Why I am investing in my first female-founded African startup- We are TORA!

So, I recently made my 17th angel investment in an African startup, but it’s arguably one of the most interesting ones I have made.

Firstly, it’s probably the first female-founded, female-led startup I have invested in. But it gets even more interesting.

My investment thesis has always been founders first. Identifying passionate, committed entrepreneurs who have a dream and who have integrity. It is one thing that has never failed me.

Even when it doesn’t provide financial returns in the short run, it provides ‘people’ returns in the long run as you never go wrong betting on adding value to people.

It doesn’t mean the entrepreneur is perfect. No, far from it, most times it’s even the imperfections that drive their passion. What it means is that they are honest and will give this their best shot. It also means they are willing to be teachable!

That sounds very cliché but it is almost the most important thing at the very early stages when you don’t have enough data to justify your gut decisions. Every early stage entrepreneur is going to struggle, but if they have integrity, and are willing to ask for help and to take help, then even if the business doesn’t succeed, the entrepreneur will succeed.

But beyond the entrepreneur and their team is also the idea, its scale, and its potential impact. In this realm, I have never been about just a pure apps or marketplace investor. I like people at the center of my companies. I like companies solving real problems such that even before I get financial returns, I get feel good returns. It’s even more fulfilling if the product is human capacity development and that is why companies like Andela are a no-brainer.

And if I may be allowed to use that phrase– it is one of the reasons why I made this recent pre-seed investment in the ‘Andela for Drivers’ – which TORA Africa is.

TORA Africa is an academy that recruits, trains, verifies, insures and provides background-checked drivers for individuals and businesses. Basically, it recruits and trains drivers for deployment to individuals and companies who need them.

Whether as individual car drivers, Okada riders, fleet owners, truck drivers, we are always complaining about drivers, their lack of training, attitude, and myriads of other issues. Well, TORA is here to help solve that. We are big on training and retraining of drivers to meet 21st century driving standards.

While this is not about coding or artificial intelligence or any of these new things you usually see me posting about, it is about erasing the concept of mediocrity in every profession as my late mentor Pius Adesanmi would have put it.

This is about showing that being a driver should not make you subhuman or deny you of health insurance or turn you into a menace on the roads. And every trained driver/rider who makes the road safer because of TORA is a win for us.

It is about realizing that a driver can be more about just driving. You can learn new skills that turn you into a logistics executive or a PA in addition to your driving skills.

And that leads me to the third point, which is about my interest in the informal sector which makes up the greater population across Africa, especially the population that is at least secondary school educated but lacking opportunities in the economy.

The International Labour Organization estimates that more than 66% of total employment in Sub-Saharan African is in the informal sector.

And according to the Center for Global Development in a recent report, “The informal sector has been the main driver of employment growth in Africa for decades, absorbing rising urban populations. While this sector is unproductive and lacks employee protections, we need to recognize that realistically, it’s where Africa’s youth bulge is going to find their livelihoods.”

So the goal here is to see how  technology-enabled platforms like TORA  might make this type of informal gigs more productive and of a better quality for workers themselves, hence accommodating the progressive inclusion of informal enterprise in the formal economy to generate value for all parties.

While TORA is starting with drivers, my hope is that with time it extends to other aspects of the informal economy.

Still very early days, but I am excited about what the team led by Roseline ,Ized, and Charles are trying to do around formalizing this sector, and enhancing people’s skills. I am therefore excited to welcome them to my portfolio and the extended Wennovation Family!

So if you need a job, you can drive (or are willing to learn), you want to be a driver/rider, you understand that TORA Africa will negotiate the best pay for you, including insurance and HMO, are willing to undergo thorough background checks and provide reliable guarantors, then check the team out on Twitter  @toraafrica  or Facebook

Hello Africa, We are TORA!

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Afropreneur in Tunis – The Tech Tourist (Work & Play) Edition

So this past month,  I finally took up a pending invitation to visit Tunis, ostensibly to attend the 3rd Demo Day of the Flat6Labs Tunis accelerator, but also to connect and engage with the local ecosystem, as part of our Afropreneurs Fund’s North Africa strategy.

While I had visited Morocco a few years earlier, and spent lots of time in Egypt over the past few years, Tunisia (Ifriqiyya) was a country I knew little about, either from a tech ecosystem point of view or even as an avowed tourist.

Arriving in Tunis

I landed at the Tunis Carthage International Airport on a Wednesday morning. While it wasn’t an impressive airport in terms of size or structure (compared to the Cairo airport, it did look like a small regional or local airport), it made up for what it lacked in size, with the ease with which I passed Immigration Control, exchanged some money into the local currency, got a free sim card from the Orange kiosk and loaded 2Gb of data on it,  and got out of the airport. It did help though that I didn’t check in any luggage.

No Uber, No Careem!

Disappointingly, there is a stark absence of ride-sharing companies in Tunis. No Uber, and not even the Careem I had grown to enjoy as an alternative in my travels across North Africa and the GCC region. My friend Kyane, who had facilitated the trip had told me to just hop into one of the airport yellow taxis and insist the driver turns on his ‘adad’ (meter). He advised the cost from the airport (which is surprisingly in the middle of the town) to my hotel shouldn’t exceed about 6-10 dinars ( about 2-3 USD).

