Juju is a word for a charm or an amulet in West Africa (and the supernatural power within). The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is a long way from Lagos, Nigeria, but it serves in a sense as a 630-foot juju for Abe Adewale's company, ABNA Engineering.
Adewale, 38, left Lagos at 16, and he's been back only once. His American journey took him to school in Atlanta and then to the Midwest, where he went to work for the Illinois Department of Transportation. After three years there, he was asked by IDOT to wine and dine a fellow Georgia Tech engineering alum -- who is now his wife and business partner, Nicole. The Adewales lived in St. Louis and commuted across the river to Collinsville, Ill.
At IDOT, there were only a handful of nonwhite engineers and lots of of lifers, and Abe began feeling that advancement prospects were limited. After 10 years of building roads and bridges, he convinced his wife that they should go out on their own. In 1994, they took their $45,000 in savings and founded ABNA, figuring to start by working for IDOT. They didn't know that an unspoken rule required that ex-employees wait two years before doing IDOT work. And they had a baby on the way. "It was the best of times and the worst of times," says Abe.
Eager for any work they could find, they considered themselves fortunate when their two-person shop landed a $300,000 contract to work in the greater St. Louis sewer system. ABNA has since developed expertise in diverse fields such as geotechnical engineering and construction management, and now has some 40 projects under way at any given time. Current big jobs include work on massive civic infrastructure undertakings like the billion-dollar Mississippi River Bridge project and the Lambert Airport tunnel and runway additions. ABNA recently opened offices in Chicago and East St. Louis, Ill., in order to bid for work, which the Adewales are now cleared to do, with old friends at IDOT.