From Janitor to Pro Basketball Player, Sheer Determination Brought This Man Success

Ebong Eka’s persistence and positive attitude helped carry him from an impoverished childhood to All-Conference collegiate and professional basketball courts, then on to top accounting jobs at blue-chip firms.

Now a Washington, D.C.-based business coach, Eka helps entrepreneurs bring their dreams to life through his blogging, book, TEDx talk and television appearances on MSNBC, Fox News, Fox Business Channel, NBC and CNN. He calls his work “Ekanomics” training, developing mindsets, missions and money for people.

But Eka’s life didn’t start out this way. His Nigerian parents lived in Washington, D.C. as his father studied at Howard University, later moving to Canada for new opportunities and separating when Eka was in the 6th grade. His mother worked multiple jobs while raising four children in public housing located in what Eka calls “one of the tougher neighborhoods” of Toronto.

“My mother is an extremely strong figure who raised four kids despite the odds and lack of money,” Eka said. “From my mother, I learned the importance of having a vision, hard work, personal responsibility and discipline.”

Eka’s vision for his future carried him through the pitfalls of adolescence.

“While friends wanted to party, I played basketball and researched the States,” he said. “When friends wanted to do illegal activities like selling drugs, I thought about what my future would look like.”

“On a cold Canadian morning as I stood outside the bus stop waiting for the bus to St. Basil’s The Great College School in Toronto, Ontario, I made the decision that I wanted to play college basketball in the U.S. and eventually live there,” Eka said. “Every decision I made from that point forward was for that purpose.”

“From my mother, I learned the importance of having a vision, hard work, personal responsibility and discipline”

Eka said he worked multiple jobs to save enough money to attend basketball camps in the United States. At 17, he took a Greyhound bus to Cleveland, Ohio and sleeping in the bus station because the basketball camp forgot to pick him up.

“My dreams and visions were bigger than minor inconveniences,” he said.

While in high school, Eka found “The Comparative Guide to American Colleges” in the library. He sent letters to more than 300 U.S. colleges and universities. He was eventually accepted to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Eka played basketball as an All-Conference selection.

After graduation, Eka committed to getting a professional basketball contract, working out during the day while doing janitorial work at night. He made hundreds of phone calls and sent emails from midnight until 4 a.m., five nights a week, for months on end. During that time he joined an Athletes in Action Christian mission team to play basketball in North Korea against their national teams, China and Taiwan. He continued to send tapes and information to professional European teams. His persistence paid off, and Eka received a contract to play for BBC Cossonay in Switzerland, 30 minutes north of Lausanne.

“I learned the importance of hard work, commitment, unrelenting massive amounts of action and having a purpose,” he said of his time as a professional athlete. “I also learned that if I didn’t perform on a nightly basis, I could get fired and sent home. That’s pressure.”

After his time in professional sports drew to a close, Eka drew on his undergraduate accounting degree; a profession he assumed was recession-proof. He found work in senior roles at marquee accounting firms such as Deloitte & Touche, PricewaterhouseCoopers, as well as Marriott International.

Yet even with this experience, he found himself jobless in the wake of the recent recession.

“I realized that although your profession may be recession proof, your job never is,” he said. “I had to take control of my economy after being let go from a firm I worked for.”  

Eka struck out on his own, founding his own consulting firm, coaching executives and startups. He said successful entrepreneurs and businesses people he meets often share similar circumstances in how they perceive the world and connect with others.

“They had a purpose greater than their circumstances,” he said. “Additionally, it’s imperative to find other like minded people who are on a similar journey. Your family and friends may support you or they may not — it doesn’t matter because it’s your dream, not theirs.”

Eka said he is often asked about how to close employment gaps between African-American and other groups within professional fields.

“I don’t know if there is a definitive answer,” he said. “I think there’s an immigrant mentality and those who are not from the U.S. In my case, I made a decision that I was going to succeed or die. My mother was an example of hard work, perseverance and the importance of vision.”

“One way to expand the business mindset of African-Americans is to continue to educate according to the marketplace,” he added. “You’ll never get that in any four year college, only through action.”

Carrie Sheffield is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.