Fostering Diversity in Economics
Chinemelu Okafor created the Research In Color Foundation to aid aspiring economists of color.
by Greg Varner
Chinemelu Okafor, M.A. ’18, credits one of her uncles with pointing her toward a career in economics. Originally, she had planned to major in engineering, but the words of her uncle, Ambassador Chiedu Osakwe, carried great weight. A noted diplomat, he was Nigeria’s chief trade negotiator and served as director of the Accessions Division of the World Trade Organization.
“My uncle was very well respected, and he was a hero to me,” Okafor said. “Everything he said and did was exceptional. He said, ‘Chinemelu, you should major in economics,’ and I switched. And economics just clicked for me—engineering did not click for me as much.”
She now recognizes the strategic value of her uncle’s career advice, because economists have tools that can be applied in many different areas, such as political science, anthropology and sociology.
“I think that’s what he was getting at in telling me that I should go into economics,” Okafor said. “Economists have an exceptional toolkit to understand people, and those tools can be used in many different places. It was a strategic thing for my uncle to say to me about my career path.”
As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, she was a double major in international studies and economics, graduating in 2015. The next stop on her academic path was GW, where she earned a master’s degree in applied economics.
During her time at GW, she worked as a research assistant at the World Bank, where she met Tristan Reed, who became her mentor. His professional background in West Africa, working as an associate at McKinsey & Company and living in Lagos, piqued her interest in collaborating with him. He had earned a Ph.D. from Harvard and worked as an economist at the World Bank.
“He would introduce me to people I would never have known otherwise and say, ‘This is Chinemelu. She’s interested in a Ph.D., and she’s going to do excellent things. You need to know her.’ He believed in me. And that experience, of a mentor speaking highly of you, is so necessary. It helps you get into different doors.”
Apart from facilitating her entry into the world of professional economics, Reed also bolstered her confidence.
“People value Tristan’s word,” she said, “and if he tells people I am excellent, then I have no other choice but to assume the position of excellence.”
She and Reed still communicate frequently. He helped guide her on the path to her Ph.D., which she is currently pursuing at Harvard. She is not yet sure whether she’ll pursue a career in academia or in industry, and says she is keeping her options open. This year, she returned to the Washington, D.C., area for a one-year stint with the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
Working with Reed as her mentor filled her with gratitude for the role a mentor plays in the life of economics students and with a heightened awareness of its importance for mentees. She leads the Research In Color Foundation, an organization dedicated to matching aspiring economists of color with mentors who can help them find a way through the opacities of the economics profession, generally, and Ph.D. pipeline, specifically.
“There was a world of information and inspiration my mentor brought to me that I imagined was inaccessible for others who look like me—who don’t have such a mentor—in a field that does not look like them,” Okafor said.
Her work with the Research In Color Foundation resulted in Okafor being named last year to the “Forbes” annual “30 Under 30” lists recognizing distinguished young leaders in American business, education, media and industry. Okafor was named on the education list. Two other George Washington University alumni also made the “Forbes” lists last year: Yara Bishara, B.A. ’15, was selected in media, and Gabriella Tegen, B.B.A. ’16, was named on the retail and commerce list.
The mentorship program of the Research In Color Foundation helps mentees write cover letters and résumés, and prepare for interviews, among other things. The foundation also provides funding through scholarships and fellowships.
The Research In Color Foundation matches mentees and mentors in a one-on-one mentorship program where they spend eight months completing an independent research project of their own choosing and then present it at the annual conference in August.
Helping aspiring economists of color is about more than overcoming financial barriers, Okafor said.
“There are hidden rules,” she said, “even pertaining to the way that you should present your résumé in LaTeX, because LaTeX has a specific font that economists use. There are signals that you do not pick up on unless you have somebody who knows those signals. It’s really important to have somebody you can trust and lean on in these spaces to guide you. And I had that when I went to GW and met my mentor. It has really changed my life.”
Nor can the importance of having more economists of color be overstated, Okafor said.
“There are studies that have shown that when you have more diverse groups, they are able to come to more optimal outcomes for whatever it is that they’re looking to achieve,” Okafor said.
“There was a world of information and inspiration my mentor brought to me, that I imagined was inaccessible for others who look like me—who don’t have such a mentor—in a field that does not look like them.”
“Your experiences and the perspectives that you bring when you are faced with an economic problem might be completely different because of the communities that you've come from,” she said. “For example, I bring a lot of thought from Nigeria. I’m an American, but in my household I’m very Nigerian. Having individuals from diverse backgrounds can help you solve problems more effectively.”
Now that she has not only had a mentor but also been a mentor, Okafor said, she realizes that the mentor/mentee relationship works both ways, with the mentor growing along with the mentee.
“In building any relationship,” Okafor said, “there’s a give and take and there’s communication. An underappreciated aspect of mentorship is that both individuals can grow when mentees feel like they are heard and seen.”
Being in the area to work on the White House Council of Economic Advisers allows her to visit the GW campus. She recently came to Foggy Bottom to meet with Ronald Bird, an adjunct professor of economics, and Joann Weiner, director of the Master’s in Applied Economics Program. She is planning to return to campus for the program’s events throughout the year.
Okafor leads a busy life, traveling to France, Switzerland, New York, Nigeria and elsewhere for research and pleasure. She enjoys going to the gym, spending time with friends and exploring the arts, music perhaps most of all. She’s a fan of Igbo music, which often features the sound of the Oja, a hollow flute.
“The idea is that the Oja speaks to the spirits,” Okafor said. “The Oja is talking to individuals beyond this realm. I listen to a lot of Igbo music that uses the Oja. And I also listen to classical music. I listen to dance hall music from Jamaica. Those are definitely my top three kinds of music.”
After talking with Okafor, it’s not hard to agree that her uncle’s career advice was just right.
Joy Asico Photography