Interview with Manny Ohonme
Manny Ohonme, founder of Samaritan's Feet, shares his inspiring story, his leadership philosophy and the incredible work his organization is doing.
We have a outstanding human being, an outstanding leader with us today in Manny Ohonme.
Manny, we're delighted to have you with us. This is a chance for us to tell your story, which I'll say up front to our audience is an incredible story.
He is the founder and CEO of a great organization called Samaritan's Feet.
That's-- thank you.
And you'll hear more about that as we go through this discussion.
But Manny, I just want to start with the beginning for you, because in leadership, we find that one of the most difficulties that leaders have is dealing with obstacles. And you've started your life in the middle of obstacles. Tell us about Africa, Nigeria, where you were born and raised, and some of the difficulties you went through.
I grew up in a first-generation Christian family. My mom was the first, actually, Christian on my family tree. [INAUDIBLE], my father, struggled because of life choices, because of his fears, all the things. And he had to find a way to escape, and his escape came in the form of alcohol and other things to help calm his nerve. And when you live with people of that nature that has these addictive personalities, the ones that are closest to them are the ones that are hurt the most.
So growing up in Nigeria poor-- I used to joke around. I tell my kids now that you guys just walk to the wall and flip on a switch, and the light comes on. I got to figure out what time the lights got to stay on so I can do my homework and have to walk miles to go get water. Just the basic things, you know.
I wake up every morning and say, man, God, would you give me 001. Can I at least have-- no. If you don't give me breakfast or lunch, give me supper so I can make it to the next day.
15 of us grew up in this home that was two-bedroom, that my mom and dad had one bedroom. The rest of us had another bedroom. I'll joke around, tell my kids the first bed I slept in was at my college when I came to the United States.
It was one of those things that was very tough, but it was also one of the most joyful things in my life, because even though-- I didn't know I didn't have anything. But the beauty was, I had a mom that loved me in spite of all this, and to keep encouraging in me that in spite of all the mess and the obstacles I got around me, that you have a god that's created you for a big purpose.
I always wondered, mom, where's this purpose? I can't see it. But she always had a way of just encouraging and reminding me that you just keep trusting, and you going to accomplish great things one day. But it's amazing just to see where I've come from to see where I am today.
So your mother must have been a very inspirational lady because apparently, early on, she started saying, Manny, you can be the solution to some of the world's biggest problems.
It's amazing. At the age of nine-- I just think about it-- my responsibility to be able to add to the bottom line of my family's income. I just go sell water and soft drinks to athletes that used to come play sports by my house.
But one day, it's crazy. And I want to share this because this helps set the context for how big my mom is in my life. I helped her to go sell water one day at this park. And I showed up at this park, and there was a group of missionaries that were there, right? It was crazy because they came to teach African children how to play sports.
And I showed up at it with my basket of water, and I landed there. And all these people were having fun. And I saw the joy they were having. Man, I want to join them. I knew I didn't belong, but for a minute in my whole life, I just want to be a part of what's happening here.
And I put my basket of water down, and I saw those kids having fun. So I want to join them. They shooed me away. And I could have said, OK. They said I'm here to sell. But I said, man, I have to join these people.
So I ended up finding one of the balls that went around the corner. I grabbed it, and I snuck in. I knew if I could just be a part of them and see the guy-- I found out later on he was a missionary, that he can actually allow me to be part of it. He would let me be part of that stuff. So after I join him, he says, here. Let's dribble the ball. Let's pass the ball.
And then he said we're going to have a shooting competition. And he said the prize for the winner is going to be a new pair of shoes. It was crazy. I was so elated.
Everybody in that place want to get picked. We were screaming, pick me. Pick me. Because if you live in the community wherever your parents live on less than $1 a day, a pair of tennis shoes is like a Mercedes Benz. So it was like everybody want to get picked.
