Adaora Udoji is a powerhouse award-winning journalist, media maven, and businesswoman. For 15 years, Udoji’s extensive journalistic background has taken her all across the world working with top new organizations including ABC News, BBC, and CNN covering historic national and international news from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to the presidential election of Barack Obama.
With her natural curiosity and love for the news, she’s reinvented her career and has expanded her skills into the cutting-edge world of technology. Currently, she is the Director of Corporate Innovation and Venture Programs at New York City’s RLab, the first city-funded hub focused on immersive tech, which includes virtual and augmented realities and related technologies. She’s delved into integrating strategy, rapid prototyping, product development and has worked for Fortune 500 companies, start-ups, consulting firms, and venture capital.
Udoji serves as an educator for many women founders and entrepreneurs as she continues to move the needle to encourage more women to invest in skills and knowledge in emerging technology as a mentor in the startup accelerator, Women Innovate Mobile, SXSW Pitch, and advisor to the Knight Foundation Journalism 360 Challenge.
Her Agenda caught up with her to talk about her shift in career focus and what women in any professional career field can do when they are ready to change direction.
Her Agenda: I’m going to start off with your foundation in media as a journalist. I know you went to UCLA for law, so how did you go from that to entering into the news industry?
Adaora Udoji: I finished law school and was studying for the bar and I was going to practice tax law. I had a mentor from the University of Michigan who called me and said ABC News was looking for people to work behind the scenes on the OJ Simpson criminal trial. I thought to myself, ‘oh, how interesting, Let me just go have this conversation [and see how it] goes’. I went in there and people were watching the news and reading newspapers, and I thought to myself, ‘oh, my God, they pay people to do this?’ and ‘that’s what reporters do!?’ and I just never left. You know, this was a trial that was supposed to be a couple of weeks. I never planned it. I never took a journalism class. I didn’t know what journalists did. I read because I was a news junkie. I didn’t have any idea of what the profession was about or how people did it or have any experience in it whatsoever. Never even thought about it.
Her Agenda: You’ve been in the news industry for 10 years and you’ve worked for some of the top news organizations in the country. What were some challenges as a Black woman you had to face in such a competitive industry?
Adaora Udoji: I was a journalist for 15 years. I was on TV for 10 years. Then in the last eight years, I’ve been working in the startup world with new technology. I sort of moved from doing things in production in media to the business side of media, I ran a media-tech startup and invested in some companies, [as an] angel investor, I worked in venture capital and they were investing in a lot of new technology that had a lot to do with video and digital. We live in America and I often say racial bias, racism and racial consciousness or unconsciousness is sort of like trying to pull flour out of a cookie. It’s sort of in everything, in our infrastructure in the way we interact with each other in the way we transact. I clerked one summer for the IRS and I went to an interview for a full-time job. I walked into the office in DC and the chief deputy of the IRS unit said to me ‘you don’t look like a tax lawyer.’ So you know it was going downhill from there. In law, there are challenges. In journalism, there are certain challenges you get assigned to. I remember I had a boss, who said to me, ‘You should really choose a beat, like a journalism beat and ‘maybe you should try education.’ You have the law and justice unit and not a single motherfu**er there has a law degree. It’s inevitable and you just have to keep keeping on. That’s it. I mean, I love what B. Smith says. I stood on a lot of no’s to get to one yes. I think any woman and any woman of color can totally identify with that 100%.
Her Agenda: As a storyteller, much has changed in the way stories are told and how audiences receive news. What differences have you seen throughout the years?
Adaora Udoji: The bottom line is this storytelling doesn’t change. Human beings relate to human beings. We are social creatures. We learn through stories. How we perceive things, what we believe, what actions we choose to take are all based on whatever stories we’re telling ourselves, individually and collectively. The only thing that’s changed is the type of tools that you have to tell the story over time. When I started there was television, radio, and print. Over time, we have all these digital tools that have allowed us to have experiences with stories in different ways. Be focused on what you’re doing and always looking slightly ahead to what’s coming because it could change your life.
Storytelling doesn’t change. Human beings relate to human beings. We are social creatures. We learn through stories. How we perceive things, what we believe, what actions we choose to take are all based on whatever stories we’re telling ourselves, individually and collectively. The only thing that’s changed is the type of tools that you have to tell the story over time.
I don’t necessarily recommend a career like mine, because I started in law, and I was a producer and then I went on air, and then I worked in corporate strategy, and then I ran a startup, and then I worked in venture capital. There’s a through-line in there, which is I like innovation, I like new technology, and I like storytelling and those three things have been very consistent across all these things I’ve done.
I started in law, and I was a producer and then I went on air, and then I worked in corporate strategy, and then I ran a startup, and then I worked in venture capital. There’s a through line in there, which is I like innovation, I like new technology, and I like storytelling and those three things have been very consistent across all these things I’ve done.
Her Agenda: You’ve reinvented your career and are quite invested in the world of virtual reality and augmented realities. This is typically seen as a male-dominated space. How have you been able to attract more women founders and entrepreneurs to this space?
