Here’s how she did it
Yamundow Camara grew up in Gambia, West Africa, in the home of extended family members. Now she has multiple properties of her own. She came to the United States with a fellowship in 2016, and since 2020 has built a real-estate portfolio now worth more than $2 million.
Camara grew up in Gambia, in a house without electricity and running water. Now she runs a bustling rental-real-estate business in the US, where she owns more than $2 million in property, including a “dream house” for her growing family in an Atlanta suburb.
In less than three years of investing, she became a millionaire with multiple sources of income. During most of that time, she was a visa holder. Last year, she became a permanent resident.
Camara, 34, is a buy-and-hold investor who rehabs distressed properties and rents them out. Some of her tenants are 12-month lease holders, most of them with Section 8 government assistance. The bulk are travel nurses, who are paid by staffing agencies at rates that have soared since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and sometimes rent for more than 30 days at a time.
She’s a focused worker with a sunny attitude who walks through neglected properties with an eye for improvements and the air of an expert. With the help of a team, she’s taken homes through major renovations, bringing spaces that were unliveable back to life. Most of her properties are in central Illinois, managed by her team, and she rents some by room.
Camara also leases eight apartments in Atlanta, closer to home, which she subleases to travel nurses. “I do this to supercharge my income so I can buy my own properties,” she said.
She prefers a clean look for her short-term rentals, with queen beds with white linen sheets and furniture she mostly buys from Amazon for one unit, she made wall décor with circular woven trays and spray paint after seeing something similar at a store.
Her entire portfolio generates tens of thousands of dollars a month in rental revenue, according to records reviewed by MarketWatch. Her rent roll shows potential for nearly $80,000 a month in gross rent.
Camara likes the guaranteed nature of Section 8 rent from the government, which balances out the lucrative but variable short-term rentals.
While she has a busy schedule that includes trips out of town to meet with contractors, her business now mostly runs in the background of her life.
“Now that I have this knowledge, now that I’ve built this portfolio, I’m not a landlord — I’m an investor,” Camara explained. “A tenant never calls me to say the water broke. I have a team for that. I’m also feeding my property manager’s family, and I’m also providing houses for parents and kids and people,” she added. “And that’s a big deal for me.”
From Gambia to the U.S
Camara came to the U.S in 2016 through the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. After studying at North-western University through the fellowship, she got more funding and earned a master’s degree in information systems from the University of Illinois.
In 2019, she started work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, doing data science and computer programming. The next year the coronavirus pandemic was declared.
“By then, I had already started looking for properties,” she said.
She made the most of her downtime. She stopped using social media for anything other than real estate and investing, only following like-minded accounts. She told MarketWatch she read books, listened to podcasts, and watched YouTube videos about investing in her off time and after her young son went to sleep.
Her motivation was simple. “I have to change my life, my family’s life.”
Camara is the youngest of seven. Her mom died when she was a toddler, and her dad, who worked as a watchman and had been ill, died when she was 11, leaving her an orphan.
Living with her dad, she recalled being unsure when their next meal would come. When her oldest sister married, Camara and a brother moved into the household of the sister’s husband’s parents, which was full of their relatives and extended family — other adult children and their families, plus cousins and guests.
The house, like her father’s, lacked electricity and running water. She described wetting the bed regularly and having to sleep on the floor, under a mosquito net, using a small touch light a local shop owner had given her.
She recounted fending off mosquitoes and bedbugs at night. And falling gravely ill from malaria, being rushed to a hospital and hearing a doctor say she could have died.
“At those moments, I would talk to God,” she said. “Because I have so much faith. One day I’m going to have houses. One day I’m going to be in a nice place.
“Those moments, they made me.”
Her sister’s in-laws’ home provided access to better schools, and Camara was a top student, earning scholarships along the way. Teachers looked out for her, buying her shoes when she needed them. She graduated from high school and then the University of the Gambia, where her sister helped pay her tuition.
She was entrepreneurial, selling mangoes and oranges, and for a time, African fabrics, indulging her love of fashion.
Because Camara excelled at math and science, she said, people expected her to be a doctor, but she went into computer science. “Imagine, a computer-science student without a laptop,” she said. “I had to write my codes on paper.”