And I was screaming, and I was one of the few that got picked. So I stepped up to the line, Kelly. I never played basketball in my life. The first shot I took that day was nothing but net. I joke around. I say, angels was working overtime. I made two shots that day that changed my life.
All I want to do was run home. And as I was about to take up this missionary, grab him by the shoulder-- and his name was Dave. He's actually from the state of Wisconsin. We call him Dave from Wisconsin.
And he looked at me, said, son, just because all you see around you is poverty doesn't mean the god of the universe has forgotten about you. He says, son, keep dreaming, and keep dreaming big.
That day-- it was amazing. Basketball became my love. And as I played basketball, I would go to my mom. And this is where my mom played such an important role in my world. And I would go to my mom. I say, mom, I know you have faith, I know you have all this stuff, but why do we have to always live so poor?
And it's amazing. My mom would look at me. And she would take me by his little window by my house and says, son, I want to look outside. And I look outside. And say, son, what you see? And I said, mom, they're trees.
And then, no, son, she would say. You're not looking high enough. Said, look outside. And she said, what do you see?
Said, mama, I see the bird's nest. Son, you're not looking high enough. She said, what do you see? I said, mom, I see the clouds.
And then she says, son, you ever wonder why God created the sky so high? And I said, I don't know, mama. And she said, so poor boys like you can dream real high. Said, son, never make excuse for life. She said, just because today may be crappy day doesn't mean tomorrow isn't going to be a great day.
And she always told me that as long as my god is on the throne, that you can do all things through him who gives you strength. And she's always had a way to bring me back the reality, that I was created to accomplish greatness even though I couldn't see with my physical eyes.
Moms and parents have huge impacts on us. And we have the negative influence. I myself grew up in a very poor family, and my dad was an alcoholic and very proud. In his later life, he became a strong Christian, but when the kids were growing up, it was not good. And so I can really relate to what you went through.
Well, it's amazing. My mom prayed for my father, Kelly, for almost 40 years. 40 years. Sometimes we even say to my mom, mom, why do you have to live in this condition? Man, she always says, God never gives warriors bigger battle than they can accomplish, because he's on their side.
That's when I realized, man, there's a bigger picture in life that we don't even get to see, that God is working out. So my mom is my role model. She has a special place in my world.
So a lot of times in life, people have that inspirational support, like in the case of your mom. But as life goes along, the obstacles come. They get in trouble. They never fulfill their real, God-given purpose in life. But you held it together through all those years.
How do you think about the strength that you had to keep you moving even through-- after the nine-year-old pair of shoes, I'm sure it wasn't a piece of cake after that.
No, it wasn't. So I started playing basketball. And basketball became my escape because the home life was very difficult. My coach had an interest in me because he saw something special. He always say, I see something special about you. And so I start playing basketball. So as I finished high school, my dream was, one day, I want to come to America on a basketball scholarship.
So I didn't know much about America. My coach was also the coach of a very famous Nigerian basketball player, a guy by the name of Hakeem Olajuwon. And so my coach would come to America every year and go to different clinics, but somehow I got names of coaches that I had to write letters to. See, in those day, they didn't have the fancy internet recruiting sites like we do today. So we wrote them letters, and then the coach vouched for you.
I end up getting interest from five different schools in this country. I even got scholarship offers. I didn't know much about America. I knew about New York, Los Angeles, and I've heard about Houston, Texas. So I said, I'll go to the school with the best-looking brochure. Be careful of those marketing people.
So I laid this stuff down in my home, and I said, I'm going to go to that school. It was the University of North Dakota in Lake Regent. And I showed up in North Dakota-- true story-- at the end of September, beginning of October. I said, I've done something wrong to God. I said, this is the coldest place in the world. What did I do to deserve this place?
But it was the best place because God orchestrated people in my path that didn't even know me, that welcomed me into their homes, that encouraged me, that inspired me to remind me and keep my why in front of me, to always remind me-- something special about you. And don't get caught up in the distractions of the things of life.
