(Photography by Eric Acquaye)
Written by Michael Rain
Ngo Okafor entered his crowded apartment. It was filled with tall stacks of boxes. The boxes contained thousands of copies of his modeling calendar. His friends encouraged him to produce it but disappeared when it came time to market and promote it.
The boxes consumed his bedroom. They were blocking him from moving forward. They marked a physical representation of failure caving in on him. The calendars were now collections of wasted time.
Ngo went through a mild depression, wondering what he would do. “I said to myself, either you’re going to throw them all out or figure out a way to sell them all,” he recalled.
He decided to sell them. He bought a collapsible table, filled his backpack and duffel bag with 200 calendars and hit the streets. He set up shop in the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn, New York, where he offered the calendar for free. He invited people to donate any amount they liked. He gained traction and eventually worked his way over to Times Square, where he would start his day at 5 a.m. doing his best to get people’s attention and to sell every copy.
“People would just walk by me. Some people would laugh at me. Others would be like, ‘who the hell does this dude think he is?’and all kinds of verbal jabs,” he remembers. “And then other people would come at me and say ‘wow, amazing work!’ And I would sign a calendar for them and take pictures with them.”
When tourists discovered Ngo, that’s when things changed. They’ve never seen anything like him. A 6’5” striking and fit African man selling a high-quality calendar in person. They would buy several calendars at a time, and eventually, Ngo sold every, single, one.
This hustle and determination have helped Ngo garner a range of achievements in fashion, sports, fitness, and entrepreneurship. This Nigerian-American has defied expectations throughout his life, and now he is betting on the success of his startup.
Ngo is a 2-time Golden Gloves Boxing champion, winning at the ages of 33 and 34. He’s graced the covers of top-line publications as a fashion and fitness model for FORTUNE, VOGUE, W, ESPN Magazine and The Source. And for over a decade he’s been the top celebrity fitness trainer in New York, working with some of the world’s best-known beauties, including Naomi Campbell, Iman, and Jennifer Lopez.
Today, he is focusing his hustle as the founder of FitMatch, a social fitness app that he describes a “Yelp meets Tinder.” The app connects people who are looking for workout partners. Many of Ngo’s clients travel frequently and often lose motivation to exercise when they are away from home.
FitMatch uses geolocation technology to connect people worldwide, giving people the option to connect with someone else anywhere. FitMatch is also a solution for beginners looking for a workout buddy that is at a similar fitness level. Once users have found and connected with each other, they can keep one another accountable on their fitness goals, and provide inspiration and motivation.
After interviewing loads of his clients and others, he determined that the disconnected offline world needed a simple way to connect with people for exercise and support.
“A lot of people don’t deal with humans anymore. You can wake up and have all of your services done by an app. You get on your phone you order an Uber. You get into work, sit in your cubicle, put your headphones on, you don’t talk to anyone. You order your food from seamless your food gets there. You go to the gym, get your headphones on, you work out you go home and the cycle starts all over again.”
“You don’t have to interact with people if you don’t want to. And when you want to interact with people you have Tinder, you have OK Cupid and now you have FitMatch when you’re looking for someone to workout with. That’s where the world is going. Make it as easy as possible for people to connect, and for people to get what they want.”
Founding FitMatch is a culmination of Ngo’s fitness, sports, and entrepreneurial past. He has a habit of setting his mind on new goals, learning what he can, and working his hardest to achieve success. Following this path has never been easy. As any African-immigrant knows, careers that fall outside of law, business, medicine, and engineering are not met with the most supportive reactions.
“My story has always been if a human being can do it, I can do it. No matter what it is,” he shares confidently. “People laughed at me when I said I was going to train as a boxer. I started boxing at 31, and I won my first Golden Gloves at 33 and won it again at 34.”
“So for me, I just focus and I learn. I just read a lot. I read about how other people did it and wonder how I could do it better.”
This approach is what kept a young Ngo together when he arrived in the U.S. from Nigeria, adjusting to hardships and pursuing what made him happy, despite not initially receiving support from his family.
“I left home when I was 18 and came to the U.S. Originally I studied computer science and I worked in IT for a while. I loved computers. I loved technology. But I loved so much more. I wanted to do so many other things. But you know what African parents are like, ‘You have to get that job. Get that insurance. Make money. You cannot make money from entertainment’. And I get it. It’s all they know.”
“I wanted to play sports. African parents don’t support that. I loved the arts. I got into modeling and I was doing pretty well at that. It wasn’t until people started saying ‘oh I saw him on this or I saw him on that’ that they started saying ‘oh you know congratulations’ or ‘you’re doing well.’”
“Before then they were like, ‘what are we going to tell our friends that our son is a model? What is that? Their son has come to America and now he is lost,” he says humorously.
His parents do not completely understand where he’s going with this startup, either. Nor do they understand how it could make him money, or the implications of its success. “They are like, well as long as you’re still training people and making money,” he laughs.
Ngo doesn’t worry about the people who do not support him or do not understand his journey or path. “People are out there waiting for you to fail because it makes them feel good about themselves. ‘How dare you succeed,’ because you if succeed that means they are not taking risks to do their best.”
He’s also not afraid of failure. “You learn from your mistakes. You can’t learn if you’re only winning all the time.”
“Work ethic is what gets me through anything,” he says with conviction. “That’s what helped me with boxing. That’s what helped me with this app. I’m not going to give up until it becomes the true success that I know it should become.”
Even if you don’t have your family’s support, and there is no app available to give you supporters of your dreams on demand, Ngo suggests taking your own journey and focusing on your talents and gifts.
“You don’t have to travel the beaten path. Trust that you have been given a gift that nobody else has. Believe in that gift.”
For more about FitMatch visit: http://www.wefitmatch.com
Michael Rain is Chief Editor of ZNews Africa. Follow him on Twitter as @michaeljrain.
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