Know Your Why
Manny Ohonme, founder of Samaritan's Feet, shares his inspiring story, his leadership philosophy and the incredible work his organization is doing.
We have an outstanding human being, an outstanding leader with us today in Manny Ohonme. Manny, we're delighted to have you with us. This is a chance for us to tell your story, which I'll say upfront to our audience is an incredible story.
Oh, thank you.
He is the founder and CEO of a great organization called Samaritan's Feet.
And you'll hear more about that as we go through this discussion. But Manny, I just want to start with the beginning for you. Because in leadership, we find that one of the most difficulties that leaders have is dealing with obstacles. And you started your life in the middle of obstacles. Tell us about Africa, Nigeria, where you were born and raised and some of the difficulties you went through.
I grew up in a home in a first generation Christian family. My mom was the first actually Christian in my family tree. Phenomenal.
My father struggled because of life choices because of his fears, all the things. And he had to find a way to escape. And his escape came in the form of alcohol and other things to help calm his nerve. And when you live with people of that nature that has this addictive personalities, then the ones that are closest to them are the ones that it hurt the most.
So growing up in Nigeria, poor, I used to joke around. I tell my kids now that you guys just walk to the wall and flip on the switch and the light comes on. I got to figure out what time the lights got to stay on so I can do my homework and have to walk miles to go get water, just the basic things.
I wake up every morning and say, man, God, would you give me a 001? Can I at least have, if you don't give me breakfast or lunch, give me supper so I can make it to the next day. 15 of us grew up in this home that was two bedroom, that my mom and dad had one bedroom. The rest of us had another bedroom.
I will joke around and tell my kids the first bed I slept on was at my college when I came to the United States. It was one of those things that was very tough, but it was also one of the most joyful things in my life. Because even though I didn't know I didn't have anything, but the beauty was I had a mom that loved me in spite of all of this, and to keep encouraging me that in spite of all the mess and the obstacles I got around me, that you have a God that's created you for a big purpose.
I always wondered, Mom, where is this purpose? I can't see it. But she always had a way of just encouraging and reminding me that you just keep trusting and you're going to accomplish great things one day. But it's amazing just to see where I've come from to see where I am today.
Yeah. So your mother must have been a very inspirational lady, because apparently early on she started saying Manny, you can be the solution to some of the world's biggest problems.
It's amazing that at the age of nine, and I just think about it, my responsibility to be able to add to the bottom line of my family's income, I used to go sell water and soft drinks to athletes that used to come play sports by my house. But one day, it's crazy. I want to share, this because this helps set the context for how big my mom is in my life.
I would help that to go sell water one day at this park. And I showed up at this park. And there was a group of missionaries that were there, right? It was crazy, because they came to teach African children how to play sports. And I showed up there with my basket of water.
And I landed there. And all these people were having fun. And I saw the joy they were having. Man, I wanted to join them. I knew I didn't belong. But for a minute in my whole life, I just want to be a part of what's happening here. And I put my basket of water down. And I saw these kids having fun. So I wanted to join them. They shooed me away.
And I could have said, OK, this is—I'm here to sell. But I said I ought to join these people. So I ended up finding one of the balls that went around the corner. I grabbed it, and I snuck in. I knew if I could just be a part of them—I see the guy. I find out later on he was a missionary, that he can actually allow me to be part of it.
I was thinking, he's going to let me be part of that stuff. So after I join them, he says, here, let's dribble the ball. Let's pass the ball. And he said we are going to have a shooting competition. And he said the prize for the winner is going to be a new pair of shoes.
It was crazy. I was so elated. I'm like, everybody in that place wanted to get picked. We were screaming pick me, pick me. Because if you live in a community where your parents live on less than $1 a day, a pair of tennis shoes is like a Mercedes-Benz. So it was like everybody wanted to get picked.
