Pittsburgh's New Immigrants: A Nigerian immigrant brings an entrepreneurial drive to his new country
Another in an occasional series
June 7, 2014 11:24 PM
Emeka Owugbenu in front of one of his development properties in Lawrenceville.
Emeka Owugbenu in the former McCleary Elementary School, one of his development properties in Lawrenceville.
Emeka Owugbenu gives a tour of the one of his development properties in Lawrenceville, the former McCleary Elementary School.
By Mark Roth / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For one Pittsburgh immigrant, the chickens really did come before the eggs.
When Emeka Onwugbenu was 9 and growing up in a small village in Nigeria, his grandmother gave him a pair of chickens. For him, they weren't pets. They were a business opportunity.
"They would lay their eggs and I would take them down to the women on the streets in the morning because they had to cook for guys going to work, and I'd get 5 cents an egg. And then after a while, you could buy one more chicken."
Nigerian immigrant brings entrepreneurial drive to new country
Emeka Owugbenu, an immigrant from Nigeria, started E Properties and Development, a thriving development business headquartered in Lawrenceville. (Video by Andrew Rush; 6/8/2014)
Today, Emeka Onwugbenu -- pronounced eh-Meh-ka on-woo-Bay-nu -- is the owner and driving force behind E Properties and Development in Lawrenceville, which builds and renovates structures in Lawrenceville, Garfield and Friendship, including the distinctive Croghan's Edge housing plan on Penn Avenue in lower Lawrenceville.
In the space of four years, the 28-year-old Penn State engineering graduate has established himself as one of the city's most innovative developers.
He is also part of a growing cadre of African immigrants in Pittsburgh. In 1980, there were only 200 Africans in Allegheny County. By 2010, that number had skyrocketed to more than 2,000. Africans make up a small but vibrant part of Pittsburgh's newer immigrants -- the people the Post-Gazette is documenting in a yearlong series of stories.
And Nigerians in particular are known for the outsized impact they have had on the United States.
In their recent book "The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America," Yale Law School professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld say that Nigerians are the largest and most successful African immigrant group in the nation. Nigerians make up a disproportionate share of America's black physicians and law school students, they say. Last year, Nigerians made up nearly a quarter of the 120 black students at Harvard Business School.
Mr. Onwugbenu is also a member of the Igbo ethnic group, long known for its entrepreneurial talents.
"At my core, I've always been an entrepreneur," he said. "It's always been in my genome. In college, I'd be buying stuff from Craigslist to sell to students or buy stuff from Craigslist to sell on eBay. It wasn't about the money. It was just the process that fascinated me: How do you do this?"
Excitement at Penn State
One of eight children, he arrived here in 2002 to attend Penn State as an industrial engineering major.
"For my dad, just having me go to the U.S. to go to school, that was big."
About this series
This year, the Post-Gazette is taking a close look at the people who have come to the region from foreign nations and settled here. On average, they are a highly educated group, and local leaders eagerly hope to draw more of these skilled newcomers. This month, the Post-Gazette will launch a parallel project, "Odysseys," in which we plan to showcase one person living here from each of the United Nations' 193 member states.
Over the next three days, we will look at the standout students from immigrant families, a controversial new book on immigrant success and a research lab with scientists from around the world.
The excitement infected him as well. On his first day at Penn State, he got up at 5 a.m. for an 8 a.m. English class, and showed up at 7:15 a.m. to sit in the front row, only to realize most of his classmates didn't show up until five minutes before the class. A few weeks later, he got an official inquiry asking why he hadn't ever shown up for his English class. "It turns out I was so excited the first day I went to the wrong section, and I had to switch."
After graduating in 2006, he came to Pittsburgh to work for Medrad, a medical device manufacturer, as a facilities and products engineer. The next oldest engineer in his group was in his 40s, and "that group really humbled me, because I was working with a bunch of older guys who really knew what they were doing. They really grounded me and allowed me to appreciate what I learned in school."
Medrad also paid for most of his tuition when he decided he wanted to get his MBA at Carnegie Mellon University. He signed up for night classes, and then, in the midst of working full time and going to school, he decided to start his property business.
"I'd always had an interest in real estate, but I was never sure how to go about it, because it seemed too big. But I kept thinking, once you've created something in real estate, it can stay there forever."
Despite how busy he already was, he decided the bargains he could get in the middle of the recession were too good to pass up. He bought a home in Bloomfield for $35,000 and hired a crew to renovate it, which ratcheted up his schedule from super busy to crazy busy.
An 'ordinary' day
"On a typical day, I would wake up at 4:30 or 5:30 in the morning, and go to the job site, and start talking to my crews and maybe make a Home Depot run for them, and at 8 or 8:30, I'd go to work at Medrad.
"I'd work until 11, and then I would go out for a long lunch to the job site, see how we were doing, and try to schedule meetings then with anyone I needed to see. I would stay there until 12:30 or 1, and I'd have to go back to work. Around 4 or 4:30, I would realize I had an exam at Carnegie Mellon at 6, and at 8 I had a project due.