Outnumbered by men in her field, she was working as a software engineer when she started a non-profit in Gambia that taught girls how to code.
She applied for the Mandela Washington Fellowship, which she’d heard about through friends and contacts, and, without internet at home, she said she did the interview at midnight local time at the home of her boss.
It was a conference call over video. She had never seen so many white men in one room, she recalled. The offer came soon after: She had been chosen to come to the U.S and would meet President Barack Obama. She remembers screaming.
“I went from being a village girl who’d never been in an airport to getting a fellowship and scholarship, coming to the U.S., seeing things I thought I would never see, meeting people I never thought I would meet,” Camara said. “It’s a dream come true, and I’m so grateful to God.”
Making her first investment
She bought her first rental property, a $52,000 triplex in downstate Illinois, in April 2020.
She had $8,000 saved from work. From her apartment in Georgia, where she’d moved for the CDC, she cold-called a long list of banks and lenders in Illinois. She’d gone to school there — the state’s flagship public university is in Urbana-Champaign — and it was the only other place she knew in the U.S.
“I got a lot of no’s,” she said. Banks cited her lack of credit history and low savings. She hadn’t had a credit card during school. “I never knew how important it was to build credit,” she said.
One bank was willing to listen and suggested she sign up for a credit card and for the CDC’s credit union. She did those things. A numbers person, she laid out a deal that “they would not be able to refuse.”
Ultimately, the bank said yes.
She put in her $8,000 for the down payment, financing the balance with a conventional mortgage and negotiating to make up for her lack of funds for closing costs or a full 20% down. The property’s owner, she said, was eager to sell.
From there pretty much everything went wrong. She inherited two tenants who were months behind on rent, but that led to COVID relief funds she was able to use toward needed repairs.
After a lot of work, the property became a reliable source of income. With the addition of Section 8 tenants, “it’s been cash flowing since 2020,” Camara said.
Camara said that when the bank saw this deal work out, it agreed to a second, granting her a mortgage for a $68,000 duplex in Cleveland.
She scaled up — and up — from there.
She doesn’t shy away from properties that might scare off other investors. Her portfolio includes a mouldy $40,900 home she spent $48,000 gut-renovating, land she bought for $7,000 sight unseen, and a distressed house she bought for $15,000 after seeing promising local comps. Of two commercial properties she owns, one had been damaged in a fire and vacant for more than a year before she renovated.
She assembled a team she trusts, and put in money from banks and her jobs to fix places up. (She started a second job in 2021, giving her two six-figure salaries for more than a year.)
Other would-be investors now come to her for advice. Touring a property with an investor from Texas whom she was mentoring, Camara didn’t balk when they walked into a kitchen in disarray with a giant hole in the ceiling.
“Wow, needs a lot of work,” she said. “This is a gut rehab, meaning everything has to go.”
Buying a dream house
Until recently, she and her husband, Ebrima Saine, a software engineer she met at the University of the Gambia, were renting a two-bedroom apartment with their 4-year-old son. “Living way below my means,” she said.
In November, she closed on a “dream house” for their growing family. She was pregnant, due in the spring.
This house is not a fixer-upper — not by a long shot. Located near highly rated schools and a picturesque lake, it has a two-story foyer framed by tall windows that let sunlight pour in, a pristine kitchen and an expansive sunroom that looks out over the backyard.
And five bedrooms. As she toured the place with Saine and their son, they identified possible locations for a “man cave” and a nursery. With this much space, their son could have not just one room but “rooms,” Camara laughed as she reached for his hand.
With a net worth of more than $1 million, she gives back to family members and strangers, donating money to Gambian orphans. She especially likes making anonymous gifts.
Around the world, there are vast numbers of people in poverty who long to change their circumstances. Camara had the advantage of being gifted with numbers and trained in data analysis. She was willing to put in the time, take big risks, mess up, learn and start again.
Asked how she did it all, Camara came back to her faith.
“It’s God,” she said, “and also, I think it’s my drive to not go back to where I started, and, also, access to resources,” specifically, YouTube and social media.
“There’s so many investors that are ready to teach you,” Camara said. “There’s so many people you can follow and learn from.”