Just reading Adaora Mbelu-Dania’s (‘08) resume is enough to tire most of us.
She launched her first entrepreneurial endeavor at age 16, a magazine produced in her home country of Nigeria that celebrated the work of Africans in the diaspora. She worked as content director for the United Nations World Tourism Conference, Nigeria Centenary Awards and the International Conference on Peace & Security; as a project manager for "Nigerian Idol," "Nigeria’s Got Talent" and "X Factor"; and as corporate communications manager for Optima Sports Management International during the 2010 World Cup. And she started her own company, A2 Creative Ltd., in 2015, prompting Entrepreneur magazine to include her in a list of 11 Africans changing Africa’s business landscape.
And those are just the highlights.
“I feel like entrepreneurship is kind of a mindset,” says Mbelu-Dania. “As much as people like to think that it’s a job, it’s really a mindset.”
A born entrepreneur if ever there was one, her time as an entrepreneurship and economics major at Northern Kentucky University honed her innate skills. But traveling from Nigeria to Highland Heights wasn’t her first plan.
“Interestingly, I hadn’t initially applied to NKU,” she explains. “I was so sure that I was going to Georgetown or somewhere in the D.C. tristate area.” But her brother intervened—as a student at NKU himself, he wanted his sister to join him in northern Kentucky, and their parents conceded. “It was culture shock at first, but I loved it,” she says, pointing to cultural diversity as a key takeaway from the experience.
“We had to submit business plans or come up with an idea for something that we wanted to run,” she continues. “Everyone in the class kind of focused around the Kentucky area, but because that wasn’t my cultural experience, I decided I wanted to do something that worked well in my environment.” Mbelu-Dania wrote her business plan around the logistics of transporting petroleum products, a challenge in her home country. “My financial projections were based on the Nigerian market, and my professors couldn’t understand it. So when I did my presentations, it always seemed like I was thinking a little too big, but really it was based on where I was coming from.”
After graduation, she packed her things and headed back to Lagos, Nigeria—as was her plan all along. “I came to America with the mindset that I was going to learn and take it back home,” she says. “There’s always been a brain drain out of Africa in general. But with the world being a global network now, you can do business anywhere. I do business with a lot of clients who are in the states.”
Upon arriving home, she landed work in production, a far cry from what she studied at NKU. But she was prepared. “That’s the brilliant thing about studying something like economics or entrepreneurship—you gain so many skills that you can pretty much take into any industry,” she says. She excelled at the work but soon realized she wanted more from her career. “I just felt like I could do this and have some level of creative control,” she says. “I really wanted to touch the creativity and innovation by creating things that I felt would actually solve problems.”
In response to this inner yearning for creative control, Mbelu-Dania founded A2 Creative, an experiential marketing and talent firm focused on consumer brand journeys, in 2015 and the Trellis Group, a creative consultancy, in 2016. “When I moved back to Nigeria, I found that a lot of people who wore creative hats didn’t know how to do the business side,” she says. “I had the ability to do both. I was a creative, but I also understood the business side of creativity.”
The workload is daunting most days, but she’s committed to being everything her companies need her to be. “I still consider us a startup, which means that my partners and I are fully immersed in the business. We don’t get the luxury of just being figureheads. We actually get the work done with our team.” She hopes to reduce her role in company operations soon but understands it’s all part of the entrepreneur’s life. “It’s like, I’ll try to work, then someone’s knocking on my door to talk about HR!” she says with a laugh. “But it’s an important part of running a business.”
When asked what project she’s most proud of, Mbelu-Dania doesn’t hesitate to answer Socially Africa, a non-governmental organization (NGO) aimed at improving the lives of people in the community. “It was basically me getting a few young people together and saying, ‘Look. I know we all want to wait until we’re billionaires to give back to the community, but there are ways to give back now.” The project’s first campaign, Art for a Cause, took volunteers into dilapidated schools to create educational wall murals. (Art for a Cause is doing its 14th school now). “We wanted to find a way to create inspiration for [children] while they are learning, and also just spend time with them. A lot of NGOs in this market just donate money—they don’t spend time. We really wanted to spend time.” Socially Africa currently runs three other projects as well: a coding school for girls, a holiday gift program and a creative goodwill campaign.
Which all seems like plenty to occupy a person’s time, but Mbelu-Dania’s entrepreneurialism fuels a constant search to find new ways of connecting with people, from her frequent speaking engagements to an educational platform within Trellis to, most recently, a musical project under the Adoara Lumina persona—all intentionally designed to share an important message.
“I like to talk about the fact that purpose will take you out of your comfort zone. I feel like everyone wants to find purpose, but then they find it and say to themselves, ‘That cannot be my purpose if it takes me out of my comfort zone.’” she says. “People talk a lot about passion, and passion’s great, but my own journey has really been about purpose.
“These days, there’s just so much information out there that if you don’t live what you’re teaching, you don’t really impact anyone. If what you’re teaching is not what you’re living, then how will someone be inspired by who you are? So I talk about those things, but I also make sure I walk my talk.”