For Nnena Ukuku, practicing law isn’t so much about setting precedents in the courtroom or conducting groundbreaking litigation research in the nearest library. Because while those things may be important to some high-profile attorneys, they aren’t what get this Nigerian-American woman out of bed each day.

What motivates Nnena is providing value and doing good for her clients. But more than anything else, it’s about passion – and she’s found hers within the startup community. “I didn’t realize how crazy and how hard it was going to be – but I love it!”

Today, aside from her law group, Nnena is the founder and CEO of Black Founders whose mission is to “increase the number of successful black entrepreneurs.” BF works to create a connected ecosystem between peers, mentors and funding. Through this network, Nnena hosts events intended to “bring highly-skilled black people” together so that they can build great companies.

Whether she’s at an event, cruising the Silicon Valley with someone who’s just moved to the area, helping to validate a business idea, or teaching startup lingo over coffee, Nnena is committed to helping new businesses thrive in an area where three out of four startups fail.

Since leaving her hometown of Atlanta and moving to San Francisco, Nnena’s innumerable serendipitous collisions have taught her a thing or two about the startup community and more importantly to a woman of color, they’ve taught her how to use her “otherness” to her advantage.

Here are 5 ways she’s learned to keep the odds working in her favor:

  1. Work harder than anyone expects you to. People come into conversations with built-in assumptions based on ethnicity, sometimes without knowing it, Nnena explains. If they’ve never worked with a minority, it gives you an edge to utterly impress them. Take yourself seriously so they take YOU seriously. Make them believe that you are more than capable of doing the job.
  1. Embrace being who you are. “Being a Nigerian-American woman from the south was my “branding” and I used it to my advantage. When I placed a follow-up phone call, I wouldn’t hesitate to remind them of what I looked like and where I came from – it helped them remember me and made me stand out.”
  1. Never underestimate the value of a meeting. “The first meeting I had was with a student who clearly couldn’t afford to hire me. But it turned out that he was the one who gave me my first big client. Sometimes, people who are not that “high up” can still help you develop your career,” Nnena points out.
  1. Maintain your relationships and be authentic. “Networking doesn’t have to be creepy. Just be genuine and get to know others. People respond very positively to people being genuine instead of just using an angle to network,” she says.
  1. Don’t put yourself in a box. “I don’t fit into any one bucket. That helps me find points of commonality with others. Your humanity will help you in the long run. Figure out what you have in common, what you’re willing to share and open the door to help them remember you.” Nnena says that doing this will…

      …help others see how your lives intersect
      …show someone new that you’re not “scary”
      …make you memorable
      …underscore the shared human experience and allow you to go from there.

How have you used your otherness to your advantage? What would you add to Nnena’s list? 

*Nnena’s photo

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