This story is part of CNBC Make It’s Millennial Money series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save their money.
In early 2021, Chisom Okwulehie had just given birth to her daughter and was looking for some extra cash to supplement her income as an architect at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
While she made six figures at her job, she figured a side hustle would help cover the mortgage costs for the duplex in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, she splits with her husband, Ikenna.
“My parents always told me that if you’re going to purchase a home and [your spouse] dies, you have to be able to cover the mortgage,” Okwulehie tells CNBC Make It.
At Port Authority, Okwulehie works mostly on infrastructure projects for train stations and airports, including upgrades to Terminal One at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and a soon-to-open modernized train station entrance in Harrison, New Jersey.
However, she wanted to do more design work on the side, so she founded Juntero with her husband, a cybersecurity specialist. The consulting firm offers a variety of services for mostly residential projects, including architectural and interior design.
By the end of 2021, her business had pulled in $55,000 in revenue. In 2022, Juntero took on more clients and the revenue increased to roughly $206,000.
“I didn’t expect to receive many projects as quickly as I did,” Okwulehie says.
To keep up with the growing number of projects, Okwulehie began to delegate much of the work to a team of contract designers: “It’s basically an agency where I manage a bunch of talent and then give them work.”
In 2023, Juntero worked with about 60 clients and brought in $414,000 in revenue — all while Okwulehie maintained her full-time job at Port Authority.
Last year, Okwulehie earned a roughly $126,000 salary from Port Authority and paid herself $37,500 from Juntero. She put the rest of the company’s profits of nearly $173,000 into savings.
Here’s how she manages it all.
Becoming an architect
Okwulehie is a second-generation immigrant in a family “very driven” by academic achievement, she says.
Her father came to the U.S. in 1970 as a teenage refugee from the Nigerian Civil War. He graduated with a master’s in chemical engineering at Columbia University in New York City, which led to a career as a chemical engineer.
“Growing up in a Nigerian household, it was emphasized to us to either become an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer,” says Okwulehie, the oldest of four children. Despite that, she was the only one who didn’t study to become an engineer.
Instead, Okwulehie showed a keen interest in making art from an early age. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, her parents encouraged her artistic talents by enrolling her in the San Francisco High School of the Arts, where she focused on drawing, painting and sculpting.
It was Okwulehie’s high school principal who suggested a career in architecture, which led to her graduating with two concurrent bachelor’s degrees in architecture and public policy from the University of Southern California in 2012. A master’s in advanced architectural design from Columbia University followed in 2014.
That same year, she got her first full-time job as an architect at the New York City office of Perkins Eastman, one of the largest private architectural firms in the world, where her first big project was designing a boathouse at the San Francisco Airport.
Okwulehie continued to gain valuable experience in architectural and interior design, as well as urban planning, but the work hours grew longer as she took on more responsibilities. Working 12-hour days, she sometimes wouldn’t see daylight during her work day.
“I needed a change in lifestyle,” she says. “Work-life balance was very important to me, so I decided to move to the public sector.”
In 2017, she took on the role of architect at Port Authority, working her way up to senior architect in 2022.
Working on billion-dollar infrastructure projects like the Harrison train station in New Jersey, Okwulehie’s role has become more focused on project management and quality assurance. This prepared her to run Juntero as a side hustle, she says.
While Juntero brought in $414,000 in 2023, including nearly $173,000 in profit, it had humble beginnings.
The company’s first project in 2021 was designing an ad for Indeed.com for $20. Bigger projects followed, including Juntero’s first architectural job creating a simple floor plan for a dentist’s office.
As her client list grew, Okwulehie was able to raise her rates every six months or so, she says. To attract clients, she initially charged $60 per hour, then raised it to $80 in 2022. She now charges $100 per hour, but will sometimes offer fixed-rate prices, depending on the scope of the project.
Over time, she found a niche in creating photorealistic 3D renderings of potential designs. These visualizations caught on with real estate developers who market new, unbuilt properties to potential buyers.
“Some architectural firms spend money on renderings, but a lot of times those renderings are very conceptual,” says Okwulehie. “My company is different, it actually looks real. If a client is based in China and they want to purchase a home in, say, Texas, I can create that home and actually have the client walk through that home in 3D.”
In September 2023, Okwulehie gave birth to her son, but able to keep Juntero running while she was on maternity leave, and the business kept growing.
To keep her workload manageable, Okwulehie oversees a team of over 30 credentialed architects, interior designers and 3D modelers, many of whom live abroad.
“On a typical week, I spend about five to 10 hours working on Juntero,” she says. Her work is mostly focused on dealing with clients, marketing and overseeing the work being done by her team of designers.
Okwulehie works from home, with much of the work assigned on Slack or WhatsApp. “My team will see projects come in, assign themselves and start working,” she says, “And when they’re done, they’ll send it to me before it’s shared with a client.”
Aside from her salary, most of Juntero’s business profits are put into two high-yield savings accounts.
Here’s how Okwulehie spent her money in December 2023.
- Housing: $3,493 for mortgages on both her primary home and land for a second home
- Child care: $2,333
- Debt repayment: $1,969 for student loan and credit card payments
- Pension and savings: $663
- Discretionary: $655 for Christmas gifts, beauty products, church donations and indoor playground admission
- Utilities: $298 for Wi-Fi, gas, electricity, water
- Car lease: $255
- Food: $243
- Health care: $220 for family co-pays
- Insurance: $176 for car and home insurance
- Subscriptions and memberships: $52 for Amazon Prime and home security
Okwulehie and her husband split almost all of their expenses, with Ikenna managing the family’s investments, while she manages child-care costs.
In the next few years, Okwulehie and Ikenna plan to use the $312,076 they have in savings to build a house on a plot of land they bought for $450,000 in Upper Nyack, New York, in 2017.
In addition to their liquid savings, the couple has more than $200,000 invested between a taxable brokerage account and various retirement accounts.
Much of the family’s insurance costs are covered by Ikenna’s employer, including health, dental and vision insurance. Okwulehie doesn’t typically splurge on discretionary expenses, but in December she spent $570 on Christmas gifts and beauty services, like nails and hair.
In terms of debt, Okwulehie owes about $173,000 in student loan debt and roughly $1,100 in credit card debt. Some good news though: As a public service employee, she hopes to qualify for loan forgiveness in 2027 as part of the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
So far, Juntero’s biggest client is a property developer that used the company’s renderings to sell a collection of homes for millions of dollars. Going forward, Okwulehie hopes to continue growing Juntero through partnerships with developers across the United States.
That doesn’t mean she’s quitting her day job, however. “I still see myself working at Port Authority full-time,” she says. “I do learn a lot in terms of management, which is helping the business.”
And now that she is a mother of two, Okwulehie says that her main goal is to create “generational wealth” for her children.
That includes putting more money into investment accounts, like 529 college savings plans for her children. The new home that they will build in Upper Nyack is also an investment in the future.
“The whole point is to build a home that my kids can inherit in the future and call it their own,” she says.
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