CNN International anchor Zain Asher says relentless hard work led her to success

When Zain Ejiofor Asher was a schoolgirl in London, her mother, a widowed Nigerian immigrant with four young children, hatched an audacious plan: her eldest daughter would go to Oxford. Obiajulu Ejiofor had plans for her other children, too, despite working 10-hour days to support her family after losing her husband in a devastating car crash.

Against the odds, her plans worked. Asher graduated from Oxford, and in 2014, at age 31, became an anchor at CNN International. Chiwetal Ejiofor, who had been badly injured in the crash that killed his father, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2013 for his performance in 12 Years a Slave. Kandi is a doctor in London, and Obinze a successful entrepreneur.

Asher, who now lives in Montclair with her husband, Steve Peoples, a political writer for the Associated Press, and their two young sons, says that people are often eager to learn her mothers’ secrets; even her children’s teachers would ask her mother for advice for raising their own children. Asher’s memoir, Where the Children Take Us, published by HarperCollins, is an answer to those who wonder how her mother raised such extraordinary children in such challenging circumstances.

Here, we talk to the journalist — who appended the name “Asher” to Ejiofor because it means “happiness” or “blessings” — about how the life lessons she learned from her mother helped her get her primetime CNN International news show, One World with Zain Asher; why she moved to Montclair; and which lessons she will pass on to her own children.

To quote from your memoir, ‘There is tragedy in my story, but my story is not a tragedy.’ How did your mother recover and thrive after such a horrific loss?
I was 5 years old when my father and brother Chiwetel went on a trip to Nigeria. On the day my mother was due to pick them up at the airport, she got a call that they had been in a car crash and one was alive and one had died, but they didn’t know which one. My mother, who was pregnant, flew to Nigeria and learned that her husband was dead. He had been the love of her life, and vice versa, since she was 14. He was a doctor in training and close to receiving his credentials. She was so devastated it was hard to focus on the silver lining, that her son was alive. Chiwetel was very badly injured and she stayed with him for weeks until he was strong enough to return to London.

Back in London, she struggled to function. What catapulted her out of mourning was when her oldest son, Obinde, who had been a straight-A student, failed out of school. The whole reason she and her husband had left Nigeria was to give their children a good education and more opportunity. That made her think, “I really have to make some changes around here.”

What were some of those changes?

When I was seven years old, she started asking our teachers for the syllabi a couple of months in advance, and would teach us the topics at home, after 10-hour work days. I knew my times tables cold while my classmates were still struggling. It made a world of difference. I became a role model, the kid with the most gold stars next to my name. I went from being a child who didn’t fit in and didn’t enjoy school to being very happy and thriving. I could directly see at age 7 that what you get out is what you put in.

My mother also taught us to be productive in our free time. Her “eight-hour rule” divided the day into eight-hour blocks — eight hours for sleep, eight for work or school, and eight for free time. The last eight were the most important. We had to use our spare time productively and meaningfully, doing something that would have a lasting impact on our future. She’d say, “Show me someone successful and I’ll show you someone who spends their free time in a productive way.”

Also key was her sending me back to live with my Igbo relatives in Nigeria for two years from age 9 to 11. This is common among Nigerian immigrants; they call it “shipping back.” The idea is to manufacture hardship to foster resilience and a scrappy mentality. In Nigeria, you are up against strong headwinds. You have to fetch drinking water and wash clothes by hand, and power outages are common, but you are still expected to show up on time and do the same amount of work. Kids who go to live in Nigeria are more appreciative of the opportunities they have when they come home. Everything seems easy.

How did your mother navigate the teenage years?

When I was a junior in high school, my grades were As and Bs. My mother knew that would not be good enough to get me into Oxford. She literally cut the cord on the TV. She wanted to eliminate distractions. Then she saw I was spending more time on the phone with my friends, so she installed a residential pay phone. At first, I just kind of stared out the window but eventually, since I had nothing else to do, I started working harder and my grades went up dramatically.

My mother was very strict — the classic immigrant mother, a Nigerian Tiger Mom (laughs). But there was no resentment on my part. I could very, very clearly see from a young age that what she was teaching me at home was having a dramatic impact on me. Your adulthood is a lot longer than your childhood and you have to make certain sacrifices to have a good life. And I did have friends and went out. I was a normal teenager.