However, I tried three different yellow cabs, and they refused to use meters, so I had to take one, and on the assumption that I was Ivorien or Malian, he engaged me in French all the way to the hotel, while I just nodded blankly. We arrived the hotel, and the guy insisted on collecting 20 dinars, and I refused, and gave him 10 dinars. It took the intervention of the hotel concierge before I agreed to pay him the balance.

(Side note- while French was actually a compulsory language in junior secondary school in Nigeria while I was growing up, we never took it serious as it sounded quite funny and musical to our ears. We liked the way the usually pretty French teachers pronounced ‘encore’ and ‘repete’, and all I took away from three years of French beyond it being the only red spot on my termly report cards- was Bonjour, Bonsoir, Viens, Je mapelle, Monsieur and Madame).

I had been booked at the 5-star Hotel Laico Tunis in the downtown district and just off the intersection of Avenue Mohamed V and  Avenue du Ghana. While I wasn’t disappointed by the hotel in both its imposing edifice and the comforts it promised to offer, I knew I didn’t have lots of time to indulge as I had a very busy schedule lined up.

Work-space or Hotel?

Very soon I was off to my first set of meetings at Cogite Coworking Space (heart of the ecosystem, equivalent to Egypt’s Greek campus, but much smaller).  Had great discussions with Afef and got an overview of the space which is quite centrally located. I wasn’t surprised to hear it had won awards for best working space several times, with the beautiful indoors, and even the garden outside which had, wait for it, a swimming pool! The work space hosted quite a variety of folks from developers to journalists. Interesting to hear over 40% of the hub members are female.

I also liked this nice outdoor space constructed by one of their startups-Prefabulous.

Outdoor Unit built by Prefabulous

Thank you Afef and team for a good tour.

 

Lunch time came, and I stopped by one of the outdoor restaurants nearby, to order some hot chocolate and pastries.  The lady rambled on and on in French while I looked on like Dundee United before I suddenly remembered that Tunisia was supposed to be a dual-language country, and I had indeed seen several signs in both Arabic and French.

So I replied her back in passable Arabic , but she replied back in French again, until I was forced to say ‘Je ne parles pas francais’ or what I hope sounded close to that, at which point she now started responding in Arabic. I was like, Aunty, where did you leave that one before?

Anyways, that was when the realization occurred  to me that she, like many Tunisians, probably thought most black folks spoke French (as most black people in Tunis I was to learn, were from Ivory Coast as they didn’t require a visa to enter the country) and also, they used French and Arabic interchangeably. By the way hot chocolate here isn’t the usual plenty of milk with a smattering of chocolate, it is truly cocoa with just some milk. It was so thick and bitter I couldn’t finish it!

Demo Day

Very soon I was off to the main event I was in town for, the Flat6Labs Demo Day, which was holding at the Acropolium of Carthage. The Acropolium, also known as Saint Louis Cathedral , is a Roman Catholic church located in Carthage, Tunisia and completed in 1880. The cathedral sits on the peak of Byrsa Hill, near the ruins of the ancient Punic and then Roman city.  Since 1993, the cathedral has been known as the “Acropolium”. It is no longer used for worship, but instead hosts public events or concerts of Tunisian music and classical music.

For history buffs, the Carthage (Arabic: قرطاج‎, Qarṭāj) dates back to first millennium BC and the legendary Queen Dido who is regarded as the founder of the city, having been granted by the local tribe to purchase an amount of land that could be covered by an oxhide.  Smart woman, she cut the ox skin into strips, she laid out her claim and founded an empire that would become, through the Punic Wars, the only existential threat to Rome until the coming of the Vandals several centuries later. Ok that’s enough, this is not an history class! Google Hannibal if you like history though!

Back to the Demo Day, it was an awesomely attended event, and I probably met about 90% of the ecosystem at that single event, which was well executed. Startups that demo-ed included MooMe, a system and platform designed to help farmers improve the fertility and health of their livestock, Seemba, a solution to help mobile game developers to monetize, TIRA Robots focused on creating industrial robots for industry, Fabskill , an online recruitment management platform, Boostiny, Grabingo, and eRobot.

When you realize  that compared to Nigeria’s 180 million population, Tunisia is about 12 million people, and Tunis has about two million people for Lagos’ fifteen million people, I was pleasantly surprised by the size of the crowd that filled the hall. As one of the stakeholders told me, ‘we are a very small ecosystem, so the only way to thrive is to work closely with each other and support each other’. Big Lessons there!

Side Note: During the demo day, one of the key stats celebrated was the growth of investment into the startup sector in 2018 to $20m. This seemed small coming from Nigeria, where a single portfolio company of ours had done just that last year but I was later to understand why this was so.

Demo Day over, my host took me to experience fresh fish and some Tunisian salad at the La Goulette area just by the Lake of Tunis before I called it a day!

