Young, visionary, and extremely brilliant, IT professional, Ikenna Ekeh, had great dreams for Nigeria, the land of his birth, to contribute his quota towards national development. He gained admission into a prestigious university shortly after his secondary education to study engineering and desired to use his STEM skills to develop the most populous nation in Africa, which has immense potential.
This tragically was not to be as the hydra-headed monster of the infamous ASUU strike in his first year made his parents ship him out to the United States to continue his tertiary education.
He studied Electrical Engineering at the Pennsylvania State University and did a Master’s degree in computer science & engineering at the University of Washington, as well as followed it up with an MBA at the prestigious Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvania.
His first culture shock in the US fondly known as Uncle Sam occurred when he lived in Michigan. In his words: “I had read about snow and cold winters but never experienced both. During my stay in Michigan, it got so cold that lake surfaces were frozen, and people were told when it was safe to walk on them. People built houses and other structures with snow, and tourists would visit to admire the structures. I also witnessed half-naked people quickly alternating between the cold outdoors and the hot saunas just for fun.
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“Another shock was the longer days during the summer and shorter days during the winter. The sun will set around 9 pm in the middle of summer and 5 pm in the middle of winter. You also have daylight savings where time gets adjusted twice a year with people either gaining or losing an hour”.
After graduating with flying colours, his first job was with Microsoft, where he commenced as a software engineering intern and was privileged to have met its co-founder and founding CEO as well as former world’s richest man, Bill Gates in his private residence, was a mind-blowing moment for him. He was later to take up several full-time service and program management roles there and the company made him exposed to several opportunities that technology has to offer and for its positive use as a tool to positively change the world.
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Hunger for more knowledge
The thirst for more education made him leave the world’s largest software maker headquartered in Seattle, Washington after a meritorious close to a nine-year stay there and move to the Ivy-League University of Wharton Business School for an MBA. He did an internship for four months at the world’s largest search engine company – Google in its advertising division where he still has fond memories as the Silicon Valley Company encouraged its employees to spend about 20% of their time working on other initiatives within the company.
He described the American kind of education in the following words: “The educational system is a good mix of practical application and theoretical knowledge. Grades can be split where 55% is practical and the rest is theoretical. Also, a good chunk could be assigned to team work and another to class participation so I had to talk for better grades. Furthermore, the system encourages students to intern with companies while in school to gain work experience. It made it easy for me to transition to the corporate world after graduation.”
The entrepreneurship bug
After his MBA, he caught the entrepreneurship bug, which is the foundation of the prosperity of the United States where he has been resident for over two decades now. He founded a wedding planning company known as Iludio to solve the challenges of wedding planning in Nigeria – the largest wedding planning market on the African Continent. He went more to reveal why he set up the firm when he said: “I took that plunge right after business school for a few years to help solve problems related to wedding planning in Nigeria. The problems include vendor discoverability, price discrimination, and last-minute cancellation. The focus was to provide a marketplace for couples to find vendors on Iludio. The challenge with a two-sided marketplace is creating sizable vendor listings for couples to discover and high pre-existing site traffic for vendors to come on board. Furthermore, many vendors were unresponsive and those that were responsive did not want to receive reviews, provide prices, or pay for listings. We did provide free listings to attract vendors. Eventually, we pivoted to a gift registry, that is, a wish list that a bride or groom creates to get the right gifts. Family and friends visit the couple’s registry to purchase gifts or contribute to cash funds. The gift registry expanded to include baby showers, birthdays, and anniversaries in Nigeria”.
He currently works for Amazon as a senior technical product manager where he provides technology solutions to its internal finance teams. He said in his current role, he is constantly evolving, staying relevant, and staying abreast of the latest technological trends by voraciously reading about them so as to deliver top-notch services to his employers.
Still connected to home
Despite being abroad for a long time, he hasn’t forgotten his roots and is still greatly connected to Nigeria, which still has a special place in his heart. He said: “I am a proud Nigerian. Nigeria is a country with great people, food, entertainment, and culture. The entertainment industry continues to create a pleasant image for the country. Many people around the world love afrobeat and Nollywood movies. Nigeria continues to excel in sports. For instance, the track and field team had an impressive showing at the 2022 track and field championship.
“Another area to be excited about is the tech space, where a lot is happening, particularly for fintech. It will be great to see more support for startups and businesses from the government. This will encourage economic growth and more investments from foreign companies.
“On a different note, Nigeria continues to suffer from brain drain with the high migration of talented people. I look forward to Nigerian leaders creating more opportunities for the youth so that people can find good-paying jobs and excel. It will also encourage people outside the country to return and help develop the country. Many people want to return but are unable to due to poor security, infrastructure, and opportunities. I visit at least once a year to connect with family and friends, and enjoy the local food and entertainment. In my little way, I invest in the community directly and indirectly.”
Despite his success in Uncle Sam, he admits that there is a glass ceiling for racial minorities, which reinforces the age-long dark side of racism. He said: “Yes, there is a ceiling which is not obvious. A lot of minorities continue to prove themselves and break this ceiling through black excellence. You see that with Barack Obama becoming the first black president and Kamala Harris becoming the first black vice president. The same is happening in corporate America. Recently with emphasis on DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), more companies are forming programs to foster more DEI, which makes it easier to break the ceiling”.
He said that the US is truly God’s own country as it’s fondly described as it offers vast opportunities for immigrants to excel. He described it as a system that truly worked with all manner of rights, from rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of speech, and even the right to own firearms to adequately protect oneself. The taxpayers also see their money in action and medicare is great, especially in times of emergencies.
Advice to intending escapees
The current buzzword on the streets of Nigeria among its teeming youths is to relocate abroad or ‘japa’ (A Yoruba slang for escape). He has a word of advice for intending Nigerian immigrants: “My advice is to be introspective and ensure you are immigrating for the right reason. Once you have the right reason, you should work towards immigrating and avoid distractions.
“Secondly, you must understand that not everyone who moves to the US becomes successful. There are immigrants who struggle to make ends meet. With social media, people can create false images, which do not depict their current situation.
“Lastly and most importantly, you must diligently seek God and involve Him in all your plans. He will surely bless you”.