And for me, the foundation of my work has been my faith, because I think faith is one of those unique things that I can always lean on. Because I know I was created from-- even my name, Emmanuel. There was a reason behind my name. So my mom always reminded me, remember the name that you have, that you were named after somebody much greater. So even if I want to do something crazy, I remember, who was my namesake? I can't go tarnish his name. So I got to keep remembering that.
And it's amazing. All the obstacles I went through, through college, through going to business. I finished my undergrad, finished my masters, and I got the chance.
There was a gentleman who was a CEO of a company, a software company. And he approached me said, son, do you want a job? I said, yes, I want a job. And he said, I'm going to fly you to this place called Charlotte. And I said, where's Charlotte? He said, why are you asking me where's Charlotte? See, the last time I didn't ask that question, I showed up in North Dakota.
So I showed up in Charlotte, they offered me this job, and life-changing thing for me. I became a product manager for this software company, took them through this growth. I started seeing what success was like, right?
Took them through this process, and I kept going through this. Our company got acquired, joined another company, joined another company, and then through that process, my father-- that's when my father actually got sick. That's one of the seasons in my life that my world was starting to change.
It's crazy because after my father then passed away, then I went back to Africa to bury my dad. And I remember showing up in my home in Nigeria, and I'd forgotten what it's like to live like that, in poverty, because life is going well. And I walked into our bedroom, and I said, how did we live like this? It was so bad, I couldn't even use our bathroom. I had to go across the street to where I used to sell water.
And that's when I saw all those children with no shoes. That's when I saw all those kids with no hope. And that's when the reality-- I was so overwhelmed. I said, my goodness. Just like this kid, I was one of those kids, once, that had this dream that my dream could be as far out as the moon. But I didn't know how I was going to get there.
I said, what if I could start coming to help kids like this, To remind them that you're going to have struggles, you're going to have obstacles, but you can also make it true? You can also accomplish them, do great things. That's actually when I started rearranging myself that I was called to do something that I can-- actually, my misery from the past. I could become an answer to other people's prayer.
That's actually where my transition came. I looked at my struggles and my obstacles. I said, how can I use that as a vehicle to become an answer to somebody else's prayer?
I want to talk about-- you've referenced your why. And for the audience, there's a great book written many, many years ago called Man's Search for Meaning, written by Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust. And in that book, he talked about, when you know your why, you can endure any how. And paraphrase-- for me, it's like, if you're clear about your purpose in life, you can overcome the obstacles.
Our why at BB&T is to make the world a better place to live. And that's my personal why. I would get up every morning and ask God, help me, this day, do something to help one person have a better life. Let me have a positive, meaningful impact on them by expressing my faith and helping them in their difficulties in life.
You've had that why for a long time, and it crystallized through your career, business. And now you seem to be so passionate and clear about Samaritan's Feet and how that's-- you're in, like, 80 countries or something?
Yeah. We've served kids now, by the end of this year-- about 90 countries, 350 US communities. We have seven international offices. It started because a man came to Africa to inspire a child. And now, because of his generosity and his love, we created a movement to go help put shoes on the feet of 10 million kids, because one man came to Africa.
But we said, we want to do something very unique and very different. So my why becomes every single day that I wake up today. I say, how can I help inspire hope amongst the world's most impoverished? But also not just focus on the impoverished, because what happens in the dynamics of what we do is that-- I know a guy that actually walked the face of this Earth. I read about him. Actually, I was named after him.
He was one of the greatest leaders I have ever studied, because when I read about him in this book, it's amazing. They talked about before he was about to face one of his greatest obstacles, right? Now, there's these people that were surrounding him. It's kind of his disciples, the way [INAUDIBLE] that was going to be greatest. And he looked at them, and he did something very amazing. And that's really envelop what my why is today.
