Empowering Immigrant Women to Excel in Leadership with Chinwe Esimai
Hello and welcome back, beautiful lady. I want to admit something. I already have tears in my eyes around this interview and it’s bringing up the emotions of how proud I feel about this woman and how thankful I am that I now get to call her a colleague, friend and guest of the show.
The beautiful Miss Chinwe Esimai is here today. She is an award-winning lawyer, trailblazing corporate executive writer and speaker who is seriously passionate about inspiring generations of women leaders. She is the managing director and chief anti-bribery officer at CitiGroup, which is a title that no one else has held in the bank’s history. She spent a combined five years at Goldman Sachs in various regulatory risk management roles. What you need to know is she is so much more than that and I just have a list of amazing things that she’s up to. The Nigerian Lawyers Association named Chinwe Trailblazer of the Year and she is the recipient of the Face-to-Face Africa Corporate Leadership Award. In 2020, Leading Ladies Africa named her one of 100 Most Inspiring Women and Tropics Magazine named her one of the Most Powerful Africans shaping the future of Africa.
She is a passionate philanthropist. She’s Chair of the Board of Harambee USA Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting education and sustainable development in sub Saharan Africa and supports a number of other charitable causes. Chinwe’s leadership insights had been featured on her blog and in leading publications around the world, including Forbes, Thrive Global Black Enterprise, Real Business UK. And that article is amazing. You definitely want to check that one out. Business Intelligence Middle East, and Knowledge at Wharton. And of course now on, She’s Talking Back.
Chinwe obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from City College of New York and a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School. She currently lives in New Jersey with her husband and three children. Now that sounds amazing, but what is freaking awesome is this interview. So without further adieu, let’s get started.
You totally know it, you know I’m going to pause and tease out some of the beautiful lessons and insights from Chinwe and this is a golden interview. It’s going to go down as one of the top episodes. I have no doubt about that. This is no doubt about leadership, but it’s about going inside first and when you’re able to tap into that inner knowing, that inner groundedness, that foundation within you, how you are able to then on the outside come from a place of focus and definitely heart. What I love is Chinwe opens our conversation talking about the fact that leadership is always relevant, but most of all right now, at this moment in time, it is more relevant than ever, especially those who are leading from the inside out.
We talk about mentorship quite a bit and I think you’re going to be surprised by her very effective strategy that she implemented early on in her career that has made all the difference. She talks about formal and informal mentors, too. We dig into and talk about her story around being an immigrant and how that has impacted her and her legacy. She doesn’t say the word legacy in this interview that I recall, but this is definitely the work she was meant to do and the legacy she’s meant to leave here this time around. But I think there’s two things and I’ll give you one and then we’ll save the other piece as we’re wrapping up today. But the ultimate quote for me out of this interview is she says something, and I think I have this 99.9% cracked.
She says, “As I grow the people around me benefit.” That is one of her leadership philosophies. And I couldn’t agree more. Of course we talk about leading high performers. We talk about learning to appreciate the low points because this has not been an easy ride for her. We all have our ups and downs and we’d talk about that too. And then hang on to the end because I don’t know if you’ll tease it out of the interview, but what I was able to tease out after listening a couple of times was a very specific step-by-step on how to navigate yourself when you are in a place of self-doubt, when you are in a place of questioning what is going on. Chinwe lays out whether she knows it or not, a very step-by-step process she brings herself through. And I want to tease that out and give it to you before we say farewell today. So stay tuned for that after the interview. I won’t delay any longer. Here is the beautiful Miss Chinwe Esimai.
Well, what’s on the top of your mind? Most of all right now.
So I think top of mind for as it is for a lot of people is navigating the uncertainty and the circumstances that we’re dealing with right now and as I think one of the things that really resonated for me was the fact that leadership is always relevant. How, who we are and who we’re bringing into the various circumstances of our lives has always been relevant. And I think at a time like this, it’s completely relevant.
