Kelechi Umoga '15, co-founder of Crossroads meets with current members in the Physical Sciences Building

Kelechi Umoga ’15 meets with current members of Crossroads. (Sreang Hok / Cornell University)

With Online Clothing Business, Nigerian-Born Alum Gives Back

Co-run by current students, the successful venture not only generates funds, but provides work for artisans in Africa

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This story was condensed from a feature in the Cornell Chronicle.

By Caitlin Hayes

As an undergraduate at Cornell and inspired by a newfound faith, future physician Kelechi Umoga ’15 began plans to build a health clinic in Jeida, Nigeria, an impoverished village an hour from where he grew up in Abuja. The six-room clinic opened in 2016, but after a few years of operation, Umoga was struggling to find a sustainable source of income to pay its bills.

In recent years, though, a group of current students teamed with Umoga to run a business to fund the clinic as well as a primary school in Jeida, while providing economic opportunities to Nigerian entrepreneurs.

Four people modeling clothing made in Nigeria a by Crossroads artisan
Members of Cornell’s Nigerian Students Association model items ordered through Crossroads. (Provided)

“We felt strongly that if we could provide value to the market and use that value in a socially impactful way, we could have a self-sustainable model that wouldn’t be dependent on donations,” recalls Andrew Darby ’23. “Just being in the same room with Kelechi and others on our team, seeing how they think and respond to challenges—it’s been an incredible education.”

Crossroads, the business that Darby and Umoga founded with Anna Haraka ’24, partners with Nigerian artisans, who make clothing and accessories for consumers in the U.S., with profits donated back to Jeida through Umoga’s nonprofit Crossbonds.

A change in Crossroads’ business model in late 2022—adding custom-order, branded items, such as T-shirts and sweatshirts, to traditional African designs—has increased demand, with 180 items ordered during the spring 2023 semester and $5,000 sent to Nigeria.

Kelechi Umoga '15, co-founder of Crossroads holds up a long sleeve shirt in the Physical Sciences Building
Umoga shows off a branded shirt. (Provided)

The group is now expanding its pool of artisans and establishing chapters at five other universities. Customers have included individual students, student groups, and academic departments.

Crossroads also gives Cornell entrepreneurs experience running an international business.

Haraka and Darby have recently passed the torch to a second generation, a cycle they hope will continue as students graduate.

“We were able to find a project that had direct social impact—impact for both the people in the Jeida region and the artisans,” says Tyler Senzon ’26, Crossroads’ current co-CEO, a role shared with Joy Xu ’25. “It’s a great representation of the Dyson-Hotel model and exactly what we were looking for when we came to Cornell.”

Umoga, who majored in human biology, health, and society in Human Ecology, holds MD and MBA degrees from Yale; he’s now an emergency medicine resident at Mass General Brigham in Boston.

The group is now expanding its pool of artisans and establishing chapters at five other universities.

“For me, it’s been a way to invite other Cornellians to be a part of this work,” he says. “It also allows me to give back, to help Cornellians gain this experience.”

When Darby was 10, a trip to Tanzania changed his life; he saw children his age without food, water, and access to education or healthcare.

“I did absolutely nothing to earn the basic necessities of life and the privilege I had been born into,” he says.

“I really struggled with this idea of, like, why me and why them?”

In high school, Darby started an organization to build wells in Tanzania; when he heard Umoga speak on an alumni panel at Cornell, he immediately connected with his mission to serve others.

Umoga explained his struggles finding a sustainable funding source; he’d even started chicken and catfish farms in the Jeida region in hopes of generating revenue and economic opportunity, but the political and economic instability in Nigeria overwhelmed those efforts.

A hand holding a pair of sandals with a lion design
Products include a roaring pair of sandals. (Provided)

Darby, then a sophomore, brought Umoga’s challenge to the Social Enterprise Group, a student organization that provides consulting services to businesses that want to make a social impact. After a semester of consulting, Darby, Haraka, and Umoga established Crossroads as its own business, with startup funds from the Cane Entrepreneurial Scholars program.

“One of the most rewarding things about this so far is hearing from the entrepreneurs about what an amazing experience it’s been to work with Crossroads and interact with the team,” Umoga says. “They feel heard and feel that their businesses are now going global.”

One of the most rewarding things about this so far is hearing from the entrepreneurs about what an amazing experience it’s been to work with Crossroads.

Kelechi Umoga ’15

Founding and sustaining Crossroads has given students the opportunity to address real business challenges. They frequently take calls from artisans in the middle of the night to help with supply chain issues and have learned how to communicate with and inspire others across cultural differences.

“Crossroads has really trusted us and given us a lot of agency to start our own initiatives,” Senzon says. “We’ve been building our artisan base and refining our pitching skills and getting to interact with the professional world. It’s really made me excited for entrepreneurship post-graduation.”

Crossroads was selected as a semifinalist in the Hult Prize International Pitch Competition from a pool of 40,000 startups and was accepted to the Life Changing Labs accelerator program last summer. The group’s growth has led to new chapters at Yale, Brown, Penn, Georgetown, and Amherst; students at those schools are laying the groundwork to generate more business for Crossroads’ artisans.

Members of Crossroads inspect some of their merchandise in the Physical Sciences Building
Members inspect some of their merch in the Physical Sciences Building.

And at Cornell, a new wave of leadership is now benefiting, with a team of eight students all taking on crucial roles.

“Being involved in Crossroads has helped me expand my network at Cornell and really plugged me into the entrepreneurship community, while also providing me with the opportunity to make an impact,” Xu says.

“All the small wins have been great: the first time we filed our own taxes, even, and working with the artisans, and then seeing how happy people are with what they ordered. Just to see it grow has been amazing.”

Top: Umoga meets with current members of Crossroads. (All photos by Sreang Hok / Cornell University, unless indicated)

Published January 23, 2024

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