And I was screaming. And I was one of the few that got picked. So I stepped up to the line, Kelly. I never played basketball in my life. The first shot I took that day was nothing but net. I joke around. I say angels was working overtime. I made two shots that day that changed my life. All I wanted to do was run home.
And as I was about to take up this missionary, grab him by his shoulder—and his name was Dave. He's actually from the state of Wisconsin, that we call him Dave from Wisconsin. And he looked at me. He said, son, just because all you see around you is poverty doesn't mean the God of the universe has forgotten about you. He said, son, keep dreaming, and keep dreaming big.
And that day, it was amazing. Basketball became my love. And as I played basketball-- and I would go to my mom. And this is where my mom played such an important role in my world. And I would go to my mom. I'd say, Mom, I know you have faith. I know you have all this stuff. But why do we have to always live so poor?
And it's amazing. My mom would look at me. And she would take me by this little window by my house and says son, I want to look outside. And I'd look outside, and say, son, what do you see? And I said, mom, they're trees. And no, no, son, she said, she'll say, you're not looking high enough. She said look outside.
And she said, what do you see? I said, Mom, I see—is it a bird's nest? Son, you're not looking high enough. She said, what you see? I said, Mom, I see the clouds. And then she said, son, do you ever wonder why God created the sky so high? And I'd say, I don't know, Mama. And she'd say, so poor boys like you can dream real high.
She said, son, never make an excuse for life. She said, just because today may be a crappy day doesn't mean tomorrow ain't going to be a great day. And she always told me that as long as my God is on the throne that you can do all things through Him which gives you strength. And she's always had a way to bring me back the reality that I was created to accomplish greatness, even though I couldn't see it with my physical eyes.
Moms and parents have huge impacts on us. And we have the negative influence. I myself grew up in a very poor family, and my dad was an alcoholic. And very proud in his later life he became a strong Christian. But when the kids were growing up, it was not—not good. And so I can really relate to what you went through.
Well, it's amazing. My mom prayed for my father, Kelly, for almost 40 years, 40 years. Sometimes we would say to my mom, Mom, why do you have to live in this condition? And she always—aw, man. She always says God never gives warriors a bigger battle than they can accomplish, because He's on their side.
That's when I realized, man, there's a bigger picture in life that we don't even get to see that God is working out. So I'm so—my mom is my role model. She has a special place in my world.
Yeah. So a lot of times in life, people have that inspirational support, like in the case of your mom. But as life goes along, the obstacles come. They get in trouble. They never fulfill their real, God given purpose in life. But you held it together through all those years. How do you think about the strength that you had to keep you moving, even through—after the nine-year-old pair of shoes, I'm sure it wasn't a piece of cake after that.
No, it wasn't. And I think about—so I started playing basketball. And basketball became my escape, because the home life was very difficult. My coach, who had interest in me because it's something special. He'd always, I see something special about you.
And so I started playing basketball. So as I finished high school, my dream was one day I wanted him to come to America on a basketball scholarship. So I didn't know much about America. My coach was also the coach of a very famous Nigerian basketball player, Hakeem Olajuwon. And so my coach would come to America every year and go to different clinics.
But somehow I got names of coaches that I had to write letters to. See, in those days, they didn't have the fancy internet recruiting sites like we do today. So we wrote them letters. And then the coach vouched for you. I end up getting interest from five different schools in this country. I even got a scholarship offer.
So I said, well, I didn't know much about America. I knew about New York, Los Angeles, and I've heard about Houston, Texas. So I said how good is the school with best looking brochure? Be careful those marketing people. So I lay this stuff down in my home. And I said, I'm going to go to that school. It was the University of North Dakota in [? Lake ?] [? Regent. ?]
And I showed up in North Dakota, true story, at the end of September, beginning of October. I said, I've done something wrong to God. I said, this is the coldest place in the world. What did I do to deserve this place?
But it was the best place, because God orchestrated people in my path that didn't even know me that welcomed me into their homes, that encouraged me, that inspired me, to remind me and keep my why in front of me to always remind me. Son, there's something special about you, and don't get caught up in the distractions of the things of life.
