South Side construction firm owner Nosa Ehimwenman was having a good day on Wednesday.
It was the ribbon-cutting for what’s believed to be the largest airport Starbucks in the country, built by Ehimwenman’s Bowa Construction Inc. at O’Hare Airport.
The coffee shop’s size is a novelty — it abuts his newly built Wicker Park Sushi restaurant — but the project is also Chicago’s first airport concessions construction project awarded to an African-American prime contractor.
Ehimwenman was thrilled enough, before Inc. Magazine on Wednesday released its Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America — placing Bowa at #1248.
“My last name means ‘you have a good spirit,'” said Ehimwenman, whose family emigrated here from Nigeria when he was 6, settling in Rogers Park, where his father drove a cab for 15 years to provide for his family.
“Sorry, I get a little emotional,” said the 37-year-old Hyde Park resident, when mentioning his immigrant parents.
“I just remember watching my dad come home late and leave early, driving for Yellow Taxi, then Checker Cab, and hardly seeing him because he was always working,” he said. “I look back at my parents’ sacrifices, at where we’ve come from. To be standing at O’Hare doing a ribbon-cutting for possibly the largest airport Starbucks in the country, it’s kind of mind-blowing.”
Ehimwenman’s 9-year-old firm has seen 300 percent growth since 2013, when he quit his job with Gilbane Building Co., one of the industry’s largest global construction and facilities management firms, to build his own company. Despite reaching multimillion-dollar status, Ehimwenman maintains his South Shore headquarters.
Bowa’s portfolio includes many projects at the University of Chicago Medical Center and several at O’Hare, including the new O’Hare Police Station Bowa began building last month.
“I got to meet Nosa’s dad today, and to see the look in his eyes, how proud he was of his son, was heartwarming, because he’s certainly overcome challenges. It would be disingenuous for us to say that small minority- and women-owned companies don’t face greater challenges than majority-owned companies,” Chicago Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee said.
“But the mayor has made it clear from Day 1 that my job is to remove barriers to entry and building capacity for small businesses. And we’re finding that one size truly does not fit all,” she said. “You have small contractors that like the world they’re in and want to continue operating in that sphere, and then owners like Nosa, who say, ‘I can do that, and I want to do more.’ We’re breaking up these projects … in a way that promotes participation in 77 community areas.”
Ehimwenman, a father of three who married the college sweetheart he met when both were on the track and field teams at the Ohio State University, said his parents couldn’t afford to send him to college. A full-ride track scholarship got him there. He majored in construction management.
“Some folks will say, ‘I was born building stuff, right from the Legos.’ That was not my story,” Ehimwenman said. “I knew I enjoyed engineering and architecture, and always kind of enjoyed seeing things come together. But it was really my college counselor who said, ‘Hey, you should look into construction management. There’s not many African Americans doing it.'”
An internship with Gilbane his junior year led to a nine-year career with the firm.
“It was a three-month internship, and I worked my butt off, literally everything from getting coffee to document control to engineering, wherever and whatever they wanted me to do,” he said.
“I was asked to lead a clean-up crew with a rep from each firm. We’d meet every Friday and clean the job site. They nicknamed me ‘Captain Clean-up.’ I learned so much, working with all those tradesmen; whether black, white, green or orange, we all came together to clean the site. When summer was over, they offered me a job for the school year.”
They later offered him a job in his hometown. By 2009, he was thinking about owning his own firm. His father had been able to save enough money driving a cab to purchase the family’s first home, eventually buying and selling real estate, and leaving the cab business.
Ehimwenman incorporated his company in 2009, obtained his MBA. Then, in July 2013, “I walked out of corporate America and walked out on faith.”