 

A New Day!

Next day, I was off for my morning meetings and tour of B@tlabs.  I missed breakfast and made a mental note to myself to stop booking breakfast along with my hotels as more often than not, I usually don’t feel like going for breakfast especially when traveling alone.

B@tLabs  is an incubator launched by Tunisia’s leading private bank, Banque Internationale Arabe de Tunisie (BIAT) and is prominently located on probably the most famous street in Tunis- Avenue- Habib Bourguiba- which is the central thoroughfare of Tunis, and the historical political and economic heart of Tunisia. It bears the name of the first President of the Republic of Tunisia and the national leader of the Tunisian independence movement, and actually has his statue there too.

It is lined up with shops and cafes on both sides similar to the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and its extension, the Avenue de France, Place de l’Indépendance marking the central roundabout with Lake of Tunis at the eastern end. Many of the important monuments are located along this avenue, including Cathedral of St. Vincent de Paul, French Embassy in Tunisia and Théâtre municipal de Tunis. During the protests of 2011, many demonstrations calling for the downfall of President Ben Ali and that of the national unity government were held on the avenue. 

Lunch off the Beaten Bath!

After  a tour and discussion, the CEO, Nooman Fehri  (who was ex-Minister of ICT after the revolution and credited with creating the Startup Act and driving the growth)  who is widely known and respected in the ecosystem took me off the usual path to partake in some authentic local cuisine, deep into the Medina, at what is apparently a world-famous local restaurant- Khairi Restaurant- which has no signboards but surprisingly has an active Facebook page. He mentioned that this is one place where you can run into a cleaner and a bank owner at the same table. The food was out of this world and the owner excellent! #Khairi #Burghul #Couscous #Octopus

The Rest of the Ecosystem

That same afternoon I was privileged to also visit with several key actors in the local ecosystem including Khaled ben Jilani of AfricInvest who I had met last year at an E&Y  venture capital event in Luxembourg. I also met with Zakaria Belkhoja , the astute CFO of Meninx Holdings,  a family controlled investment company managing a diversified portfolio  across various sectors and the brain behind the growing startup scene here through Le15, and also involved in revitalizing the downtown area.  Meninx hosts Flat6Labs Tunis in its beautiful building located at the intersection of the tram, train, and bus terminals.

And that was the end of a very busy day. Well almost, except that around midnight I was feeling hungry and went into the streets to get some really delicious shawarma from the late night street vendors!

TGIF!

Friday was another busy day  of meetings and visits,  kicking off with the very young, but super-smart Haythem Mehouachi, CEO of Diva Sicar, the investment team managing the government’s Fund of Funds for startups. He is also a member of the Task Force in charge of the Startup Act, the bill recently passed in the Assembly, and of Startup Tunisia, the national initiative that “works to make Tunisia a nation of Startups at the crossroads of the southern shores of the Mediterranean, the MENA region and the Africa”.

I thereafter visited Flat6Labs Tunis for a tour and presentation by about ten of their startups . In addition to the Startup pitches from the demo-day, others  included Chantier , a Home Remodeling platform, and WattNow,  which I found quite similar to  Nigeria’s Solstice Energy and Kenya’s Modularity Grid

Another interesting meeting was with Mahdi Njim of Intilaq ,Tunisia’s main VC, which is a partnership between Microsoft, Ooredoo, and Qatar Friendship Fund.  Probably the the most active VC/accelerator in Tunisia (with over 26 investments in the last 4 years), it strictly focuses on B2B firms. I got pitched on five of their top startups ;Datavora, a web scale E-Commerce monitor for B2C actors, Symmetryk, a sales enablement platform for pharma laboratories, Roam Smart, a leading provider of innovative Roaming and Big Data Solutions to mobile operators, Ezzayra, focused on Agtech, AgRobotics, and Polysmart , a very hot gaming startup.

On the way home, I stopped by at another gaming startup, DigitalMania which has a new VR-based  team building game , and at Go My Code, one of the exciting coding schools in the region founded by a 21 year old geek.

 

Its a good day that ends on a foodful note!

Well after my last meeting on Friday, I couldn’t wait for the weekend to come fast enough to explore some of the other sides of Tunis. So kicking off Friday night, I had Kyane take me to some other less fancy parts of town to eat .

 

Key Takeaways from the Tech Tourism

Before I jump to how I spent the weekend sightseeing, here are some key takeaways from my conversations with stakeholders in the ecosystem.

  1.  The focus here is largely on deep tech because they have a small population and B2C is tough, hence more companies do B2B. Also the talent is plenty, strong (good educational systems grounded in math and science) and cheap as there aren’t that many multinationals to soak up the talent or pay good salaries (the exchange rate is $1-3 TDNR, so in naira terms the salaries may still be high though). Also, most design and manufacture for their startups is done locally and quite cost-competitive even compared to China.