My year in Nigeria with my grandparents is part of the reason I didn’t rebel. People in Nigeria are very, very respectful of their elders. You call your grandfather “sir.” There is no culture of ignoring your parents or arguing back. When you experience that for a few years and your parent says “No TV,” you are much more inclined to listen.

My mother also provided role models for us of Nigerian and West-African success stories, especially those of immigrants. We did experience racism, so to make sure it didn’t affect our belief in ourselves, she plastered magazine articles on our walls about people who looked like us who were soaring in their chosen professions. She also had a white binder in which she collected these articles and she’d talk to us about them. The message was, “If you work hard, you can have what they have.”

When I was 13, I came home one day and the mirror in my bedroom was missing. In its place was a folder of articles about Nigerians and other African success stories and a note that read, “Less focus on how you look and more focus on what you can become.”

Did these lessons help beyond your school years?

I started at CNN at age 28 as a business correspondent and became an anchor in a year using my mother’s principles. Not long after I started there, I went to one of the talent coaches and asked him to train me to be an anchor. He looked at me, confused, and asked me if anyone had asked me to train. I said, “No, I just want to be ready if a position opens up.” He was skeptical; CNN is a good place to work and positions don’t open up that often. If they do, they are not going to a brand-new person. But he agreed to help me out several times a week after his regular duties, helping me study different anchors, look at how they ask questions, listen to their voices and rehearse. I also prepared on my own, spending hours studying the history of various countries — Iran, Saudi Arabia, the U.K., Africa — that frequently come up in the news.

Lo and behold, an anchor position opened up, and I was invited to audition. I got the job, even though there were lots of people with way more experience than me. I had a significant advantage because I had prepared for many months. I’m so grateful to my mother for teaching me that you don’t have to wait for your dream job to open up; you can begin now to acquire the skills and be ready for it. It sort of combines with the eight-hour rule, about using your spare time productively. These are the greatest lessons of my childhood.

How did your mother learn the skills she passed on to you?

My mother grew up during the Biafran war. She had to eat snakes and crickets to survive; she missed three years of school. Her mother taught her kids what she thought they’d be learning in school so they wouldn’t be behind when the war ended. She taught them basic math drawing numbers in the dirt with sticks and using donated textbooks. Other kids would join in. When my mother took her exams for high school, she scored very high and it was a big deal, the first time a woman in the village had achieved such high results.

Asher with mum

How did you end up in Montclair?

We were living in Brooklyn when Noah turned 1 in 2019. We knew our family would grow and wanted more space. So many media people live here, including a lot of CNN people. They were like, “My gosh, you have to live here.” Christine Romans, who anchors the 5 a.m. show on CNN, lives here, and a senior producer lives on my street. And obviously, being not only a Black woman but African and British and an immigrant, diversity was really important to me. When we saw the house on Gates Avenue, it just felt like home. Montclair feels like an extension of me, where I feel 100% welcome, and fit in completely.

How do you juggle your job and parenting?

I’m up between 5:30 and 6, juggling screaming children and prepping for the show. It’s always chaos before I leave. I have a 45-minute commute. My show is on at noon and then I stay and prepare for the next day. Steve has been working from home since the pandemic, but he travels quite a bit. We have an au pair who helps a lot, especially when he’s travelling.

My mother still lives in London, along with all my siblings. She visited in January and again in July. She’s retired, so she’ll stay a month. It’s lovely having her here.

Do you plan to apply your mom’s lessons as you raise your own children?

We haven’t really thought about it; my kids are so young (Noah is 3, Louis is 1). Our life is so different. Steve is a very involved and present parent, and though I work a lot, I make sure I’m very, very present with my kids when I’m not working. Our children are, to a certain extent, privileged. And it’s a different time. I don’t know what the landscape will be when it comes to social media when they’re teens. I’ll have to figure out what makes sense for the modern world.

Right now, family time on the weekends is very important to me, especially because I didn’t have a dad and my mom was always working. I make sure my kids have a lot of exposure and balance in terms of activities. My son does a lot of sports, but his favorite activity is cooking; he’s taking a cooking class at the Y.

I don’t know about making TV “forbidden fruit.” Kids watch out of boredom. I like the idea of making not watching TV much more exciting than staring at the screen.

With The Bergen Record report

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