I met Ken at one of the FI London meet ups. I didn’t realise how interesting his back story was until I read this post.
Ken is now financially independent aged 34, having come to the UK from Nigeria ~20 years ago.
Ken’s story reminded me how easy and safe we have it in the affluent West. It also made me feel slightly embarrassed about the level of whininess that we see and hear all around us.
That’s not to say that everyone can (or even should) do what Ken did. One size does not fit all and there are many different paths through life.
Sometimes people tell me that not everyone can get to financial independence. I file that information under “N” for No Shit, Sherlock. Not everyone can run a marathon in 3 hours either…but more people would be able to run 5 or 10 miles if they put down the fucking donuts and went for a run.
The same principle applies with saving money. It’s not a binary choice between being broke or financially independent. How about being debt-free, having your pension set up properly and a years expenses tucked away as an emergency fund? That’s not full financial independence but it would be a massive improvement for most of the population.
Case studies like Ken’s show what is possible, not what is normal. I’ve noticed in my financial coaching that people with an immigrant background often have the right mindset for financial independence. Having parents that worked hard, took risks and modelled self-discipline and hustle would no doubt have helped.
So enjoy this guest post from my friend Ken Okoroafor.
I’m an immigrant who came to the UK as a child, 20 years ago.
I was born in Lagos, Nigeria. My parents were survivors of a major civil war in which more than a million people lost their lives.
Before that my parents lived in a fishing village. They would tell us stories of how they hustled to sell yams and fish, whilst staying alive in a war driven by the quest for power and territory. My parents grew up valuing education and saw it as a way out. They were the first generation in their families to go to college.
The 14 years I lived life in Nigeria was dominated by military rule and coups were not uncommon. This was the way in which one government took over from another. No votes or handshakes.
My experience at school in Nigeria was rough. Bullying was not just common, it was celebrated and was a right of passage. One way I found an identity at school was through reading. If I couldn’t beat them physically, I’d out-geek them. As time passed, I became top 5 in class and grew quietly in confidence. Like my parents, I started to believe that education might be a way out.
There is no safety net in Africa. No benefits, no free health system, no functioning state pension scheme, no free education etc. You have to get out there and hunt or hustle. If you don’t, you steal. And if you steal, you die. I often saw men burnt to death with tyres around their neck for being caught stealing.
So you can imagine how I felt when I was told we had the opportunity to move to the UK. I felt like we’d hit the jackpot. All I knew about the UK was that it had a Queen and she lived in a palace. I assumed this country must be an amazing place and all its people would live in amazing palaces. I wanted a piece of that action and I wanted it badly.
My dad went alone to scope out London first. This is typically how immigrants make a move. When I (as a father to two boys) think about that today I can’t imagine being without them for a month, let alone 6 years as he was.
I am eternally grateful to my dad. He did what he needed to do and that decision has had generational implications. My approach to family life has been deeply influenced by the decisions my parents made to ensure that we had a bright future.
I never forget my flight to the UK in 1998. That plane journey would be my last for the next 10 years…the decade from 1998 to 2008 was all about my quest for security.
We arrived the UK in July and it was supposedly hot. It wasn’t hot for us and we wore jumpers. As we got the tube from Heathrow, I marvelled at the idea of an underground train. I hadn’t seen a real life train before, so this was a big deal. I noticed some odd things on the tube. No one spoke to each other. Everyone sat in silence. And they all looked kinda miserable.
We arrived at a bedsit in North London. It was one room for a family of 5 with nothing in it other than a double bed, a fridge and a TV. That night, the children slept on the floor by our suitcases and my parents slept on the bed.
Immigration is newsworthy and understandably so. However, let’s not forget that we are referring to human beings here, most with hopes and aspirations and a hard working ethic.
Immigrants are sometimes referred to in the media as third class citizens or worse. When you’re caught up in this sort of messaging, you can feel unwelcome or hopeless or both. Having listened to this for the last 20 years, I’ve come to realise that the immigrant’s perceived disadvantages could also be advantages if they’re understood and used.
Immigrants are hugely diverse. There are immigrants with more money and power than Members of Parliament. They own football clubs and control vast assets.
Then there are other immigrants without any money or voice at all. These immigrants work hard and keep the country running, often doing dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs without many noticing.
For a very long time, life in the UK felt like living in a prison. This is because we had a visa issue technicality on arrival in the UK. This meant we had no right to the NHS, no right to apply for jobs, no right to benefits etc. Basically no rights to anything till we heard back from the powers that be on what our future would be. Months of waiting turned into years.
So how did we make money to buy food and survive? The only path available was to get creative and go underground. A job at Pret would have been fantastic. However, that wasn’t an option. We needed to go lower – informal jobs cleaning factories, plate washing etc.
This was a quiet and fearful life with the possibility of loss of residency in the UK at any time…we were right at the bottom of the pile, below the poorest citizens.
It’s hard for someone who has not walked the path of the immigrant to understand what the struggles are. However, I write about this so that you can start to understand why the path to Financial Independence for an immigrant might be hard but achievable.
Here are some of the struggles I faced.
Moving to the UK was a shocker for me. Everyone spoke so fast and everything moved so fast too. I got a lot of abuse from the crazy kids at my State school and fitting in felt difficult.
I had no friends for a very long time, and really struggled to fit in at school here. The one guy who accepted me as a friend was Angolan Portuguese. It wasn’t cool to be African, and it’s interesting to now see a lot of the UK music and sport scene dominated by talented Brits with immigrant roots.
My mum had it very hard. She went from being a high ranking civil servant in Nigeria to cleaning portacabins as Canary Wharf expanded. In Nigeria she used to have her own driver, cleaner etc. In the UK, she became the cleaner.
