
But if you ask Omalu about his success, he’s quick to correct. “I’m not successful,” Omalu says, adding that he won’t consider himself so until he can “wake up one day, do absolutely nothing and there will be no consequences.” Part of Omalu’s humility is faith-based: “I was given a talent to serve,” he says. Omalu has eight degrees, has made life-changing medical discoveries and has been portrayed by a famous actor on screen, but he doesn’t revel in his accomplishments.
And what about Nigerians who come to the U.S. and don’t succeed? Wey, the activist chef, says there’s a lot of pressure to fit a certain mold when you’re Nigerian. Choosing the right career is only one part of that. “You have to be heterosexual, you have to have children, you have to have all of those degrees,” he says of the cultural expectations he was raised with. “It limits the possibilities of what Nigerians can be.”
While others agree it can be stressful at times, they say the high career bar isn’t a burden to them. “I don’t know anything else,” says Olayiwola about being raised to value education and success. Akpe feels the same. “You’re not thinking it’s hard, it’s just something you do,” she says.
Now that doctor, lawyer and engineer are no longer the only acceptable career options within the community, the path to professional achievement is rife with more possibilities than ever before. Sports, entertainment, music, the culinary arts — there are few fields Nigerian-Americans aren’t already influencing. And the negative stereotypes? Hold onto them at your own peril.
An earlier version of this story had the incorrect surname for Okey Onyejekwe.