Meet Chinwe Esimai: the Harvard-trained lawyer passionate about inspiring generations of immigrant women leaders
Along with her mother, three brothers, and sister, Chinwe relocated to the United States in 1995, right before college. Chinwe graduated from the City College of New York with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, and received her JD from Harvard Law School. Today, she works for Citi as the Managing Director – Chief Anti-Bribery & Corruption Officer.
With a husband, three children and a demanding executive job, Chinwe talks about the challenge and excitement of being a woman – or more specifically – an immigrant woman in the modern world. She created her website to inspire immigrant women on their leadership journeys. These women leaders have come to the United States from all around the world. Chinwe calls them “American Dream Queens,” who not here in the United States to blend in, but to shine through”.
Yes, the glass ceiling for immigrant women trying to breakthrough leadership roles is real, but hearing these stories firsthand instill the hope that there’s still a place for women to thrive and succeed.
“You may not be everything and everywhere at the same time. Being an executive is a full-time job, being a mom is also a full-time job, and being a wife is part-time at the minimum. It’s a lot of jobs and the expectations don’t go away. It’s about how you think about it and how you manage it”.
“The kids need to know that they can have their own dreams. So they need to see someone living their dreams. It’s good for kids to see their mom have dreams, goals and things they love”.
“Understand your unique talent, your gift, and step into what it is you want to do. Don’t let anything – any of your differences (your accents, your names) stop you from bringing your full self”.
Chinwe Esimai moved to the US at the age of 17, right after high school from China.
“This isn’t something that I talked about before on the show because it hasn’t come up and people have hadn’t really asked me, but I started to reflect upon this more and more”.
On what her expectations at the time were, Chinwe says;
“At the time, my dad was the supporting person. He’s a professor, and he also was in politics as well, so a very well-known individual. My mom is highly educated, she actually just got her Ph.D., but when I was growing up, she had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. She was working, but my dad was the breadwinner. So I feel like growing up, it was more of a traditional household where my dad was the breadwinner. My mom was educated and working, but she was more on a supporting role. So growing up, I don’t think I had any models of women who were breadwinners. So I think this whole idea of stepping into the role of being a breadwinner was not one I planned for at all. And I definitely was not prepared for it because I think that our dynamics are more about that you have to be mindful of your relationship with your husband, your relationship with others, and no one really tells you this, so like most things in life, you learn it as you do it”.
About her job at Citigroup.
“I’m a Managing Director at Citigroup, yes. Well, I run our anti-bribery program, which is ensuring that we comply with all of the laws and regulations around bribery and corruption. So making sure that when we do business (because we do business in over 160 countries), that we’re not offering anything that could be considered a bribe. And because we have very high-risk jurisdictions for bribery, it’s a very interesting job, I think.”
“I think one of the biggest things, especially if you’re a working mom and have kids, there are expectations around what you do at home, whether it’s cooking for the family, taking care of the kids, helping with homework, and none of that goes away. You know, I heard once a very true phrase: “Being an executive is a full-time job, being a mom is also a full-time job, and then being a wife is at the minimum a part-time job”. So it’s a lot of jobs, and the expectations don’t go away. So I think being able to accept that whatever situation you have, it is probably for a season, and you just have to navigate that as best you can”.
On how to establish communication with a spouse, Chinwe averrs;
“I think that’s tough because a lot of times we as women don’t want to express how we really feel because you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, or you may even think that you shouldn’t feel that way. As I started to have more friends who were also very successful, very powerful, and also really wanting to have a personal life that was also fulfilled and fulfilling, I started to realize that most of the challenges I was facing, I was not alone on them. So while I didn’t see those role models growing up, I came to realize that more and more women are in the situation where you are a breadwinner, and you’re also working really hard, and you’re also looking to maintain a happy and fulfilled family”.