  2. I got insights into why the amount of funding into the Tunisian ecosystem is low (only $20m last year as compared to $160m in Nigeria)- because some of the funding goes into Tunisian nationals who decide to establish in France (and hence get captured as France funding) and also because the local/surrounding market is small, so the entrepreneurs stretch the seed funds a long way (talent is cheap) and the goal is usually not to sell the company at high valuations as happens with B2C but really to sell the technology or be acquired by bigger companies in US and Europe as acqu-hires.

  3. Apparently, Tunisia has the strongest mathematics-based functional public education system in Africa, and this is creating lots of developers and engineers. Learned Tunisia currently tops Africa in number of published research annually, and has over 70 functioning research institutes and 30 technology transfer offices.

  4. Of 137 countries in 2018 ranked on the Global Entrepreneurship Index (GEI), which measures the “quality and dynamics of entrepreneurship ecosystems at a national and regional level” , Tunisia ranked 40th overall, sixth in the Middle East and North Africa region and first in Africa.

 

Here Comes the Weekend!

Saturday morning we went to the Lac area, where I ‘borrowed’ a bike to take a long ride along the beach, before heading to El Marsa, the old summer capital of pre-colonial Tunisia, which is where the upper class seem to live, and is today a popular vacation spot for many wealthy Tunisians. It is connected to Tunis by the railway and a nice road with good views.

And because tourism is never complete without good food, we went for a nice lunch at the Le Safsaf restaurant.

Who visits Tunisia without going to Sidi Bou Said?

Thereafter I visited ‘Sidi Bou Said’ which everyone had mentioned I needed to visit. Its really a small old French village painted mostly in blue and white on the shores of the ocean. Named for a religious figure who lived there, Abu Said al-Baji, it was previously called Jabal el-Menar.

Practiced some haggling and negotiation tactics at the tourist market cutting off almost 50% on the stated prices of my purchases.

Later that evening I met my first Nigerian in Tunis (who runs a thriving hair salon along with his wife) in the El-Aouina area (pronounced Lawina by the Africans I met) and he invited me to join their weekly Nigerians In Diaspora Organization (NIDO) football practice the next day.

Le Medina- the heart of Tunis

So Sunday came and I spent the morning doing a mini-tour of  Habib Bourghuiba Ave and Le Medina again, especially the 7 famous mosques as seen from the roof of one of the tallest buildings.

Le Medina has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979 and is said to contain some hundreds of  monuments, including palaces, mosques, mausoleums, madrasas and fountains dating from the Almohad and the Hafsid periods. Founded in 698 around the original core of the Zitouna Mosque, the Medina of Tunis developed throughout the Middle Ages.

Sunday Soccer

Took a taxi to Danfaddal to join the soccer practice, and this is how I summarized the experience in pidgin!

As our people dey talk so golden fish no got hide. Na im naija embassy hear say ah dey town na so dem carry me follow play Sunday football with NIDO Tunisia. As I no fit tell dem say I no dey form after all di couscous I don consume dis week na im ah tell dem say I no carry kit come.

Dem say e no matter, make ah leave matter for Mathias and sabi for Sabinus make ah do goalkeeper.

As say when monkey sef see tree wey near tree, he go dey wan show himself, na im me too come dey jump up and down dey try catch ball.

Five minutes never pass sef before I dey see di kain shot the boys dey faya come realize say na professional boys wey get stuck for Tunisia on the way to Europe na im dem carry me come play, no be the small area boys wey Suraj dey follow play for him area.

Anyways as dem fire one ball bend ma hand na him one man wey see as my face strong kara Kara come realize say because agama lizard dey nod head no mean say everything dey OK, na him he con borrow me brain make ah no dey try catch all the balls o.

As per say na fly wey no get special adviser na im dey follow dead bodi enta grave, na im me too don come dey use Cava and bien take style dodge ball until game over. Shukran lillahi. Merci beacoup. Koku Baboni!”

Had my first spicy meal of grilled fish and plantain (dodo) at an Ivorien restaurant, and I was officially done.

Au revoir Tunis!

Parting Thoughts…

One other takeaway from my trip is that what resonated  in discussions with ecosystem stakeholders was not even our slides (which I didn’t get a chance to present sometimes, and had to hurry through a few times) but our story.

 Every time, everyone connected with our story as LoftyInc founders who returned home from living abroad to launch one of Nigeria’s first tech innovation hubs, Wennovation Hub. To sustain that financially, we leveraged local and diaspora talent to build a strong professional practice around innovation advisory and project implementation for corporates, international agencies and the public sector.

 This also enabled WeHub to expand the hubs from one to four cities. We then leveraged diaspora networks to raise an angel fund, which has achieved 15x returns with success stories including Andela and Flutterwave, raising $220M from top follow-on investors, many from Silicon Valley.  With support from our Silicon Valley-area based long time advisor,  we are now launching a new, larger VC fund- The LoftyInc Afropreneurs Fund– to accommodate our robust deal flow from diaspora returning and from local entrepreneurs remaining home. Our Afropreneurs are passionate about solving big problems for vast populations by leveraging low-cost, scalable platforms.

Join Us!

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An Evening with John Doerr- Why He is Betting on AI and Amazon!

