Dr. Melanie Okoro
Founder, Principal and CEO, Eco-Alpha Environmental and Engineering Services
Dr. Melanie Okoro’s eyes widen as she’s asked about the hardest time she’s faced in her career. Of course, navigating COVID-19 was difficult for her and her business, Eco-Alpha Environmental and Engineering Services, where she is the founder, principal and CEO. But she shares that a more uncertain time came for her professionally a few years earlier.
It was 2017, and she was working as a scientist and policy advisor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She had just received the “Fisheries Employee of the Year Award,” a career milestone. Okoro, 39, had been operating Eco-Alpha on a consulting basis since 2013, but she decided that 2017 was the year to make a leap to leave NOAA and devote herself to her company.
“That was very difficult, to step out of the comfort zone of me being a scientist and to leave an organization that I truly loved — a very safe space,” she says. “In entrepreneurship, who knows when you are going to get paid? And you have a family to think about. It was a change to my mindset.”
The risk paid off. Eco-Alpha, which Okoro co-owns with her husband Uzoma Okoro, is thriving and expanding, she says. The company now has three divisions — environmental, engineering, and workforce development training — and takes on tasks including streamlining companies’ environmental permitting processes and maintaining air conditioning, plumbing, and electrical systems in large buildings. “We are experiencing immense growth in K-12 institutions and the commercial real estate sector and expanding our training division and staff to support our clients nationwide,” Okoro says.
Okoro attended the private, historically Black Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina, where she met a scientific mentor who introduced her to the field of ecology. From there she pursued a doctorate in environmental sciences from the University of Maryland and began work at NOAA as a graduate scientist.
Okoro attributes her relatively quick success to her strong work ethic and her ability to persevere and collaborate, and also to the strong foundational support of her team, which will soon include her twin sister, Stephanie Harrison. Harrison will join Eco-Alpha in the role of vice president of human relations and accounting upon her retirement as a lieutenant colonel in the Navy.
Okoro is very committed to giving back to the community, including working as a board member for Splash, a nonprofit dedicated to helping children “understand and value the natural world.” Her proudest accomplishment relates to that commitment to lift up others.
“This has been a passion of mine for a really long time — to make sure that those that look like me have an opportunity to take advantage of the field I’m in and be aware of the opportunities to come work in a field that is highly lucrative … and in which there has been great underrepresentation,” she says.
A typical weekday finds her up at 4 a.m. with alone time when she answers emails from East Coast clients, later taking her daughter to school and in her Sacramento office by 8 a.m. From there it’s meetings that focus on acquiring new clients and retaining existing ones, along with marketing and growing the company and creating new service divisions.
Most important to Okoro is supporting her team, so that they can take care of their clients and “truly represent what it means to work at Eco-Alpha, to be a leader in the field, to have our clients trust us in the work that they do. The way that I look at it, I’m just making sure that we’re steering the ship in the right direction.”
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