What’s also present for me is not to be in reaction. I’ll say that that was one of the first things that I think was coming from within because it was almost as though a lot of people jumped into action right after this happened. And then thought we should be doing X. And then there was a lot of noise, right? And for me in the very beginning, and I also did have several priorities that were already in the works that I had to just stay focused on, stay on plan. But for me it was very important to go inward first and to say, what am I being called to do today, who am I called to be? And that I think always has to be the first question, more so than what’s everyone’s doing and what’s the latest news. It has to be who am I called to be and Who am I being? And so I think those have always been important. And I think more so today than ever is the importance of staying focused. Because I think we always have control of our focus and there are a lot of things calling us for attention and calling us to act. But we have to ensure that we’re acting from a place that’s a line from a place that’s really true to who we are and who we want to be in the world.
Yeah. And I find when you make that space for being the focus comes so much more naturally. You don’t have to push. You don’t have to assess.
Yes. Because I think a lot of times we find ourselves really overwhelmed with information, overwhelmed at options. But when you come from a place of focus, you do get a lot of opportunities and there’s a lot that comes up, but at least you’re clear on who you are.
Yeah. And coming from a place with that strong foundation is so much more powerful to put out into the world and more effective. How’d you become so wise, beautiful lady. Where did this come from?
First of all, I love the word wise. I was actually chatting with a friend recently about what a great word it is and maybe some of us come to love it more, you know, in our forties. But I will definitely say that, over the years, I’ve have been more focused on just learning, being a student of life, being a student of myself. Because one of the lessons that I also learned is we tell ourselves stories and we also lie to ourselves, not intentionally, but we ignore things. And so I would say in recent years I’ve been really focused on growing as a leader and I’ve found out that growth is one of my core values. I just really do love to grow. And also understanding that as I grow people around me benefit, right? So as I focused on becoming a better manager, a better leader, my team benefits, my family benefits, everyone benefits. So for me, that’s been really huge. And so it’s been a collection in terms of gathering wisdom and just really understanding who I am as a person and then who I want to be.
So what I hear you saying is your approach to leadership comes from the inside out.
Always. Yes. Always.
I couldn’t agree more. Yes.
Because even in my professional career, that was a big challenge that I had was figuring out, you know, I want to be successful. And I think a lot of women who listen to your podcast want to be successful either as entrepreneurs, as a women in various industries. And for me early on, the challenge was figuring out how to do that authentically and figuring out how to do that in a way that was impactful. And so, and a real big challenge for me was finding mentors that I resonated with. So I often found that most of the women were either so amazing that I thought, Oh my gosh, I could never be like her, or they really turned me off and I thought, I never want to be like her. So it was these extremes.
And so as I started to go inward and explore what am I interested in, what am I passionate about? What am I great at, what do I enjoy doing? And then coming from that place to then create the opportunities don’t always come right after you come to the realization and determine, Hey, I want some focus on this. But just having that honest conversation with ourselves puts us on a path where we can then determine what we want to do and how we want to spend the majority of our time. And so I could just use this as an example, the anti-bribery space that I’m in. So starting out of law school, I worked at a law firm and I did so many different things. The typical corporate associate life, long hours, all of it. And a lot of it was very exciting and I learned a lot. But there was a point in my career, maybe about five years out of law school, where I started to think, is this really what I did? All of that for, so coming from Nigeria, working hard in college, working part time, long hours of studying in law school. I kept thinking this had better not be it, it’s because I don’t like where this is, right?
And so I started reflecting on, what am I great at, what do I enjoy doing and what are the things that I believe I could do that could have an impact? So that’s how I determined that I wanted to work in the anti-bribery space. And as I rewind and I think about making that decision, all I knew was I have an interest in this space. I could possibly bring value because I’m an attorney and I’m trained to look at regulations and look at laws and rules and apply them.
And I grew up in Nigeria and so this is an area that I’m interested in passionate about in terms of making a difference in the world. And I could probably bring value. That’s all I knew. It wasn’t like, Oh, this is it and this is what my future would look like 10 years from this decision. It was just, I’m interested, I think I could probably bring value. I want to explore this. I know enough to know I want to explore it. And then as the road has taken me and as I’ve stayed committed to that, I think it’s actually yielded some pretty incredible results in my career and in my life.
