(Being a keynote address to the 2017 graduating class at FATE Foundation Annual Celebration)
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?
I believe that it is through entrepreneurship that we can accelerate job creation and national development.
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!
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 some sort of financial comfort. I wanted much more; 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.
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 on company.
I went on to become an Entrepreneur in Residence at Columbia Business School, and I am currently serving at the World Economic Forum, on the Innovation & Intrapreneurship Global Agenda Council. I also serve on the Advisory Board of the Global Business School Network (GBSN) headquartered in Washington DC, where I was chosen to moderate the keynote interview with the World Bank’s Chief Economist, Paul Romer in recognition of the contribution I am deemed to have made to the development of business education and knowledge transfer in Africa.
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 of 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).
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.
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 Fate Foundation, 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 to it. This may involve taking some risks and making some bold changes. It will certainly involve learning, unlearning and re-learning as you 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 eats the slow fish; UBER, Amazon, Alibaba and AirBnB have fully demonstrated this. Twenty years ago, none of them was on any corporate ranking list. Today, they dominate the top 10 in the Fortune 100 list.
There is no time better than now to seriously consider and undertake your own entrepreneurial journeys. The immense support systems available today cannot be overemphasized. There has emerged a horde of Millennials very much at home with technology and adventure; the perfect mix for entrepreneurship, who will have it no other way. My 16-year-old son, Omimi Okere is one of them.
Being a creative who wanted a niche site to display his works, he created Qontent, a platform for hosting creative works on the internet. He was named the winner in the software and design category of the last edition of the Nigerian top 25 under 25 Entrepreneurs Award. Today there are support systems such as crowdfunding and a trove of information on the internet that can generate innovative ideas for solving problems.
I am pleased to note that Emerging Markets, and indeed Africa are leading the charge on this score. MPESA in Kenya and Alibaba in China are perfect examples. Ant Financial, for example, a subsidiary of Alibaba is valued at $60b; same with Europe’s largest bank, UBS. Here in Nigeria, new Fintech such as Flutterwave, Paystack and indeed CWG are poster boys for Fintech.
Take, for instance, Diamond bank with 7m accounts after 23 years was able to add an additional 6m account in just one year after the launch of the Diamond Yello Account, Powered by CWG and MTN. The big gain for us is Financial Inclusion. While we have less 40% banking penetration, we have over 98% mobile penetration, making it possible to leapfrog with Mobile Banking. Typically, market women who are excluded from banking are not poor; they just do not have the time to waste queuing at banks, so we need to bring the bank to them on their phones.
It is amazing how we blossom once we discover and key into our passion. Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, 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 tradeoffs I have had to make in trading up:
- I exchanged Affirmation for Accomplishment – I stopped being a people-pleaser. I remember sitting beside John Maxwell on a flight from South Africa to Kenya. As I started to chat after introducing myself, he politely said he was busy. He only turned to chat after he finished his work. 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 friendly coaches, but they have reputations for delivering the goods
- I exchanged 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 risks. It involves stepping away from familiar territory in order to explore new territories, and expanding your influence.I exchanged 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 risks. It involves stepping away from familiar territory in order to explore new territories and expanding your influence.
- I traded Immediate Victory for Long-Term Sustainability – I stopped measuring my performance solely in terms of immediate results. To excel as a leader and an entrepreneur, you must 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. 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.
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; But we cannot ask God to direct our steps if we are not ready to move our feet. The secret formula for me was the 3 W’s that sustained me; Way Power (aptitude), Will Power (attitude) and Wait Power (patience).
In the course of my entrepreneurial journey, I have 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.”
Inside every seed is a tree. As Russ Fisher-Ives said, Nigeria is the best place to plant seeds for the next wave of African entrepreneurs. Graduates of Fate Foundation, 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!
Austin Okere is the Founder of CWG Plc, the largest ICT Company on the Nigerian Stock Exchange & Entrepreneur in Residence at CBS, New York. Austin also serves on the Advisory Board of the Global Business School Network, and on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Innovation and Intrapreneurship.
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