It was 11:00 a.m. in Lagos, Nigeria, when I had a virtual meeting with Joseph Nantomah. Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, U.S Nantomah’s location, it was just 4:00 in the morning. But save for the knowledge of our time zones, nothing else gave that away. He was fully dressed, bright-eyed and lively. It was apparent he had been up from bed for a while. “I’ve been up since 2:00 a.m. I had a meeting before this interview. It’s already a busy day, but I’m enjoying it,” Nantomah, 45, said with a smile. Framed certificates, awards and a photo with Mike Pence, the former Vice President of the United States, decorated the wall behind his seat. He then formally introduced himself with textbook brevity right before our conversation sparked into life.
Joseph James Nantomah, popularly known as “the Black Mentor”, has become one of the most notable Nigerian millionaires in the diaspora. His entrepreneurial and philanthropic exploits have earned him recognition from several institutions, including Who is Who Professionals, the “Who is Who in America”, and even former US President Donald Trump with the Presidential Honours Roll. Nantomah boasts of owning up to 16 businesses, including Mentor America, a premier coaching company dedicated to providing high-quality life and business coaching, and a real estate empire with assets worth over $23 million. His achievements seem a bit surreal when you consider that many of his popular ventures, such as Mentor America and Investors Capital LLC, his real estate holdings firm, are less than five years old. Since its founding, Mentor America has impacted more than 500,000 people worldwide, according to Nantomah. Over the past three years, he has gained the attention of several local and international media outlets, including Fox and the Guardian.
Since the Russia-Ukraine crisis started, Nantomah, alongside other notable philanthropists like Reno Omokri and Apostle Johnson Suleiman, contributed to the return of Nigerians stranded in Ukraine.
In 2021, he trended as an internet hero when he reportedly drove seven hours to stop a white woman from losing $32,000 to a Nigerian fraudster.
Nantomah likes to speak of himself as a self-made millionaire. “No one ever handed anything to me,” he said with a slightly stern assertion. “I built everything I have today from scratch.” His manner is bold yet friendly. Our conversation often made me uncertain if we were in an interview or a mentorship session. “Mentoring is a hobby for me”, he said. “He is a very confident man,” Reno Omokri, a renowned businessman and socio-political activist, told me. “He seems to have the right balance of strength and warmth.”
But before accumulating such an impressive catalogue of achievements, Nantomah has an odd-defying backstory.
Moulded in a slum
Nantomah was born in the slums of Borokiri, in the city of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, on December 31st, 1976. Since his mother left while he was a two-year-old, he grew up with his father, a sailor and his stepmother, a petty trader. Nantomah recalls living in a small house with a dozen other children from different families and rice being a special Sunday meal. “Each of us had a personal plate, with a different colour and our name on the back,” Nantomah said. “Mine was the blue one”.
However, Nantomah’s childhood memories are an omelette of fond and unpleasant ones. Aside from not knowing his mother beyond his first two years, his father’s job made him absent most of the time. And his stepmother made him hawk goods on the streets after school. But Nantomah believes all of these experiences shaped him from a young age. “I was building character and skill in that period,” he said. “Knowing that I am an underdog has always driven me. I represent people who did not grow up with privilege.”
After his secondary education, Nantomah’s father could not afford his university education. As a result, he had to seek alternatives. This streak of events eventually became moulding blocks for Nantomah’s entrepreneurial desire. “I needed to create my own luck,” he said. “When you grow up in a home where money is at the centre of every conversation and argument, you’d likely want to move away from that life,” he said.
Since Nantomah couldn’t attend a university, he started reading books. He already knew he did not want to work a 9-5, so he started digging into books written by renowned businessmen like Robert Kiyosaki and Tony Robbins, among others. Today, that habit is one of Nantomah’s favourite hobbies, aside from travelling and mentoring.
Nantomah’s first step towards wealth was in 2008 when he became a Project Management Professional. “I had already learnt from reading books as a teenager that everyone had a skill set that can change their lives. I realised my skill was that I was good with people. I am good at managing people, leading and convincing them.”
Training banks and making bank
In 2011, Nantomah started a project management training program in Lagos, which earmarked the first milestone in his wealth journey. He saw an opportunity in Nigeria’s banking sector, as most banks didn’t have professional training structures. Nantomah, in a short while, became one of Nigeria’s foremost project management consultants, training thousands of professionals across several institutions nationwide. According to Nantomah, he trained over 3000 bankers from every top-tier Nigerian bank except Zenith Bank, which already had a training structure at the time. “I was always travelling. The only place I didn’t go to was the far north because of insecurity,” he said.
Nantomah made many friends in the banking sector through his programs, paving the road for his next milestone – proxy banking. According to Miguel Llanas, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Dun & Bradstreet Credit Bureaus, only two per cent of Nigerians have access to bank loans. Nantomah began ploughing back his revenue from training programs into providing liquidity for banks. “Several times, a bank manager would talk about a client who needed money, but the bank couldn’t give them a loan. So I became a private lender for some of these people through the bankers. The debtors repaid to the banks, and the banks cut my cheque,” said Nantomah. “Money is always changing hands. If you’re in the right place, it will flow to you.”
Nantomah scaled his proxy banking outside the Nigerian shores when he realised how big the market was. “I started getting international funding requests. Businesses in Nigeria would need hundreds of millions, and I had contacts in Dubai. So I began brokering deals between local businesses and foreign investors through my consulting firm,” he said. “That’s how I started building my portfolio before moving to the United States.”
