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raceAhead: Why Mark Zuckerberg Went to Nigeria

Last week, Mark Zuckerberg spent two days in Lagos, Nigeria, stopping first to visit the Co-Creation Hub, a tech “pre-incubator” that supports a wide variety of start-ups and social entrepreneurs. (I spent the better part of a day at the Co-Creation Hub last year, while reporting this story on Bono’s One Campaign. It’s an incredible epicenter of potential and talent.)

Next, he hoofed it across town through the legendary Lagos traffic to Andela, a talent accelerator which recently closed a $24 million Series B funding round lead by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the fund established by Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan.

All in all, a potentially transformational visit for both Zuckerberg and Nigeria.

As pointed out by both Quartz Africa and Techpoint, a wonderful Nigerian tech blog, Zuckerberg’s decision to visit – and invest in – Nigeria, as opposed to some other African countries with more established tech hubs and better infrastructure, may have been influenced by the high-ranking Nigerian executives who work at Facebook.

There are some 15 of them, and they’ve been doing some pretty important stuff:

“Among the most prominent are Emeka Afigbo, who handles strategic product partnerships for Facebook in sub-Saharan Africa and Ime Archibong, Facebook’s director of strategic partnerships. Back in May, Archibong and Afigbo led a Facebook delegation to launch the company’s Free Basics—a service that aims to help more people access the internet at no cost—in Nigeria. Afigbo, in particular, is said to be one of Zuckerberg’s trusted advisers on growing the company in Africa. He’s believed to have influenced Zuckerberg’s decision to back Lagos-based coder training center Andela.”

Read the entire list here.

One name immediately jumped out at me. I met Olaoluwa Okelola, a young engineer, in 2011 when I was reporting my third Facebook feature for a different business magazine. I had been pestering Facebook since 2007 to help me understand the lack of diversity in their engineering ranks, and to explain why I never got to meet any black or brown employees of any kind during my reporting trips.

And then I got to meet one.

Sure, he was from Howard University, but by way of Nigeria? I had been hoping for a whiz kid from Chicago or Newark. Hell, Greenwich, Connecticut, even. I was surprised, and not in a good way. This is not what I meant when I said diversity!

My face still burns with a hint of shame at my initial reaction.

Meeting Okelola was a revelation. Charismatic, talented and beloved by his peers, he quickly helped me move past my initial pro-American bias – which he addressed directly with kindness – to begin to think about the importance of diversity in a broader, global sense. Succeeding while black in tech did not have to be a zero-sum game, he said. There was value in everyone. By pointing out my bias, he gave me a gift.

Though I still want every whiz kid from an overlooked U.S. zip code to get their fair shot – and still plan to keep pestering the tech sector to do better – the time I spent with Okelola helped me to be a more open reporter, and able to think about diversity from more than one perspective.

And ultimately, to walk the streets of Lagos looking for ways to understand and connect, not divide and conquer.


On Point

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—Howard Schultz