Across Africa, Tony Elumelu’s unstinting generosity is written in the hearts and minds of the people. National governments in Africa bear same record.
But the stylish banker is doing more than giving money these days. He’s opening up in a way few philanthropists and business owners do. His photocopier machine sales job story says more about resilience and grit. I found that in Philip Knight too. Knight is the founder of Nike, who wrote Shoe Dog, his memoir I recently read following a recommendation by Bill Gates.
Knight sees life clearly as a game. To him, whoever denies that truth, whoever refuses to play, gets left on the sidelines. He didn’t want that happen to him, so his crazy idea about running forever.
Shoe Dog, Knight’s memoir about creating Nike, answers the frequently asked question about what the path to business success really looks like: rough and rocky. His counsel is good too. He says you run, because the alternative, stopping, scares you to death.
In Elumelu’s case, the billionaire economist is telling honest tale of his rise from selling photocopier from one point to another as a young graduate to owning the most visible and arguably the largest bank in Africa, the United Bank for Africa.
In selling photocopier machine, Elumelu, who is the chair of Heirs Holdings, understands the power of knowing a product inside out.
“I mentioned that I started my career selling photocopy machines. I learned something key from this and that is that you must know your product in order to be able to sell it. We used to take the machines apart and put them back together and so we knew them inside out and of course that translated into our sales success. This applies to every job, you must be knowledgeable about your product so you can sell it properly. No knowledge gained is lost,” Elumelu says.
Behind Elumelu’s story is a compelling message for entrepreneurs: knowledge is very important for success.
And this, I see in Elumelu and Knight’s stories uncanny desire to succeed at all cost with one connection: insight.
Now, I have met Elumelu a few times over the years, we’ve exchanged telephone calls, we even flew together in his private jet, when he responded to national service as a member of the Presidential Committee on Flood Relief and Rehabilitation for the 2012 flood victims in Nigeria, and I can tell of his exceptional humility, another common factor between him and Knight.
Yes, I’ve got wind of Elumelu’s book coming out soon, and I want leaders in government and business to get ready. I have no idea what Tony is cooking, but I’m confident that the book will be one that captures models for business, philanthropy and governance. Elumelu has his hands in all of those, and he has succeeded.
From Rwanda to Ghana, Gambia to Zambia, Uganda to Liberia, Congo to Congo and Nigeria to Tanzania, Elumelu’s fingerprint is everywhere.
In the global race for innovation, Elumelu, unlike others in his ilk on the continent, knows that innovation-based economy is what will make Africa fulfill its potential, so he’s doing everything to assemble innovative minds for that change.
More seriously, the government concentration on wage economy has not changed the tradition of labor rift on the continent.
At best, entrepreneurship idea by governments in Africa has been a humpty-dumpty. That is where the headache lies. It is simply good-for-nothing. In most cases, programs to reduce youth unemployment are implemented poorly and a huge sum of money in governments’ budget to turn the tide disappears every year.
Taken together, innovation is critical to the creation of high-quality, high-wage, sustainable jobs and economic growth, which, in turn, support the rapid progress of any nation.
This transition is what has been the preoccupation of Elumelu in recent years and that’s why his model for the development of Africa is receiving the attention.
Assuredly, the billionaire’s 100-meter dash nowadays has been about how to make Africa great in the real sense of the word beyond its leaders’ rhetoric.
After releasing $100 million from his fortune to provide seed grant to 1000 proto-entrepreneurs every year, Elumelu has been making endowments to programs that can help realise his dream for Africa.
No measure is perfect, but the strength of Elumelu’s approach provides insight into some fascinating questions. What kind of youth unemployment program is desirable for Africa, a continent where the word “potential” has almost become a customized word?
On the global table for inventions, Africans working on the continent are mentioned in ridicule, because the products of their inventions are not innovative enough to get off the ground or compete favorably.
Ultimately, innovation-based economy is what Africa needs to move from its “potential” position to producer level and that’s what I think Elumelu has been spending his time and fortune doing in recent years.
Elumelu is putting his money where his mouth is and his interest in seeing the Africa rising narrative beyond the statistics is what I think remains the force behind his extraordinary quest for entrepreneurial skills in Africa.
With a made-in-Nigeria story that is motivating for any young entrepreneur, Elumelu, who became the youngest bank CEO in Nigeria’s history at the age of 34, is undoubtedly creating a shift in mindset— economically and politically.
As someone who likes to understand motives behind every story, I’m not fascinated by many “how to make it” stories told by businessmen, but the stories of Elumelu and Knight cut through my heart.
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