And that’s the key because a lot of us are especially, and tell me if you disagree, but if you’re trained in that corporate system, it almost trains you to see whatever the next step is. Like whatever’s been laid out as a path before you, whether it was planned or not. So it’s very difficult to kind of go, Oh, what, what would I like to do and how could I create that for myself within this system?
That’s exactly right. So I think for lawyers, a lot of times the defined path is you go to a large law firm and then you work until you make partner. And then from there you can, I don’t know, I think a lot of people, that’s pretty much the way it’s laid out. And for me, I had from an early stage in my career, this desire for, I want it to be fulfilling. So I tried out a few different things so I did not stay on that straight path that most people tend to take. And so that’s how I was able to experiment. And to your point, take that step back and say, what do I want to do? How would I create this if I had a choice.
Yeah. So just going back to you mentioning about mentors and I feel like I remember they’ve played a big role in your journey. But you kind of left us hanging. You said there were these women that was like, no way. I don’t want to be like them. And these other women who are like, Oh my God, they’re way too good for me. They would never want to mentor me. What happened? Like, what ended up happening?
So along the way I did, I have some amazing female mentors. I did find some, but I will tell you one of the most effective strategies that I implemented early on was leveraging male mentors. So there are a lot of men yes. And till today a lot of them I’m still friends with, and we work together, we partner and stuff. Part of the reason for that, and I’ll give you an example. So I want to say maybe about seven years out of law school and so probably mid-level professional and there was a mentoring program. So I’m a big fan of formal and informal mentoring structures. So I advise people who are in corporations to take advantage of formal mentoring programs, but also to seek out informal mentoring. I develop mentoring relationships with women that just met in the bathroom and we’re talking about lipstick and next thing you know, she’s a mentor or vice versa.
So I’m a big fan of organic relationships and thinking broadly about sources. So we had a formal mentoring program at the time and the human resources person that was coordinating it said, just so you know, X women who are on the executive team, they’re not taking any more mentees because they’re too busy. They just don’t have time for anymore mentees because they’re overloaded. They have tons of mentees, they can’t do it anymore. And I said, Oh no, I actually want a male mentee. I want someone else. And they were shocked and the person that I requested? He was such an introvert, people were scared of him. He never spoke to anyone, but he was an extremely effective individual in the organization, very senior, very effective. Actually, I emailed him this week cause he had some positive news and I emailed him to congratulate him. So we’re still in touch. But I also remember when I requested him, I think he probably was really surprised thinking, who’s this woman and why is she requesting and what’s wrong with her? Why would she wan?
And so we had a great conversation. We had regular meetings and that was through a formal structure because I also wasn’t sure that I could just approach him and say, Hey, mentor me. Cause again, he wasn’t the most extroverted individual. And so, and we had a great relationship. He was very supportive. And so I recommend to women to take advantage of formal mentoring opportunities but also people who are interested in their development. So one of the male mentors that I have, I think we got connected on an initiative that was happening at the bank. This was at a different bank that I worked at. And from that we just organically developed a relationship and we meet regularly. And one of the things I love about him is he has a very direct style. He will cut to the chase and tell you exactly as it is. And so he’s been one of the most powerful influences in my career. And I also remember a time when I had an opportunity to take on a big role and he had believed for a long time that I should be in a leadership role in that capacity. And I remember thinking I wasn’t ready. No, the lies and the stories we tell ourselves, I’m not ready. And he said to me, what you don’t know, you will figure out. And for me that was one of the most mind-blowing and transforming pieces of advice that I’ve ever received. And I take that with me just knowing that, and by the way, that opportunity, maybe it was scary as I thought it would be. Actually, probably even more scary.
Let’s back up a couple and tell. Tell everybody who’s listening. What happened? What’s the opportunity?
It was actually the role that I have now Citi and when my manager who had hired me left after four months. Okay. And so Citi of course, it’s very different from Goldman Sachs. Goldman is this huge bank and, sorry Citi is in over 160 countries. We have physical presence in a hundred. Goldman is much smaller. It’s about a third in terms of physical presence. And so when I first came to Citi, I remember thinking, wow, it’s so much bigger. The culture is different. We have a larger consumer business. Goldman is now getting into consumer, but at the time city, just if you think about it in the U.S alone, right? And overseas we have a very strong presence. So though the bank culture’s size and the work was very different.
