A first-generation American, Ness Okonkwo has balanced a life between two cultures, pushed through barriers to build a successful career in finance, and worked passionately for grassroots change in the city she loves. In our conversation, she teaches us about finding inner grace and seeing life as a work in progress.
You grew up in LA.
I grew up here, yes. I was actually born in Stamford, Connecticut. I’m the eldest of six children. My father is a doctor, so he did his residency and his internship on the East Coast. I'm actually a first-generation American. My parents are both from Nigeria.
So, obviously, when they moved to New York, the weather was a bit of a shock. It’s a great place to start out, but people said to them, "You should think about going west, it's a lot warmer." So my father took job interviews in both Seattle and Los Angeles. They visited Seattle, where it poured rain the whole time they were there. Then they visited LA and it was 75 degrees the whole time. So they chose to live in Los Angeles!
We moved out here when I was two. I went to UCLA undergrad and studied economics. I then moved to New York to pursue investment banking. I was an investment banker there for four years, and then I went to Harvard Business School in Boston. I met my husband in business school, and then we moved back to New York for four years. We actually got married here in Los Angeles in 2003. We would travel back and forth to LA to plan our wedding, and it was so great to see family and friends and to enjoy the weather, enjoy the beach.
At some point, maybe when we had been married for about a year, we just started to miss LA. We both realized that we had great careers and friends in New York, but we didn't have any family. There wasn't really anything tying us to New York.
I loved New York. Everyone should spend some time there because of the energy, the electricity, the concentration of things, all the different people that you meet. I was in investment banking, working literally on Wall Street. So there was this opportunity to be part of this network and this vibe, which was really exhilarating and amazing. But after a while, it can wear on you. I guess when I came back to LA, I just felt like my spirit was lifted.
What was it like, growing up between two cultures?
My parents are Nigerian and Catholic and very, very strict. All the things that my friends were allowed to do in elementary school or in high school, I wasn’t. It was a struggle because I wanted to be like everyone else, to some extent.
But when I got older, I realized what a blessing it was to have that family base. There are a lot of things that were really hammered into me from the Nigerian culture: amazing values, the belief in working hard and being self-sufficient. It was just something that I had to navigate and balance. I think it made me who I am. I'm taking the best of both worlds.
How did your parents’ belief in working hard impact you?
They taught me to take full responsibility for myself. They said, "We're here to support you and help you financially with whatever you need. But, at the end of the day, this is your life and you have to know what you need to do to succeed." So they pushed me, but I think it came from a place of love and knowing that we can always improve ourselves. You know you're never a finished product and I think that's what I took from it. You're never done.
I think that's inspiring, that you can still evolve no matter how old you are.
Right. I learned that from a young age. They also instilled a sense of family community, of taking care of each other. I am very loyal and there's a nurturing aspect to me that comes from being the eldest sister. That's something I always try to take into my relationships and my leadership style.
My parents always fostered this sense of, “You have each other, so take care of each other.” I think it's important, especially as you go out into the world and become self-reliant, to never forget people. Always feel like you're lifting people up. They always encouraged us to volunteer and to be part of the church.
By having a large family, you really learn to not be selfish.
Yes, although I'm probably more selfish now because I never got the chance to be selfish growing up. [Laughs]
It's true, though, you learn how to give things up because your younger siblings needed those things more than you.
What drew you to finance?
Well, it's funny because my father is a doctor and so I always grew up thinking I was going to be a doctor. And then in my senior year of high school, I took an economics class and I just loved it. For some reason, it spoke to me. I loved the type of analysis that you do, considering how everything in the world is interconnected, international trade and how the financial markets work through that.
I just thought it was really fascinating, so I started reading the Wall Street Journal. I ended up majoring in economics at UCLA. I then did an internship at J.P. Morgan in New York and really loved the atmosphere, especially at my young age. I was 19 when I did my internship and I was working with CFOs of major companies, helping them figure out how to structure their capital.