Building an empire in Wisconsin
Within a few years, Nantomah had travelled across and outside Nigeria. It was time to take on a new challenge. So in 2016, Nantomah migrated to Wisconsin, US, to start a new life with his family. It would take him less than three years to become an influential life coach, serial investor and member of the ruling party’s campaign team.
However, a year-long tussle followed his arrival in the United States. “When I arrived, I had less than $5,000 with me. I had no friends or family to get support from”, Nantomah said. “And when I asked my attorney what benefits we had, he said there were none until my papers got approved. I waited for a whole year to get my documentation.”
While he was waiting, Nantomah began reading about successful Americans in the public library. In one year, he had read 54 books. He realised that all the successful people he had read about had real estate investments and decided he would have the same.
Nantomah recalls how not wanting to work a 9-5 made him look weird because he had not figured out his real estate business. However, he continued with the venture he was good at – coaching. “I was coaching people on credit, cash and collateral. We call it the 3 Cs,” he said.
He gained a lot of traction again. And this time, he got the attention of Scott Walker, who, at the time, was the Governor of Wisconsin. “I woke up one morning and saw an email from the Governor’s office, requesting I come for dinner. I thought the email was a scam until I called and confirmed. I put on my best suit and went for that meeting. It turns out he was interested in my work,” Nantomah said. A year after that invite, Nantomah joined Scott Walker’s campaign team as a project manager covering five cities.
Meanwhile, his real estate picked up steam when he saw an ad for training by Grant Cardone, a renowned real estate mogul. “My rent was $825, and I had only $1002 left in my bank account. I saw Grant Cardone saying he would teach how to invest in real estate with no money down. I had learned to always save for the rainy day from my father. But I still wasn’t rich. So I decided to take that risk and pay $997 to learn how to make money in real estate without capital,” Nantomah narrated. “It was the best $997 of my life! I made $8,000 in my first deal after that training.” He has since then gone ahead to close deals worth millions of dollars.
His relationship with the ‘Grand Old Party’ (GOP) grew stronger after Scott Walker took him to Mike Pence, who, at the time, was the Vice President of the United States. Nantomah holds the memory close to heart as it marked another milestone in his journey. It wasn’t just that he was a Nigerian who had barely spent three years in the US, but according to Nantomah, that meeting “birthed the Black Mentor.” “When I spoke with him, he told me I was going to be successful. But then he advised me not to forget to give back to the society,” Nantomah said. “It was after that meeting I decided to start Mentor America because I wanted to give back to the society.” Nantomah worked with the GOP to train black Americans in business skills and ethics, thus becoming the Black Mentor.
However, Nantomah admits how hard it is to believe he didn’t need much time to build his empire. “Some people think I’m fake when they hear about me. I don’t blame them. It’s not every day you see an immigrant buy up houses and a yacht in America within such a short time,” he said.
In October 2021, Reno Omokri wrote an article on the back of his first experience with Nantomah’s real estate venture. He was “pleasantly surprised” about how Nantomah flipped houses for profits. “At first, I wasn’t sure about him. There are many big talkers on the internet with nothing to show. I needed to be sure he wasn’t another one,” Omokri told me, recalling the first time he met Nantomah in person. According to him, their relationship has grown strong within a short while. This relationship aided the rescue of several Nigerians who were stranded in Ukraine.
Before then, Nantomah had always been a fan of Reno Omokri, reading his books. “He’s my mentee. He wants to be like me, but I think he’ll do more eventually,” Omokri said.
The unsung ‘Hero’ of the isolation games
During the Covid-induced lockdown in 2020, Hero Daniels, a Nigerian comedian and presenter, became an internet sensation when he hosted the isolation games on social media. In the isolation games, participants played simple indoor games in front of a live audience on social media for a chance to win cash prizes. It was an avenue to touch lives as many people were cash-strapped by the lockdowns while entertaining a larger audience. The games, which ran for about three months, peaked with the participation of celebrities from across the continent, such as Emmanuel Adebayor, AY Makun, Mercy Eke, Kojo Amin, Somizi, among others. The isolation games evolved into an avenue for charity and mentorship, touching hundreds of thousands of people across Africa.
The massive success of that viral event led Hero Daniel to start ‘Come Play Naija’, a TV game show that premiered on DSTv’s African Magic earlier this month.
But according to Hero Daniels, the isolation games only became grand because of Nantomah’s participation. “When I first planned the show, I wasn’t thinking of anything big. At least, not that big,” Daniel said. “There wasn’t even any financial reward for players when I started. But after the first episode, he reached out to me and made me realise how big the games could become. He then put down [a lot of] money (undisclosed) to sponsor the games. I couldn’t afford to pay anyone at the time, but people were winning money every day for up to three months.”
“Most people don’t know I sponsored the isolation games,” Nantomah said. “But that’s because I wasn’t seeking validation. I just wanted to touch lives.”
Daniels credits Nantomah, not only for the isolation games but for his success story. “My life changed since I met him. There’s so much wisdom to learn from him,” he said.
Aside from the isolation games, Nantomah has sponsored many other philanthropic projects while staying behind the curtains during the covid-19 lockdowns, including feeding 25,000 Africans and supporting small businesses in Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda with equipment through his non-profit, Prosperity for Africa and the Tonto Dike Foundation. In the same year, he sponsored ‘The Pitch’, a business pitch competition hosted on social media by Ubi Franklin where two winners walked home with $5,000 each and others got equipment for business support such as generators, mixers etc.
According to Nantomah, his most relevant investments are not in assets but in people. “I’ll keep investing in people,” Nantomah said when I asked about his plans for the future. “I can’t predict the future, but I know I will be relevant to people’s lives for a very long time.”