“So discussing that with friends and really hearing how others are dealing with it is important, but even more important is discussing it with your spouse. In terms of communicating with your spouse, you want to on a very regular and consistent basis, communicate where you may be having challenges. So if you’re stressed out at work, then you would expect that you spend quality time together because, in order for us to really have a happy relationship, we need to spend that quality time. So you come back from a really difficult day and you’re really tired, and you want to decompress. I will also say that for a lot of women, it’s easier with the kids because they naturally bring out that joy. But with a spouse, it’s a little bit more difficult, and that’s where you have to be very careful. I’ve not even had this conversation publicly, but with friends, I know this is something that we really deal with on a regular basis”.
Chinwe’s lifestyle and the way her parents feel raising her children now in a different country.
“They’re very proud of me, I’m sure they are. They’re really happy to see how successful I’ve been. So yeah, they love what I do because they clearly see that I’m very happy in the work that I’m doing at City. They’ve been very supportive. My mom is always trying to ensure that I have help at home. She knows that my hours are so long. But still, I make sure that I cook at home. So I cook every weekend for the whole week, and I put it in the refrigerator so they can heat it up throughout the week. And of course they can make ad hoc meals like mac and cheese if the kids want it, or they can order pizza, but I usually try to make sure that we have Nigerian food in the refrigerator every week”.
After the disconnect Chinwe had with traditional dishes when she moved to China, she had to learn.
“I learned from my mom, my mom is an excellent cook. And my grandma on my mom’s side is also an excellent cook. So I was just hanging out with her in the kitchen in Nigeria, and then over time started practicing more and more. I would say once I got married, I had to cook a lot more than when I was single or when I was living with my parents. So I learned from her, and then over time, it’s just been through practice. So I cook you know a lot of meat (Nigerians love meat), a lot of fish as well. I make soups, we have different types of soup, like, we have the one that’s made out of melon seeds. My kids love Nigerian food, they love it! They eat and go for the second portion. They really love it and it gives me so much joy to see them like Nigerian food”.
Balancing work life and parenthood.
“It’s very tough. I think the first is just so understand that you won’t do all of the things, so you have to pick what things you want to do and what things you can do. And then as you go through the process, there will be days when you want to do something, but you can’t, and you just have to make peace with that”.
“I also think it’s great that my daughter sees a mom who works, and my sons right see a mom who has dreams, and goals, and things that she loves, and also loves them. I think they also have to really understand and know very deeply that you love them. I spent so many years in corporate America, and I’ve been surrounded by women literally from pregnancy all the way through giving birth. Then I’ve been watching these kids grow up and interact with one another, and what I’ve learned is that the kids are actually happier themselves when they see their moms and dads enjoying their lives better, and when they are not telling them “We’ve given up everything because of you”.
“The kids also need to know that they need to have their own dream, so they need to see someone live out their dreams. Also, kids who go to school outside of the home, they have other frames of reference, other points of authority aside from their parents, and that interaction with other kids and with all the forms of authority, whether it’s teachers, or nannies or other adults, I think that’s healthy too. But, again, this works as long as the kids know that you love them, and that you spend time with them, and that you value time with them. I think my kids also see me create boundaries around their time as well, and for a lot of parents, that’s what you want – you want your kids to see an example of someone who’s pursuing their dreams, but also at the same time to know that they’re loved”.
On the mentality challenge of living and trying to find her place in a country she wasn’t born in.
“I blog about immigrant women and leadership. I think one of the most important things I will say is don’t let any of your differences stop you from bringing your full self. Understand your unique talents, understand your gifts, and step into what it is you want to do, and don’t let anything that makes you different as an immigrant stop you from doing that. Because I know a lot of people sometimes hold back because they say “Well, when I get rid of my accent, I’ll do this”, or “When I am fully integrated, I can then pursue my dreams”. I think it’s important to engage right away because everyone’s voice is important.
