Professor Okok

By Chuck Violand

August 13, 2018

Okok (pronounced Oh-Coke) was the name of the 32-year-old Ethiopian Uber driver taking me back to Denver International Airport. His dreads hung below his shoulders and his broken English made it hard to follow him at times, but there was no misunderstanding his bright smile and infectious, cheerful demeaner.

Okok had arrived in Denver two and a half years earlier by way of Ghana, then Kenya, after leaving his family at the age of 18. He felt there were few opportunities for him in Ethiopia.
His dream in coming to the U.S. was to be the first in his family of fourteen siblings to graduate from college. When he’s not driving Uber, Okok is taking classes at a community college with the goal of eventually earning a four-year degree in biology.

After paying his monthly expenses, any extra money is sent to his family back home. Okok mentioned that $100 in U.S. currency is worth a lot more in Ethiopia, enough to cause his family to “dance all day” after receiving his gift.

With what we’ve been hearing in the news lately, I asked Okok if he ever felt at risk of being deported. He said he didn’t because he has a green card, but he thinks it may be different for his fiancé when she’s able to join him.

Given all the countries in the world from which to choose, I was curious about why he moved to the United States. Without hesitating, Okok said, “Everybody wants to come to the United States. It’s the land of opportunity.” He agreed that while there are lots of great countries, “They’re not the United States.”
I expressed concern that the U.S. might be becoming less welcoming and friendly to people from other countries. “It can’t,” he said. “The rest of the world looks to the United States. What would happen then?”

Okok’s comment sent a shiver up my spine. In one short sentence, he brought home the tremendous responsibility each of us has, not just to the people within our own companies, but to a much larger global community. It also highlighted the immense privilege I too often take for granted because it’s the air I’ve breathed my entire life.

As business owners, it’s easy to get caught up in our drive for increased profits and market share; to squirrel away customers, “trade secrets,” and territories; to complain about the latest injustices done to us; or to rail about the unreasonableness of the latest government regulation. It’s easy to overlook the bigger picture of finding meaning in what we do and why we’re doing it.

As citizens of free countries and owners of businesses, we carry a special responsibility to be good stewards. To people we’ve never met, we may truly be that beacon of hope in their turbulent lives; the light on the shore that they look to.

When leaving for the airport, I was concerned about the time it would take to get there. When we arrived, I realized how quickly the time had passed. I considered asking Okok to take a couple laps around “Departures” because I still had things I wanted to learn from him. But Okok had other customers to serve and more money to earn. And I knew I had already received an advanced education from this young “professor.”