Guest Profile

Afam Onyema

Co-Founder and CEO

Geanco Foundation

About Afam Onyema

Afam Onyema was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1979. He graduated cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in psychology. After graduation, Afam worked for Hill & Knowlton, Inc., a global public relations firm.

Afam entered Stanford Law School in September 2004. During his time at Stanford, he served as Vice President of the Black Law Students' Association, a two-time public interest fellow, and a mentor in the school's Public Interest Mentor Program. In January 2006, Afam traveled to Ghana as part of the law school's International Community Law Clinic.

While in law school, Afam co-founded the GEANCO Foundation. GEANCO’s mission is to save and transform lives in Nigeria. After graduating from Stanford Law School in May 2007, Afam declined multiple law firm offers in order to lead GEANCO full-time as its CEO.

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, KTLA, Harvard Magazine, Stanford Magazine, Stanford Lawyer and Ebony Magazine.

Afam has secured support for GEANCO from, among many others, Oprah Winfrey, Daniel Craig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daisy Ridley, Chris Rock, Charlize Theron, Forest Whitaker, Benedict Cumberbatch, Djimon Hounsou, Jimmy Kimmel, Chris Rock, David Oyelowo, Whoopi Goldberg, Dr. Oz, civil rights legend Rev. Jesse Jackson, United Airlines, Walt Disney Studios, Google, The Oscars, Creative Artists Agency (CAA), United Talent Artists (UTA) and (ICM Partners).

In 2020, Afam was named one of the Top Ten Most Influential Africans in the Diaspora.

Episode Overview

Co-Founder & CEO of the Geanco Foundation, Afam Onyema, talks about transforming lives in Nigeria, working with A-list celebrities and taking the plunge into philanthropy straight after Stanford Law School.

 

We hear how Afam’s father, and his dream to improve lives in Nigeria, was the inspiration that led to the creation of the Geanco Foundation – a charity based in Los Angeles. His father is originally from Nigeria and Geanco is very much a family story; they led with a dream and figured everything else from there.

 

Afam studied at Harvard and Stanford Law, yet his calling to serve guided him to the world of philanthropy and development work, and he co-founded the Geanco Foundation in 2007 right after completing his law degree. 

 

He explains how declining numerous corporate law job offers in order to launch a foundation was not an easy choice – and indeed his mother certainly raised an eyebrow when she learned of this – but the decision simply felt right and Afam has never looked back.

 

Even though Afam had no experience in fundraising – an essential ingredient for any nascent charity – he was incredibly fortunate to get immediate financial backing from some of his classmates who organised a fundraiser for him early on and, also, from one of his professors who had done very well in the tech sector and had decided to support Afam and his work at Geanco for the first year.

 

The Harvard and Stanford networks played important roles and Afam advises listeners not to neglect the power and potential of your alumni networks.  His base of support today has much to do with the thousands of emails he sent to Harvard alumni and Stanford alumni over the years.  

 

Afam presents a sobering picture of the many challenges faced by the people of Nigeria today, from poor education and health, to gender inequality and the threat from terrorism. The Geanco Foundation tackles many of these challenges in its own way, by developing and driving highly targeted and meaningful interventions.

 

On healthcare, they organise medical and surgical missions in Nigeria, carrying out hip and knee replacements and various other types of operations. They also help improve outcomes in prenatal care by, among other things, helping to screen hundreds of women each month for anaemia and distributing ‘Mama Kits’ in rural parts of the country, which contain all the essentials one would need to deliver a baby safely in rural settings.

 

On education, they provide a variety of services and support, which range from delivering tablets to schoolchildren so they can read and study during lockdown, to helping build sports facilities and ensure schools have the right equipment.

 

Afam talks with great passion of the David Oyelowo Leadership Scholarship for Girls, which the Foundation launched with the invaluable support of David Oyelowo, a world-renowned actor who cares deeply about the work of the Geanco Foundation.  David is just one of the many Hollywood celebrities who supports Geanco in a meaningful and substantive way – a partnership in the true sense.  

 

The Scholarship supports girls – many of whom have been left orphaned by terrorism in the country – in a comprehensive and meaningful way by providing support ranging from school tuition, room and board, healthcare and even by having representatives of the Foundation attend parent teacher conferences.  

 

The Scholarship started with just 3 girls in a single school in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, and today serves 35 girls in 4 schools throughout the country. In the coming years, Afam would like to see this grow further. 

 

He notes that while these numbers may seem modest, the ‘Leadership Scholarships’ are truly comprehensive, meaning it’s not simply a matter of writing a cheque.  In the case this Scholarship, they literally help girls across pretty much every meaningful aspect of their lives.

 

There is no question that celebrity support has been invaluable to the Geanco Foundation. Afam notes that this support took time to secure and nurture, but with transparency, trust and real partnership it is proving extremely fruitful.  These celebrity engagements are true partnerships that go well beyond the simple endorsement one might think of.

 

Interestingly, Oprah Winfrey was the first funder of the David Oyelowo Leadershp Scholarship for Girls, and celebrities such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor ,Jimmy Kimmel and Charlize Theron  have been invaluable in supporting the Foundation by making introductions, getting involved and being part of the Geanco family.

 

Afam’s key takeaway for listeners:  He points us to his life’s mantra, which is simply to be kind to others and to serve. Our world is becoming angrier, sharper and more divisive.  Just find ways to be kind and always ask yourself how can you serve in any given situation. 

Additional Resources

Geanco Foundation - Website

Afam Onyema - LinkedIn

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