“Footprints in the sands of time” – A Graduation Address By Austin Okere

Austin Okere

(Being a keynote address to the Fourth cohort of TrepCamp NYU)

According to Maria Robinson “Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”

Many people ask me whether entrepreneurs are born or made. I always say that it is the wrong question. The right question is “who volunteers to be an entrepreneur?” if not you, then who? If not now then when?

Perhaps the most difficult transition I had to make in my life was leaving the comfort of my job to start the Computer Warehouse Group, now CWG Plc. I was perceived as one of the upwardly mobile executives in my former company. The company was doing very well and was regarded as one of the most outstanding IT firms then. I was well paid and had ample commission from sales…my life was on a roll!

 You can imagine how aghast my spouse was when I told her one evening that I would be quitting my job within the week. My parents were beside themselves. They could not comprehend what else I was looking for. Why can’t he be content with what others are dying for? They wondered.

 Yet I knew that I had not wholly tapped into my full potential. Yes, it was as good as it was, but was it the best that it could be?

 My aspiration had shifted from what many of us desire when we newly finish school and start a job; just being comfortable and assuring myself and possibly my family of some sort of financial comfort.

I wanted to make an impact beyond my immediate family, and beyond my immediate environment. I wanted to do something significant. I wanted to leave my footprints in the sands of time. Part of this inspiration was as a result of my early reading of ‘thought writers’ such as Tom Peters, John Maxwell and Brian Tracey, whom I adopted as mentors and borrowed heavily from.

I reasoned that founding a company that could be built over time to hold her own among any of the global bests was one of the most viable ways to achieve my goal. I wanted to one day to list our shares on the NASDAQ, not minding that my friends sniggered when I shared the dream.

 I knew I could not achieve any of these if I did not make the sacrifice of leaving my comfort zone and the security it seemed to offer. I understood that to achieve the growth I desired as a leader, I would have to make a change. I needed a vehicle that I could be in reasonable control of. That is how CWG was born. The rest they say is history.

We listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange as the largest security in the ICT sector in 2013, and was recognised as a Global Growth Company by the World Economic Forum in 2014; while both Columbia Business School (NY) and MIT (Boston) have written case studies about our company. I went ahead to become an Entrepreneur in Residence at Columbia Business School in New York, and currently serving on the World Economic Forum on Innovation & Intrapreneurship Global Agenda Council. I also serve on the Advisory Board of the Global Business School Network (GBSN) headquartered in Washington DC.

 Austin Okere at NSE


I must add here that it wasn’t at all as smooth as I had pictured it in my mind’s eye. The path we have followed these past 25 years have been filled with serious trials (as you would expect from a company operating in our harsh environment) and littered with broken bodies from the tough battles to get ahead despite all odds (my premature grey sprout is a key testimony to this).

As John Maxwell says, life is a series of tradeoffs. If we’re going to grow as influencers, then at different junctures of life, we’re going to have to let go of what we have, to take hold of something better. In other words,

we must give up to go up!

 When we’re just starting out in life, the tradeoffs are relatively painless. Having barely established ourselves, it’s easy to part with our present situation so that we can pursue opportunities to expand our influence.

However, the higher we go, the tougher the trade-offs become. We get attached to what we’ve built and become invested in our successes. The more we have, the more averse we are to change. Ask any Director of a sinking bank why he is still there. It is difficult to let go of a comfort zone.

In starting today to make a new ending, I commend you for taking the first step by equipping yourself for the challenges ahead through your participation at TrepCamp, a program that seeks to sharpen your innovation and entrepreneurship acumen.

In order to reach your potential as a leader, you have to discover your passion and fully key into it. This may involve taking some risks and making some bold changes. It will certainly involve learning, unlearning and re-learning as we go along. In the past, we used to say that ‘the big fish will swallow the small fish’, today, it is the fast fish that eat the slow fish; UBER, Amazon, Alibaba and AirBnB have shown this.

It is amazing how we blossom once we discover and key into our passion. Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Barrack Obama, Kwame Nkrumah, Pele, Usain Bolt and many people you may have heard of, all achieved significance when they discovered their passion, left their comfort zones and made the necessary tradeoffs.

I will share with you the three major trade-offs I have had to make in trading up:

  1. Exchanging Affirmation for Accomplishment – I stopped being a people-pleaser. If you always say yes when you would rather say no, then you will find yourself unhappily going through the motions of living, giving control of your time, energy, and spirit to anyone who asks for it. Fundamentally, leadership involves serving others and adding value to them. However, the best way to do that is by proactively and strategically contributing your strengths, not by passively allowing others to dictate how you spend your time. Jose Mourinho, Diego Simone and Jurgen Klopp, for instance, may not be very popular coaches, but they have reputations for delivering.
  2. Exchanging Security for Significance – I changed my attitude toward uncertainty. Security can be tough to pass up. We like the certainty that comes with being in a stable job, making a steady income. Yet, significance usually calls for risk. It involves stepping away from familiar territory in order to explore new territories and expanding your influence, especially in today’s world where the internet, broadband and smartphone ubiquity have made erstwhile impossible business models, possible; Twitter, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook are taking full advantage of this
  3. .Trading Immediate Victory for Long Term Sustainability – I stopped measuring my performance solely in terms of immediate results. To excel as a leader, you have to change the timeframe in which you view success. If you measure your performance solely in terms of immediate results, then you run the risk of giving up when times are tough, as they are now in many emerging markets. Also, when you only concern yourself with present professional achievement, you tend to lose sight of the long term goal.

Quoting from William Shakespeare, “there is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures”. I believe that the challenges in our world today also offer ample opportunity to get ahead with creativity and innovation through solutions such as Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Machine learning, Blockchain and the likes.

In my personal experience the things we fear most in life are not necessarily our adversities but the fear of our anxieties and about what others might think. The secret formula for me was the 3 W’s that sustained me; Way Power (aptitude), Will Power (attitude) and Wait Power (patience).

 After reading ‘the magic of thinking big’ a bestseller by Brian Tracy, I created and lived by the following mantra “If dreams are free, why sell yourself short? Dream big and with perseverance, reach for the stars”

 As you step boldly into an era of new possibilities, I wish to encourage you with a quote from Pauline Kezer; “Continuity gives us roots; change gives us branches, letting us stretch and grow and reach new heights.”

 Graduands of TrepCamp NYU, you are now fully equipped. Nothing should hold you back. Go out there and leave your footprints in the sands of time

 Thank you and God bless you!

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