This past Tuesday, I had the honor of attending a talk and spending some time with John Doerr, astute American Investor and venture capitalist who was an early investor in tech giants such as Google, Amazon, Twitter, Compaq, Netscape, Sun and many others.

 

I have been following John for a while, wrote about him for a term paper in business school, and also spoke about him in an interview I did with BellaNaija in 2012, (https://www.bellanaija.com/…/man-on-a-mission-idris-ayodej…/) where I quoted his approach to venture selection thus;

“In today’s world, there is plenty of money, plenty of venture capital, plenty of technology. What’s in short supply are great teams. Not just great people, but great teams. You guys are going to see huge opportunities, but to be able to take advantage of them; your greatest challenge will be building teams” …” Most startup teams think we evaluate them based on the technology or product. But in reality, we are always thinking about the team members. Who are they? How will they work together? So, I usually ask them questions like; what will you do when something or someone is not working out? With their answers, you can quickly get feelers about the values, health and instincts of the team.”

Anyways back to last week, John had come to Rice University where he obtained his EE degree back in the 70s to speak to fellow alum about his new book; “Measure What Matters, a book about goal-setting”

A few titbits from the talk below. I strongly advise you buy the book, it is an amazing read! It reveals how the goal-setting system of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) has helped tech giants from Intel to Google achieve explosive growth—and how it can help any organization thrive.

1. Talking about the need for metrics; if it doesn’t have a number, it is not a key result. Spoke extensively of the effect that Andy Grove had on him at Intel and even shared a few old videos of Andy teaching OKRs.

2. When you have the right people and the right goals, the magic is just around the corner.

3. Amazon is not an e-commerce company, it is a large data set with some stores attached to it.

4. In 2017 for the first time, more money was spent on online ads than was spent on TV ads

5. Short story of how he convinced Steve Jobs to open up the Appstore to others and set up the iFund to fund apps development for the iPhone/iPad

6.Tech tsunamis happen in 13- year cycles; there seem to be tectonic waves of innovation that cause exponential change and interestingly, every 13 years or so.

In the 1980s it was the microchip and the PC. From 1980 where we had Microsoft, and Intel, and Lotus, and Compaq, and all those companies, through about ’93

Then 18 year old kid Mark Andreessen wrote a browser at the University of Illinois and that launched the internet revolution, From ’94, for 13 years, until 2006 to 2007, the internet revolution, Amazon, Google, all those companies, what happened then?

In 2006 Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone 1 with no app store. He did not want his phone polluted with the applications of third parties and Dianne Greene launched VMware with cloud computer. We got mobility and cloud computing at the same time, monster effect on productivity, education, and entertainment, our markets how we live and
communicate.

John thinks AI/Machine learning, and particularly its application to healthcare and other sectors is the next wave which will birth the new tech giants! So, I guess we can watch out for Amazon Health or someone else in that space!

7. China may win the AI race unless the USA changes its attitude towards R&D, and Immigration

8. Batteries are the microprocessors of the renewable era.

9. John expects to see major breakthroughs in the area of autonomous vehicles.

10. John also spoke about his failures, one of the major ones which is Segway-which he had forecasted to be the fastest company to get to the billion dollar mark. In hindsight he believes the product was over-engineered and missed the cost mark among other reasons.

11. In response to a question about a founder who lacks the ability to lead, he advised on holding honest conversations with the entrepreneur, and spoke about how they brought in Eric to lead at Google while Larry matured, and then Larry went back to being CEO.

12. There are very few problems in the world that cannot be addressed by better leadership!

13. Ideas are easy. Execution is everything, and for most endeavors, it takes a team to win!

14. He is funding the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University and hopes that in a decade, Rice is known as the finest university producing the greatest leaders in the world.

15.John spoke about how he didn’t inherit any money from his father. Rather his dad said to him; “I am going to give to you, something no one can take away from you-fine education”

16.In response to the question about how Houston can become a major tech hub, John emphasized the role of great universities. Every important tech hub is clustered around great universities, supportive angels, and role model entrepreneurs. Is your university doing enough?

17. For John’s Ted Talk and other stories about OKRs, check outhttps://www.whatmatters.com/

I also got lucky to be one of the two people that John took questions from. My question was on how folks like John could engage with the African continent beyond the usual lens of aid and philanthropy. He responded on how there needs to be more investments into the continent and also how the world needs to rally towards solving the climate change issue as the consequences are going to be disproportionately felt by those in Africa and the rest of the developing world!

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One of the reasons I don’t honour lots of speaking engagements in Nigeria is the hassle of road travel

 

27750358_10215581427032554_2833090469303394592_nSpent over 2 hours stuck around Sango road this morning due to a combination of very bad roads, yesterday’s rain and Dangote’s trucks. ( I am sure if Dangote’s trucks were removed from the roads for just a single day, there would be a significant decline in accidents. The number of his trucks I saw in accidents or very bad conditions on that road was too much)

And I dont care if that road is Federal, State or Local, no human being should be subjected to having to pass through that road more than once in a life time. It’s that horrible!

