The Nigerian-American Entrepreneurs Shaping the Future of Two Continents
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Nigerian-Americans are using the wealth of Silicon Valley to solve Africa’s most pressing problems.
By Molly Fosco
This story has been updated. It was originally published in June 2018.
On the familiar black-box stage in front of a red velvet curtain, Stephen Ozoigbo begins his TEDx Talk with a story about his Nigerian roots, and ends with this climax: He had left Nigeria in troubled times, moving to the U.S. But a few years ago, Ozoigbo returned. He’s now a “re-pat,” his faith in Nigeria and the African continent renewed by a young generation driving a tech revolution.
Ozoigbo, 38, is the CEO of the Silicon Valley–based African Technology Foundation (ATF), offering mentorship and resource access to African entrepreneurs, in addition to running a venture fund. He’s part of a growing band of Nigerian-Americans who are founding tech companies, launching accelerator programs and running digital media organizations across the U.S., often with a sharp focus on solving problems and celebrating the achievements of Africa and its most populous country.
Traditionally, Nigerian immigrants to America laid out medicine, law and engineering as the three career options for their children. These professions provide stability, prestige and money — the most critical assets most first-generation immigrants seek. But exposed to a wider range of respected professions in the U.S., Nigerian-Americans are increasingly finding success in entrepreneurship.
They’re creating impact and solving the billion problems of a billion-population economy.
Stephen Ozoigbo, Nigerian-American founder and investor
While there’s no comprehensive ethnicity-based database on tech founders, there are more than 400 Nigerian-origin entrepreneurs in the U.S. today, compared to about 100 a decade back, says Ozoigbo. And of the first- and second-generation African-origin founders and venture capitalists in the U.S., about three quarters are of Nigerian ethnicity, estimates Steven Ferri of Voice of America’s Africa division, who in 2018 produced the documentary Beyond the Unicorn, highlighting the growth of Silicon Valley’s African entrepreneurs. But the motivation for many of them extends beyond fame and profit to also impacting change 8,000 miles away in Africa.
Some focus on Africa’s often-ignored soft power: culture. Abiola Oke — who grew up in Nigeria and then the Bronx, New York — is the CEO of OkayAfrica, a media firm connecting a global audience to African culture. Others are working with a young generation of African creators to solve problems that could unleash the continent’s economic potential while catalyzing social shifts too. New York banker Anie Akpe’s 6-year-old startup, African Women in Technology (AWIT), hosts seminars and mentorship programs teaching African women how to become tech-industry leaders. In 2013, Akpe, 49, launched Innov8tiv Magazine to feature success stories of the African diaspora.
And Ozoigbo — now an American citizen — launched ATF in 2014 to harness the raw entrepreneurial talent he saw in Nigeria, use it to create jobs and to solve some of the country’s biggest challenges. Nigeria has struggled to develop a reliable payment infrastructure for decades. ATF has supported a program that mentored Paystack and Flutterwave, both focused on simplifying payments between Africa and the rest of the world, and changing the way small businesses transact in Nigeria.
“These entrepreneurs aren’t just solving technology problems,” Ozoigbo says of the Nigerian innovators he works with. “They’re creating impact and solving the billion problems of a billion-population economy.”
At its core, what these Nigerian-American founders, mentors and investors are doing is what smart investing is all about: identifying problems, finding those with effective and disruptive solutions, testing them and, once convinced, backing them. But they don’t hide that additional connect to the land they — or their parents — left.
Nigerian-born Iyin Aboyeji launched San Francisco–headquartered Flutterwave in 2016 when he realized he couldn’t receive payments in the U.S. from Africa-based clients with local bank accounts. He saw “a real opportunity to create a new wave of prosperity,” Aboyeji says.
Ozoigbo grew up in Nigeria, emigrated to the U.S. and found his way to a banking career. For a while, he managed a portfolio of companies from Barcelona and was responsible for bringing Catalonian startups to Silicon Valley. But his African roots were always calling. So he took what he was doing in Europe and applied it to Africa.
He connects companies and founders with potential directly to Silicon Valley investors through ATF’s VenturePATH program. Ozoigbo often needs to prep African founders for American tech culture. “Cross-cultural mistakes happen,” he says. There’s a common misnomer that money is up for grabs here in Silicon Valley, but “you need to come here and struggle with the locals,” Ozoigbo says, to secure venture capital funding.
Teaching confidence and networking skills is critical to the mission of Akpe’s AWIT too. Born in Calabar, Nigeria, Akpe came to the U.S. at age 10, and is today vice president of mortgages at Municipal Credit Union in New York. But Akpe wants more. Innov8tiv magazine and AWIT help her influence change by showing young women they can succeed in Africa’s male-dominated culture. “I want to create programs that will get women interested in tech but also build up their self-esteem,” says Akpe.
Oke, 38, also began his career in banking, but resigned the day the opportunity to lead OkayAfrica came along. “There is no shortage of motivated, young African creators,” he says. “We want a seat at the table.”
For Black founders, building a dream company isn’t easy, given America’s systemic racism. The Kauffman Foundation found in 2016 that Black entrepreneurs in America are three times likelier than whites to have their earnings negatively impacted because of limited access to capital. And women of color get a measly 0.2 percent of all venture funding, according to a First Round Capital study. Launching an app in Nigeria can also prove a legal and logistical nightmare. Some VCs invest only in U.S.-based firms, forcing Nigerian founders to set up corporations in Delaware, which has America’s most flexible business laws. Without these details in place, companies can’t make the money important for most Nigerian-Americans, not just as a status symbol, but for supporting their community. “Given the challenges of being a Black person in the world, you’re never far removed from family or friends that need help,” says Oke.
But the Nigerian-American community hasn’t gotten where it has without staring down challenges. They’re no longer waiting for Western technology to filter through to Africa — they’re leading Africa’s technology revolution by addressing problems specific to the continent. And they’re utilizing the wealth of Silicon Valley to do it.