And for me, the foundation of my work has been my faith. Because I think faith is one of those unique things that I can always lean on, because I know I was created for it. So even my name, Emmanuel, there was a reason behind my name.
So my mom always reminded me, remember the name that you have, that you would name that somebody much greater. So even when I wanted to do some crazy, I remember who was my namesake. I can't go tarnish his name. So I got to keep remembering that.
And it's amazing, all the obstacles I went through college, through going into business. I finished my undergrad. I finished my master's. And I got the chance. There was a gentleman. There was a CEO of a company, a software company.
And he approached me. And he said, son, do you want a job? And I said, yes, I want a job. And he said, I'm going to fly you to this place called Charlotte. And I said, where's Charlotte? He said, why are you asking me where Charlotte is? See, the last time I didn't ask that question, I showed up in North Dakota.
So I showed up in Charlotte. They offered me this job. And life changing thing for me, I became a product manager for this software company, took them through this growth. [? I ?] [? should've ?] [? seen ?] what success was like, right? [? I took ?] [? into ?] this process, and I kept going through this. Our company got acquired. Join another company. Join another company.
And in truth, that [? process ?] my father. That's when my father actually got sick. That's one of the seasons of my life that my world was starting to change. It's crazy, because after my father had then passed away, then I went back to Africa to bury my dad.
And I remember showing up in my home in Nigeria. And I had forgotten what it's like to live like that, in poverty, because life is going well. And I walked into our bedroom. And I said, how did we live like this? It was so bad, I couldn't even use our bathroom. I had to go across the street to where I used to sell water.
And that's when I saw all those children with new shoes. That's when I saw those kids with no hope. And that's when the reality—I was so overwhelmed. I said, my goodness. Just like this kid, I was one of those kids. Once I had this dream that my dream could be as far out as the moon. But I didn't know how I was going to get there.
I said, what if I can start coming to help kids like this, to remind them that you're going to have struggles. You're going to have obstacles. But you can also make it true. You can also accomplish and do great things. That's actually when I started rearranging myself, that I was called to do something.
And actually in my misery from the past, I could become an answer to other people's prayer. That's actually where my transition came, that I looked at my struggles and my obstacles. I said, how can I use that as a vehicle to become an answer to somebody else's prayer?
I want to talk about—you've referenced your why. And for the audience, there's a great book written many, many years ago called Man's Search [? for ?] Meaning written by Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust. And in that book, he talked about when you know you're why, you can endure any how. And paraphrase for me, it's like if you're clear about your purpose in life, you can overcome the obstacles.
Our why at BB&T is to make the world a better place to live. And that's my personal why. You know, I would get up every morning and I'd ask God, help may this day do something to help one person have a better life, let me have a positive, meaningful impact on them by expressing my faith and helping them in their difficulties in life.
You've had that why for a long time. And it crystallized through your career, business. And now you seem to be so passionate and clear about Samaritan's Feet and how that's—you're in, like, 80 countries or something?
We've served kids now, by the end this year, about 90 countries, 350 US communities. We have seven international offices. It started because a man came to Africa to inspire a child. And now, because of his generosity and his love, we created a movement to help put shoes on the feet of 10 million kids, because one man came to Africa.
But we said we want to do something very unique and very different. So my why becomes every single day that I wake up today. I say, how can I help inspire hope amongst the worst, most impoverished? But also not just focus on the impoverished, because what happens in the dynamics of what we do is that—I know a guy to actually walked the face of his earth. I read about it. Actually, I was named after him. He was one of the greatest leaders I have ever studied.
Because when I read about him in this book, it's amazing. They talked about before he was about to face one of his greatest obstacles. Now there's these people that were surrounding him, [INAUDIBLE] was going [? to be the ?] greatest. And he looked at him. And he did something very amazing. And that's why, that's really [? envelop ?] what my why is today.