Anyways I got to Ilaro town and the place looked a lot different from 2000 when I was last there, some good, some bad. The sense of nostalgia was overwhelming with almost every place I saw brought back memories of ‘good’ escapades.

I was impressed by the transformation on campus and the movement of the main school to what we called the Engineering Complex then.

It was heartwarming seeing the very cordial exchanges between the student leaders and the young Rector ( Arch Aluko- used to know him then as a very young lecturer, but he looks much older now). I was impressed by the very open and jovial (but firm) way he engaged the student leadership on issues affecting them.

There was none of that Nigerian chief executive gragra-none of that constituted authority stuff. Where he differed with the students, he refuted their stance with logic and superior examples.

Last time I saw something similar was when I was an officer of the Students Union at Oxford and had regular interactions with the school authorities on student issues. Young people feel a sense of leadership and reciprocate respect (usually) when treated as adults.

I enjoyed engaging with the students on the topic of leadership, especially in a rapidly changing world, where old platforms are crumbling and new platforms defying age, geography and the old norms are rising by day. I had a good back and forth with them.

Seems like yesterday when I was sitting on the other side as a student at Ilaro myself. Thanks to my Mr Mugsit Yusuf for facilitating the invite.

Took some time to visit old haunts like the Staff Nursery and Primary School I attended (hadn’t changed much) and left almost 30 years ago (man don dey old o), the house we lived back then (Flat 6B) next to the Abibus, Egbeyemis, Aregbes, Olufowobi and a whole lot of others.

I was about to leave town when I was invited to sample some local cuisine of amala and ewedu with the usual assortments.

I was going to say No,so that people on Facebook don’t start thinking I like food. But then I remembered what I went through on the road in the morning , and felt I deserved a small reward. Or what do you think?

Excerpts from my talk;

“Greatest Nigerian Students!

Permit me to stand on all existing protocol.

Good morning all.

My name is Idris Ayodeji Bello and I am pleased to be here today for a number of reasons.

1. While this is my first time back in Ilaro in 18 years- since 2000 , it is also the place where I spent the first 18 years of my life, where I learned to speak, to walk, I attended nursery and primary school within these polytechnic walls, started secondary school in this town and came back for my OND here, so it is truly heartwarming to be back.

2. Also it is an honour being here at the invitation of those I would consider my fathers, mothers, uncles and aunts, most of who probably saw me running around in my underwear as a toddler. So no matter what I might have achieved today and what I say here today, I am sure all they see is that little kid-Ayo Bello -or Bello Bello as some used to make fun of me back then.

3. I am especially delighted to have the opportunity to address the student leaders- who I call our leaders of today-I say leaders of today, because in Nigeria -if you call yourselves leaders of tomorrow-that tomorrow never comes-as we have seen in the political space.

Let me start this talk by telling you about my own leadership journey which began in 1996 on this campus sitting where you are now…….”

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This is Lagos!

You start the day unusually very early only to get stuck for an hour on the third mainland bridge.

You barely make it in time for your meeting to pitch the Afropreneurs Fund to an institutional investor.

You come out of your meeting to find out your driver has bashed the new car of one Lagos babe that cannot be pacified until you do the needful.

As you approach your melting point, you suddenly remember that you are close to Marina which is home to some of the best tension-defusing, inspirational offerings the continent has got to offer in the face of everyday challenges.

Half an hour later, your forehead is overtaken with sweat while your shirt has a few colored spots, but you have been reset by lafun to factory-settings and ready once again to take on all the mosquitoes, traffic, car bumps, rechargeable fans and everything else Nigeria has to throw at your hustle.

When Lagos shows you pepper, you make pepper soup out of it!

#ThisIsLagos#WeAreAfropreneurs

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As another year rolls by…

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As another year rolls by, it is tempting to remember the missed opportunities, the rejected proposals, the unmet goals, and the many things that didn’t go according to plan this year.

However, that would be losing sight of the important gifts that one has been lucky to be blessed with.

The gift of life in a year when many friends, associates and mentors passed on.

The gift of good health and protection even amidst near misses.

The gift of iman/faith even if it is in a weakened state.

The gift of parents whose guiding light remains a source of inspiration and guidance despite one’s inability to fully repay their love and care.

The gift of family in whom one finds comfort beyond words, despite one’s habitual neglect of them to pursue the hustle.

The gift of great friends and associates whose presence and encouragement gives courage to one’s dreams and efforts.

The gift of teachers, critics, mentors and elders whose rebuke and advice keeps one grounded and humble.

The gift of mentees and younger ones whose energy and push keeps one moving on and creating new opportunities.

The gift of communities that remind you that you are not alone in your journey as an afropreneur.

The gift of intellect and critical thinking that lets you know that the way of the majority is not always the way.

The gift of balance that makes one to realize true happiness is not in what you amass, but in what you give, and that true reliance in the Creator is what necessitates that you still have to make the most utmost effort.

And above all, the gift of every second, minute, and day in which one has the opportunity to reset the pieces, to stand up after every fall, and to seek penitence after every sin.

For all these I remain grateful to my Lord, the One who forgives and honours His undeserving slave while none of His slave’s shortcomings and excesses are hidden from Him.

