Uneku Atawodi is a businesswoman. A philanthropist. A government worker. A world traveler. And an international professional polo player. She’s 25 years old. How has this young woman accomplished so much with such little time on earth? She started with not taking no for an answer.
Actually, Uneku was born with a health problem — bronchial pneumonia — that can still cause some breathing issues. But that hasn’t stopped her. Twelve years ago, Uneku fell in love with horses. She was introduced to the sport of polo when business opportunities led her father to move the family from Pakistan back to the Arab-influenced Nigerian city of Kaduna, where polo was a weekly ritual. It’s an activity more common for families than sitting at home. “The first time I watched it, and saw the aggression and speed and love for the game the players had, I fell in love,” says Uneku.
Unswayed by discouragement from her family, Uneku made up her mind to become the best player she could be. And she did. But not without finding time to get a bachelor’s degree in Equestrian Science and a master’s degree in International Business with Spanish. She even found ways to pursue business ventures and use her platform to effect change through government and nonprofit work. Now Uneku has come to the States; Atlanta to be specific.
We caught up with the business-minded equestrian to find out what brought her to America and what drives her success.
Madame Noire: What resistance did you receive to your involvement in polo?
Uneku: Oh a lot! It was so awkward, because the adults were pretty straightforward about it! “Neku, you cannot play because you are a girl, go cook!” “Neku, a woman’s place is not on the horse, you won’t get married.” I think my fascination with polo grew from the resistance though. I was a curious child, and constantly hearing [I was a miracle baby led me to] believe that I was invincible! I used to say, “Mummy, He cannot try to take me twice! Calm down!”
Madame Noire: How has being Black and female influenced your experience as a polo player? Do you think it has impacted your career at all?
Uneku: Well I studied Equestrian Science, so if anything now it has positively impacted my life path. It allows me to give other children the opportunity to have the sport open doors for them, like it did for me! I have played in so many amazing countries around the world and have met so many amazing people, most of whom have helped me in my career decisions, and have led me to some very successful business choices.
Madame Noire: What do you think is keeping more Black women from entering the sport? How can we change that?
Uneku: There is an influx of all cultures entering the sport, and that comes from the sport being popularized in modern times, and getting to more people. I guess in America, it is the wealth bracket. It is seen as an expensive and elitist sport. But I find the polo community to be one of the most welcoming sporting communities, and if you approach a club with your interest, you might end up with a beautiful new life experience.
Madame Noire: You value education a great deal. Why was it important for you to get your bachelor’s and master’s degrees?
Uneku: I quickly realized that to advance in the sport I love, one would need to be a successful individual. My dream was always to own a polo resort, and from traveling around the world playing, I learned that most polo communities are financially successful from the real estate. I am also inspired by conceiving a business model and seeing it come to life. My mother used to say I had a bit of a short attention span, popping up with various business ideas everyday. I sold cookies at 11 and made a 300 percent profit, so you bet your a$$ I thought was Bill Gates!
My international business degree helped me understand how different countries around the world operate in business, and because I knew that I loved traveling the world, I knew that I would want to do business with various people around the world also, and understanding their cultures as it pertains to relationships and business intrigued me.
An education is very important, it helps you understand how basic things in the world work and revolve, and helps you answer “Why?” Which we should always ask. That inquisitive mind of a child shouldn’t be stymied. So even as adults, train your brain to always want to understand things, in sports, in life, in love. Understand why.
Madame Noire: Can you talk about some of your business ventures and how you balance it all with your sports career?
Uneku: I love my nature-inspired boutique hotel and lounge in Abuja, Bamboo Lounge. The name is inspired by polo sticks made out of bamboos. I also work as a Special Duties Officer at the Ministry that governs my Nation’s capital. I feel like I help to bring worldviews and a new way of thinking to the sometimes archaic and bureaucratic way of doing things that African governments tend to stick to.
Madame Noire: What was the proudest moment in your career?
Uneku: This year, being chosen to represent my country as a Global Shaper, in the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland. The Global Shapers are young entrepreneurs which the WEF deems to be positively shaping the future of the world we live in. To be chosen as a part of that organization, as an equestrian! An equestrian who went to business school! I was in awe that such a powerful body recognised my small achievements and chose me to represent them. For once, I was incredibly proud of myself, and realized why my friends and family sometimes say they are proud of me!
Madame Noire: What was the most difficult thing you’ve had to overcome?
Uneku: Getting over my insecurities and fears!
Madame Noire: What are you looking forward to accomplishing in Atlanta?
Uneku: I am looking forward to hosting a great day of polo on the 23rd of June, at the Atlanta Polo Club, where we are hosting a picnic day out, with an impressive polo match supported by strong equestrian heritage brands such as La Martina and Burberry, to help raise awareness for my charity, Ride to Shine and help bring an awareness to African orphans.
Madame Noire: What are your goals for your sports and business career?
Uneku: I would love to spread the word that polo is cool! I hope to leave a positive impact on the world and the lives of my kids at Ride to Shine. For them to come back years later when I am old and tell me their own stories from visiting the world, and gaining invaluable life experiences too!
Madame Noire: Can you share a lesson that you feel has been key to your success?
Uneku: “Never take your eyes off the ball!”