And so when my boss left four months into me being at Citi, I thought, Oh my gosh, there’s no way that I could take on this role. So I didn’t even think of myself as taking on her role. And actually in fact, we were recruiting for her replacements right after she left. And that was when one of my mentors said to me that I could do it. And actually he believed I should been doing it in my prior bank. And, so for me that was really excellent advice because it reminded me, by the way, I had years of experience working in the compliance setting. I have experience as an attorney. I taught law, I taught anti-bribery, so I had a depth of knowledge in this space already, but I didn’t think I was ready to take it on.
I thought, well, if my manager had stuck around for another three years and I had time to watch her and learn from her, then maybe I would have been ready. But she left four months into my role at the bank. And so as I said, it has been a very challenging, very interesting, very exciting space to be in. But at the same time, it’s been this incredible opportunity to realize my potential to step into even more things that I wanted to in the world impacting the way business is done around the world. I mean, doing it in the biggest bank in the world, I don’t think there’s a better way to influence business practices around the world and to do it at a place where you’re doing business in over 160 countries, you have over 200,000 employees.
It’s been this incredible opportunity to learn, to grow, to build systems and processes. I’ve have an incredible team a lot around the world. Two of us, when my manager was there, and then she left and then there was one and now I have over 40 close to 50 people around the world that are entirely focused on this and managing the risks for the bank.
So I’m curious, when you go back to that moment and you thought to yourself, I don’t have what it takes, what was it that you thought you needed?
Yeah, so I think at the time, it was experience. And I write often about executive presence. At that time, I maybe had not stepped fully into the confidence that I think I would have needed to take on an executive role at that scale. I thought I was still the nervous second person helping out and okay to be in the shadows, sharing great ideas but not necessarily in the spotlights. So I think that was some of the it. And also being able to, and I think with the executive presence comes the ability to command the right amount of respect and to be effective and to be able to influence and to be able to get things done. So I just wasn’t sure that I had sufficient experience under my belt to do the things that needed to be done. But of course that was all a lie!
Well, you can’t have everything. Nobody has everything.
Of course! And that’s the piece about stepping into your potential because you know, and that’s why the advice about, the Caterpillar becoming the butterfly and just also knowing that when you face those issues, opportunities that are outside of your comfort zone, then they draw out things from you. When you need to build new skill sets, you need to build different characteristics and traits in order to really excel. But I think part of it is that openness to growing and part of it is also being able to manage change and being able to learn and knowing how to build a team to support you. Because again, while I was doing a lot of things, early on that was not idea we needed to build, bring experts in technology experts at different operational aspects in order to really drive the efforts and initiatives that we needed to drive.
Yeah. So going from, I think you said a team of two down to one and now to 40. That’s quite different! And I have a suspicion that you are spending quite a bit of time developing leaders on your team.
Yes. And I think that’s, and of course that that was initially a transition from being the one person in the program. So then having a lot of people around the world who are also experts in what they’re doing. And so I think part, the transition is trusting and being able to empower them to make decisions. Because the temptation when someone comes on board and they know you’ve been doing this, you’ve lived this, you know all aspects of the program. You’ve been here from the beginning, you have all the answers. So the temptation would be for them to turn to you and for you to fix everything. And so I had to train that in myself as well, to be able to trust them and also to be able to empower them to make decisions, to help to also become trusted advisors.
And one of the things that I say, and this has been the case is, I was the first to hold a title of chief anti-bribery officer at Citi. But now part of what I’m doing is creating more chiefs right in the anti-bribery space. So I have a chief and in Europe, I have a chief in Asia Pacific. A chief in Latin America. And the point is to create more and more leaders. And I think that’s also part of what I’m doing in the space of women in leadership is let’s create more chiefs, you know, chief innovation officer or chief marketing officer, whatever it is, people are passionate about, let’s have them stepping into that. So yes, building the team at Citi has been a joy and I do have an incredible and high performing team and being able to continue to push them and challenge them and let them know that it’s not for me to stand as the authority and the only one who knows this. But to be able to create that of, I’ll fit in that leadership in them as well.
