‘Seek Opportunities That Are Uncommon’: A Conversation With Amanda Ebokosia – a Forbes ‘Millennial on a Mission’.

How do we become who we are? When do we start to become who we will be? When are the building blocks set in place? Amanda Ebokosia, a Nigerian-American, founded the non-profit The Gem Project while she was a sophomore at Rutgers University. Six years later, she’s helped over 1,200 young people ages four to twenty-four give back to their communities through service-based enrichment programs, such as entrepreneurial contests and filming educational public service announcements. She’s also a talented and inspiring writer and speaker, and a contributor to numerous media outlets on the topics of leadership, empowerment, education, feminism, and business. All of that doesn’t come from an overnight brain wave. It comes from something much deeper, from seeds that were sown in another time and place. So that’s where Amanda and I started our conversation – with her story.

First generation Nigerian-American, at twenty-seven years old Amanda is the oldest of three children. Her two younger brothers are twenty-four (Brian) and nineteen (Michael), and Michael is autistic. Her mother – Patience – was a single parent. Amanda spent her childhood in different parts of the country – born in Missouri, California, Reno Nevada until she was three, then spent most of her elementary and primary school years in Philadelphia until she was fourteen. The reason they moved so much was that her mom was always looking for good job opportunities as she juggled starting medical school, working full-time as nurse to supplement their income, and raising three kids. Amanda’s mom was dedicated to creating better opportunities for her kids as they were growing up. Some seeds were sown.

Amanda’s parents did not have a good relationship, the tension was clearly apparent to the three kids, and when she was in eighth grade her parents finally split up. Her mom was the sole caretaker of the three kids and the only active parent in their lives. Her relationship with her father was non-existent. Her mother was always her constant in terms of letting her know she could do anything she wanted to in this world. Her dad would say she wouldn’t amount to anything without him, and Amanda realizes that was his personal frustrations. But if she didn’t have a constant figure in her life like her mother telling her she could be anything she wanted, she doesn’t know where she would be today.

As she looks back she can see how the building blocks were set in place based on what she experienced as a child and the relationship she had with her father. Our relationships with parents help shape how we see the world, whether we like to admit it or not. Youth are so impressionable and so many people in their lives can sway them off course. Youth have potential and they do matter. She has this deep compelling desire to help youth realize their full potential because her mother was that for her. When Amanda was fourteen her mom moved the kids again, as she had graduated from medical school at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. She brought the family to New Jersey to start her residency program at University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). Because Amanda was able to see those challenges at young age – sacrifice, dedication, relentless passion for something she believes in – she understood what a difference it can make in someone’s life. Some seeds were sown.

When Amanda was in Philadelphia one of her greatest memories was when the movie ‘Titanic’ came out. She had a bike and a great group of friends. Spice Girls were rocking the charts and ‘If you wanna be my lover’ was one of their favorite songs. Amanda gathered a group of friends together and said to them ‘Let’s start a group, let’s see if we can sell certain things’. For example she had a color printer, most people didn’t. So they printed colorful drawings of the Spice Girls and went around the block selling them. At the end of the week they put their money together and tried to have a pizza party. That was her first bite into entrepreneurship. Some seeds were sown.

From 2000 to 2004 Amanda attended Bloomfield High School in New Jersey. Then her family moved back to Missouri, while she enrolled in Rutgers for her undergraduate studies in Biology with a minor in Psychology. She was loving every minute of it, until her world shut down. During her sophomore year she received a call from her mother, telling her she had a small cancer lump in her breast. Amanda’s mother had been the glue to the family. It was a lot to take in. It wasn’t something she was prepared for. Amanda wanted to come home, but her mom did she had always done – she downplayed the severity and asked her to focus on her studies and wait till the school break to come home, since it was just a few weeks away. Respecting her mom’s wishes, she did just that. When she did get home a few weeks later it was to find that the situation was much more serious than what her mom had let on. Her mom had a double mastectomy and had to go through intensive chemotherapy.

As Amanda went through this process with her family while also focusing on her studies she found it to be both a difficult and a therapeutic time. In the spring semester she found herself needing to keep active to keep her mind off the stresses of her mom’s health issues. She started to come up with an idea. She wanted to create an organization where youth could learn about issues that impacted them and their communities, where they could educate each other, where they could participate in activities that would draw them in. She started off with a traveling awareness exhibit that explored the topic of breast cancer through young adults. In March of 2006 they did a casting call in New York where they photographed young people with large placards that displayed facts about breast cancer. The photos were enlarged, circulated and displayed at different institutions for a week. As Amanda sat and observed reactions and feedback to the displays, what she found was startling. At NJIT – a predominantly male engineering school at that time – she saw 2 young male students walked up to the display. They had a conversation about a photo in which a guy was holding sign saying he can have breast cancer – one the guys stating that men can’t get breast cancer, his friend correcting him. It was then that the light bulb went off for Amanda – it was a teaching moment! What she had created was not just a traveling exhibit on issues, but it was also a medium for interactive literacy issues with youth. This was something greater than she initially intended. The seeds had germinated, The Gem Project was born!

