As an undergraduate at Cornell and inspired by a newfound faith, Dr. 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.
Now, a group of current students has 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.
“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,” said Andrew Darby ’23, who graduated in May from the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, part of the SC Johnson College of Business. “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 last semester and $5,000 sent to Nigeria. 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 of student-leaders, a cycle they hope will continue as students graduate.
“Crossroads is really exposing us to all the facets of running a business,” said Tyler Senzon ’26, a student in the Dyson School and Crossroads’ co-CEO, with Joy Xu ’25, a hotel administration major in the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration. “We were able to find a project that had direct social impact – impact for both the people in the Jeida region and the artisans. It’s a great representation of the Dyson-Hotel model and exactly what we were looking for when we came to Cornell.”
“For me, it’s been a way to invite other Cornellians to be a part of this work,” said Umoga, who majored in human biology, health and society in the College of Human Ecology and is now a resident physician at Mass General Brigham. “It also allows me to give back, to help Cornellians gain this experience.”
When Darby was 10 years old, a trip to Tanzania changed his life – he saw children his age without food, water and access to education or health care.
“I did absolutely nothing to earn the basic necessities of life and the privilege I had been born into,” Darby said. “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 a chicken farm and a catfish farm in the Jeida region in hopes of generating revenue and economic opportunity, but the political and economic instability in Nigeria overwhelmed those efforts.
Darby, then a sophomore, brought Umoga’s challenge to the Social Enterprise Group, a student group 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.
Esther Olotu, owner of E-Cherish Designs based in Lagos, Nigeria, said working with Crossroads has elevated and expanded her business.
“Crossroads has made me go the extra mile,” Olotu said. “They helped me to reach out to more people who produce quality materials, and it’s really, really changed and helped my business and my staff. I'm able to empower the workforce, and they are excited to do more jobs.”
Olotu said she plans to increase her business infrastructure to accommodate the larger orders, buying more machines and hiring artisans she trusts from all over the country, even bringing them to Lagos to ensure consistent quality.
“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 said. “They feel heard and feel that their businesses are now going global.”
Entrepreneurship at Cornell
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 difference.
“Crossroads has really trusted us and given us a lot of agency to start our own initiatives,” Senzon said. “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 University, Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University and Amherst College; students at those schools are laying the groundwork to generate more business for Crossroads’ artisans. 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 said. “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.”