For Ugochi Nwoga ’19, earning her MBA at Kellogg was worth commuting nearly 12,000 miles round trip each month to attend the Miami-based Executive MBA program.
“There’s no reward without sacrifice,” says Nwoga, who was living and working in Nigeria at the time.
Nwoga values — and uses — everything she gained at Kellogg. “The core courses turned my brain into this analytical, probing, creative thinking machine,” she says. “The curriculum and network empowered me to be a better entrepreneur and helped me conceptualize how far I could take our business.”
Before she was born, Nwoga’s parents, Nigerian nationals, had come to the U.S. to complete graduate degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But shortly after her birth, they returned to their homeland, where she spent most of the next decade.
While happy to be home, the family quickly recognized the challenges Nigeria faced in the early 1990s: military rule, postponed democratic elections and the imprisonment of journalists. As civil strife mounted, the family — the parents and four children — returned to the U.S. “It was really difficult for them to see a future there,” Nwoga says.
The family ended up settling in Tallahassee, Florida, and Nwoga went on to earn a business administration degree at Florida A&M, where her mother and father, both PhD professors, taught nursing and human physiology, respectively. After graduating, Nwoga started her career at United Technologies Corporation (now Raytheon Technologies), entering a finance and accounting rotation program. She would ultimately work for the company for 12 years, eight of those with subsidiary engine-maker Pratt & Whitney.
“I worked on multibillion-dollar P&Ls but not just with finance people. I was on the shop floor with engineering and operations,” Nwoga says. While at UTC, to build on her growing knowledge of business areas, she completed a master’s in supply chain management from Penn State University.
The corporate role also provided global exposure: Nwoga was asked to work in Norway — twice over the course of two years — and later in Switzerland, where she played a key role in Pratt & Whitney’s then-largest acquisition in history, a transaction worth over $1 billion.
While in Norway in 2010, Nwoga attended a Nigeria-based health fair put on by SOMTO, the foundation her mother had founded after launching a home-healthcare business in Florida in 2006. “The event was for the underserved in my home state, and it made me yearn for making an impact in Nigeria,” Nwoga says.
How to make that happen was not clear, as by then Nwoga had spent the majority of her life outside Nigeria, with Florida as the family’s home base.
Still, Nwoga kept her eyes open for Nigeria-based opportunities, and in 2014 was recruited as chief financial officer for The Candel Group, a fast-growing Lagos-based agriculture business.
“You must work to make things in Nigeria work,” she says. The experience enhanced the resilience she’d gained from diverse corporate roles, not to mention moving to new countries while pregnant, twice.
“Working in Nigeria made me become more intentional about how I could have a direct impact on people,” Nwoga says. That motivation led her to co-found Aerial Industries, an agro-drone business, in 2017.
“The drones sprayed crop inputs and enabled data collection,” Nwoga continues. “That helps farmers improve productivity on their farms.”
The business attracted attention from international players, including Airbus. However, the venture struggled to find early adopters — some farmers were skeptical of new technology — and domestic and international funding were limited.
“It’s a challenge a lot of Black entrepreneurs deal with,” Nwoga says. “We had the additional hurdle of convincing people to invest in Africa.”
By summer 2017, Nwoga was starting to explore business school when she discovered Kellogg’s Executive MBA program in Miami. “I’d always wanted to go back to school and wanted to be in the classroom with experienced professionals like myself,” she says.
During her time at Kellogg, Nwoga came to recognize the need to move to a non-operating co-founder role with Aerial. After graduating in 2019, she found her next management opportunity very close to home: with the business her parents ran.
Nwoga’s mother had launched TLay Healthcare Services more than a decade earlier to provide home-healthcare services, including nursing and physical therapy. Now, both parents were operating the business, with her mother as chief executive officer.
“My corporate and entrepreneurial work in America and Nigeria provided a large skillset and an awakening to new opportunities,” Nwoga says. “I saw working at our family business as the next stage in my professional evolution.”
Previously, she had helped her parents with financial statements. In May 2020, she joined TLay as chief finance and strategy officer. Nwoga says, “It was the culmination of all my experience, and would allow my parents to shift focus from daily operations to advising on bigger-picture decisions.”
“I lead development of our strategies and plans,” she continues. That has included setting the goal of growing total patients served by nearly three times by the end of 2021, along with hiring new executives.
Nwoga and her parents have navigated their new, professional relationship well. “Considering that we have different academic disciplines, it allows us to be eclectic in problem solving,” she says. “There is a merging of the disciplines we represent and a congruency in solutions for problems we encounter. It is also multigenerational: we respect each other within a multigenerational decision-making platform.”
It is a true family affair, as Nwoga’s sister manages TLay’s non-skilled home-care division.
Nwoga’s EMBA network encouraged her to join the family business in the first place and continues to provide critical support. For example, the month before she talked to Kellogg magazine, Nwoga had recruited a former EMBA classmate to lead a TLay team-building event.
Another EMBA peer worked with TLay to implement its new customer relationship management system, and other peers, including a VP at a major home-healthcare firm, mentor Nwoga on building TLay strategically.
“As a leader I ask myself, ‘Am I compassionate enough? Brave enough? Consistent enough?’” she says. “My Kellogg network helps me to reflect on my evolving leadership. It’s a constant yet beautiful journey.”