Born and raised in Nigeria, Ony Mgbeahurike has been a long-time champion for Africa and its people, culture and commerce — a passion that has expanded to the black community and diversity and inclusion more broadly.
As a Consortium MBA fellow at Washington University’s Olin Business School, where he graduated in 2019, Mgbeahurike seized the opportunity to share his affinity for his home continent and increase awareness of its untapped potential. He co-led the creation of Olin’s Africa Business Club; an African Business Landscape course, which is now in its third year; and his own Afro-centric packaged goods startup, Good Soul Company — in addition to serving in student government, as a diversity recruiter for Olin and as a Consortium liaison.
Now an associate brand manager at Danone North America, where he leads the commercialization and launch of new products, Mgbeahurike uses his passion for diversity and inclusion to make a difference in the workplace. He shares his experience as well as advice on how others can do the same.
When did your interest and involvement in diversity and inclusion really begin, and how has it progressed?
It started in undergrad at the University of Minnesota. I started getting involved in diversity and minority representation on campus and the local chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). I enjoyed being in the network of minorities on campus and advancing students in STEM. I also co-founded the professional chapter of NSBE in the Twin Cities, which is now five years running. So, I would say that my involvement in or my commitment to diversity was sparked through NSBE.
When I started my General Mills career, I joined the African American employee resource group (ERG) BCN: Black Champions Network. I was mostly involved in the supply chain function. That progressed, and I went from planning events for our Black History Month to planning development events, and I continued to enjoy that.
What led you to pursue business and marketing?
I started in a more technical [field]; manufacturing was my degree. At General Mills, I worked more with the business functions when I was an international supply chain associate. I worked with sales and marketing, and I realized that my skills, or interests, were in marketing. I liked that the marketers were the ones who were driving new product launches.
I had co-founded the NSBE professional chapter in the Twin Cities and realized that the skills of founding or leading something new are similar to the skills you need as a marketer. I felt like my skills aligned and that I would derive more joy from being in a professional role that allowed me to utilize those kinds of entrepreneurial skills.
What influenced your decision to get an MBA?
Because of the skills I gained leading the NSBE Twin Cities professional chapter, and those I had acquired on my job at General Mills, I considered the benefits I would receive long term if I were to hone my leadership and analytical skills. I decided an MBA was the best route to gain the skills I would need to achieve my goals.
What was your time like at Olin, and how were you able to use your time there to advance your focus on diversity and inclusion?
I enjoyed my time at Olin. I was able to do everything I wanted to do in business school, from co-founding a couple of things — like the Africa Business Club, which is now a vital part of the Olin culture — to spearheading the creation of the African business course; to being involved in our Consortium cohort on campus, being involved in diversity recruitment; to even test running my own company. So, my time at Olin was very useful; it was powerful, and I was able to accomplish my personal and professional goals within those two years.
What led you to co-found the Olin Africa Business Club, and what is its mission?
When I looked at Olin’s classes, there weren’t many Africans, one, and two, there weren’t many black people. Olin is one of The Consortium founders, but the representation of diversity in our class was not strong compared to other schools. So, I thought about how I could contribute to this gap, but I was also focused on Africa. I am originally from Nigeria, and I think there’s so much business potential in Africa that is, unfortunately, overlooked. One of the things that I shared with the dean was that if we’re training global business leaders and missing Africa, we’re not genuinely doing a good job. I think that resonated with the dean and with the chancellor at that time.
Once we founded the club, we got tons of support from the dean, the university, the administration and the student body. We were able to hold conferences and bring in global leaders from across Africa to speak on campus.
Its mission is to increase Africa’s representation across campus, increase commerce opportunities, the people and the culture, to increase that representation and awareness — all of those interconnects. It’s important to showcase that there are business opportunities in Africa that are untapped and that as up-and-coming business leaders, we need to understand the world in its entirety. When we talk about global business, people think about Europe and China. Africa gets missed in that conversation, so this was my way of pushing Africa into the forefront of economic activities worldwide.
Your own company, Good Soul Company, is focused on Africa, too?
Yes. Good Soul Company is a food startup, and the mission is to expand the market access of African farmers and processors. This is because African farmers and small-sized processors don’t have the large-market access that their counterparts in other parts of the world have. They grow to produce and harvest, and by the time they sell [their product] to the open market, it goes bad. So, they are losing tons and tons of investment in their farming practice. This discourages the younger generation from getting into farming and farmers already in agriculture from staying in agriculture.My goal is to partner with those farmers and processors to expand their market access. We buy their product, and then we expose it to the world in a way that the cash flow will continue, that it’s consistent. It’s a side project that’s small and growing, but that’s my way of giving back and contributing to the African economy.
Full time, you’re an associate brand manager at Danone North America, where you led the creation of an ERG. What led you to create this group?
I interned at Danone North America in 2018; while I enjoyed my experience and got an offer to come back, I identified the absence of an African American ERG. If I were to go back, I asked myself if I was willing to take the lead of starting one. After thinking it through, I decided to accept the challenge.
When I returned in June of 2019, I co-led what is now called BOLD, which stands for Black Organization for Leadership at Danone North America. I started to connect with other black employees at the company and say, “Is this something you think would be useful and that you would be interested in?” We received tons of positive feedback; everybody was excited about it. So, we started putting together an email list, a running list of everyone who was interested. We had a kickoff meeting to get acquainted, then we began to engage with senior leadership; they supported us 100 percent. We officially launched the ERG in February 2020 to coincide with Black History Month. Even though COVID hampered us, we continued to engage virtually.
How is BOLD making a difference at the company?
One of the profound things that happened was after George Floyd’s death. BOLD became the front and center for how the organization responded to the Black Lives Matter movement. We were consulted and included in how our brands responded and made commitments on social media.
Also, we led what we called BOLD Conversations on Race. They touched on race both in the workplace and outside of it, and it provided a platform for our black employees to share what they’ve experienced in their lifetimes. That was so powerful because, for many of our colleagues, it was an eye-opener hearing from their fellow employees what they’ve experienced and how those experiences have impacted their lives. We’ve had seven of those sessions, and each one has had senior leadership engagement and representation.
I’m proud that BOLD has provided a space for African Americans at Danone North America and has permanently changed the organization’s culture as well as led to an increased commitment to hiring diverse candidates.
Do you hope to combine your background in business and marketing with your passion for diversity and inclusion?
In any environment that I find myself in, I will always advocate for minorities in any organization. So, the way that I see my career and my life going is that I will be a business leader with an entrepreneurial mindset who advocates for minorities — and that will always continue. I seek out opportunities that will allow me to combine both interests.
What advice do you have for other business leaders looking to advance diversity and inclusion in their own companies or organizations?
First of all, be convicted that this is what you want to do. I think that conviction will lead you to action. Second, reach out and engage with someone on the leadership team or someone in the administration who also believes in that same conviction, passion or interest, because it’s one thing to have the power and the [conviction]; it’s another thing to have people to do the job. Connecting with someone in management who can relate to that conviction will help break down barriers you may face. My third piece of advice would be to enlist others; make it a team effort to ensure that you’re not doing it alone.