I loved that investment banking was one of the few industries where you could come in straight out of undergrad and really be instrumental in some big stuff. I could help people make decisions that impacted their company, impacted the workforce—that was just really, really exciting.
It's rare to be an African-American woman in finance. There's definitely been some ups and downs. But, because there are so few of us, it’s really imperative to stay involved in the industry.
Nowadays, do you find that it’s an issue that you're an African-American woman in finance?
I think attitudes have improved to a certain extent, but there’s still that sense of having to prove yourself more than you would if you were a white man. I don't think people are like, "I don't want to work with her," or anything like that. But it's more about feeling like you need to be a step ahead in terms of your work, how you present yourself, how you conduct yourself. That's still something I'm very cognizant of.
Why don't we see people at higher levels who are women or minorities? Because when you don't see people ahead of you who look like you, you wonder, "Is this really for me? Is this a place that is going to value me? Is this a place where I'm going to continue to struggle?" So it requires a lot of resilience and just putting your head down and saying, "I'm going to fight through it."
How do you feel about being in finance right now?
Right now, I really enjoy my job. I'm in private banking, so it's really interesting. I'm working with individuals and families, so every client I work with is different. Even hearing the stories of how people got to their wealth, whether they inherited it or they were dirt poor and built something up. It’s all really inspiring and it makes for days that are never the same.
I'm also the president of the Junior League of Los Angeles, which is a women's organization committed to promoting volunteerism, developing the potential of women, and improving our community through the action and leadership of trained volunteers. I've been a member of the organization for ten years.
The fact that I'm president now has really sparked this fire in me about civic engagement and civic leadership. I think it's really important that we collaborate and unify our voice and engage locally. I really want to think about how I can use the skills I’ve developed at work and at the Junior League to make the world a better place.
When I think about where would I like to be, I think about working in a non-profit or working in community development. I mean, you think about the world, you think about the country, but you can get started making a difference even just locally in Los Angeles.
For example, one of the Junior League’s focus areas is helping foster youth. There are some staggering statistics: for example, 38 percent of the foster youth in California live in Los Angeles. 75 percent of them perform below grade level. Only 58 percent graduate high school and only 3 percent graduate college. These 28,000 youth in Los Angeles are not getting enough education and support, which creates a cycle. Workforce development, economic development, healthcare, mental health—all of that is related to such an important issue.
That's why our organization is committed to empowering our members to improve access to resources for transition-age foster youth and underserved students seeking higher education. We are educating the public about what’s going on, because it's important for this community to have a voice. They don't have powerful people lobbying for them in Congress or at the White House.
How do you balance between helping one person and helping everyone?
If we can all claim that we've made a difference in one life, imagine the transformation that would happen in our country. The scale of some of these problems is so overwhelming and daunting, but we can’t control that. We can only worry about what we have control over—from there, then I think you will see that multiplier effect.
So you do what you can, and give support to those people you can identify. And then you also think about it from an advocacy standpoint: The more people really understand the issues, the better. The Junior League of Los Angeles is really great at advocating for public policy. We let our legislators know about some of the issues that we see, so they're thinking about it as they're developing bills and legislations. It’s a ground-up, step-by-step movement. If we can focus on just getting to that next step, then that in itself is transformative. We may not be able to solve everything for all 28,000 foster youths in Los Angeles, but we can make things better for a lot of them. Then everyone can kind of bring each other up as a result.
It can be really overwhelming. I think, “Why is this stuff still happening?”
I was just thinking about this exactly a week ago. I was at a conference for the Association of Junior Leagues International, which is our umbrella organization of 291 Junior Leagues, made up of about 150,000 women across four countries. This conference was in Birmingham, Alabama, so we visited the Civil Rights Institute. It was one of the most moving museums I've visited; we saw all these exhibits about the civil rights struggle across the nation. I left there feeling uplifted, but also a little depressed. I thought of all of the achievements we made in the '50s, '60s, '70s— and yet here we are in 2017, still struggling. It's daunting.