Adaora Udoji: It’s a slow process but here’s the thing, there are women of color. We do exist in this space. Somehow we talk about these things as if when you work in the tech world, you can only be a coder or an engineer. Those are critical roles, incredibly important and we have to do a better job of getting more girls and young women into the pipeline. These tech companies are full of roles where traditionally women accept marketing, HR, legal, and operations and they have those jobs to a certain extent, but not near to the level that they do at legacy companies and I’m not sure why that is. It’s a big question mark.
Somehow we talk about these things as if when you work in the tech world, you can only be a coder or an engineer. Those are critical roles, incredibly important and we have to do a better job of getting more girls and young women into the pipeline
There is some level of fearlessness to my fear. And in part, I attribute this to both my Nigerian grandmother, who was not a joke, Chief Udoji. My grandmother was fierce, and my Irish grandmother, she had never gone to college, but she was just as wise and wily as the day is long. There’s fearlessness in the sense that ‘I’m going to go figure it out.’ It’s easy to be paralyzed by fear. ‘I’m not going to make money.’ ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get a job’ and not try all these other things. You have to go for it. And surround yourself with people who are supportive of your decisions. And when things don’t work, don’t be afraid to try something else. I think we have to be careful with that because we do ourselves a disservice.
It’s easy to be paralyzed by fear. ‘I’m not going to make money.’ ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get a job’ and not try all these other things. You have to go for it. And surround yourself with people who are supportive of your decisions. And when things don’t work, don’t be afraid to try something else.
Her Agenda: I know you mention being a Nigerian-Irish American and you’ve mentioned being able to live all over the world. How have your roots along with your extensive background in travel, played a role in the trajectory of your career?
Adaora Udoji: I learned really early there’s no one way to do anything. Everywhere you go in the world people speak a different language, they eat different food. They have different cultures, traditions, religions. That’s made me pretty open-minded and compassionate. We do share many things that are similar, and even though it seems insurmountable, they’re really not. The more people I’ve seen all over the world, the more of an optimist [I] have become over the years because even though I was in Baghdad, and Hurricane Katrina, and I spent many months covering the Afghanistan war and saw a lot of conflict and hardship, it’s extraordinary how the human spirit survives and thrives. But you can’t, no matter what you do, you can’t take out the human spirit, the primal need to connect with other human beings and a primal need to survive. We do horrible things to one another, but ultimately, I think the best of us is that.
Her Agenda: You have conquered many challenges in your career including in your personal life as a breast cancer survivor. How has this shifted your views on life?
Adaora Udoji: If you’re lucky enough to keep living, you keep learning things. It all counts. The good stuff, the hard stuff, the challenging stuff, the uncomfortable things, the mediocre things all count. You don’t get to choose how it all goes. So you know more today than you did when you were 15. And the way that you look at things I don’t think we fundamentally change as human beings but I think that our experiences shape us in different ways over a period of time. The funny thing with breast cancer, we learned a lot of things and one of them is that self-care is not a joke. So all of you 20-year-old, 25-year-old 35-year-old: in this one universe only one thing is true in life, we’re all native organic matter and all of us are going to die. We like to pretend that’s not the case. That’s one of the true cultural differences, among the Igbos (Nigerian tribe) when people pass away, people are sad, but they’re also really happy about the fact they lived so there’s a lot of celebrating. Whereas in America, like, it’s all just ‘they’re dead. I’m sad, it’s horrible.’
You’ve got to be where you’re at. My Irish grandfather used to always say, never wish for time to pass because you only get so much of it. And I translated that to be where you’re at. This is where it’s at today. And I’m pissed or I’m having a hard day or I’m feeling down or whatever that is, be with it. It’s the greatest user experience…it’s your life.
Her Agenda: We have entered into a new decade. What should our audience look out for from you this year?
Adaora Udoji: I’m feeling like I’m about to be a girl on fire. I’m only getting better. I’m feeling more confident. I’m falling into my skin. And even when I got married never changed my name because I felt like I’d earned it. Yeah. With all the adventures over the years and I always feel like a low rent Forrest Gump. I’m somehow always near like some huge historical event. I mean, [from] covering the wars or covering Obama, I’m always somewhere near history. I think the thing about technology is it’s here to stay. So let’s talk about what that means for your life and your work life and what you want. It’s important to remember that people make technology and the things that are becoming in the next year or two or three and augmented reality or computer visualization or robotics, it’s just going to be astounding. So be on the lookout to how it might affect your life and or your work. It pays to pay attention.
Her Agenda: Do you have any last words for the Her Agenda audience a lot of these women are young, they’re in their careers, they are trying to figure out what they can do better in their careers moving forward and so for someone like yourself who’s been very successful in everything that you’ve been able to do you know what advice you have for young career women?
Adaora Udoji: Build your personal board of directors. As you move along in your academic life or in your career, make sure to stay in touch even if it’s loose touch with the people along the way, who have been helpful give you good advice. Whether they be former bosses, former professors, former mentors, make sure you keep those people close. Make sure there are cross-generational lines. Having a bunch of people your age isn’t necessarily as valuable as having people who might be younger than you people your age and people older than you because they have different experiences. Work across industries, because maybe you’re a graphic artist and it never dawned on you that in healthcare they need graphic artists. There’s so much 3D technology that’s changing the way doctors are doing their job, maybe there’s a role for you in that world and you wouldn’t know it. The most important thing is building smart people around you.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]