He said, [? [NON-ENGLISH], ?] a towel to wrap it around himself. He took out his [INAUDIBLE]. And he had a basin of water. And one by one, he started washing the feet of his disciples. And he looked at them and said if you want be great in life, you've got to understand the power of humility and what it means to serve others.
And now that's what my why is. How do I help develop leaders to go live out their purpose to serve others, because I have learned one truth. That service to others, I believe, is the key that helps emancipate humanity from the dungeon of self, because oftentimes we're so wrapped up in ourself.
So now I live my life that how can I be [INAUDIBLE], because I know I'm going to exceed that 10 million goal. Now we are asking ourselves that question, because there's 1.5 billion people in our world today that are infected with diseases that comes in through the feet.
I'm saying, God, if you could help me impact 10 million, why can't we create a movement to go create a world one day where there's zero shoeless children? So now I know, crystal clear, where I'm going. So when I wake up, how can I count to zero in my lifetime? How can I inspire people to come together and figuring out what their purpose is?
Maybe it's through shoes so kids don't have to die, so kids can go to school, so kids can go find out their purpose. But also the people on the other side of the basin, their world has been changed. Because when you get a chance to hold somebody's feet and start washing their feet and you start asking them their dream—who do you want to be?
And you can tell them, hey, I know that one that has the key to unlock the possibility for your future. And He can heal your pain. I tell you what, there's something that's happening. The transactions happen right here. It changes who you are. You realize through serving others, you actually get saved yourself.
Yeah. So I've studied leadership over the years. And I've coined my own little definition of a good leader. And that is a person who can share an important vision with others so that they can see that they can be happy and excited about life by participating and helping that vision become true.
So you've had this vision. And you've been able to get hundreds of thousands of people all around the world to help you with that. Talk a minute about how you personally get others to follow you.
You know, I think the greatest way is to live your conviction. My pastor always teaches me there's two key commandments that we're taught to live by. He said to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as thyself. And he said, when we do those things, it allows to do one thing—love ourselves correctly. Because when we can love our self correctly, then we can look out beyond ourself.
But for me, it also is a systematic way to do things with excellence. We've created a model that allows us to work with corporations, where corporations can actually use our mission as a calling card to connect with their community. How can I engage my associates to go live out a servant leadership mandate?
We say in the boardroom that we want to be a servant leader. How can we actualize that in real life? [INAUDIBLE] some of the top [? coaches ?] in the country and in the world to say how do you become a servant leader? By teaching your athletes what it means, because many of them are going to know fame and fortune.
The question is what are you going to do with that? It's through humility and servitude that you discover who you truly are. And that's what I've been doing, engaged now over 120,000 volunteers around the world that actively get involved with Samaritan's Feet, domestically and internationally.
I just came back from the Dominican Republic not too long ago. I was just in Cuba. But to see people suffering and you can be a part, to be an answer to their prayer. But through that transaction, your life is changed. And when people's lives are changed, it's like a drug. They want more of that. That's what we've been doing.
And so one of the things I read in your book, which is a great book by the way, for our audience, that they should read. We've got it here, the Sole Purpose—is that you really believe, in a humble way, that you can change the world, that you can improve the conditions for humanity. That's a big dream. That's a big vision.
I always ask myself the question that the Good Samaritan called David from Wisconsin, I wonder how many people told him not to come to Africa over 30 some years ago, never knowing in his wildest dream he would get an encounter to come in contact with a boy that he will [? inactivate ?] hope and faith in his life, to go one day realize that he was created for something much bigger. So the fact that Dave came to Africa, changed my life. A pair of shoes that was just a fashion accessory in those days, became a vehicle that changed my life.
That's now been multiplied seven million times over. And soon now, we just invented actually a world shoe, the first of its kind in this world that actually has an active, built-in antimicrobial property that can repel any form of parasitic infection. And it's also biodegradable.
