Stevens Institute of Technology alumnus Obiefuna Okafor ’10 credits his love of learning and heart for people as the twin passions that have guided his path. It’s a winning combo that earned Obi the distinction of being named the 2021 Black Engineer of the Year (BEYA) for Outstanding Technical Contributions to Industry. The honor is a national, peer-reviewed award given by the Council of Engineering Deans of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and US Black Engineer and Information Technology Magazine.
Crucial work, unprecedented times
When Okafor found out he was up for internal nomination by Corning Incorporated for the prestigious BEYA award, he was in China, waiting out the COVID-19 travel quarantine before rolling up his sleeves to finish a two-year, multimillion dollar capital project.
By the time he wrapped up that project and returned to quarantine stateside three months later, Okafor received the news he’d won the nomination. “It was humbling,” Okafor said. “Frankly, I was really awed. It's great to have my work recognized, but I work a lot in teams – and I love working with people – so I also felt like, ‘Hey, I didn't do it alone!’"
In his introduction for the BEYA award presentation, Corning’s president and chief operating officer Eric Musser highlighted Okafor’s ability to perform exceptional work even amid the pressures and uncertainties of a global pandemic.
Okafor says the momentum and value of the work got him through. China has experienced a boom in car ownership, so the nation clamped down on emissions to prevent a major smog problem like Los Angeles experienced in the 1980s. Back then, Corning created a ceramic substrate for catalytic converters, a technology that is still used to enhance air pollution control in cars today.
Now, thanks to Okafor's project, Corning’s environmental technology plants in China have enhanced capability to produce this crucial substrate.
“I think one of the things I love about chemical engineering is that it gives you options,” Okafor noted. “I love that I'm able to actually impact people's lives.”
Okafor joined Corning in 2011 and now wears two hats there as Senior Project Leader and Capital Portfolio Manager. He’s responsible for about 20 projects, which he manages at every step – from forming teams to securing funding to providing technical expertise for the intricate processes required to make Corning’s ceramic substrate.
Building relationships is key to Okafor’s work at Corning and in the community. “I have spent a lot of time and training and experience being able to develop new technology,” he said. “But I also know that the enduring things to develop and build are people.”
In addition to being a senior member and past local section vice chair of the professional organization American Institute of Chemical Engineers, Okafor serves as a Board of Trustees member at New Horizons Community Charter School, NJ; leads as publicity director for a non-profit organization he helped found called Real Love Ministries, where he’s held the positions of secretary, vice president and president; and is a Distinguished Toastmaster, the highest honor of Toastmasters International, where he has previously served as a club president.
Stevens: A great community
Stevens was an important part of Okafor’s trajectory. He earned his summa cum laude Bachelor of Engineering degree in Chemical Engineering at Federal University of Technology in Owerri, Nigeria. To gain experience and earn money for graduate school, he worked in the oil and gas industry before transitioning to risk management at a bank.
Then, he heard that Stevens professor Adeniyi Lawal had won a $4.2 million grant and was seeking qualified candidates for a Ph.D. program. Okafor – who had already aced the GRE and TOEFL exams – sent in his resume. To his surprise, he received an email and phone call from Lawal inviting him to join his lab. “He sent me a letter immediately,” Okafor remembered. “And I just went to the embassy, and then I came. It happened really quickly!”
That kicked off a 6-year academic career at Stevens, where Okafor earned a Master of Engineering and Doctor of Philosophy in Chemical Engineering as well as graduate certificates in Pharmaceutical Process Engineering and Project Management. When it came time to transition from his master’s to his doctoral research, Lawal recommended that Okafor accept an invitation to partner with industry. International Flavors and Fragrances Incorporated co-sponsored Okafor’s doctorate, leveraging his work on microchannel reactor technology in the Lawal lab to improve their production processes.
Unique opportunities underscored Okafor’s time at Stevens. “It was a great community,” he reminisced. “I loved the fact that everybody was doing their best. And I had options! I loved that Stevens had a lot of options.”
Okafor also appreciated the support of Stevens’ International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) office as he transitioned to school in the US. “They really took time to try and make us feel welcome,” he said. “I remember the first Broadway show I went to was with discounted tickets from ISSS. It was one of the gateways that got me into New York City and made Stevens a lot more fun.”
His time at Stevens brought another gift to Okafor’s life: his wife Juliana. While the pair are from hometowns just 10 minutes away from each other in Nigeria, they would each cross the Atlantic before finding each other in New Jersey. Obi says Juliana’s work and support is instrumental to his success. They now have two beautiful daughters.
For Okafor, the BEYA award is confirmation that he’s exactly where he wants to be. “I had faith and hope that I would be in a place where I was loving my life and loving my work – not just going to work,” said Okafor, looking back on his early dreams. “I'm really glad I am there right now and still have the same faith and hope that 20 years from now, I will still love my life and my work.”
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