If there ever was a person who embodied lifelong learning and the love of language, it would be Ike Okonkwo. This highly educated student of the world is fluent in reading and writing English, Portuguese and Spanish. He would seem to be a natural fit for a career in the language arts, but that is only one part of his expansive skill set. Perhaps more impressively, Ike has developed and integrated a wider array of interests and abilities to build his dream company, finding some pivotal help along the way.
Ike’s wide range of interests started early, being exposed to a variety of disciplines from his parents. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Ike is the son of Obi, a neurologist originally from Nigeria who has his own practice in St. Petersburg, Florida, and his mother, Ileana, originally from Cuba, who helped manage his father’s medical office and was a Spanish teacher. Ike’s parents met in Puerto Rico. Ike, one of three children, has a brother who is in medical school and a sister who graduated from Johns Hopkins. Ike broke from family tradition by pursuing a career beyond medicine.
“I’m African from Nigeria, I’m African-American and I’m Latino, so I’m Afro-Latino. I learned Spanish at home from my mom, Nigerian from my dad and they each had their English dialects. We also had the language of medicine and science. It’s no surprise that my sister, brother and I started all down the path to become doctors.” said Ike.
Ike was four years old when the Okonkwo family moved to Miami to pursue the American Dream. His father, a neurologist, was awarded fellowships at hospitals in Virginia and Kansas. During Ike’s early childhood, the family moved around the country for about three years, finally landing back in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was through this constant travel that he began to pick up different languages, dialects and cultures. He didn’t know it then, but it was his ability to adapt while having the support of his family that would help him proactively take bold risks to shape his future and career.
Learning in his early years
In his early years, Ike was a math and science kid, looking to follow in his father’s footsteps into medicine, like his siblings. But his growing appetite and talent for learning new languages began to blossom in high school. He said it was then that he switched and became a self-proclaimed language aficionado. And as it turns out, this switch was something that served him well and turned out to be ownable and unique only by Ike. “As a kid, I switched from being a math and science geek to language nerd.”
In his junior year of high school, when it was time to get serious about applying for college, Ike took the standardized tests, and found an unexpected roadblock. “During my first SAT practice test, I looked at the language questions and the answers all looked fine to me.” Ike learned a hard lesson... While he spoke English with ease, he had not been deeply educated on the formalities of the English language and needed to learn everything to score well. Growing up as a first-generation American, language was all about survival in Ike’s family. Now, he had to relearn something he already thought he knew.
“I had a disadvantage and I had to go back and devote myself to learning the fundamentals of English. I forced myself to understand and approach this as a unique language problem. It sparked my interest. Language became one of my hobbies.”
Ike’s hard work and tenacity paid off. He retook the standardized tests and with his superior scores, Ike applied and was accepted to Harvard. He was pre-med, majoring in neurobiology with a minor in economics. He also earned a mini degree, called a language citation, in Brazilian Portuguese. Ike admits at the time, it seemed random and he didn’t know how it would come together.
“At college I was allowing myself to be intellectually curious, to lift up stones and pursue my interests in the purest form. It was during this time, while learning languages, I learned Latin Dance. It’s still one of my hobbies today.”
Using lifelong learning to change his career
Although his education’s focus was on medicine, his interest in language was beginning to grow. Ike learned to speak Spanish from his mom. When he got to college, he had friends who were Brazilian and spoke Portuguese and he could partially understand them. It sparked his interest in learning more and he started taking Spanish and Portuguese language classes. It expanded his mind. At that same time, he also found a niche writing for science. He wrote grant proposals and learned soft skills that helped him write research papers. It was the ideal blending of his scientific study and love of language.
When Ike was a junior at Harvard, he started looking forward, thinking about getting a job. At the time, he was dedicated to neuroscience and was pre-med, so he was conducting bench research. He worked with rats, doing surgeries on them and writing papers. While science still held his interest, he started to closely consider his devotion to medicine. He was starting to see the role of technology in the world, including in medicine and care.
“I wanted to see what else was out there. I had the research skills and some experience helping my father during summers with patients. But I could see the world of technology beginning to grow, even in the world of medicine. The need to upskill to ensure I could find a job triggered me to start exploring product management and technology. I decided I wanted to teach myself to code.”
With one summer and fall left in college, Ike made a decision that changed the trajectory of his career. It was his love of learning and “lifting that stone” that led him to do research on full-stack web development (web dev) bootcamps. He found Ironhack Miami on Google. In a surprising move, he took a break from Harvard and moved back to Florida after enrolling in the eight-week web development bootcamp at Ironhack Miami.
“I was pre-med at Harvard, interested in economics and began to really get into technology. But, with a Brazilian Portuguese minor, I didn’t have time for CS50 at Harvard [the top computer science course]. I talked to one of my roommates who was a computer science major and asked him about technology bootcamps. I did a lot of research and found Ironhack Miami. I showed my roommate what I could learn at Ironhack in a short amount of time. He said it looked good. I went through the admissions process. Once accepted, I took time off and headed back to Florida to attend Ironhack Miami and learn web dev.”
