BUILDING HIS FUTURE IN AN ADOPTED CITY A NIGERIAN IMMIGRANT BRINGS AN ENTREPRENEURIAL DRIVE TO HIS NEW COUNTRY Series: PITTSBURGH'S NEW IMMIGRANTS

By Roth, Mark | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), June 8, 2014 | Go to article overview

BUILDING HIS FUTURE IN AN ADOPTED CITY A NIGERIAN IMMIGRANT BRINGS AN ENTREPRENEURIAL DRIVE TO HIS NEW COUNTRY Series: PITTSBURGH'S NEW IMMIGRANTS


Roth, Mark, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


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."

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."

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. …

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