Sometimes you can get depressed, but you just have to keep fighting for civil rights and human rights. I think it's really about the grassroots effort. Progress is not always going to be linear; you take one step, and then take another step back, but then you take two steps. The key is to never lose sight of that—you can always continue to make progress.
I think the same thing when I think about my career. I mean, there are a lot of times when I saw what was ahead and I was like, "Oh, my gosh, do I really want to deal with that?" But I said, “You know, yeah, I can deal with that because I'm stronger than anything that the environment can do to me and I'm going to continue on. Even if I'm the only person that looks like me here now, that's just going to make me more determined to bring someone with me.” I think that's the only way you make change.
How do you find the balance between a career and volunteering?
When we talk about work-life balance, I never feel like I'm in balance. When you look at the whole arc of your life, it's like you try to find that balance over time. But on any one day, you may be doing more of one thing than the other.
The Junior League is a volunteer organization. Our members are women who work at home, women who work outside the home, people who’ve retired—it's a very diverse organization in terms of our volunteers’ professional and personal backgrounds, and the great thing is you can kind of choose what you want to do. So, you choose your level of involvement and you choose exactly what path you'd like to be in.
When I joined, I volunteered in our strategic planning committee, which was a great place to start because it gave me a sense of the League’s strategic direction. And then I moved on to lead our member training program, to teach new members about what the League is doing in Los Angeles, and about how they'll grow as a civic leader.
I was the finance director at one point. I would always say, "I'm not going to be treasurer or finance director, because I do that for my day job." And then they're like, "We need you!" So, ok fine, I did it. [Laughs] Then people said, "You know, you should think about putting in for president.” People felt like my leadership style and my outside work experience would really be helpful to lead the League forward. At first I was daunted, because it would be a three-year commitment. But then I said, “You know what? This is exactly when you need to challenge yourself.” The great thing about being in this volunteer position is you really get to challenge yourself in ways that sometimes you don't get to at work.
I think the hard part is when you're trying to find the balance. There definitely aren't enough hours in the day to get everything done. But I think it’s just knowing that you can't do everything, but that you do whatever you can do with the best spirit and intention. Having the grace to say to yourself, "I've done my best and everyone around me is doing their best.” I think some of us women beat ourselves up about not doing enough. So I find that grace and just say, "You know, today I'm going to take a little time off and do something for myself.”
I can't just give up my job and be a full-time volunteer. I think some of the things I'm doing at work help me be a good volunteer. And I think my volunteer experience has really helped me at work. Working with full-time volunteers teaches patience, and awareness that everyone has different time commitments, and so I try to bring that mindset into my day job, as well.
At some point, when I feel ready, there will be a way to take both my professional skills and my volunteering and launch them into something. I feel like I'm building into something that I can launch into making even greater impact on the world.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
I have a million! One is a quote by Helen Keller: "Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much." It’s about the need to collaborate—we can’t work in silos, we need to really think about how we can unify. No matter what your political leanings are, our country is clearly divided right now and I think it doesn't do us any service. We all need to think about it, even just locally, to ask, "Ok, how can we collaborate to really effect the change that we'd like to see?"
I also think that everything is a learning experience. Nelson Mandela said, "I never lose. I either win, or I learn." If you take everything as a learning experience, it just makes you stronger. It makes you more resilient. It makes you take notes in the back of your head and say, "Ok, that didn't work, but how can I make this better next time?" You're always a work in progress, so the more you learn about yourself, the more you're self-aware, the more you can really be your best self.
What does LA mean to you?
In one word, it's “home.” It’s also boundless opportunities and experience. When you think of LA, you think of how spread out it is, you think of the ocean, and it seems like a limitless city. There’s this feeling of boundless optimism, that no matter where you came from or what your prior experience was, all options are possible in LA. I just feel like I can just take a deep breath here and be myself.
Learn more about the Junior League of Los Angeles.
Photography by Magdalena Wielopolski ©