Austinite Nnamdi Orakwue grew up in what he likes to call “Spike Lee’s Brooklyn,” the son of working-class immigrants from Nigeria and Trinidad and Tobago.
He ended up in Austin after traveling the world with IBM Corp. thanks to a too-good-to-pass-up job offer from Dell. Orakwue now runs his own tech business.
The 43-year-old waited to launch his own firm until after he spent two decades working his way up the ladder at tech firms such as IBM Corp. and Dell Technologies, where his last job was vice president of Dell’s software group.
He recently spoke with 512tech about how education changed his life, his career in tech, and what he learned from working at Dell.
So you were born and raised in Brooklyn?
“Born and raised. Everyone at this point is familiar with Brooklyn. It’s many things, an incredibly diverse community. But if you talk about Spike Lee’s Brooklyn, and are familiar with the movies he made in the ‘80s and ‘90s, that’s a decent reflection of what the Brooklyn I grew up in is like.”
What jobs did your parents have?
“My mom was a nurse her whole life. And my Dad was a bookkeeper for a number of non-profits.”
You attended a pretty prestigious private school in Brooklyn. How did that happen?
“There’s a program called Prep for Prep. It’s a fairly large nonprofit based in Manhattan. They go around to public schools and essentially say ‘Hey, we’re looking for the best students in these public schools and we’re trying to give them an opportunity to get a scholarship to a New York City private school.’
They asked the teacher of my fifth grade, Mrs. Phillips, to nominate the best student. And she picked me. You don’t know these things are happening behind the scenes. It had a huge impact on my life.
I spent seventh through 12th at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn.”
How much of an impact did education have on your life?
“It was huge. It was, by far and away, the most important element in the quality of my education.(My parents) offered tireless support of me and of ensuring that I had the best education with what resources they had.”
You went to Harvard University. Did you know then you wanted to work in tech?
“I was a government major. I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer. I started as a freshman on that path. In the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I got a great internship at the Brooklyn Criminal Court. It basically brought the ideal and the reality to a head.
I realized there would be a time for me to try to give back and be part of the solution to some of the challenges in the criminal justice system and our society, but I needed more real-world experience. I needed to earn a living. It was very low-pay work. I would have to revisit it another time.”
Did you work for tech companies right out of college?
“No, I worked at an investment bank called Alex Brown. It was a small investment bank. I did that for two years and then I worked at a small private equity firm for another two years.
Basically I was the lowest guy on these financial teams as they are doing fairly high finance deals. I learned a ton from that.
Then I went to business school, Wharton Business School. And then I went to IBM.
What was it about working in tech that appealed to you?
“I like building things, but not in the traditional sense of the guy who sits there and makes a model on a computer. I like building organizations, I like business models. And technology, as fast as it is evolving, it was very exciting to see.”
Why did you want to move to Austin?
“An opportunity came up at Dell to be Michael Dell’s chief of staff. This was a fantastic opportunity. I interviewed for it and got it. It was not my intention to move to Texas, that was just not part of the plan. But this was a pretty special opportunity and a unique opportunity.
(Michael Dell) is just fantastic, he’s a legend. You can’t turn that down. In 2011, I moved to Austin to take that job.”
What did you learn from working at Dell?
“I was one of 200-odd vice presidents who were competing for the budget and the resources of a roughly $60 billion company.
Having to compete for your business and the line of business you’re responsible for, advocating for capital and other resources so that you could grow and take care of advance your business.
That sort of dynamic, navigating that environment, was very important.
You’re putting together skill sets so that when you do start your own (business) you’re better prepared.
The goal is not to always work for someone else. The goal is to do your own thing, which is what I’m doing now.”
Tell me about your business and why you left Dell.
“I left Dell at the end of 2015. I decided to start my own company focused on tech services and solutions right here in Austin. My company is called Cocolevio.
There’s a phrase I like to use -- modern technology -- to characterize stuff like the cloud, big data, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, even drones.
All of this modern technology is not very accessible to small and medium-sized businesses.
We’re at the beginning of this cycle where they start to realize it’s a competitive advantage to invest in cloud and in big data. We play this intermediary role to help them figure all that stuff out.
Who are some of your clients?
“Law firms, self-storage companies. These are Main Street kind of companies. We have cleaning businesses, we have a nonprofit that manages environmental waste. And a public software company.”
You decided to run for political office last year after state Rep. Dawnna Dukes announced she was resigning. Then she changed her mind and stayed in office. What are your political plans now?
“I don’t know how all of this will play out. For sure there is going to be a primary next year. If that is the end result of all this, I’ll be in the (Democratic) primary next year.
If through some other narrative the seat is open, and there’s a special election before then, I’ll be there. I’m all in.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.