He said he took on a towel and wrap it around himself. He took out his other garment, and he had a basin of water. And one-by-one, he started washing the feet of his disciples. And he looked at them and said, if you want to be great in life, you've got to understand the power of humility and what it means to serve others.
And now that's what my why is. How do I help develop leaders to go live out their purpose, to serve others, because I've learned one truth-- that service to others, I believe, is the key that helps emancipate humanity from the dungeon of self. Because oftentimes we're so wrapped up in ourselves.
So now I live my life that-- how can I, beyond living-- because I know I'm going to exceed that $10 million goal. Now we asking our self the question, because there's 1.5 billion people in our world today that are infected with diseases that comes in through their feet. I'm saying, God, if you could help me impact 10 million, why can't we create a movement to go create a world, one day, where there's zero shoeless children?
So now I know, crystal clear, where I'm going. So when I wake up, how can I count to zero in my lifetime? How can I inspire people to come together and figure out what their purpose is? Maybe it's through shoes so kids don't have to die, so kids can go to school, so kids can go find out their purpose.
But also, the people on the other side of the basin-- their world has been changed. Because when you get a chance to hold somebody's feet and start washing their feet, and you start asking them what their dream. Who you going to be? And you can tell them, man, I know the one that has the key to unlock the possibilities for your future, and he can heal your pain.
I tell you what. There's something that's happened. That transaction's happened right here. It changes who you are. You realize through serving others, you actually get saved yourself.
So I've studied leadership over the years. And I've coined my own little definition of a good leader, and that is a person who can share an important vision with others so that they can see, that they can be happy and excited about life by participating and helping that vision become true.
So you've had this vision, and you've been able to get hundreds of thousands of people all around the world to help you with that. Talk a minute about how you, personally, get others to follow you.
I think the greatest way is to live your conviction. My pastor always teaches me there's two key commandments that we're thought to live by. He said to love the lord, your god, with all your heart, with all your soul and all your mind, and to love your neighbor as thyself. And he said, when we do those things, it allows to do one thing-- love our self correctly. Because when we can love our self correctly, then we can look out beyond our self.
But for me, it also is a systematic way to do things with excellence. We've created a model that allows us to work with corporations, where corporations can actually use our mission as a calling card to connect with their community. How can I engage my associates to go live out our servant leadership mandate? We say in the boardroom that we want to be a servant leader. How can we actualize that in real life?
We even engaged with some of the top coaches in the country and in the world to say, how do you become a servant leader? By teaching your athletes what it means. Because many of them are going to know fame and fortune. The question is, what are you going to do with that? It's through humility and servitude that you discover who you truly are.
And that's what I have been doing-- engaged over 120,000 volunteers around the world that actively gets involved with Samaritan's Feet domestically and internationally. I just came back from the Dominican Republic. Not too long ago, I was just in Cuba.
But to see people suffering, and you can be a part to be an answer to their prayer. But through that transaction, your life is change. And when people's lives are change, it's like a drug. They want more of that. That's what we've been doing.
And so one of the things I read in your book, which is a great book, by the way, for our audience that they should read. We've got it here-- Sole Purpose. You really believe in a humble way that you can change the world, that you can improve the conditions for humanity. That's a big dream. That's a big vision.
I always ask myself the question that the good Samaritan called David from Wisconsin-- I wonder how many people told him not to come to Africa over 30-some years ago, never knowing in his wildest dream he would get an encounter to come in contact with a boy that he will activate hope and faith in his life to go one day realize that he was created for something much bigger.
So the fact that Dave came to Africa changed my life. A pair of shoes that was just a fashion accessory in those day became a vehicle that changed my life. That's now been multiplied seven million time over.
And soon, now-- we just invented, actually, a world shoe, the first of its kind in this world that actually has an active, built-in antimicrobial property that can repel it from a parasitic infection. And it's also biodegradable. Because when you're so laser-focused in what you're called to do, God will bring unique people across your path that will help you accomplish this vision.