O Allah, I beg forgiveness for sins which I have repeated after having repented from them before you.

I beg forgiveness for all the promises which I have made to You on my behalf and then did not fulfill.

I beg forgiveness for Your gifts from which I drew strength only to use it in your disobedience.

I beg forgiveness for all those good actions that I intended for Your sake only but later mixed other motives in them.

O Allah, do not humiliate me as You do have full knowledge of me and do not punish me as You have all power over me.

O Allah, indeed You are the Mighty Creator of everything . You are the All-Hearing, All-Knowing. You are the Forgiving, the Merciful. You are the Lord of Great Throne. O Allah, You are the most Gracious, the Most Generous, the Benevolent.

Forgive me. Have mercy on me. Protect me. Provide me with sustenance. Conceal my faults. Support me. Uplift and elevate me. Guide me aright. Do not let me go astray. And admit me to Paradise through Your mercy, O the Most Merciful of those who show mercy.

O my Lord, in Your Sight make me dear, in my heart make me humble before You, and in the eyes of other people make me honorable. Protect me from bad manners and morals.

O Allah, You asked from us that which we do not control except with your help. So grant us from it that which will make You be pleased with us.

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Goodbye Calestous Juma

calestous-jumaSad to hear of the passing of an icon in the African technology and innovation space. Prof Juma was one of the few who was able to bridge the gap between academia and practice when it came to issues of science, technology, and innovation on the African continent. In fact, my learnings from his work formed the fulcrum of my recent lecture at the University of Ibadan.

Though he was based at Harvard, Twitter was where many came to be in close contact with him as he was never shy of his opinions and would engage anyone about them.

A few months ago, I had complained to a mutual acquaintance that Prof Juma was yet to reply to an email request of mine and it was he who informed me of his ongoing battle with cancer.

His death makes it the second African academic mentor of mine to lose the cancer battle this year after Prof Mustapha Raufu of Oxford.

I pray God comforts his family and colleagues and that one day the continent that he dreamt of comes to be what it has the potential to be.

For those who are not familiar with his work, I would advise you follow him (posthumously) on twitter and google his papers and publications.

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The Afropreneur: From Abuja to Kaduna by Rail

For someone who has very low expectations of public service in Nigeria, I must say I was very pleasantly surprised by my experience today traveling from Abuja to Kaduna by rail.

When I was informed yesterday of the need to be in Kaduna early today to meet with some state, local and field officers on a public health project, I agonized about getting to Kaduna by road until someone reminded me there was a train service.

I looked online and after some efforts, I was able to find a current train schedule that showed I could leave Abuja by 7am and yet be in Kaduna in time for my 10am engagement.

Unfortunately like most government run stuff, the website of the Nigeria Railway Corp is very user-unfriendly and after wasting lots of time, I realized I couldn’t buy tickets online.

Left home early and after almost being lost twice by Google Maps, a colleague dropped me off at the Idu Railway station which is someway out of town. While the road to the station was okay, the location is quite remote and there doesn’t appear to be commercial vehicles plying that route. So you either need to have someone drop/pick you up. Once you get off the main road, there are clear signs indicating the direction to the station so I wished they had something on the main road too.

I was impressed by the structure and cleanliness of the structure – I personally think it beats any of our airports including the Lagos and Abuja airports ( I know its new but one year after I Am still impressed that we can keep something as clean as that!).

I joined the line to purchase my ticket (First class tickets went for N1500 while Standard tickets went for N1050, apparently the prices had recently gone up) and tickets for two colleagues who were to join me. Continue reading

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Africa’s footprints in the digital age

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Please join me this Wednesday at the University of Ibadan for what promises to be a provoking discussion on Africa’s footprints in the digital age and the role of our institutions.

Excerpts below.

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Portfolio Company- Flutterwave raises $10.3m in Series A Funding to change payments in Africa- A trip down the lane with Iyin

As the media is  filled with news of Flutterwave’s recent Series A raise, I think back to the journey over the past six years with Flutterwave’s founder, the boldly audacious Iyin Aboyeji. 

I first met Iyin Aboyeji sometimes in 2010/2011  during his undergraduate days at Waterloo, and it was through the Harambe Entrepreneurs Alliance,  a network of highly educated, young African entrepreneurs from leading universities in Asia, Europe and North America seeking to translate ideas about the development of Africa into action.

 

Around the time he was interviewed by BellaNaija, and I was very impressed by his boldness, and he was just nineteen then!

In that interview he said ” The entrepreneur lifestyle definitely appeals to me and I hope I can change the world by making products and services people cannot live without. One thing for sure is that if all goes well, I hope to return and tap into the bundle of business opportunities Nigeria is by being a super angel or venture capitalist focused on young Nigerian entrepreneurs

And in ending the interview , he prophesied  We are coming. Nigeria is coming. Young people are coming.”