I remember days when she’d come home with discarded coins and tips she got for serving coffee to the builders.We’d take them to the bathroom to rinse because they were always covered in dirt. These coins went very far and kept bread and milk on our table.
My dad was a vet having spent at least 7 years learning his profession. However, moving to the UK meant those qualifications were not good enough. He had to re start life as a technician and find his way.
There is a direct link between your ability to communicate and your future wealth.
My top priority as a teenager was to master English and stop sticking out like a sore thumb with my strong accent. I avoided speaking much in public because it only lost me the friends I never had(!).
But I realised that without fluency I had no hope of getting a proper job. So I’d watch the BBC news and repeat aloud, over and over, everything I heard.
3. Bureaucracy and lawyers
The British passport that many of you take for granted carries privileges. It guarantees citizenship and rights to many things e.g. health care, voting, welfare, property, job opportunities etc.
For some immigrants, the journey to getting a passport can take decades. You can lose years of your life due to poor advice, being fleeced by terrible solicitors.
Money plays such a critical role here. We didn’t have money available so had to find it everytime our solicitor said “this would cost you £3k each”. I tallied up all it has cost me to become a fully-fledged Brit and it came to something like £60,000.
I faced racism a lot but it has never held me back.
I got called all sorts of names at school. I even faced it subtly with professional jobs (when I finally could apply for these) although I couldn’t prove it.
My saving grace with the jobs I landed always came when I told my interviewers about my life journey. People respect struggle and resilience and that has helped me land good jobs. Speaking English in a way my interviewers understood also went a long way.
I’ve always either been the only black person in the companies I’ve worked for or the only black man. Of course none of this progression would have happened had I not achieved high level qualifications needed to even get a foot in the door.
As I have come to learn, the beginning of every achievement starts with a strong desire. If your desire is strong enough, no amount of racism will stop you.
5. Lack of Money
Lack of money is high on the list of problems that immigrants face. This causes many to get involved in illegal activities that worsen their already negative positions.
The lack of money can also do something else. It can heighten creativity and make you enterprising. Necessity is the mother of invention.
This was certainly so for me and my family. We were told we couldn’t get jobs but nothing in the order we got said we couldn’t create jobs. So we made our own interpretation and set out to make some money. Setting up companies was far easier and faster than trying to get jobs.
You remember I told you about my mum’s cleaning jobs? Well, she went on to launch her own cleaning company and hired people doing what she did. Every menial job we all took, eventually became lessons from the business school called life.
Over the years, together as a family, we’ve run companies doing a variety of very different things. We owned a hair magazine, ran an events business, owned a medical personnel business, opened up nail bars and salons, created an African wholesale food brand and even opened children’s nurseries.
With each company we created, our confidence grew. And so did our cash. I discovered the idea of money working for me from Rich Dad, Poor Dad. It was a revelation. For the first time ever, the possibility of another life path began to sink in.
Rather than working for money, our money could work for us.
It was at this time that I met my wife Mary. Mary would change my life and give me a level of acceptance that I’d never had before. Together, we ventured into property investing, driven by the need to invest in cashflow generating assets. The awareness of the concept of Financial Independence gave us a framework which in turn gave us purpose.
There are two things that have played a critical role on my journey:
i) Formal education
I got a degree in Economics and Accountancy, and went on afterwards to train as a Chartered Accountant (ACA). Later followed by an MBA.
In all these paths, I was really aiming for two things – Knowledge and Understanding. When I went to university, I was really there for knowledge. When I went back 10 years later to study for an Executive MBA, I was really there for understanding.
Knowledge and Understanding and very different things, and are both steps on the path to wisdom.
These bits of formal education had two major impacts –
- Expanding networks and relationships, and
- 6-figure income.
A high income coupled with low expenses = A high savings rate.
ii) Informal Education
A lot of the books I read focus on self-development, entrepreneurship, life hacks, relationships etc.
I found that reading feeds what I think, which in turn feeds my actions, which again then feeds what I think.
As well as learning from books, I’ve accelerated my learning by seeking out mentors and coaches. There’s no quicker way to learn than through those that have been there already. If you think about it, you realise that every aspect of business success, personal success etc comes down to an encounter with the right people in life.
The other bit of informal education comes from trial and error and that means taking some risks.
If you are too risk averse, you’re unlikely to become financially wealthy. Intelligent risk taking is fed by your self-awareness, a must-have ingredient for Financial Independence. It is calculated and motivated by goals you’ve set yourself having an understanding of what you want out of life.
If you’re waiting for a guarantee or for certainty before you make a move, you’ll never do anything.
Although I’m financially independent (lean FIRE!) at 34, I have a day job that I thoroughly enjoy…mainly because it offers me autonomy, challenge and a wealth creation opportunity. I work as a CFO for an investment firm specialising in the creative industries.
It remains an exciting journey and a lot of my spare time these days is spent enjoying the process of learning about money, life and people. And where I can, I teach what I’ve been learning.
Life today is vastly different to where I started out. It isn’t perfect and still has challenges. However, I’ve been extremely fortunate in this country, and I remind myself of this fact everyday.
When I hear people complaining about how terrible things are here, I smile quietly. Those people have no idea how incredibly fortunate we are to live in this beautiful country. I guess you never fully understand this unless you’ve seen another world out there or understood how rich we are today compared to other times in history.
If there is anything I hope you’ve taken away from my story, it’s that your perceived disadvantages can be your advantages and that you already have the raw materials you need to get to improve your life.
No one is saying that everyone can get to financial independence. Its hard and takes sacrifice and determination. There are no guarantees. But you don’t have to get to full financial independence to reap rewards. Just getting out of debt and starting investing will massively improve your life.
The question is, will you abandon what others think and start the journey?
You can learn more about Ken on his blog : The Humble Penny
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