Because when you're so laser focused in what you're called to do, God will bring unique people across your path that will help you accomplish this vision. But your vision has got to be big enough for other people to want to join. Because oftentimes people always say I want to go do this to change the world, but your ability and your intellect can actually—you can actually accomplish that dream yourself.
Then what is the essence to get people engaged? So if you're going to have a vision, make sure it's big enough that, man, it's going to take God himself to make this possible. So I checked with my board a while ago. I said, we're going to see this 10 million goal. Our next vision is to create a world with zero shoeless children. And you could have heard the pin drop.
They said, my goodness, that's 1.5 billion. I said, I don't understand. But I don't have to go do it. But what if we can create a global institute for servant leadership to be able to mobilize 120,000 volunteers, that we can have a multiply effect to help them discover their purpose and their why.
And they go to learn and say, hey, what if I can go start a Samaritan's Feet enterprise somewhere in Florida, somewhere in Oklahoma, somewhere in Alaska, maybe in India, maybe somewhere in Kenya. All of us know we look forward 10 years from now. There are hundreds of the Samaritan's offices.
The seven we have around the world today, they're now fully self-sustaining. Because they saw a guy that had nothing, that came from nothing, but had passion but also a know-how, a blueprint to be able to help them be a part of something much bigger than them.
And say now I can actually have a vehicle that I actually see and be a part of to impact somebody that just has this mutual transformative platform that changes the life of the recipients also change my life and then also even change the life of the people that makes us be able to do it. I want to be a part of that.
And the great leaders, it's not just about doing great things. It's about helping people see the potential of what they can become, because they don't sometimes see that stuff in themselves, and equip them to go do that. Because through your efficiency and your process in life, you have helped them accomplish greatness. To me, that's the ultimate definition to picture who really they is, when you can allow people to accomplish great things and God can use to be a part of that picture become magnified.
Manny, I want to share with the audience, we're here sitting in a library at a school in eastern Winston-Salem, North Carolina. This is an economically challenged part of our city. And we're getting ready when we conclude this to do something pretty exciting. Tell the audience what we're getting ready to do.
It's amazing. We are going to serve children at this Title I school. Every one of them is going to walk in. And we all get the chance—this is around Christmas season right now. We get to be Santa Claus today. We get to wash children's feet.
And every single one, they're going to sit in front of a BB&T associate. And one by one, they're going to ask them what their name is and what's your dream. What do you want to be when you grow up?
One day, probably, those shoes will wear out. But they will always remember that BB&T associate that stepped into their life in that single juncture. Who knows? That may be their David that reminded that child that they were created for greatness, to think and dream beyond your horizon, that they can also accomplish great things.
There was a kid, a young girl, that came to a distribution just like we're going to do today. This associate looked at that little girl and asked her what her dream was. She said she wanted to be a nurse. They said, you want to be a nurse? And she comes from a very, very poor background.
And she said, man, never give up. I promise you one thing. There will be days when you go through college that you're going to want to quit. But always remember that God's on your time. You can do all things. And every time you want to give up, remember this day and remember my face, that you can accomplish and get through this.
Fast forward a few years by, this girl—she's a nurse. That lady went back to our church, because our pastor was the one to help us orchestrate the distribution that day. And she shared with our pastor she remembered vividly that day that she was about to quit and give up.
She never forgot that Samaritan volunteer that reminded her don't give up. You're going to have bad days. You're going to have dark days. And the day that you want to quit is going to come.
But remember today that you've been given an opportunity. And you have hope. And hope means something much bigger. It's to have only positive expectation. And that girl today is one of the key breadwinners for her family. It all stems back and comes back to that day when the volunteers came in and won the heart of that kid.
So we don't know who that girl, that boy is going to become today. Those 100 plus associates from BB&T, they get the chance to do something far bigger than giving shoes today. They get a chance to deposit hope, faith, and love in the hearts of these kids. And I promise you two people whose lives are going to changed today—the recipient and the volunteer.
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