How Attending The World Cup As A Spectator Inspired A Former D1 Soccer Player to Take Control of His Career
Every four years, the world stops for a month as 32 countries compete for the World Cup. The players participating in the tournament are living out a dream that took years to manifest. And for the rest of us spectators, we joyfully let our lives be disrupted by a constant stream of goals, great talent, and pride for our countries.
In 2014, the World Cup represented more than a quadrennial event to Emeka Ogbonna, a former goalkeeper at West Virginia University. Emeka started playing in elementary school and had dreams of playing at the highest stage. After his playing days took a few turns, he graduated and ended up joining Wall Street prior to the financial crisis. He worked his way up the ladder and progressed through the years of uncertainty that fell upon the industry. While he had transitioned beyond sports well, it was attending the World Cup that ultimately pushed Emeka to redefine success and make the career move he needed. In this interview, we discuss playing at a D1 program that recruits internationally and how becoming a spectator changed the outlook on his future.
How did you end up at West Virginia University?
In high school, I was a goalkeeper on my soccer team that was strong regionally. I was one of the better goalkeepers in the state. I actually didn’t have formal training and didn’t start playing the goalkeeper position until middle school so I didn’t know I was going to be as good as I was. I went to Monmouth University for my first year in college, thinking I was going to be a top player and it wasn’t quite the fit I was looking for. The coaching staff at the time faced challenges more difficult than they expected but I did enjoy the players. Nevertheless, I decided I wanted to make a move. My high school coach was close to the West Virginia program so I transferred there for the opportunity to get playing time. It was a match made in heaven.
How did your experience at WVU compare?
That transition was extremely difficult. It wasn’t the academics. It was acclimating to a new state, conference, teammates, and a much higher level of competition. Whereas Monmouth recruited regionally, West Virginia recruited internationally. I came from a nontraditional background without formal training or going through Olympic Development Program (ODP) route so it was really challenging getting playing time. I spent a lot of time with the sports psychologist to make sure I had the right type of mentality to survive there and not let my success or lack thereof impact the classroom. I would say I really didn’t get comfortable until my second year at WVU. By then I did a good job of balancing school, friends, and sports.
How did you start planning for your career?
Well, I wasn’t seeing a lot of playing time so I was having these internal conversations with myself. Do I just focus on pursuing a career? Do I drop the game altogether? Do I transfer again? I was playing behind a goalkeeper that was the top player in the conference and one of the top goalkeepers in the country. I also suffered a hamstring injury, which was discouraging. I actually stepped away from the team the spring going into my senior year to really heal physically and emotionally from the challenges and injury.
Prior to that point, I connected with some professional organizations that identified underrepresented individuals. They helped us interview in media, accounting, and finance internships, and I had the opportunity to interview at Merrill Lynch the summer after my freshman year. My experience with Merrill Lynch was transformational. I did the internship and trained in NJ that summer. It gave me tons of exposure to senior management. It was the beginning of me thinking about life after soccer. Before that summer internship, I did two summer working for at the golf course of Princeton University with the grounds crew, so it was a huge difference in how I was approaching opportunities for myself. It was really eye opening.
How did that summer affect your senior year?
By stepping away from the team the spring going into my final season, it allowed me the opportunity to have singular focus on my professional career outside of soccer. I knew the summer internship I was embarking on with Merrill Lynch’s Institutional Advisory Group would be extremely challenging. The post-9/11 economy was booming and nearing its peak and I was part of their largest summer analyst class with top students from the best schools in the country.
Nothing can really prepare you for the role of being a summer analyst but I did everything I could to make sure I would be successful. I read books and articles on finance. I tried to schedule as many conversations as I could with professionals in the industry. I was living in New York City and that summer the World Cup was hosted by Germany. Since seemingly every TV at the company was tuned in, I became the go-to expert on the trading floor for all things soccer. Being able to build that rapport amongst my colleagues helped differentiate me from my peers and highlighted a well rounded persona that arguably played a small role in helping me get a full-time offer. Of course, I had no idea at the time that 8 years later, the World Cup would play a role in another defining moment of my career.
