Since childhood, Chinedu Enekwe has sought community. From moving school to school or town to town, Enekwe always returns to building belonging with like-minded people, who themselves are in search of opportunity, creativity and financial independence.
“As I grew up with my mom, I had to build that sense of belongingness because I wasn’t naturally from the U.S.,” he says. “As a member of these different communities, I still felt like an outsider, so I had this need to build bonds, and that shapes everything for me.”
Enekwe moved seven times before he was 14-years-old. A Nigerian immigrant, his father and mother were from two different subcultures, Igbo and Yoruba respectively, which constantly caused Enekwe to feel both connected and disconnected from his culture. Add American schooling, and you begin to understand why he wanted to bridge gaps.
“For people who have this experience of being from another country, and then having the bifurcation or challenge that you’re not from one culture within that, you feel like you have this duality of thought,” Enekwe says. “These are some of the reasons I’ve been drawn in my career to things that impact others, so I can help them hopefully feel whole, because I missed out on opportunities and ways in doing that.”
Searching for Purpose
Upon graduating high school in Baltimore — a full-circle moment, as he had actually begun schooling in the city — Enekwe went on to study engineering at the University of Maryland, with the intent to focus on solar energy. While in school, his priorities shifted to law, and his yearning to fight social injustices led him to Howard University.
“I was reading a lot about social justice and social justice warriors, and when you look at Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, they all had legal training,” Enekwe says. “I thought to myself, ‘Look at this one profession, it seems to be more honorable than what I’m doing as an environmental engineer.’ To make a decent amount of money in engineering, you can’t really openly fight for social justice.”
Things turned again during his first year in law school. Interviewing with a law firm dealing in private equity lit his interst in finance.
“He asked me what I knew about private equity, and I just said, ‘Private equity?’ I had never heard the phrase. I should have probably researched his background,” Enekwe laughs.
Private equity involves gathering funds from savers and investing them toward potential entrepreneurs. While this wasn’t why he initially went to law school, Enekwe thought about his experiences in Nigeria, where everyone was constantly and creatively inventing new services for their communities via business.
“They just didn’t have the resources or funding to do all the things they had dreamt of,” Enekwe says. “If you’re the allocator, you could really change someone’s life. And that could mean hiring people, giving others a job.”
Belonging in Business
After finishing his law degree, Enekwe shifted his focus to the business sector. Whether an investor at a larger bank or with his own eventual private firm, he believed he could change outcomes for individuals by enabling their dreams to come to fruition.
“I’d be able to change outcomes in tons of people’s lives, for those employed and others affected by larger issues,” Enekwe says. “Business is social justice. My experience being raised as an immigrant, I recognized the social justice within business trickles down to the everyday employee and that’s what drives me.”
“There was a return to Africa moment for young professionals, and I felt like I wanted to contribute my own talents,” Enekwe says. “That offered me an opportunity to live and work in Nigeria, and at 26, I was able to be around my family for an extended period. It really changed how I looked at the world.”
After witnessing the entrepreneurial spirit in Nigeria, Enekwe built his own venture capitalist firm, Passbook Ventures, that invests in entrepreneurs with creative ideas and kickstarts his own start-ups.
“It’s crazy to do this in D.C.,” he says. “It’s not the sort of space where you see a lot of people pulling together really interesting pieces around entrepreneurship. You see a lot of creatives in the political, policy and other capacities, but there aren’t a lot of us venture capitalists.”
One project Enekwe is particularly excited about is Nandi Labs, a market using blockchain intended to help Black creators sell their art and create like-minded communities. With cryptocurrency and NFTs, Enekwe says creators could earn more than they would in traditional marketplaces.
“It allows creators in the Black community to be compensated in a way that will enable them to live thriving and prosperous lifestyles,” Enekwe says.
That’s just the marketplace, he says. Enekwe says the possibilities of Nandi Labs is limitless for the people who interact with the service.
“I get to now create a pathway for a creative to create a career in a space that will allow my younger self or even a future me to be a successful entrepreneur with a clear path to building a life.”
For his projects to thrive, Enekwe says they require degrees of trust.
“What I’ve experienced in the Black community on the U.S. side, is that a lot of time the most successful opportunities are not highly publicized for people within the community,” he says. “What I mean is: Black people aren’t publicizing to their community, ‘Hey, come and invest in my opportunity.’”
He continues, “On the pernicious side, when you think back historically to the Black community within the United States, when there are successful people of color, the institutional and systemic racism has created this way where any successful people are taken down. When you think of it from a larger standpoint, and you have a country that didn’t reward well-known Black businesses, or the successful people within them, it became a habit that if you’re successful in the community you shouldn’t share it.”
Though money and resources are paramount in venture capitalist and finance ventures, Enekwe hasn’t lost sight of his mission to continue his fight for social justice.
“There’s a social justice element to everything I do that I want people to know,” he says. “I want people to know how immigrants bring an economic engine to the society. By supporting immigrants and Black creators, and supporting those businesses that they create, you’re strengthening yourself, the world and those communities.”