Since you mentioned they are high performing and experts in their own way, what has surprised you about leading a team of high performers?
I think, and I don’t know if this is so much a surprise. A combination of encouraging them, but also pushing them because the temptation with a high performer is this person is great and everything they do is right. But that doesn’t help them grow. And I think a lot of high-performers also thrive on learning and growing, as well. So part of what I continue to do is to challenge them to take even that next leap. You know, in the curve, you know, it’s Whitney Johnson calls it, you know, the S curve to mastery and just really pushing them. Cause sometimes you have to push them and not getting comfortable. And I’ve this great team and you know, they’re great.
So I think that’s been one is pushing them individually but also pushing ourselves. Every year we take a step back and we have a strategy meeting where we say, okay, we’re not being tactical here. We’re thinking about setting the path as we take a step back and think about what is it that we’re not seeing? Recognizing that we all have blind spots. And then from there, setting the path and also being adaptable because I think that’s something that we’ve all had to build and we all to continue to build as a muscle, as you were saying, discussing just what we’re all going through collectively now. I think these are challenges that require great leadership.
I suspect with the amazingness that I keep hearing from you, that there’s been where she’s like, where’s she going with this? No, I just want to show kind of the dark side because it’s not easy for somebody. It’s not always just this path and they are opening the doors and come on in. So I want to take you to a time when you might’ve been at a low point where you were uncertain or you were unclear or you felt held back.
Yeah. So, and there’ve been several. I think as they continue to happen and I think it’s important that we learn to appreciate those low points because they’re not fun in the moment. But I think it’s important to appreciate them. There were times in prior organizations or prior roles were, for example, I wanted a particular opportunity or a particular job I applied and did not get it. And in fact had to report to someone that I did not believe I should report to, did not respect or did not think it made sense. So that seemed like a particularly, that was just one example of a low point. And, I think the only way I was able to navigate out of that was just thinking about, again, the big picture, where do I think I want to go? But that didn’t happen right away because there were moments of a lot of self doubt, a lot of questioning around, you know, will I ever be successful or am I kind of stuck at a particular level. And, by continuing to learn and gather resources and be thoughtful and reflecting about where it is I wanted to go, I was able to move beyond and move through. And of course looking back now, thank God I did not get that opportunity because that was absolutely the wrong role and I would have he hated that job. I probably would’ve done a great job because I generally put my best foot forward. But would that have filled me up, would that been a role or a job where I feel like I was applying my highest potential? Definitely not. But that was definitely a disappointment.
And then there are also moments, for example, you put forward a particular initiative and it doesn’t go the way you want or you have a review, or some sort of third party review, where the outcomes are not exactly what you would like them to be. I think in those moments, for me the most important thing is usually trying to find the lessons. Especially after the specific situation happens. So we didn’t get the outcomes we wanted. What do we think we could have done differently and tried to learn from it. And by the way, I will also admit that’s not something that comes easily to me. The whole idea of doing a debrief, that’s not natural to me. My natural reaction is let’s move on, let’s keep going. So for me, one of the things I’ve had to learn and train into myself, is debriefing those dark moments or those outcomes and those things that don’t go the way we want and say, is there anything I could do differently? What have I learned from that? And how can I take those lessons and move forward?
Are you able to immediately do that or does it take some time for the dust to settle and then you go back to it?
As I’ve done it more and more often, I try to do it more immediately because then we’re learning as it’s happening. So we could leave a meeting where we try to push for a particular option that did not work. And I just try to say, what was it we could have done differently? Other people we didn’t listen to are there. Longer term outcomes that we were looking for? Then maybe we can work toward, and by the way, the piece around longer term outcomes, I’ve found that to be very critical, because when you’re thinking long term then you can also expand the options because when you’re making a very short term decision and everyone’s in a hurry, often we think that’s all there is to a situation. So really taking the time. So I try to do it more and more in the moment.
Yeah. And this goes back to the piece you were talking about of not being reactive. Yeah. Those two times you mentioned.
Yes, living with intention is big. And I think in everything professionally and personally, this is very important.
