Afam Onyema was born in Chicago, IL in 1979. He graduated from Harvard University (cum laude) and Stanford Law School. While in law school, Afam co-founded the GEANCO Foundation. After graduating from law school in 2007, Afam declined multiple lucrative law firm offers in order to lead GEANCO full-time as its CEO.
GEANCO’s mission is to save and transform lives in Nigeria. The Foundation leads complex surgical missions to Nigeria, runs an innovative program to fight anemia, and builds rural maternity centers where poor, vulnerable pregnant women deliver healthy babies. Through its David Oyelowo Leadership Scholarship for Girls, GEANCO provides tuition, medical care, and social & psychological support to young female victims of terrorism and gender inequality in Nigeria.
GEANCO counts among its supporters 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.
Afam has 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, Afam was named one of the Top Ten Most Influential Africans in the Diaspora.
Where did the idea for The GEANCO Foundation come from?
When my father attended a prestigious British boarding school in Nigeria in the 1950s, he served as a student assistant to a British missionary doctor who was caring for his school and the surrounding community. She instilled in him a passion for medicine and a strong desire to care for his people through improving their health and tending to their medical needs. As a young man, he made a promise to that doctor (who only just passed away in 2020) that he would bring better healthcare to his homeland — that he would save lives there. In the 1970s, he left for the United States with my mother with that promise still warm and alive in his heart.
For decades, he dreamed of returning to Nigeria to help those who still suffer terribly there. As my siblings and I grew up, he told us often about his dream and the promise he made to that missionary doctor.
I graduated cum laude from Harvard in 2001 and worked in Chicago for a top public relations firm. I then spent a year working in the marketing department of Mayer Brown LLP, a leading international law firm, after which I entered Stanford Law School. Throughout this time, my father’s dream remained a spark within me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. While at Stanford, I was inspired to help my father formally create a nonprofit, The GEANCO Foundation, as a vehicle through which to see his dream made real. After graduating in 2007, I turned down multiple, incredibly lucrative corporate law firm offers in order to lead GEANCO full-time.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Like many nonprofit leaders, I do not have a “typical” day, and I am deeply grateful for that. Variety keeps life interesting, dynamic, and satisfying challenging. One day could find me leading a medical mission in southeast Nigeria, ensuring our team has all they need to successfully replace hips and knees in our local host hospital. Another day could find me on the movie set of one of our celebrity supporters, building rapport with him between takes and discussing our plans for GEANCO over lunch in his trailer. Yet another day could find me in the spacious corner office of a Manhattan skyscraper, sipping coffee with one of our major donors as I make a request for funding another maternal health clinic. I can take pictures and do interviews on the red carpet at our Hollywood gala on a Thursday, and then two weeks later sit with a group of our scholarship girls in Nigeria to discuss their professional dreams and aspirations. Through all of these varied days, I stay productive by trying as much to stay on schedule and keep my focus on the individuals I am with and the work I am doing.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Once I have an idea related to my nonprofit, I devote serious thought to who is best positioned and most motivated to help me advance that idea. I then reach out to them (whether I actually know them or not) and do everything I can to inspire them to partner with me take that idea from thought to finish. I rely heavily on my network of supporters, donors, volunteers, and family members to execute GEANCO’s mission to save and transform lives.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I am excited and encouraged by how more serious attention is being paid to addressing and eliminating socioeconomic and racial inequality. I appreciate how the younger generations in particular are pushing companies and businesses to do more than simply squeeze out additional profits, but to also be responsible corporate citizens who actively engage in prosocial activity. In our own work, I am continually inspired by how many people with no direct connections to Africa or Nigeria nonetheless are passionately committed to partnering with us to bring health and hope to that region of the world.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I am consistent, and I am intentional. I always try to follow through on my commitments. I hate flaking and ghosting. My family, friends and donors can be certain that I will always be there. I will always try to show up, and that gives them the confidence to support GEANCO and our work in Nigeria because they know that I am fully committed to that work – and to them – heart and soul.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t worry so much, young fella. Don’t overthink everything and beat yourself up over things that actually won’t matter that much in the long run. Things are going to work out just fine. Enjoy the journey and don’t stress out over the fact that you can’t fully control it.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
The White Sox are the best team in baseball, and more importantly, the best team in Chicago.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I try to serve. Always. In whatever situation and circumstance I find myself in, I consider how best I can serve in it. How can I be of service to GEANCO’s generous donors, and how I can serve those whom I want to join up as supporters? How can I serve our scholarship girls and our medical mission team members who sacrifice so much to travel to Nigeria to replace broken hips and knees or fix hernias and remove gallbladders?
