For this week’s interview, we spoke with Abu Fofanah, an entrepreneur and young professional based currently in New York City, NY. Abu has been running his own businesses since the age of 18, and has a huge passion for helping others build and grow their own businesses as well. I met Abu at a business conference in 2014, and was blown away by his charisma, his friendly demeanor, and his outright willingness to help out with anything and everything. What I didn’t know when I met him was the fascinating and inspiring story behind his successes. Read on to learn more about Abu’s incredible journey.
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JF: What is your 3-minute autobiography?
I was born in West Africa, in Sierra Leone. My family came [to the United States] when I was super young – my mom won a refugee lottery. She couldn’t bring all of her kids, so she brought the youngest [me]. I was a baby when we came to the States, and we were super poor. We lived in a one-room place in my mom’s sister’s house for a while, but we moved around a lot. When all of my siblings came over, it was seven of us, and it was tough. Whatever poor was in America, we were below that coming here.
I don’t come from a background where travel was really discussed, because you need money to do it. I thought people needed a lot of money for it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized you don’t need a ton of money to travel – there are tons of resources to get discounts and enter contests, or study abroad and expose yourself to different cultures.
My mom always preached education. I knew we never had enough money for me to go to college, so I told myself I need to focus on it. That led me to eventually getting a full academic scholarship [to Penn State].
At Penn State, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do in life and who I wanted to be. Up until that point, I was a big sports player, but in college I didn’t play. So, since I wasn’t playing but I’d done it my entire life, I was trying to figure out my identity.
I tried out entrepreneurship. My first business was when I was 18 – I was selling t-shirts. I got a lot of publicity when I got a picture with John Legend and my shirts, and so that went a bit viral on Facebook and many people began ordering the shirts… That was my first experience with determining who I was and figuring out my identity within entrepreneurship.
From then on, I continued to find opportunities to put myself out there, meet new people, network, and figure out what everyone else was doing. [It was also another opportunity to] pitch my business.
I ended up doing the retail thing for a while, and left school a bit early to move to Milan to study fashion design. I thought it was design I wanted to do, not entrepreneurship. But I went out there, and I was the worst person in the class. However, in this experience, I learned my true strengths. There was always a line of students asking me business questions. When I was in Milan, I had the opportunity to do some work for the Versace family, and simply absorb the culture.
After this, I came back and did a short gig at a non profit who worked in tangent to the White House. There, I learned all kinds of leadership skills. Following that, I worked at PWC in tech consulting, which was great, but I felt like I didn’t really have the chance to do what I was truly good at, which is helping people build business.
Eventually, I left PWC and started my own company called House of Fofanah. At House of Fofanah, I was able to work with the clients that I chose. I was in the driver’s seat. Recently, I did a short stint on Wall Street. When I came back to the corporate world, I thought maybe a different company would fix the problem, but it made me realize that I really needed to just be doing my own thing and serving my people.
Now, I’m back to running House of Fofanah full time, where I’m working as a digital marketing agency, working with a lot of brands ranging from small to large. I help business founders run strategic marketing campaigns to help them drive brand awareness, leads, and sales.
JF: What has been one of the most difficult obstacles you’ve had to overcome in your life?
More than anything, I think [the biggest obstacle] growing up was mindset. There are people who grew up in the same circumstances that I did, but the only difference in where we are today is the mindset. How do you frame when things happen to you? Do you think it’s because of you? Or because people are against you? It’s all in how you frame the things that happen to you in life.
It’s so simple. People don’t really pay much attention to it. But when you grow up in a really low-income area, and you have a mindset that life isn’t fair, it’s so easy to adopt that when everyone else around you thinks the same way. I think being exposed to different mentors and people with different backgrounds that made me realize that I can dictate how life is going to turn out for me. Where I start is not where I’m going to end up.
It’s really about overcoming yourself… you become your worst enemy. And I think for sure that was the biggest obstacle I’ve had to overcome.
JF: Growing up in a place where this “life isn’t fair” mindset was so pervasive, where do you think your mindset shift came from?
It’s so funny, because my psychologist in high school would ALWAYS ask me that. He’d say, “Abu, if you could pinpoint one thing, what would it be that changed your trajectory?”
[A large part of] developing this belief came from my first grade teacher, Jean Meyers. I say that because when I first came here, we didn’t even know what Halloween was. When Halloween rolled around, I came into school and everyone has costumes except for me. I remember going to recess and coming back in…and seeing a costume in my cubicle. I realized that my teacher had gone to Party City and brought me a Fred Flintstone costume!
She saw something in me at a young age, and told me, “you can write your ticket anywhere in the world, Abu, you just have to put your name on it.”
When I moved from that neighborhood and went on to graduate high school, I saw a letter in the mail from her. And she said the same thing: “See! I told you. You can write your ticket anywhere in the world, you just have to put your name on it.”
JF: Describe one of your favorite places in the world.
In [Milan,] Italy, there’s a complex called Corso Como. In Corso Como, it’s usually super busy during the day. But at night, it slows down because everyone’s sitting around, eating dinner and talking to each other. It’s a pretty high end area with lots of expensive stores, but there are also things like a free art gallery, places to check out other designers’ work, and more.
