“I didn’t like going to the basement several floors below,” she says. “It was scary.”
Renowned for her work as Nigeria’s finance minister from 2003 to 2006, Okonjo-Iweala took the World Bank position last October, just in time to see the global financial system collapse amid the credit crisis. She is now so busy that her children say they sometimes have trouble getting in touch with her. At one point, she owned seven different cell phones.
Busier than ever, Okonjo-Iweala is no stranger to hard work.
Her son, Uzodinma C. Iweala ’04, recalls that when he was born in 1982, his mother—then a staffer at the bank—was unable to stay on maternity leave for long and that she ultimately returned to her job within a few days, far sooner than anybody expected.
This perseverance and drive has carried the daughter of a United Nations economist—who took her first step on American soil when she arrived at Harvard in the early 1970s—through three decades on the upper echelon of global economics. And as a top official at the World Bank in this time of economic duress, the Harvard alumna with a reputation for her focus and passion is now working harder than ever.
A BALANCING ACT
Since she graduated from Harvard, Okonjo-Iweala has distinguished herself in both national and international economics.
After writing a senior thesis on Nigerian markets and microcredit, she earned a Ph.D. in regional economics and development from MIT. She spent several years working for the World Bank, taking a short leave of absence to work for the Nigerian government before returning to the Bank to serve as a vice president.
In 2003, Okonjo-Iweala was asked to be the first female finance minister of Nigeria. She strove to reduce corruption and decrease the country’s immense debt, while reordering the nation’s finances despite resistance to her economic reforms.
“She is a very forceful and powerful woman,” says her youngest son, Uchechi A. Iweala ’09, an economics concentrator in Kirkland House.
And though Okonjo-Iweala is a demanding leader, she is also an inspiring one according to her daughter, Onyinye I. Iweala ’02.
“She just has this ability to get people to work together and work well and work hard,” she says.
Okonjo-Iweala also became Nigeria’s first female minister of foreign affairs in July 2006, but resigned six weeks after the appointment, a move that may have resulted from a personal clash with Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. She left the government to focus her efforts on the many firms she has started, among them the eponymous NOI, Nigeria’s first independent polling organization, which partners with Gallup.
The purpose, according to Uzodinma, was “to look at transparency, making sure people had a voice on what their elected officials do.”
Much of Okonjo-Iweala’s success in her work is due to her love for what she does, according to her children.
When it comes to her passions, Uzodinma says, “lifting people out of poverty is number one.”
Onyinye sees her mother’s commitment as one that reflects her sense of patriotism.
“She has a really strong love for her country,” Onyinye says. “She wants to do something to improve quality of life for Africans in general, and Nigerians in particular.”
As a student at Harvard, though, leaving Nigeria brought some big changes.
COMING TO CAMBRIDGE
For Okonjo-Iweala, life at Harvard required many adjustments as she assimilated to American culture. The first surprise came on move-in day, when Okonjo-Iweala learned that dorms were co-ed.
“It was quite a shock—sharing bathrooms with the opposite sex,” she recalls. “In my country you have the female dorms and male dorms, but here you had an integrated dorm. It was a memorable moment finding that out.”
At a time when Harvard had very few internationals, Okonjo-Iweala says she spent much of her time with fellow foreign students.
Clara Y. Jones ’77, a close friend and college roommate, recalls that Okonjo-Iweala would sometimes feel homesick and cook African food on a hot plate in the room they shared, first in Thayer their sophomore year, and then in Dunster House during her junior and senior years.
“It was a whole different experience coming from Nigeria directly as a teenager. She had to readjust to the social norms here and the whole dynamic between racial and ethnic groups,” Uchechi says.
Okonjo-Iweala initially planned to attend Cambridge in England. After she had already paid a deposit to the school, however, her family decided to send her to Harvard instead, so she would remain close to her mother, then a graduate student at Boston University.
“At home, no decision is made by yourself—it’s a family affair,” she says, adding that the family elders wanted her to attend Harvard so “[my mother] could keep an eye on me.”
But when Okonjo-Iweala’s family insisted that she live with an aunt in Boston, instead of in a Harvard dormitory, she refused.
“I drew the line at that,” she says, chuckling at the memory.
Despite the many changes she faced, Okonjo-Iweala thrived at Harvard. A dedicated student, she unexpectedly discovered a talent for economics.
Okonjo-Iweala grew up with a passion for geography. According to Onyinye, Okonjo-Iweala initially disliked economics, an aversion that she suggested may stem from the fact that Okonjo-Iweala’s father, Chukaka Okonjo, was an economist.
But when she arrived at Harvard, Okonjo-Iweala was surprised to learn that there was no concentration in geography. Thankfully, a Harvard teacher would soon spark an unexpected passion that shaped her career path.
As a freshman living in North House—now known as Pforzheimer House—Okonjo-Iweala said she had an extraordinary economics tutor, Karl E. Case.
“I was lucky to have him,” she says. “He made economics fun.”
Describing Case as “the best teacher of all time,” Okonjo-Iweala explains that he inspired her love for economics, a passion that has translated into her extraordinary accomplishments in finance.
According to Jones, Okonjo-Iweala has been a hard worker for as long as she can remember. A perpetually busy student, Okonjo-Iweala wrote for The Harvard Independent and worked various jobs, including cleaning houses on Saturdays for pocket money.
But, Jones says, Okonjo-Iweala spent most of her time studying.
A BRIGHT PERSONALITY
Despite her demanding career, Okonjo-Iweala still finds time to pursue hobbies. She swims almost every day in the summer and spring, according to Uchechi.
An avid reader of Agatha Christie novels, Okonjo-Iweala is also an aficionado of African art and Persian rugs. She loves Nigerian food and traditional music, her children say. Her desire to promote what Uzodinma calls “the cultural patrimony,” combined with her love of travel, has translated into her wildly successful career.
Even with her packed schedule, Okonjo-Iweala’s friends and children say that she has always made an effort to support her family.
“She is someone who is committed to her family,” Jones says.
Her son, Uzodinma, notes with a laugh that her seven cell phones are now down to three.
Moving to Nigeria to become Finance Minister was a difficult decision, according to Onyinye, because it required Okonjo-Iweala to leave her family in Washington, where Uchechi was still in high school.
“When I was a kid I used to miss her a lot,” Uchechi says.
Still, Onyinye says that her mother “did a really good job trying to balance her work life and her personal life.”
“She’s a major role model,” says Onyinye. “She epitomizes the ultimate working mom.”
Known to the world as a hard-working, strong woman, Okonjo-Iweala is known to those close to her for her charisma.
“She’s a very warm person,” says Jones, who is still in touch with her old roommate. “She’s a delight to be around. She has a good sense of humor. She laughs a lot.”
Okonjo-Iweala loves light, Uchechi says, noting that his mom always turns on the lights if their house is ever dark.
“She’s a bright personality,” he says, before adding, “She is the best mom in the world. She’s just a good person. A strong, good person, with a wonderful soul.”