It’s amazing that someone so young has already done so much in terms of giving back to others. I personally believe that those who are involved in giving back to the communities in which they work, live and play make better leaders. So I asked Amanda how she believes that her focus and what she does in terms of giving back has made her a better leader at the age of twenty-seven.

She spoke about the importance of listening skills in being a good leader. Serving youth requires them to listen because they really need to understand and figure out how to meet their needs. Often their behavior mirrors what your behavior. If they are in an environment where they are not being listened to they won’t open up. However, when you listen to them they start to share what they want to become. As a leader she has found by being a good listener she can navigate through the challenges, she sees things through a perspective other than her own. Listening has taught her to be humble, to take things in, to be fully present.

The Gem Project has changed her to become a better person – to be patient, to think things through, to provide the space and opportunity for others to come into their own. She recently got a message from a young student that has been in Gem programs for the last three years, and who is now ten years old. The student wrote a note, and through her mom’s account on Facebook passed it to Amanda. She shared before she started The Gem Project she was shy. Her Gem project dream is to one day be a leader and to run The Gem Project herself and inspire others. It took Amanda back in time because it reinforces the impact they make on each and every child. This child wrote letter and expressed the impact of change on her development. Every moment in time you give to others is a teaching moment, a learning moment, and also the moment when your leadership is being evaluated, when others will take what they see you do and use for themselves. It’s a cycle – you give, you lead, you give, you lead.

Leaders exert influence, leaders exert power. Amanda and I discovered that we have a shared interest in this topic of women and power – how they get it, how they use it, how they define it. So I asked her what her thoughts were on this topic of women and power.

Amanda believes that power is within you. It has never left you; you just have to be able to draw it out. You draw it out through what you encounter, what you embrace and the people you surround yourself with. You have to feed it. It can be either malnourished or enriched by what you choose to do, what you read, who you associate with, what you invest in for yourself. We are all part of the human experience so need to watch what we do. Oftentimes we don’t realize how much negativity we are putting into our lives. Sometimes good people with good intentions place negativity on you and it draws down your power. When people give you advice you need to realize it is based on their own human experience, what they would do. Watch who you ask for advice, recognize their advice could add or subtract from your power. Remember that the only person who should be in charge of your end goal is yourself.

The other piece of advice Amanda wanted to share on the topic of women and power is to welcome other experiences. Don’t set limitations on what you can do to feed your power. Don’t set limitations that will stifle your influence and limit opportunities to learn and grow. As women we set a lot if limitations on ourselves. Some of those are professional, others are personal. We don’t move forward because we pretty much turn down opportunities. She commented that she has noticed at male empowerment seminars that are established to empower men, you are less likely to see women go. But when she goes to women empowerment events she sees men there. Seek opportunities to learn that are uncommon because that is when learning happens and that is when power grows.

So much of Amanda’s story has its genesis in her family. That part of her life is also an uncommon experience, and has been the source of much of her inspiration, her drive and her power. We circled back to that topic. One of her favorite thing to do with her family is to be out on the porch of her mom’s home in Missouri, united together for celebrations. It’s calm, the breeze is different, it’s relaxing, it gives her the re-charge she needs to keep moving forward and upward.

I asked her to share something with me that she learnt from one of her brothers. She commented that she learnt something remarkable from her brother that is autistic. From him she learnt to appreciate the small things and be compassionate. ‘People that don’t have experience with youth or children or adults with disabilities take many special moments for granted. My brother Michael is completely non-verbal. I spent some time with him a few weeks ago for a month. One day I asked him to help me with my laundry and pull coins. He understands, he just doesn’t communicate it back, but that moment was such a great accomplishment that I had to share it with others. He is so happy about the most simple things and he is so happy with himself. We are always so much on the go and we bypass simple experiences that should be so pleasurable to us.’

That simple experience extends to pure joy in the act of just living. Something that Amanda’s mom, as a cancer survivor, has done for eight years now. It’s been a journey for Amanda as she has grown into the person she has become, and as she continues to grow into the person she will be. A journey closely tied in with that of her family. A journey of uncommon opportunities that has helped her to become the leader she is today. May you the reader find yours, and in doing so find your leadership potential.