As you walk into Corso Como, the first thing you see is a large sewing machine. That’s just to signify that it’s a garment district. In the area, people are just hanging out – eating together, talking together for HOURS! And as you walk up and down the street at night, you smell good food, you hear conversations, and most times, you can’t even understand what they’re saying because they’re speaking Italian. But all you see is smiles and laughter.
Walking across the town square area, you can go up a little hill into the waterfall area. In Corso Como, they built [an installation] where the water shoots out of the ground. You can walk across it, and at night, the water still runs. You can sit down on one of the benches and just listen to the water. Looking around, you can see old buildings next to new buildings being built. It’s an interesting [juxtaposition].
There’s just a lot going on here, and Corso Como, especially at night, is one of my favorite spots. When I’d get frustrated in my classes, I’d sit down here with a notebook at night and try and think through some things.
JF: How do you think traveling has transformed the way you think and live?
Big time. It starts with learning empathy. Sometimes when you’re so immersed in the “American way,” you forget that there’s a world outside. So you travel to places, and you realize that maybe your life isn’t so bad.
It has given me a sense of both breadth of depth. Whenever I’m speaking to someone who hasn’t traveled much, there’s a disconnect on the fact that there’s another way of life. Traveling has opened my eyes. Even when I’m back in the US, I’m always able to relate to others. It’s like a playing card that trumps everything – you can find out more about people and connect on a deeper level just by talking about travel.
Coming from a low income area, when you have the opportunity to travel, your friends live through you. So I try to encourage them to travel too, and encourage them to save their money to do so. So many of the people I grew up in the same neighborhood with have never left Philadelphia. Ever. It’s mind-blowing to me.
I always encourage people to travel at least once. It may just change the trajectory of their lives, or make them realize they don’t need to stay in Philadelphia anymore. Maybe they’ll find a path helping people, or starting a business out there… There are so many possibilities, you just need to get out of your bubble.
JF: What’s something you think many people have on their minds but are afraid to say?
From what I am starting to gather, especially from people my age who don’t like what they’re doing, they fall into a state of depression. I think it’s starting to get some spotlight, but not really. We’re never really taught how to deal with it.
It’s just like finance. When you grow up in a low-income area, you don’t really know anything about finance. It’s the same thing with depression. There’s no “How to Manage Depression 101” class. The more and more we see big celebrities suffering from depression, you realize you don’t know what people are going through and how they handle stress.
Specifically in the African American community, there’s this big belief that church is supposed to fix it. They say, “pray more, pray harder, and God will handle it.” That’s great, but it’s not really a great solution for people who are going through depression. They might need a little bit more than that. However, in this community, people start to react when you talk about psychologists or therapists. So they try to solve it with church.
I think it’s a huge issue, especially in college. You may have been depressed for your four years in college, and them you get funneled directly into the workforce. It could still be lingering, without being addressed for 10 or even 20 years. And no one has given you a solution, and you might think [there isn’t a way out]…
It’s a much deeper issue than how I’ve simplified it here, but I think it’s something young people aren’t talking about because they’re afraid.
JF: How do you think the corporate culture of America contributes to this?
It’s hard to pinpoint what ignites depression. But I feel like our culture [glorifies] the idea of things like, “I don’t sleep, I don’t eat, I just work, and I’m climbing a ladder.” It’s really hardcore. Everyone adopts that same mentality, and no one really takes a step back to take care of themselves.
They don’t stop and say, “Why can’t I take a day off work, not because I’m sick, but for a mental break?” Imagine calling your boss [and saying that]. That’s not common. Until we start letting this happen, it’s going to start perpetuating depression further. So, yeah, I think the corporate culture definitely contributes to it.
JF: What’s some of the best advice you ever received? From whom?
When I was working in the White House nonprofit, there was a woman who told me, “You control your own timeline, you control your own destiny.”
That really resonated with me for a lot of reasons. A lot of times, you don’t think you have any control. Obviously, you can’t have control over everything, but you do have control over yourself and your decisions. She told me that you have to move at your own timeline.
It’s so much harder when you look at Instagram or Facebook and you see that one person got into Harvard and this other person got a promotion… It’s so easy to read into it and say, “Am I doing anything with myself? Am I moving too slowly?” In these situations, that quote always comes to mind.
JF: What legacy do you hope to leave behind one day?
I want people to be able to say, “This is the impact he’s had,” or, “This is the value he’s given the world.” I don’t want to leave the world having all of that value, or just impacting my own life. That would mean I’ve failed, because I wasn’t able to help other people that look like me, or people that are struggling.
The other thing I want people to know about my legacy is that I did everything that I could to help women, especially women of color, succeed. That comes from my mom. As a single parent raising 7 children, I saw her getting rejected and denied from countless opportunities that she was qualified to do, and I’m on a mission to help women everywhere, especially women of color, to have a fair chance and equal opportunities.
I think sometimes when people get really big and famous, they have someone else write their story. But what those people miss is the empathy behind it. Things like this: when I was young, I had a really close friendship with the cleaning staff in my building! For my birthday, they baked me a cake and we sat together and ate cake and drank lemonade… These are the small moments that I want captured in my story; these are the moments that will tell people who I am. So when you amplify my story, you see the small moments, and they make sense because you understand the person through those everyday interactions.
Overall, I want to be remembered for those small moments, more than anything else.
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