I love that you said though, like you’ve gotten better at it because I really believe that anybody can develop the skill set. It’s just like going to the mental gym, right? You just got to go to the mental gym.
Very true. And I think also being willing and open to finding those areas where we still need to do that. Right. And also, where you are being honest about what you’re not that great at and being able to either rely on someone else to do it and just having that openness to learn.
Yeah. Where do you see your next skillset needing to be developed? Give us a little peek into you.
Yeah, so I think for one of the newer skillsets I’ve developed has been around, I will say just social media. It doesn’t sound like a skillset, but if you think about my background as an attorney in financial services, very conservative in terms of our circles and who we interact with. And over the last few years, I’ve had to, as I built a platform, I’ve had to be very intentional, but also learn how to do that in a way that’s consistent with, again, all of the other aspects of me. So my corporate work as well as the leadership initiatives that I’m building. So that’s been a new skillset. I think that’s an area where I’m continuing to learn. And, there’s an entrepreneurial aspect to it, too. I say, you know, some of what I’ve done at Citi is entrepreneurial where I’ve had to innovate within it a corporate space, but also as I continue to build with my book and with all of my other efforts, I think it’s being able to also integrate that in a way that’s again, consistent. And that’s a space where I’ve also had to rely on people, as well. So I will never be a graphic designer. That’s just not going to happen. I’ve learned enough that my team, as I work with my team, I can tell them what I like, what works, what doesn’t. But just knowing that I won’t, develop a skill set to the extent most of the the actual experts in that space have.
Actually, there’s something there that I really love that you said social media because I know you have a separate platform. I want to talk a little bit about that, too. But regardless of that, I think a lot of leaders within companies are either being asked or they want to put their ideas out there more in the social channels. But it is a really delicate balance in my experience, to put yourself out there in a way that feels authentic to you. Right? And then balancing all your roles and not oversharing and then listening to what all the social media people tell you to do.
You are really speaking to my reality! Yeah.
Have any insights to offer for other leaders who are hearing this segment of our conversation? Because I think that’s a struggle. I really do.
It is, I think it’s very important to be thoughtful about it. So, of course you don’t want to just put out content because something is trendy or because, as you said, a social media person asked you to do it. So when I speak to my social media team, we sit down and we brainstorm together and I also don’t want to stifle their creativity cause I want them to bring ideas to me. So we sit together, they bring ideas and then I could tell them, no, this doesn’t feel authentic. I am not doing that. I’ll give you a perfect example if that’s helpful. So right now everyone’s doing tik tok dances and my daughter loves tik tok and she does the dances, but you know, so my social media person says, well, you can do that!
And I said that will not be authentic to me. Plus my daughter doesn’t want to do that with me. So that was sort of an easy one. But that’s an example. But, so I think, and being in a corporation and being at Citi, a publicly traded company, there’s a lot that we have to think about in terms of, you know, the impact of what we do and the information we share on the perception of the company. And so I work very closely with our public affairs team. I go through those approvals internally. So for example, articles that I write on Forbes, they evaluate it, they review it, they make sure that they’re comfortable with it. So there’s an internal approval process. So my recommendation for anyone who is in a corporation and looking to do more externally, that they go through that process and make sure it’s vetted, makes sure it’s an outside activity that their company does not find to be in conflict with what they’re doing at the company.
Also, an activity that of course is not, because I think sometimes people think, well, whatever my idea is and whatever my expression is, I want to be able to do it. Well, probably not if it’s something that could be in conflict with your job or what your company is doing in the world. And so I think for me it’s been helpful, that the message and the work that I’m doing around leadership is something that resonates with my company and with what they’re doing in the world and who they want to be in the world. So I think that’s been a great alignment. And so finding a way to continue to tell stories from a personal perspective, while being respectful about who they are, what they’re doing in the world, I think has been important.
