May Chioma Odiakosa, the only United States distribution executive for Star Lager Beer, carries with her an optimism and determination that can be seen by all.
THE OPTIMISTIC AND TENACIOUS FORCE SHARES INSPIRATION AND EXPERIENCE
This is especially evident in her effort to bring the number one beer in Africa, Star Lager, here to the States. While the journey hasn’t been easy, Odiakosa continues to push forward. Her father, who taught her the value of determination, and her sister, who was her biggest motivator, are the reasons she keeps going. Through her nonstop perseverance, Odiakosa expects Star Lager to hit the shelves in six months.
Odiakosa’s perseverance isn’t only displayed in her business endeavors, but is also prevalent within her life as a whole.
When she immigrated to America from Nigeria in the 80s, she was committed to building her life here. She put forth all she had and began making connections everywhere she went. Because her family was still back in Nigeria, she needed to create a new support system in the States. She did this by crafting the United Nations in her home. Odiakosa explains this as welcoming all, no matter race, age, gender and more into her life. She says this is executed by showing kindness.
Relating her experiences to the present day, Odiakosa shared the only way we can combat racism is through that same kindness. Racism is not an issue that can be solved from the top down, but is an issue we must all fix within our homes first, she explained. Then, we can take that new love into the world and change our nation.
Ruby McAuliffe: You help run the Nigerian beer company Star Lager. Can you tell me about that?
May Chioma Odiakosa: The brewery started in 1949 in Nigeria and the first beer rolled off in late ‘49 or ‘52. Nigeria was colonized by the British, and we got our independence in 1960. This beer is actually older than our independence, and it’s just one of those things I grew up with.
My dad loved Star Lager. I tried it once I became the drinking age, which is 18 in my country. I didn’t really like it, but then I went back to Nigeria when I was 24 and tried it again, and I was blown away. The taste is incredible, and it’s the number one beer in Africa, but you can’t find it here in the U.S. So, when I went back for my grandmother’s funeral, we all drank Star Beer, and my cousin asked, “Why don’t we have this beer in the States?” and I go, “That’s a good question.” So, I started figuring out how to import it.
First, I had to get a license. Then I started writing to the breweries, but there were no responses. I wrote again, no response. But I never gave up, because that’s not my attitude. Finally, last year, I spoke to the export manager, and they said they’d have to see it first. It wasn’t yes, but it wasn’t a no. I kept talking to them and they just loved my attitude, so in February, I went home and did this whole presentation. Afterwards, the manager said, “We love what you have to say. We love your energy. We love your attitude of not taking no for an answer;” and that’s what happened.
Ruby McAuliffe: What sustained you during that journey?
May Chioma Odiakosa: My dad’s mentality. Growing up, he showed me the importance of never giving up. I saw him lose everything, but he had that attitude of, “Okay, we’re onto the next thing, because the next thing is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
An example is when I wanted to work in a law firm. I didn’t pass the bar exam here in the States, but I went in for a three-day assignment at one of the big law firms, and I ended up staying there for 10 years. It was that attitude of never giving up. You have to keep going.
That’s been my life as an immigrant in America, too. I didn’t know anyone when I came here. As an immigrant, you also start from below the ground; but I still came here. My first job was $4 an hour.
My sister also sustained me. Each time I wanted to give up, my sister, who died of cancer in October, kept me going. She said she would even move to America and work for me. She’d always say that I’d make it big. Even when she was in the hospital before she came home to die, she was still like, “Have you called them back? Have you called the brewery?” I didn’t want to tell her the reason I wasn’t pushing was because I was losing my best friend — but she was optimistic until the end. When I went this past February to do the final presentation, she wasn’t there, and the whole trip was kind of off. For the first time, she didn’t meet me at the airports, but I kept hearing her voice say, “You need to get this beer to America.”
Essentially, if someone says “no” to you, it means they’re just not ready to say “yes.” Maybe you’re asking the wrong question or aren’t presenting yourself properly; but we can get through it. You just have to believe in yourself and keep going.
Ruby McAuliffe: That’s so beautiful. My next question for you deals with America’s current state: the war against racism. How do you handle the situation?
May Chioma Odiakosa: I’m married to a White man, and he never understood racism until he started dating me. Now that he sees it, he gets mad for me. But, I say to him, “If you give into that energy, it will suck the life out of you. It will stop you from moving forward because it’s such negative energy.” I also tell everybody I’m the worst minority on the face of the planet. I am Black. I am a woman. I am an immigrant. I have an accent. Even if they look past my skin color, once I open my mouth, there’s something else.
I remember one of the women I worked with had a problem with her apartment. We started talking and ended up laughing really loud. So, I went across to the office in front of where we were laughing and said, “I’m really sorry. If I was being too loud, please tell me.” Do you know what she said to me? She said, “I’d be too afraid to tell you.” This was a partner in the law firm I worked at, and that’s what she said to me. Why would she be afraid to tell me if I’m being too loud? Because I’m a Black woman. I just froze and said, “Oh.” I walked to my office, closed the door and called my husband.
Racism is something that happens every day. I live in Beverly Hills. I’ve lived on the same street for the past 16 years and the same house for the past 11 years. I’m walking my dog and this sweet woman says to me, “Oh, my God, your dog is so cute. The owner of this dog must be really proud;” and I say to her, “Yes, she is really proud.” Once I walked away, it dawned on her. I turned around, and she was still standing there.
This is the kind of racism that happens, too. It’s subtle yet obvious. But, I either allow it to eat at me or I keep moving. I can’t change that I’m a Black woman. I can’t change my accent. I love my accent! So, which decisions do I make for my own mental well-being? I say, “This is not my problem. It’s the other person’s problem. They’re the one thinking this way.”
PRESENTED BY LASM NETWORK MEMBER
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