Jo Afful: Keeping His Eye on the Ball
Joseph (Jo) Afful’s career path might be considered a bit unorthodox. A native of Ghana, Jo emigrated to the U.S. in 1999 to study finance. Since then, he has interned at JP Morgan Chase, worked as a financial analyst for Ernst & Young, was a risk advisory consultant while at DHG, and today serves as project manager for Barclay’s Bank. Oh, and there’s also the four years he just happened to play professional soccer. We talked with Jo recently about his life and career and how lessons learned on the soccer field keep him focused on the goal.
You grew up in Accra, the largest city and capital of Ghana. What was that like?
It was the best place on earth. Most people in the U.S. are surprised when I say I grew up in a large city. But Accra is a modern city of about three million people. We didn’t have much growing up, but we had fun. We spent a lot of time kicking soccer balls around.
My father was an accountant for a big shipping company in Accra, while my mom worked as an administrator for a local company. They were both very education minded … mom especially wanted to be sure I was well-schooled. So, when I was 14 years old, she enrolled me in a Catholic boarding school in Cape Coast, a historic trading town about three hours away. It was run by Italian priests who were strict disciplinarians and made us study hard, but we still found time to play lots of soccer. It was the best of times, really.
In 1999, did you come to the U.S. to attend university or play soccer or both?
For school, definitely. Growing up I was a really good soccer player and dreamed of playing professionally, but my parents were all about the books. When it came to soccer, they didn’t want to hear it! In fact, my father was so determined that I get an excellent college education that he migrated to New York City several years before me, helping pave the way for my siblings and me to attend university in the States.
But you ended up getting a soccer scholarship to St. Francis College. How did that come about?
This is the really cool part. I was playing a pick-up game at Yankee Stadium when a scout from St. Francis happened to spot me. At this point I hadn’t decided where I would go to university. This coach said if I would play at St. Francis, I could get a “full ride.” Well, I was still new here and didn’t understand scholarships and how everything worked. And my dad was very skeptical. But when the coach came to our home and explained that St. Francis was offering me a full, four-year college education – tuition, housing, everything – just for playing soccer there, well, my dad came around pretty quickly.
And you went pro after graduating from St. Francis?
Yes and no. Right after undergrad I went to Greece, hoping to be signed. My father wasn’t thrilled about it, but I convinced him that I had to explore the possibilities. If it didn’t work out, I promised to come back and get my MBA.
So, I went to Greece and it was awful. I traveled from club to club for trials at a time when U.S. soccer players were not well respected. And although I eventually landed a deal, I was homesick and miserable. I came home just four months later.
Soon afterward, Adelphi University came to me with an offer I couldn’t refuse: they’d pay for my MBA if I’d play for them. I had a year of NCAA eligibility left so I accepted the offer. Then, while at Adelphi, the MLS (Major League Soccer) draft came up. The MLS was a fairly new organization at the time and I wound up being drafted by the New England Revolution. So I was actually playing professional soccer while at the same time getting my MBA. For the next three and a half years I continued playing for New England and then for the Atlanta Silverbacks. It was an exhilarating time.
Why did you quit?
In 2007 I sustained a serious knee injury. Re-hab took a long time. When I finally returned I found I just wasn’t that into it any more. And true to my promise to my dad, I returned to finance.
What was the transition from professional athlete to finance professional like?
Honestly, it was tough. Trying to sit at a computer all day was hard. But I found that the same intangibles that make me a good soccer player –competitiveness, discipline, accountability – drive me to be good at whatever I set out to do. It was a challenge at first, but I was determined to succeed.
After an internship at JP Morgan Chase and a stint at EY, in 2014 you joined DHG in New York City. Why DHG?
Chase and EY gave me a great foundation to build on, but I was looking for something different. Through some personal contacts I learned that DHG had recently launched a risk advisory practice and they were looking for people in New York City. I saw an opportunity to help build something from scratch and jumped on it. When I joined the New York office I was one of just 15 people there. Today there are over 100. I proudly consider myself a ‘founding father’ of that office (he says with a laugh).
And then in January, 2018 the opportunity at Barclay’s arose …
Right. I had now been in public accounting seven-plus years and wanted to try something in private industry. I felt the Barclay’s position would allow me to further utilize and enhance my project management skills. So, while I hated leaving DHG, I decided to make the move.
Going back to soccer, what’s the future of professional soccer in the U.S.?
I think pro soccer is the next big thing in sports here. Its popularity is already night and day compared to when I played and just keeps growing. In fact, U.S. teams are now attracting European players. It might never rival the NFL or NBA, but in another five to ten years, professional soccer will be a major U.S. spectator sport.
What does it mean to be a DHG alumnus?
DHG opens doors. The experience, the mentoring, and the feedback I received were tremendous. I worked with some truly awesome people. DHG has added greatly to my personal toolbox, giving me skills not just for today, but for down the road, too. I enjoy what I’m doing at Barclay’s, but I’ll probably always think of DHG as home. And DHG has made it clear that if I ever want to come back, they’ll be glad to have me.
What do your parents have to say about your career success?
I’m glad they pushed me to study hard and get a good education. But I’m also grateful that they understood and supported me when I was pursuing my professional soccer dreams. Thanks to them, today I’m a successful business professional, but we both know that soccer will always be in my blood.
More about Jo Afful
- Married to his college sweetheart, Nekei
- Two children, Kumi (age 12) and Kojo (age 9), who both enjoy swimming, basketball and soccer
- Plays for the NY Greek Americans recreational soccer team
- Three-time All-Northeast Soccer Conference player (2000 – 2003)
- New York Region- Second Team (2001)
- First Team Atlantic Soccer Conferenceplayer (2003)
- Favorite soccer team: Chelsea F.C. (Chelsea, London, England)
- Favorite soccer player: Marcel Desailly (retired)