Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do
My name is Obi Odenigbo, an aerospace engineer and author of the “Immigrant Manifesto” Obi is short for Obinna which is translated as “heart of the/his father”. I grew up in Enugu State, North East of Nigeria, but currently living in a small city in Iowa, USA called Cedar Rapids. When I’m not working, I enjoy reading, writing, watching TV, and traveling when I can.
How did you get started in your career?
Well, it all began with the thought of making a living to support my hobbies or goals. It wasn’t like most people who chose a career because it aligns with their passion. My views around a career differ from one that is fueled by passion. If I can do any job–not necessarily one I’m passionate about–that can pay me enough to get to enjoy the things I’m passionate about, then I’ll consider it for sure.
My career as an aerospace engineer started as a technical support and customer service personnel. People would call and yell at me with their problems, it was my job to provide a solution. It was challenging, but it contributed to building me up. I learned how to handle pressure, insults, deadlines, little details and brushed up on my communication skills.
The incredible value of these soft skills had a huge impact on my personal and professional life. I decided to further my studies to study computers and information system management while working in the same position. I took some classes, missed some but completed the degree. program.
Around this time, I had some success at the customer service job and got promoted a few times. The Management kept entrusting me with new responsibilities and new doors kept opening. However, the call center pays you only so much and after about five years, I wanted something new.
So I decided to challenge myself to see if I can get into the engineering field. A lot of the stuff I was doing had parallels to computer systems engineering. I also took classes in Python Programming language, so coding did not particularly scare me, though it wasn’t something I enjoyed. So, I applied for engineering jobs, after a couple of interviews, I got hired. That’s not to say I do not like being an engineer, but it wasn’t always my plan to become one.
Moving to my career as an author was borne out of necessity. With many of my friends leaving Nigeria to the US, I unwittingly became a resource for how to transition successfully from a communal culture to a more individualistic one—such as the USA. I found myself calling on my American experiences—in workplaces, schools, and communities—to assist these friends with their transition. What certificates to go for, best places to work, how to negotiate salaries, how to get promoted. Instead of repeating these over and over, I decided to write them down. That way, others who I don’t know can benefit from my experiences. So, my book was born of the advice and stories that came to live on my lips.
Did you always know what you wanted to do?
I had no clue what I wanted to do. I loved everything about arts as a kid partly because of my mom’s influence. My mom was a Literature and English tutor who exposed me and my siblings to the likes of Shakespeare and other famous plays. We could all recite the great dramatic scenes of Macbeth and Merchant of Venice. I even took part in debates and drama in a secondary school because of the feeling. On the other side was my dad. He was an electrical engineer with an analytical mind. His way of thinking influenced my interest in the sciences. In fact, I began appreciating maths, physics, and other science subjects. Looking back, I enjoyed being engulfed in both science and art activities and it was hard to decide what I really wanted. I got stuck not knowing what I wanted to do when I grow up.
I wanted to be a doctor thinking it was a good fit but ended up studying biochemistry. I also wanted to be a lawyer but ended up going for information systems. My decisions on what I want to be ‘when I grow up’ have been as muddy and confusing. But they have evolved over time, and continue to evolve. I think it’s more exciting to live my life without setting rigid expectations. My goal is to be happy, and at the moment; aerospace engineering and writing are my vehicles in the pursuit of happiness.
What skills did you learn that contributed to your career success?
I think communication is the biggest skill. I sucked at it and am still not best suited in it. But it’s a skill we sometimes underestimate its power. Working in the call center and speaking with people with different accents and demeanors changed my professional life.
Another skill is time management. Being able to show up on time for work or for meetings. I was almost never late for anything and that alone opened more doors for me than most other skills. People respect and trust people who are always on time. Being on time shows people –especially in corporate America – that you value their time. And in turn, they can trust you to do the job in a timely fashion.
Another skill I learned was paying attention to detail. I always have a small notebook and pen with me, where I write down every little detail of my job. This helps me stay focused and ensure nothing slips. I find these skills – communication, time management, and attention to detail–as being the most important skills in my career. Every other thing can be taught in school. These seemingly simple ones are not so easy to teach.
What challenges did you encounter along the way?
For me being confident was a big challenge. I didn’t believe in myself, my capabilities, and my respect for those in authority bordered on reverence. It’s all part of the Nigerian cultural experience. We learn by observation and not by asking questions. And this was problematic for me transitioning to the United States. I had to learn to be bold, to speak up, and to be direct, without being rude. This was extremely tough for me. Being assertive to a superior felt like professional suicide to me because of my background.
How did you overcome these challenges?
I overcame this lack of confidence in different phases. It was gradual but it didn’t come all at once. The first wave of confidence was pure fortune as it came from the affirmation of other people close to me. As luck would have it, I was surrounded by people who had no problems complimenting my work.
Co-workers asked me to apply for openings I thought were beyond me. They commended my little contributions which I thought were trivial and nonconsequential. I was moved by the overwhelming confidence of my coworkers that I had to question my insecurity and self-doubt… In other words, these people forced me to question my assumptions about myself. This questioning continued and led me to read books on faith, psychology, and self-development.
I soon began to see the flaws in my assumptions about myself. I saw the cowardice in my demeanor, the timidity in my voice and how caged I was by my cultural and personal belief systems.
What lessons did you learn from your experience?
I learned that self-doubt and low self-esteem can stunt your growth–especially in corporate America. We must all understand that we are not inferior or superior to anyone. We are equal yet unique in our differences and that’s the beauty of it.
As an author of the Immigrant Manifesto: Mindset of the Corporate Migrant. What’s the story behind it?
My story and the stories of other migrants who overcame their hurdles to succeed in the corporate world are behind the Immigrant Manifesto. To succeed, one needs to think in a certain way and follow certain principles. In this book, I discussed seven principles I believe migrants need to follow if they wish to be successful in the corporate world.
I haven’t met a successful migrant who did not embody the principles highlighted in this book. For instance, you cannot doubt yourself or your strengths and be successful here. You cannot show up late habitually and expect success. There are other principles in the book which can transform any average person into a huge success in their company.
Why was it important to share your story with the world?
Many people who migrate from Africa to the US are confused about what to do or what career to pursue. Some make money but have to work three jobs. Some make money but have no job fulfillment. Some do not grow within our companies or live up to their full potentials. Most of this is caused by a limited mindset. For instance, our respect for authority borders on reverence.
A lot of migrants with great ideas are quiet in meetings even though they have great ideas that can move their companies forward. They are insecure about their accents or about the validity of their ideas. We ignore the wealth of tacit knowledge we bring. America is great today because they have been built up by people from different diverse cultures.
The English, the Irish, the Germans- and now the Asians are contributing their wealth of tacit knowledge to the pool. African migrants cannot afford to stay intimidated. We have a lot of value to offer and a lot to benefit from. But until we shift from the mindset of timidity to one of boldness, we will not attain our full potential. This is why it is important to share this book with the world.
Learn More about Obi Odenigbo
Read more stories and find out about the principles he shared in his book – Immigrant Manifesto.
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Check out another interview – How I Discovered My Mission In Life