Corporate star launches venture to boost others

From Amazon video to her own company, Nigerian-born Ukonwa Kuzi-Orizu Ojo seeks new challenges.

Ukonwa Kuzi-Orizu Ojo sitting and speaking into microphone in front of audience.
(Image courtesy of Kenan-Flagler)

When Ukonwa Kuzi-Orizu Ojo ’97 achieves a goal, she gets restless.

“That’s when I need a new challenge to stay engaged and inspired so I’m stretching and applying myself,” Ojo says.

That’s clear in her life’s journey – leaving Nigeria to attend college in a new country, taking on the role of global chief marketing officer at Amazon Prime Video during the global pandemic and, most recently, launching her own company.

She didn’t plan to have a corporate career. Being an entrepreneur is part of her DNA, following in the footsteps of her parents and grandparents.

“I intended to start in corporate for a few years to learn and then start my own business, but I was more successful than I expected. It is harder to walk away when the opportunity cost is high, and my opportunity cost just kept getting higher.”

She founded Zaia Ventures in 2022 to build and scale companies serving underrepresented and marginalized communities. She starts new companies where opportunities exist, but also invests in companies founded by others and provides advisory services to help them grow.

“I had been an advocate for underrepresented and marginalized communities and investing in them my entire career,” says Ojo. “This time, I get to do it for my own business and in a way that I hope directly benefits those communities.”

Carolina and beyond

“I left Nigeria when I was only 15. I arrived in a new country, far away from my parents, with big dreams,” says Ojo, who came to Carolina because a relative and alumnus recommended the business school. “I’m thankful to UNC for this formative part of my life.”

She focused on accounting and finance at UNC Kenan-Flagler and went to Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management to earn her MBA with the goal of transitioning to a career in brand management. Her career spans 26 years in leadership, including global brand president of CoverGirl, CMO of consumer beauty at Coty and global CMO at MAC Cosmetics.

When she started her role at Amazon during the pandemic, people were home and under lockdown, theaters had closed, and studios needed an outlet for their movies and shows.

Ojo and her team launched eight of the top 10 shows in Prime Video’s history, achieving its highest-ever global customer subscription and engagement – all while significantly improving the efficiency of marketing investment to its strongest ever.

Pursuing the next ‘ever’

When she meets a new opportunity, Ojo is “always trying for the next big thing or solving the next big thing that nobody’s figured out yet,” she says. “My team will tell you that I love the word ‘ever’ – the first ever, biggest ever. I approach every new opportunity by asking what is the ‘ever’ here? And I want to be a part of whatever that ever is.”

As CEO of Zaia, she is answering a lifetime’s calling to start her own business while helping others achieve their dreams. When she found out that only about 50 Black-owned companies in the U.S. make annual revenues of $100 million or greater, that became her “rallying cry.”

“I want to build at least one company that has revenues greater than $100 million and help somebody build one. And even if that’s all I do with the second half of my career, that’s two added to a count of 50, which would be an incredibly good use of my time, talent and capabilities and a ton of fun along the way,” she says.

Read more of Ojo’s story and her remarks to the business school Class of 2023.