“The second thing I wanted to say is viewing the immigrant experience as positive because being an immigrant does help you view the world and help you view the United States from a different perspective. So it’s really important to embrace that as a positive thing and bring that viewpoint to your work. I think in your case, a perfect example is a fact that you have this rich background and this rich immigrant experience, and I think it did help you view the world differently. That’s an advantage because that is one of the unique attributes for geniuses – they are people who view the world from a different perspective. So we really should embrace that and also bring that to the table. I was a law professor, and I taught a course Securities regulation in Minneapolis for a couple of years. And we had about 10-15 students in the class – 13 men, 2 women. Women spoke very rarely, there were only two. One was an American woman and she spoke sometimes. The other one was a Chinese woman. And then about two and a half weeks into the course she came up to me after class, asked the question, and I was blown away. It was a brilliant question. And I said: “Why didn’t you speak in class?”, and she said: “Oh, Professor, I’m an immigrant. I just came to the US for law school, so I’m very conscious of my accent and I would never speak up in front of the whole class”. And I thought: “One of the most brilliant minds in the class was too self-conscious to speak up”. She actually became my research assistant and works with me. She had the best grade in the course, graduated with honors. And also she had a baby daughter in law school, so I started looking for resources to support her. And I thought: “I’m sure there have to be resources out there entirely focused on immigrant women, on inspiring them and on giving them actionable advice and tools”. And I didn’t find anything. So a few years later, I was back in New York, I still looked for resources, and I didn’t find anything. And I would have people send to me high-achieving women with big dreams, but I still did not find resources to support them”.
“So decided that I needed to create something. I started by interviewing my friends, and it turns out there are a lot of friends, whether from law school, or other professional women I knew who had this entire story about when they came to the US and what they’ve learned along the way. And because a lot of them I met when they were already successful, they’ve already gone through so much. So as I listened to their stories, I was so inspired. And I said: “I need to write about this because I’m really inspired by their stories”, so now I have this collection of stories of immigrant women from different fields. It’s a very diverse group of women. And that’s how I got started blogging about immigrant women and sharing tips. And I was initially worried about any potential tension between what I do and my job at City, but the great thing is they’ve been extremely supportive. They’ve embraced the message, they really love it, and they actually share my blogs on their social sites because they’re very supportive of the message. It’s been a phenomenal place to work. So I’ve been really happy in my role because I really tapped into my background with the anti-bribery growing up in Nigeria and then applying skills from my prior roles as well as a lawyer. It’s been excellent”.
Her role models
“For a long time, I felt like I was on my own because I thought I needed to be someone else. And a lot of the women at the time that I worked with, for whatever reason, they just had different personalities that I couldn’t identify with. I found it really difficult to find someone to look up to. So I think for me, it was really critical to find that authenticity, to figure out what I was really interested in and passionate about. That’s how I started to do anti-bribery work, and understood my own interests and then pursued that. But if I had to name someone, Indra Nooyi is the one I really admire. I think she’s remarkable, not just because she’s an immigrant woman, but also because she exhibits a lot of the leadership traits that people need in order to be successful in corporate America”.
“One of the things I found to be really incredible as I started to engage more and more with entrepreneurs – a lot of the leadership principles are the same. So you have to be willing to invest in yourself, you have to be willing to be read and learn, and adapt, and change, you have to be self-aware, you have to be innovative. So I think a lot of the traits that are important in building a business that you’re very familiar with, I think are also important in corporate America. I think the other thing as well is being strategic, which a lot of people hate because they feel like “Oh, that means you’re playing politics”. But I think it’s about being authentic and also about understanding the environment where you operate. So just as a business owner needs to understand the markets, the trends and needs to be able to anticipate, in corporate America you also have to be the same way; where you understand the way it works, you understand a little bit more than your own space, and you have to have this broad mindset where you’re looking at all of the other pieces that could have an impact on you. And then being willing and brave enough to engage all of those factors”.
“So we’ve got a commitment to growth and investing in yourself, but it’s also important to be honest with yourself. Sometimes we feel as though we need to tell a particular story because that’s more compelling to society, but that’s not right. I think it’s really important that we continue to be self-reflective regardless of how busy we are. And that’s really what ultimately helps us to have a sense of peace – having that quiet time every day to reflect. That really helps put everything else in perspective.