Through public/private partnership, Segun executed the turn-around of Operation HOPE’s Banking on our Future financial education program in Washington, DC — a 300-person volunteer organization that now trains over 5,000 students each year. Segun has always been a part of successfully bringing new organizations to life. While in D.C. he also served on the founding board of the Greater Washington Jump$tart Coalition; a group devoted to the collaborative effort of making every young person in D.C. financially literate. Currently, he is once again leveraging his visionary focus, strategic thinking, and relational capital as Head of Leadership at the African Leadership Academy, a ground-breaking institution that seeks to produce transformative leaders who will bring peace and prosperity to Africa–in our time. In this interview with Ebube Okechukwu, Segun speaks extensively on entrepreneurship and his role at the African Leadership Academy.
Tell us about your background and factors that affected your rise.
My background is quite varied. I actually studied business administration at university. But it was while taking a course on the impact of globalization that I discovered my interest in the social responsibility sector. I never before realized that I could combine my burgeoning business acumen with my heart to help others, but that course showed me there were many ways to meld the two together. After school I earned a fellowship with Campus Crusade for Christ International as a fundraiser. Immediately after, I decided to enter banking and pursue my hard skills in that arena. After two years as a commercial banker in the DC metropolitan market, I realized that I wanted to offer more to my clients. Eventually, I joined a start-up non-profit called the Institute for Responsible Citizenship. There I served as donor relations manager, but, more importantly to me, I was able to mentor young men as part of our leadership program. Not long after that I moved to Operation Hope to spearhead their financial literacy and CSR focused initiatives with the financial industry. I built partnerships with major banks like Citi, Bank of America, as well as the likes of Fannie Mae. However, I knew I wanted to work with youth more systematically and I knew I wanted to be on the continent, so I jumped at the opportunity to join the freshly minted African Leadership Academy.
What ignited the spark in you to start doing what you do at the ALA and entrepreneurship generally?
My work at ALA was sparked by my time at the Institute and Operation Hope. It was at Hope that I began to realize the potential for youths to be entrepreneurial, but it was the Institute that sparked my passion for sustained, systemic youth education and mentorship. However, my passion for the continent goes as far back as the days when my parents took us out of Nigeria. I always say “I didn’t have a choice then, but I do now…” To me Africa, and ultimately Nigeria, are the lands of opportunity. There is no greater place to invest ones talent, treasure and time.
How did you conquer those moments of doubt that so often stifle so many entrepreneurs with great ideas…what pushed you through?
At times I feel being an intrapreneur (an entrepreneur who works within an already existing entity), can be even more challenging. You are literally building the plane as it is flying. That’s what we did with the Entrepreneurial Leadership program at ALA.
Some of the greatest moments of doubt came from colleagues who didn’t believe the program deserved equal footing with other academic subjects or that just didn’t believe leadership could be taught. When we decided to combine entrepreneurship with leadership, many said it shouldn’t be done. But throughout all this what motivated me was a clear sense of purpose, of truly developing leaders who could bring peace and prosperity to the continent in our lifetime. When the vision is that clear and the stakes that high, the courage to push for change comes.
Where did your organizations funding/capital come from and how did you go about getting it? How did you obtain investors for your venture?
Our organization purely is predominantly donor funded and the rest earned income. One of our personal aims, however, is to grow the engagement of African corporates and individuals who invest philanthropically. There are simply just not enough. If we want African solutions by Africans, then Africans must give! That’s why institutionally we are adopting innovations like stakeholder/investor calls and annual reports
Can you tell us a little about the Anzisha Accelerator Bootcamp you currently lead?
The Anzisha Accelerator Bootcamp is something I had the privilege of leading this year. It is an intense two-week accelerator for the brightest young African entrepreneurs between the ages of 16 and 22. After selecting 12 finalists from across the continent they partake in a residential experience on the ALA campus where we focus on three core outcomes: 1) Providing them knowledge and tools to be even better at their ventures, 2) to help them understand and tell their story to the world, and 3) inculcate them into the ALA family and network.
Do you believe there was some sort of pattern or formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur?
Well formulas rarely work or work for long in life, so I’m not sure there’s one, but what we do believe is this: there is successful framework for creating positive change – we call it the BUILD process. It’s something we developed in-house borrowing from the gurus of design thinking at IDEO. This process has been tried and proven with our students, and they are proving it works based on the numerous programs and projects they have created in their communities to date. (Reference the ALA Annual Report)
Which opportunities should entrepreneurs follow; what pitfalls would should be avoided?
One of the things I love about our curriculum here is that we don’t push a one-sized fits all approach. As entrepreneurs and as leaders, I believe we are all gifted with a unique arrangement of passions, interests, causes and strengths (PICS). It is in the overlap of these areas of our lives that we can often find the best opportunities that we are respectively suited for. Relatedly, I think one of the biggest pitfalls we can fall into is that of the small pie mentality. It’s a mindset that there is only a limited pie and that for me to succeed I must take a piece of the pie from someone else. This often means we never take time to collaborate, to celebrate others, or to grow the pie.
To what do you attribute your success and what you feel are key elements for starting and running a successful business?
I attribute my success to a great team of people who came before me and then later who surrounded me. Their passion and presence day-in and day-out allowed us to pursue the purpose that was so clearly defined by the vision and values of the institution. To me without those three Ps (purpose, passion and presence) our impact is short-lived and we inevitably get stuck in the mire of comparing ourselves to others rather than running our own race to be great.
Are there personal projects you have started (or hoping to start) to encourage other young leaders or entrepreneurs?
I’m working on several projects some individually and others with a team. The most immediate project is building a 21stcentury, world-class educator training program for ALA, and its sister organization ALU, and eventually for teachers across the continent. When I’m not on campus, I invest my time developing leadership amongst executives as an executive coach and leadership trainer. That work has taking me to Ghana several times this past year, and I hope to uncover some opportunities in Nigeria in the year to come.
What could you really say would make an African youth stand out in the global community?
I would argue that African youth are increasingly more valuable on the continent than anywhere else in the world. The statistics are staggering; according to most by 2050 we will have the largest work force in the world. Multinationals are coming to us eager to find competent, teachable, problem solvers who have local language, culture and work status. Again the future is right here on the continent. How prepared are you to be competent, teachable and a problem solver.