At Ironhack, Ike expanded his mind once again, learning the value of being technically literate through the language of coding. He also learned the value of being an Ironhacker (the informal name given to anyone who has graduated from the Ironhack program).
“The one thing that’s special about Ironhack is definitely the cohorts. I know that through Ironhack I have a strong network. I made a lot of good friends. One of my friends is a neighbor in St. Petersburg. We still go to each other’s Christmas celebrations. I also connect easily with other Ironhackers on LinkedIn.”
Ike’s experience of becoming part of the Ironhack community and building a network of friends and colleagues is one of the most valuable aspects of the bootcamp. Ike finished Ironhack with one semester left at Harvard. He had two internship opportunities, one was in research and the other was with a health technology start-up, TNH Digital Health, based in Brazil. The company uses technology to help organizations engage, educate and monitor large patient populations. It also uses mobile technology to address some of the biggest healthcare problems in emerging markets.
Life after learning web development
Essentially Ike had to choose between a traditional path in medicine, or exploring a new direction. He chose the internship with TNH. His first assignment was to build a company website. With little oversight, Ike did just that. Four years later, TNH is still using the website, a testament to Ike’s expertise in language, background in science and knowledge in coding. He also expanded his network. One of his supervisors, CEO Michael Kapps, became Ike’s mentor. They are still close today. “It was the first time everything clicked. I had the language skills, was working in health care helping patients in rural parts of the country and using my computer science skills.”
After the summer, Ike returned to the States to complete his studies at Harvard. While he was figuring his next move, he was contacted by Harvard Business School. They needed an alumnus who spoke Portuguese and could be in Sāo Paulo to help develop case studies on new companies and start-ups. Ike took the position, spending one year in Brazil.
“When I was in Brazil, I saw patients who were fighting neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and I started recognizing healthcare as an agent for fighting inequality. So many people don’t have access to certain kinds of medicine. I was intrigued and realized that I wanted to make a greater impact in my career beyond treating one patient at a time. I started exploring how I could bring together healthcare policy, economics and technology.”
At the same time, he became aware of the George Peabody Gardner Travelling Fellowship, which provides Harvard students an opportunity to reflect on their undergraduate life through immersion with a foreign culture. Ike used all of his skills and won the fellowship to retrace his heritage through the study of Afro-Latin rhythms. He moved to Medellin, Colombia for a year.
While in Colombia, he started working as a freelancer for Colombia Passport, a business focused around medical tourism that connected athletes who were looking to get stem cell therapy with doctors in Latin America. The company’s owner, another Expat, liked Ike’s ideas and asked him to join the business. The skills Ike learned at Ironhack, the ability to speak Spanish and Portuguese, his exposure to medicine, traveling and lifelong learning were all finally coming together, fueling his next journey.
“I was obsessed with the medical tourism aspect of the business. It took a lot of work. When we started, we had a lot of other tourism companies asking us how much it would cost to join the website. It clicked for me. Maybe this could be a marketplace.”
After the fellowship ended in Colombia, it was time for Ike to go to New York to start his studies in medicine. After three months, COVID hit and everything shut down, so Ike went back to Florida. It was yet another turning point for him. He knew he was destined to combine all that he learned and his interests to bring something bigger to the world.
“During the pandemic, the world closed down and I had time. My business partner didn’t really want to take the risk with entrepreneurship and COVID. I decided that instead of pursuing my medical studies, it would be much more fun to put gas on the fire and just build. I also realized that it would be difficult to start a company and pursue being a doctor. I ended up leaving the medical program.”
Ike put his skills to work once again. He applied and got accepted to The Wharton School and The Lauder Institute to get MBA/MA. He is pursuing international studies and is on the Latin American track. “I wrote all my essays about how I wanted to start a global business that was all about medical travel.”
As of October 2020, Ike became an entrepreneur. He’s the co-founder and CEO of Welltrip, a start-up focused on building a global healthcare marketplace that helps consumers book medical appointments and accommodations for various procedures in Latin America. He and his business partner, Bolivian-born Patrick Prömmel who is also at Wharton on the Latin American track, received funding from The Lauder Institute. They are devoting summer 2021 to supercharging their company.
“Patrick and I brainstormed and worked together, sharing ideas. We became friends while we built this company. In the late summer we’ll be in Colombia working together. In May 2022, when we graduate, we’ll both be in Miami, working on Welltrip full time.”
Ike’s coding skills and time at Ironhack was a crucial part of helping him become an entrepreneur. His quest for lifelong learning has moved him into success. He’s authentically combined his love of English, Spanish, Portuguese, coding, healthcare and Latin America to make him an especially unique and accomplished entrepreneur, bringing medicine to the masses.