And so for me, and maybe this is, I, people often use the term side hustle. I think the problem, and I don’t like that term by the way. I call it, I think about my life is, you know, the multiple purposes of passions that we have, right? So this is, these are all the various ways that I serve as a human. So the not-for-profit initiatives, the leadership and helping the next generation of leaders, all of that, those are all part of who I am as a person. And I also recognize that for some people there might be inconsistency that they’re working through in varying degrees. And so that’s something that I think people have to be thoughtful about. So with social media teams, it’s important to be thoughtful and strategic and honest. So it’s important to have an open and frank conversation, be able to tell other folks that you’re working with what is authentic to you. But of course that also started as we said before. First you have to know what you have to be clear on who you are, who you want to be in the world. Cause I think it’s much easier to sift through and determine what works and what doesn’t.
Yeah, no, thank you for that conversation because I think that this door is just going to get opened wider and wider and there’s going to be a lot of crossover. You’re really leading the charge or leading the way in, in terms of thought leadership. So let’s talk about that a little bit more, the other aspects of you, because you have quite a conversation going around leadership, immigrant women and leadership. When did this start and what’s in your heart around that topic?
Yeah. So, this started actually when I was a law professor, so I was, we were out in Minneapolis, I was teaching at university of St Thomas and I had a student who was from China and did not speak up in class and she was very self-conscious. And one day she asked me a question after class and it was a brilliant question. So I remember I was packing up my laptop and everything and she asked this question and I looked up at her and I said, why didn’t you ask during class? And she said, Oh, professor, I could never speak up during class. I’m very conscious of my accent. And so I realized this was a smaller class, it was probably about 15 students. So we had about 13 men and two women. And the one American woman spoke rarely, but she did speak once in a while.
And the men spoke all the time. Even when they did not read the cases, they always had an opinion. They were incredibly confident. And then here’s this woman who had the best ideas and was not speaking up. And so, she told me it was because she was an immigrant and this was her first or second semester in the U.S. and so I realize that, yeah, I wanted to support her. I started looking for resources to support her as an immigrant woman who’s a leader. So there are a lot of resources out there from an advocacy standpoint, from just supporting women who had been through domestic violence and some of those other initiatives, which of course are phenomenal. But I found that there weren’t resources supporting immigrant women as leaders. And this woman went on to have one of the best grades in the course.
She graduated with honors, while, by the way, having one son during in law school. So she was brilliant. And so I started looking for resources to support her. Didn’t really find much online at the time. So this was around 2010, 2012. So I decided that I needed to create something. I kept looking for it and did not find it. And I thought, okay, I guess I’m being called. Because it started, we first had the conversation around 2009 and I started looking for resources to not find anything. And so after I’d been located back to the Northeast, and she had reached out to me because her family was moving too. Her husband got a job in New York. And I remember thinking, I wonder if there are resources now to support people like this who are smart, high-performing, looking to advance in their careers but are immigrants and are struggling with very specific things around integrating their cultures, their accents, their name, their identity, figuring out who they are in this new country and how to excel and didn’t find anything.
And so that was when I started creating the resources. I started speaking to friends who were immigrants. Some of my law school classmates and asking about their journeys and some of the struggles that they dealt with and how they overcame them. And I was blown away. I was fascinated, I was inspired and so I thought this is something that really could help other people. So that’s how I started. I saw a need and had to create a solution cause I didn’t find the solution out there.
That’s fabulous. So as yourself, what has been one of the biggest challenges for you coming from Nigeria?
For sure, early on it was the accent. So when I was in college, I was so conscious of my accent, I would not speak up in front of the whole class. I had this great professor, excellent mentor. He’s still a friend. He’s retired now, George McKenna, and he would call on me. I never asked him to do that. I never gave him permission, but he would call on me. So he forced me out of my bubble and my comfort zone. But I was really conscious of that. And I know a lot of immigrant women struggle with that as well. And making this connection because I sound different. I don’t sound as smart as everyone else. Everyone sounds smarter than me. And so I think that’s one of the challenges that I think that was the biggest adjusting to the accents, making new friends. Fortunately for me, my family, we relocated at the same time and I’m one of five siblings. My siblings are incredible. So it was great to have that family, the immediate family. But initially not having friends and being in this whole new country, we relocated right before I started college. So making friends in college, I think that was probably the biggest transition.
