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Meet Afam Onyema of The GEANCO Foundation

Today we’d like to introduce you to Afam Onyema.

Afam, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I was born in Chicago in 1979. My father is an OB/GYN and my mother is an Emergency Room nurse. They both emigrated from Nigeria to the US in the mid-70s to build a family and provide a brighter future for their four children. However, my father always dreamed of going back to Nigeria one day to help those who were still suffering terribly there. He told us about this dream constantly as we were growing up in the Chicago area.

I graduated cum laude from Harvard University and played on the 1997 Ivy League Championship-winning football team. After graduation, I worked for two years in the Chicago office of Hill & Knowlton, Inc., an elite global public relations firm, and then spent one year working in the marketing department of Mayer Brown LLP, a leading international law firm. I then entered Stanford Law School in 2004.

Throughout this time, my father’s dream remained a spark inside of me – something I could not stop thinking about. While in law school, I was inspired to help my father formally created a nonprofit organization as a vehicle for seeing his dream made real. After graduating from Stanford Law School, I turned down multiple, incredibly lucrative corporate law firm job offers in order to lead our nonprofit full-time.

I moved to LA in the Fall of 2007, and since then, I have served as co-Founder and CEO of the GEANCO Foundation (www.geanco.org). Our mission is to save and transform lives in Nigeria.

My work with GEANCO has been profiled and/or interviewed by National Public Radio, US News & World Report, Forbes.com, Newsweek, Hollywood Reporter, Huffington Post, American Lawyer, NBC News, Daily Journal (Los Angeles), Blackgivesback.com, JET Magazine, Harvard Magazine, Stanford Magazine, Stanford Lawyer and Ebony.

I have presented GEANCO’s work at TedX Ashburn, Harvard Law School, Stanford University’s Center for African Studies, Stanford Law School, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, UCLA Graduate School of Business, Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

We have secured support for GEANCO from, among many others, Oprah Winfrey, Daniel Craig, Chris Rock, Oscar winners Charlize Theron and Forest Whitaker, Oscar nominees Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Djimon Hounsou, Jimmy Kimmel, Chris Rock, David Oyelowo, Whoopi Goldberg, Dr. Oz, civil rights legend Rev. Jesse Jackson, NFL Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott, Warren Moon, Richard Dent, Fox Sports personality Marcellus Wiley, members of the Forbes 400 List of Richest Americans, United Airlines, Walt Disney Studios, Google, Madison Wells Media, Fox Studios, Creative Artists Agency (CAA), United Talent Artists (UTA) and International Creative Management (ICM Partners).

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
It has most definitely has not been a smooth road! I had no experience with fundraising before I created GEANCO. None. I also had no experience building and leading an organization from the ground up. Asking for money and support and receiving countless rejections was deflating. Putting my trust in people who violated or abused that trust was painful. And we are focused on Nigeria, a complex, chaotic, frustrating country where nothing seems to work the way it should.

At various points along my GEANCO journey, I struggled with how, where and from whom to seek support. I grew as a leader mostly by making a ton of mistakes and trying my level best to learn from them. When you run a small charity, you learn quite quickly that you have no real power except the power to persuade and inspire. I never lost my resolve to inspire and persuade for the benefit of those suffering in Nigeria. I never lost my desire to make a true, lasting positive impact in my parents’ homeland.

We’d love to hear more about your organization.
The GEANCO Foundation (www.geanco.org) saves and transforms lives in Africa. We organize surgical missions to Nigeria. We run an innovative program to fight anemia and help vulnerable pregnant women safely deliver healthy babies. We are the only organization in Nigeria to screen for anemia using advanced, noninvasive handheld devices. We are also the only organization in Nigeria to conduct regular complex joint replacement surgical missions, as well as laparoscopic, minimally invasive missions.

We also donate computers, books, medicine and athletic facilities to schools in the country. Through our David Oyelowo Leadership Scholarship for Girls, we provide full tuition, medical care, and social & psychological support to young female victims of terrorism and gender inequality in Nigeria.

We proudly count among our supporters Oprah Winfrey, Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Oyelowo, Chris Rock, Dr. Oz, Benedict Cumberbatch, Charlize Theron, Jimmy Kimmel, Brad Pitt, Daniel Craig, Forest Whitaker, Yvonne Orji, Uzo Aduba, The Oscars, Disney, CAA, Fox Studios, Google, and NFL Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott, Warren Moon and Richard Dent.

What were you like growing up?
In terms of my interests, I definitely was – and remain – an omnivore. I played almost every sport growing up (football, basketball, baseball, volleyball, tennis, swimming, gymnastics). But I also read every book I could get my hands on, cover-to-cover. I followed politics, pop culture, sports. My father took us to plays and musicals growing up, and they remain a passion of mine to this very day. I am equally happy eating a hot dog at a Dodgers game and sitting in a dark theater watching a Shakespeare play.

Personality-wise, I was and am deeply curious about everything, especially other people. I learning their stories, trying to discover what lies at their core – their motivations, passions, fears, dreams.

I find curiosity is my secret weapon in my job leading GEANCO. If I have had any success in funding our work in Nigeria, it is because I am genuinely interested in our donors and supporters, and I strive to make that interest as obvious as possible. I abhor transactional relationships. I think my family and friends, along with GEANCO’s donors and partners, appreciate and respond warmly to that.

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Credit: The GEANCO Foundation

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