I really do try to humble myself and carry myself as a servant, even if I am technically in charge of a GEANCO staff meeting or if I am overseeing a vendor or volunteer and directing them on what needs to be done.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Be Kind. Kindness is a superpower, and while most people would not consider it important or even relevant to business or nonprofit success, I consider it absolutely critical. In every situation, in every interaction, ask yourself, “What is the kind thing to do here?” Then try your best do it. Our world is starving for kindness. Let kindness break out and spread like wildfire through this angry, brittle world, and watch it change so radically and so joyfully that we will barely recognize it — and ourselves. Be kind, and witness how customers, donors, associates, partners, everyone (!) respond positively to that kindness and act in harmony with it.
I know for a fact that the root of my success in growing GEANCO – expanding our programs in Nigeria and the depth and quality of our donor base here in the US and around the world – stems from how hard I endeavor to be kind to everyone I meet.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I would say this is more a miscalculation than a failure, but when I first started leading GEANCO, I seriously thought I was going to recruit an all-star board of directors, raise $10 million, and save half of Nigeria — all in less than one year! I didn’t fully comprehend how staggeringly difficult it is to create a nonprofit from scratch and raise significant funding for projects in Nigeria, a country scarred with a horrible reputation for corruption, dysfunction, and danger.
I overcame this critical initial miscalculation by setting smaller, more achievable goals and then building support person by person, event by event, meeting by meeting. I realized I did not have to save Nigeria before dinnertime. I just needed to send one more email, arrive early to that coffee meeting with that one donor, recruit one more surgeon for our medical mission, etc.
Looking back now, I chuckle at my naivety and embrace the fact that beginning my work with an unrealistic dose of optimism was much better than starting that journey with jaded pessimism — or never starting it at all.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
For nonprofits looking to raise more money, I suggest they work hard to establish and nurture strong, genuine relationships with celebrities. Working with celebrity supporters is a terrific way to bring more awareness and funding to your organization in a variety of ways – raffling or auctioning meet-and-greets, set visits and movie premiere experiences, asking them record video endorsements, keynote in-person events, and/or visit your work in person. There are so many interesting and dynamic ways to incorporate talent into a charity’s development and marketing efforts.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I purchased and shipped special treats to my sister in New York in celebration of her 40th birthday. I could not be with her in person, so the treats and a private workout session at her favorite studio that I paid for helped her feel extra special on that milestone birthday.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
At no cost, Salesforce for Nonprofits allows me to record and track donor information in a detailed, comprehensive manner. I use Salesforce and our online management system (Flipcause) to plan, execute and evaluate our fundraising and communications strategy, as well as our events and peer-to-peer fundraising initiatives.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
“Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
This book provides a stunning example of perseverance, determination, grit, and servant leadership. It is vividly written, with rich, illuminating detail and insight exploding from every page. Leaders of every business, nonprofit, and government should strive to emulate Abraham Lincoln’s capacity for self-awareness, forgiveness, mental dexterity, and emotional intelligence.
What is your favorite quote?
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 wisdom: “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, magic even, in that small germination from which mighty forests grow; that quiet spark from which blazing fires begin. For in those small beginnings lie all the propulsive power necessary for you to grow and attract more support, more funding, more partners, more of everything you need to accomplish your audacious, heart-warming goals.
- 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.
- Be Kind. Kindness is a superpower, and while most people would not consider it important or even relevant to business or nonprofit success, I consider it absolutely critical.
- I try to serve. Always. In whatever situation and circumstance I find myself in, I consider how best I can serve in it.
- I am continually inspired by how many people with no direct connections to Africa or Nigeria are nonetheless passionately committed to partnering with us to bring health and hope to that region of the world.
- Looking back now, I can chuckle at my naivety and embrace the fact that beginning my work with an unrealistic dose of optimism was much better than starting that journey with jaded pessimism — or never starting it at all.