You know, it’s really interesting. I just had an interview with Helen Raleigh. She came from China, communist China and she described, I mean, we just talked about this for just a few minutes here and she described something very similar, which is the power of community. She came over for college as well, and it was really community that got her through, whether it was her family or her church or you know, a group of friends. You create that that was one of the most impactful things for her.
For sure. And I think one of the things immigrants struggle with as well is the community can be this great resource that supports you through it. But then also as you’re navigating and you’re building a new life in this country, it’s figuring out what aspects of community that you let go of and what aspects that you hold on to. So what are the beautiful things that you keep and but what are some of the things that potentially could hold you back? So one example, I know with a lot of the women that I interviewed from Asia was around this whole idea of perfection and thinking they needed to excel and be excellent in school and be great at all these subjects. Whereas, they’ve come to realize that they need to figure out what they’re great at, what they enjoy, what they’re called to do. And really placing love over perfection. So that’s been a really big theme that I’ve identified. And it’s similar with African cultures cause we’re very community focused and very family-oriented, which of course, is I think one of the strengths of our community.
Yeah, that’s fascinating. And then just to take it one step further, we talked a lot about when you come over to the U.S. but what about now you’re here a while, you know, you’re rising up through the ranks of leadership. Do you have any trends that you see for women at that stage?
So yes, as they’re rising up. Yes. So a lot of it is, you know, imposter syndrome. We’re dealing with a lot of the things that women in the workplace deal with. Identifying great mentors, as well, and sponsors to help them navigate the next level within the industries and within their careers. Finding their voice, being able to speak up and make a real impact in their industries. And so I think a lot of immigrant women are facing, and I’ll say the interesting thing of course with a lot of the women that I interviewed as part of this project, the book project is that they are successful in the U.S. so a lot of what they’re seeing in their industries are the things that a lot of women are seeing. So, very male-dominated industry. I was actually surprised by some of the industries that I traditionally had not thought were male-dominated, like the music industry. For example, one of the women I spoke to, some music is a music producer and she was saying how at the most senior levels, you’re finding that women are not breaking through those highest ranks
Yeah. Fascinating. I heard that too, actually not. Another woman I interviewed came from the same industry and she talked a lot about it. So being kind of a boys club, honestly. The time is flying, we need another hour, but thank you so much!
Thank you for having me. Thank you. It’s such a great conversation and you’re so easy to talk to it. I can literally talk to you for hours.
Oh my goodness. I was just thinking about this. There’s so much more in this interview that I want to give a shout out to. But you know what, here’s my advice. Listen to it several times. There’s gold nuggets in there for every single person, but the one thing I promised and I want to deliver on is Chinwe, I had to listen like two or three times to actually document the steps that she was talking about. I don’t know if you tuned into it, but there was a moment in the interview where we were talking about learning to appreciate the low points and she started just kind of free flowing her step by step process on how she brings herself to navigate, you know, and direct herself from those moments of self doubt. From those moments where you’re really questioning where you are and what’s going on and what you’re doing.
Those are moments where you lose that focus and she goes inside, right? She goes back inside and she walks herself through the process of being reflective, Number one, and part of that you heard her talk about is she’s been able to go to that mental gym that we often reflect on this show. She brings herself through in the reflective process of finding the lesson in the moments and she is now able to do it faster and faster and faster by debriefing almost immediately on some things. So number one is around reflection, finding the lesson and debriefing. Number two is again from the inside, getting thoughtful, not about where you are, but tapping back into where you want to go, that deeper purpose, that deeper meaning that not being defined in the moment. Number three is once you have that big picture that she’s talking about to start assembling and gathering the resources and you heard a few different women talking about this in the interview where, you know, Carol Myers comes to mind.
Surround yourself with the people and the things that ensure that you cannot fail. It’s the same thing. Gather the resources. And if I didn’t say this already, that those are the three steps that I teased out. But the key here is to get yourself out of the short-term. Go inside, walk yourself through this three step process so that you can bring yourself back to a place where you’re looking at the longer term vision and you can come from a place of focus. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
I can’t say enough fabulous things about Chinwe and I encourage you to track her down and connect and follow her content. It’s very good. All right, beautiful lady. And I know a few gents out there. Thank you for reaching out and thank you for listening as well. We will talk to you soon.