But your vision's got to be big enough for other people to want to join, because oftentimes people always say, I want to go do this to change the world. But your ability and your intellect can actually-- you can actually go accomplish that dream yourself. Then what is the essence to get people engaged? So if you're going to have a vision, make sure it's big enough that, man, it's going to take God himself to make this possible.
So I talked to my board a while ago. I said, we're going to exceed this $10 million goal. Our next vision is to create a world with zero shoeless children. And you could have heard the pin drop. They said, my goodness. That's 1.5 billion.
I said, I understand, but I don't have to go do it. But what if we can create a global institute for servant leadership to be able to mobilize on, and 20,000 volunteers, that we can have a multiplier effect to help them discover their purpose and their why? And they go to learn, say, hey, what if I can go start a Samaritan's Feet enterprise somewhere in Florida, somewhere in Oklahoma, somewhere in Alaska? Or maybe in India. Maybe somewhere in Kenya.
All of a sudden, we look forward 10 years from now. There are hundreds of these Samaritan's Feet offices. The seven we have around the world today-- they are now fully self-sustaining because they saw a guy that had nothing, that came from nothing, but had passion, but also a know-how, a blueprint to be able to help them be a part of something much bigger than them.
They said, now I can actually have a vehicle that I actually see and be a part of. To impact somebody that just has this mutual, transformative platform that changes the life of the recipients, also change my life, and then also even change the life of the people that makes us be able to do it-- I want to be a part of that.
And the great leaders is not just about doing great things. It's about helping people see the potential of what they can become, because they don't sometimes see that stuff in themselves. And equip them to go do that, because through your efficiency and your process in life, you have helped them accomplish greatness.
To me, that is the ultimate definition of picture of who really they is-- when you can allow people to accomplish great things, and God can use to be a part of that picture, become magnified.
Manny, I want to share with the audience, we're here, sitting in a library at a school in eastern Winston-Salem, North Carolina. This is a economically challenged part of our city. And we're getting ready, when we conclude this, to do something pretty exciting. Tell the audience what we're getting ready to do.
It's amazing. We are going to serve children at this Title 1 school. Every one of them is going to walk in, and we all get the chance-- this is around Christmas season right now-- we get to be Santa Claus today. We get to wash children's feet.
And every single one-- they going to sit in front of a BB&T associate. And one-by-one, they're going to ask him what their name is, and what's your dream? What you want to be when you grow up?
You know, one day, probably, those shoes will wear out. But they will always remember that BB&T associate that step into their life in that single juncture. Who knows? That may be their David that reminded that child that they were created for greatness, to think and dream beyond the horizon that they can also accomplish great things.
There was a kid, a young girl, that came to a distribution just like we're going to do today. This associate looked at that little girl and asked her what her dream was. She said she want to be a nurse. Said, you're going to be a nurse? And she comes from a very, very poor background.
And she said, man, never give up. Said, I promise you one thing. There'll be days when you go through college that you're going to want to quit. But always remember that God's on your side. You can do all things. And every time you want to give up, remember this day, and remember my face, that you can accomplish and get through this.
Fast forward a few years by. This girl-- she's a nurse. That lady went back to our church because our pastor was the one that help us orchestrate that distribution that day. And she share with our pastor-- she remember vividly-- that day that she was about to quit and give up, she never forgot that Samaritan volunteer that reminded her, don't give up.
You going to have dark days. You're going to have dark days. And the day that you want to quit is going to come. But remember today that you've been given an opportunity, and you have hope, and hope means something much bigger. It's to have only positive expectation.
And that girl today is one of the key breadwinner for our family. It all stems back and comes back to that day when the volunteers came and point to the heart of that kid.
So we don't know who that girl, that boy's going to become today. Those 100-plus associates from BB&T get the chance to do something far bigger than giving shoes today. They get the chance to deposit hope, and faith, and love in the hearts of those kids. And I promise you two people's lives going to be changed today-- the recipients and volunteers.
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