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Obsessed with the next “ever”

Ukonwa Kuzi-Orizu Ojo

When Ukonwa Kuzi-Orizu Ojo (BSBA ’97) achieves a goal, she gets restless.

“Once I feel like I’ve mastered something, I get very uncomfortable – uncomfortable with being comfortable,” says Ojo. “That’s when I need a new challenge to stay engaged and inspired so I’m stretching and applying myself.”

That’s evident in her life’s journey – leaving Nigeria to attend college in a new country, taking on the role of global chief marketing officer (CMO) at Amazon Prime Video during the global pandemic and, most recently, launching her own company.

Her career spans 26 years in leadership roles across a variety of industries that include global brand president of COVERGIRL, CMO of consumer beauty at Coty and global CMO at M·A·C Cosmetics.

She didn’t plan to have a corporate career – being an entrepreneur is part of her DNA, following in the footsteps of her parents and grandparents.

“I intended to start in corporate for a few years to learn and then start my own business, but I was more successful than I expected. It is harder to walk away when the opportunity cost is high – and my opportunity cost just kept getting higher.”

Her new venture is Zaia Ventures, which she founded in 2022. As CEO of the venture studio, she builds and scales companies serving underrepresented and marginalized communities. She starts new companies where white space opportunities exist, but also invests in companies founded by others and provides advisory services to help them grow.

“We’re building companies and getting them ready to hit the market,” says Ojo. “We’re also meeting with great founders and when we find those with an incredible vision and the potential to build a company of scale, we invest and bring in our capabilities, experience and advisory support.”

 Her career is far from linear, but there’s a common thread: her focus on understanding people and how they make decisions. No matter the industry, the “same human that buys M·A·C cosmetics will stream Prime Video. We make millions of choices over our lifetime. If you get very good at understanding the human heart and mind, it’s transferable across industries, geographies and categories, and positions you to identify great market opportunities.”

With Zaia Ventures, it all comes together. “I had been an advocate for underrepresented and marginalized communities and investing in them my entire career. Every time I bet on the underrepresented consumer in a big way it paid off for the companies I worked for and propelled them to heights they had never achieved before,” says Ojo. “And this time, I get to do it for my own business and in a way that I hope directly benefits those communities.”

Coming to Carolina

Ukonwa Kuzi-Orizu Ojo at old well

Ojo credits her family’s support for her success. Her husband is her biggest cheerleader and her son, who she brought to campus for a visit, sometimes gives her advice.

When Ojo was a teen researching colleges in the U.S., a relative who earned a PhD from UNC recommended Carolina because it “had a fantastic business school and he knew I loved business,” she says.

“I left Nigeria when I was only 15. I arrived in a new country, far away from my parents, with big dreams,” says Ojo. “I’m thankful to UNC for this formative part of my life.”

She remembers spending long nights solving cases with classmates which taught her to solve problems collaboratively. “UNC Kenan-Flagler took me from an individual mode to a team mode,” she says. “So much of your career is working with others and through others, collaborating across functions and across teams.”

She found friendships and community. She was co-president of the African Students Association at UNC and a resident advisor in Craig dorm. “You make so many friends here you think it’s transient but a lot of them become friends for your entire career and they become your network. The friends I met at UNC are still my friends today and a big part of my life.”

“UNC broke barriers for me and helped me walk through doors I thought were hard to get into,” she says. “To survive, thrive and excel in an environment that was so different to the one I grew up in had a tremendous impact on me. As a Black woman in business, you are always in an environment where you’re different. Being able to experiment in a safe environment at UNC gave me the confidence to do so throughout my career.”

Ukonwa Kuzi-Orizu Ojo talking at lecture

Analytical and creative

She focused on accounting and finance at UNC Kenan-Flagler, and her strong analytical base has been a differentiator for her entire career.

After she graduated, she worked in finance roles for MeadWestvaco around the U.S. Six years later, she was ready for a change where she could apply her creative strengths, too.

Ojo went to Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management to earn her MBA with the goal of transitioning to a career in brand management. Her summer internship with General Mills was so successful that The Wall Street Journal wrote about the business impact of her project on the front page of the marketplace section, and it led to her working for the company for almost seven years.

She worked across a number of industries going from brand to bigger brand to portfolio of brands to company divisions and eventually entire organizations.

“I loved brand management because I could be a general manager responsible for revenue and profit while driving the business through creativity, innovation and storytelling,” she says. “Understanding the finance side is key to driving the business. You can’t engineer your way to growth forever – to sustain it, you need to inspire the customer to change their behavior at scale in ways that positively impact your business.”

When she started her role at Amazon during the pandemic, she moved from New York to Los Angeles where she worked remotely. And while the timing wasn’t ideal, it had benefits: People were home and under lockdown, theaters had closed, and studios needed an outlet for their movies and shows.

Fortunately, Ojo’s bias for action was a strength valued at Amazon, which was buying and making content and suddenly needed to figure out how to introduce it to customers on a global scale and fast.

Ojo and her team went on to launch eight of the top 10 shows in Prime Video’s history, achieve its highest-ever global customer subscription and engagement – all while significantly improving the efficiency of marketing investment to its strongest ever. During her time as CMO, she led unprecedented global marketing campaigns for Prime Video’s biggest offerings – including “Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power,” “Thursday Night Football” and “Coming 2 America” – and the company won five Golden Globes, two Oscars and eight Emmys.

Believing in unseen possibilities

Insatiable curiosity makes Ojo open to “all the possibilities of life,” she says. “My faith allows me to believe in possibilities that I haven’t seen yet, possibilities that haven’t been created yet and the role that I could play within that,” she says. “It gives me the energy to keep going because I believe in something that is bigger than myself.”

Ojo gave the keynote address when UNC Kenan-Flagler celebrated the graduation of the Undergraduate Business Program Class of 2023. Read her remarks here.

When she encounters a new opportunity, Ojo is “always trying for the next big thing or solving the next big thing that nobody’s figured out yet,” she says. “My team will tell you that I love the word ‘ever’ – the first ever, biggest ever. I approach every new opportunity by asking what is the ‘ever’ here? And I want to be a part of whatever that ever is.”

She doesn’t always know just what that “ever” is going to be in the beginning. “It’s a matter of figuring out what role I can play in empowering the team to achieve it. Our role as leaders is to see a vision that doesn’t exist yet, and then empower the people we work with to unlock the potential and human ingenuity that was always there.”

As CEO of Zaia, she is answering a lifetime’s calling to start her own business.

“I realized I don’t have all of the time in the world,” she says. “I’ve had these dreams for so long and I have to take a legitimate shot at achieving them.”

A colleague shared a statistic that confirmed the time was right: Only about 50 Black-owned companies in the U.S. make annual revenues of $100 million or greater. She had never worked on a business that made less than $100 million a year. In fact, most businesses she led were worth billions.

“I had a lot of experience managing and scaling very large businesses, but very, very few were started and scaled by people who look like me,” she says.

“And so that becomes the rallying cry for me. I want to build at least one company that has revenues greater than $100 million and help somebody build one. And even if that’s all I do with the second half of my career, that’s two added to a count of 50, which would be an incredibly good use of my time, talent, and capabilities and a ton of fun along the way!,” she says.


Read Ojo’s commencement remarks to the UBP Class of 2023 here.