"Around 5 I would log onto my second laptop for school and get that project done. I would leave work and on the way to school, I would stop at the site, ask them what are the plans for tomorrow, and I would get to school late, sit at the back, and I would try to process what the teacher was saying but I might open up my work laptop and do my Medrad work, and then I'd go to my next class and have another project due at midnight, so I would work on that.
"So it would now be midnight, and I'd start driving home and go through a Wendy's or McDonald's, get home around 1:30 and fall asleep, and then I would get up again at 4:30. I've never been so disciplined in my life."
Even obtaining financing was challenging.
"To get a loan in a recession is crazy, but doing all of that with an accent from Nigeria is half ridiculous."
Scott Suess, a vice president at S&T Bank, was the man who decided to extend credit to Mr. Onwugbenu while working for Dollar Bank.
"It was a straightforward credit decision," he said. "He had the necessary resources to do what he wanted to do. And you figure, if someone has gotten into CMU, he must be pretty smart."
From that first house flip, he has gone on to build a business that employs six full-time staff members and 15 to 25 independent contractors. While he doesn't keep statistical breakdowns of his staff, "I try to make sure my staff is a well-balanced and diverse team" with both black and white employees.
Mr. Onwugbenu, who has permanent residency status in the U.S., is now getting ready to convert the former McCleary School in Lawrenceville into luxury condominiums, and the former Holy Family church and school in Lawrenceville into apartments.
His firm is best known so far for the award-winning Croghan's Edge development, which won a 2012 design award from the American Institute of Architects. The parcel was so tiny that the four modular homes had to be lifted onto their foundations by cranes. "It was almost like Legos. On a Wednesday you saw the foundations and if you came back on Friday, you saw the four houses."
Mr. Suess' S&T Bank financed that project, and he recalled being impressed not only at how Mr. Onwugbenu could fit four townhouses into such a minuscule space, but how the demand for them raised the prices more than $50,000 higher than originally projected.
"His townhouses may have been the first ones to sell at the prices they did. To sell a townhouse for over $300,000 in Lawrenceville would have been unprecedented 10 years before that."
Before he could afford to open his offices on Butler Street, Mr. Onwugbenu did his work in coffeehouses. At one particular spot, he recalled, "I would come in early and take two tables. One was my working table and the second one I put a jacket on it, and that was my conference room."
"I tipped them a lot. They were giving me free Wi-Fi, free heat in the winter, a clean space, and as an immigrant, that was all very valuable."
Recently, he persuaded one of his sisters, a CPA in Washington, D.C., to move to Pittsburgh to run the finances for his company.
Uche Onwugbenu was the first in the family to attend college, enrolling in Catholic University in Washington when she was 16. After getting her finance degree, she worked for Ernst & Young and other large firms in the Washington region and was happy there.
But when her father suggested she go to Pittsburgh to help her younger brother, she didn't hesitate. Her father, who had become a successful businessman in Nigeria, had paid for so much of the college costs for all eight siblings that none of them graduated with any debt, "so it was my way of paying him back for that."
"My father finished his schooling with the equivalent of a seventh-grade education," Mr. Onwugbenu added, "and he had the foresight to see how important education would be for his children."
A 2012 study by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a New York think tank, said that immigrants are slightly more likely than native-born Americans to start small businesses, and their sheer numbers mean they now comprise 18 percent of all small business owners in the United States.
All told, immigrant business owners employ 4.7 million workers in the U.S. and generate revenues of $776 billion a year, the report said.
Africans are not leading entrepreneurs in that group, mainly because of their small numbers. Nigerian immigrants, for instance, make up less than 1 percent of all black Americans.
But Nigerians are famous for their achievements in high-skilled fields, Ms. Chua and Mr. Rubenfeld wrote. They may make up about 10 percent of the nation's black physicians, and are prominent in investment banking. One Goldman Sachs analyst told them, "If my only life experiences were at Goldman, my impression would be that Nigeria must have a billion people, because most of the black people I met were Nigerian."
Mr. Onwugbenu believes the very act of going to a new country makes people more likely to take chances.
"As an immigrant, you're out of your base country anyway, so you're truly out of your comfort zone in a new culture, with new food, new weather, new everything. With that mind-set, taking on a new challenge is almost second nature. Because if you've left home, there's no point holding back now."
In some ways, he feels he's just getting started.
He is getting married Labor Day weekend to Linda Chukwuma, a Nigerian woman he met through family friends. She is attending law school in London, and he recently set up a branch of his development business in the British capital.
Even with his international interests, though, he now feels like a Pittsburgher. "My company is here, my friends are here, my wife is moving here, we hope to have kids here."
And he sees his African heritage and his differences as an asset in this city.
"I'm not from here; I know that. I have a long last name; I recognize that. But I actually see that as an advantage. If I come into any meeting and say hello to you and say my name, I guarantee you will never forget it."
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