So how did your expectations of Wall Street meet the reality when you started working there?
The thing I learned the most was that I was prepared because of my athletic background. Being able to do sprints and lift weights, basically the mentality you build over years by grinding through sports prepared me to handle a lot of uncertainty. At the same time, I quickly learned that the emperor has no clothes. There was nothing that matched up. First off, the financial crisis was something that very few people could experience and not be affected by. It was eye opening to see how these things exposed these institutions. You realized a lot of people in power didn’t know what they were doing. It showed me that the power really relied with the young analysts. It seems to me that many of the leaders just got by through good fortune, or patronage.
Given how your time on Wall Street started, how do you reflect on it now?
You start out as a 20 year old intern and suddenly you’re a 29 year old VP. It was a fast paced environment that forced me to learn quickly. It taught me to learn as many skills as you can. People knowing I had an athletic background gave them confidence in me and I think people gravitated towards that. My mindset of whatever it takes helped me not to be shy in an era where there was a lot happening with financial institutions. That confidence from team sports did help me in a lot of ways.
At what point did you know you wanted to move on?
In 2014, I went to the World Cup in Brazil. The whole experience was poetic. There were a lot of players competing in the World Cup that year that I either knew, played with, or played against growing up. I played with Geoff Cameron at WVU. Michael Bradley was from my hometown. Graham Zusi, we played against him in college. It made me feel like, had I aspired to my goal, I could have been on that team. It was cool because you could almost say you helped those players get there. I like to think that me and a lot of players had a hand in their success by challenging on them on the field to make them better.
Being in Brazil and interacting with other people showed me that I didn’t need the money I was making and the job I had to make meaningful connections. It showed me that it's not about the money. People in Brazil had a lot less and were much happier. I realized I could still have great opportunities outside that job. I thought it was because of my job that I was able to afford the experience of going to the World Cup, but I learned that wasn’t the case. That was the beginning of me realizing it wasn’t all about the money. It pushed me to start looking for something else. I took some time and thought about where I wanted to be. I decided I wanted to transition from finance to another industry. I wanted a culture that had a lot of growth, but cared about employees.
What steps did you take to find your next move?
I tapped into my network of former athletes and former colleagues from the bank who made the transition. I was able to understand what certain companies looked for. I also worked with a recruiting agency that focused on placing qualified talent with software companies. I felt like my skill set could fit. I was someone who was open minded, curious, could think analytically, and was willing to go the extra mile. I developed a lot of those skills in finance, but I first got them through athletics.
You joined Yotpo as an early employee in their New York City office. Are there any similarities between your career as a soccer player and your role in helping Yotpo grow?
I’m a seller. As a senior seller it’s about collaboration. Take collaboration with client services for example. When I make a sale, I hand it off to someone on my team. A goalkeeper has to communicate and has to see everything on the field. Being able to have that mindset of over communicating is so necessary especially when there could be potential issues.
Also, I’ve had bad months. It took me awhile to get good at this job. If I have a bad game, I’d get extra work and stay later. That’s kind of what I did at Yotpo. The same type of mindset that any player would have after not performing is the mindset that got me here from those early days when I was adjusting. And I would say I still do that today. Every month we do a performance evaluation. If I dont hit my quota, I want to find out why and what I didn’t do well this month. Even if i hit it, by nature I want to get better.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would tell him to take advantage of the time you have now. Each moment is fleeting. Be ready for anything. That’s applicable to what happened to me as a senior. It’s going to get better. Stay with things and don’t give up. Also, be patient. Patience is the number one thing. Had I been patient with that injury, I would have stuck with it. Even at Yotpo, I have to be patient to take in all the information and ask the right questions to make better decisions.
There’s a lot that goes on in the course of your life and don’t be surprised by changes. You can be counted on on a moment’s notice to step up for a team or organization, whether you’re ready or not. Working through the financial crisis is the perfect example of that.