We connected quite well, and as he was wrapping up his Bookneto venture and thinking of what next to venture into, he would reach out to me to discuss his thoughts, share his slides, Skype and generally touch base. So it was no surprise that when he put together what was to become Fora in 2013 , he naturally asked for me to review his slides and pitch deck , and I asked if I could invest in him. I use the pronoun ‘him’ because it was really in the person I was making an investment. He would remind me later that I had said ‘even if you lose the money, consider it as my personal investment in your MBA’.

Well he hasn’t lost the money (so far), and I have done follow-up investments (along with several of my friends) in his other ventures after that; Andela at the seed, FFF and Series A rounds, and in Flutterwave at the pre-seed, and the recently completed Series A round , where our new fund, the LoftyInc Afropreneurs Fund (still actively fundraising) made a sizeable investment of $250,000 – its biggest single investment till date.

Our relationship has changed over time , sometimes it assumes an investor-investee role, sometimes a big brother role, and sometimes a mentor-mentee role, and there have been some tough times too when we havent seen eye to eye on some issues, but in all, we have stayed close. Iyin was also very helpful when I made my transition back to Nigeria in 2015, and I have learned quite a lot from him.

E as we call him can be very stubborn at times (and sometimes is best left to learn from his mistakes), but he is very clear-headed on his journey of building Africa’s future! . For him it’s about three things; Transforming Education (People), Building digital and physical infrastructure (platforms) and influencing public policy (power).

Hence since he has already gotten started on the People (Andela), Platforms, (Flutterwave), I am patiently waiting to support his foray into the policy/political arena in a few years to come.

So as the world celebrates Iyin and the Flutterwave team, we are honoured to have been part of this journey from the beginning, and even as we realise that the task of ‘Building Africa’s Future’ is nowhere near complete, we rest assured that together we will succeed. InshaAllah

Congrats Flutterwave!

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Mark Zuckerberg’s First Coming….To Nigeria

It is no longer news that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder was in Nigeria this week.

The visit which came as a surprise to many ( I heard the rumours a few days earlier but couldn’t confirm till he got into Lagos) was his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa. He spent the two days meeting with developers and entrepreneurs, and learning about the startup ecosystem in Nigeria, which I have been privileged to help develop over the years along with  several others.

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In his words, ” The energy here is amazing and I’m excited to learn as much as I can. I think this is where (Nigeria) a lot of the future will be built”

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Several articles and news reports have been written about his trip such as this , this, this, this, and this, and many more will still be written.

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And Mark also put an end to the #Jollofwars, when he spoke about having eaten Nigerian jollof rice along with snails, and how delicious it was. Hopefully the Senegalese, Gambians, and Ghanaians can now accept Nigerians make the best jollof!

As an active player in the ecosystem, and the first Nigerian investor (from the seed round) in Andela, which Mark recently invested in and also visited in Lagos, I put down some thoughts on what Mark’s visit means for Nigeria and the ecosystem.

 

 

For a technology startup ecosystem that has seen rapid growth over the last five years in spite of the lack of government support, and despite the absence of supporting infrastructure, Mark’s visit was a much-needed external validation of the sweat and immense efforts, mostly unsung, of the young Nigerians who have kept at it . And it was heartwarming to see all the attention his visit got, even from some young people who are rarely excited by much beyond music and entertainment.

His visit is testament to the realization that the key to solving Nigeria’s numerous social and economic problems, lies in its young women and men, enabled by technology and facilitated by social media, who are taking ownership – bravely — of the country’s economic destiny. And Mark’s recent investment in, and subsequent visit to Andela Lagos simply shows that if you build it, and build it well, investors will come; a message that I am sure the about 200 Andela Fellows who listened directly to him, and the millions more who hope to create their own Andelas, will take to heart.

I also hope this visit helps shine some sunlight on the seeds planted a few years ago by pioneers of the “incubator-accelerator” model like Mobile Monday, CCHub, Wennovation among others, attracting the necessary global support albeit absent locally.

And while its early days yet, and the startup ecosystem is yet to fully mature, my hope is that by this short visit, Mark Zuckerberg is not only able to inspire more young people into taking their destiny in their hands and becoming afropreneurs, but also that his visit ends up stimulating the absent-minded local money-bags who are yet to see the investing opportunities present in local startups, and waking the government up from its lethargy and over-reliance on crude oil resources, to the realization that technology and entrepreneurship powered by young people is the way out of the doldrums.

So I hope that this is the first of many visits not just by Mark, but that in his wake, many more investors, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists will come in to partner and support our startup ecosystem with all it needs to grow and mature. But in all of that, it should not be forgotten that the real work of building up the ecosystem will be done by us, young Nigerians, home and abroad”

I was also quoted in this CNN article about the visit.

Mark Zuckerberg’s visit gives Nigerian startups much-needed boost

‘Idris Ayodeji Bello, an ‘afropreneur’ and angel investor from Nigeria, said, “Mark’s visit was a much needed external validation of the sweat and immense efforts, mostly unsung, of the young Nigerians who have kept at it. And it was heartwarming to see all the attention his visit got, even from some young people who are rarely excited by much beyond music and entertainment.”

 

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Lasgidi- Lagos, the Home of Hustle

lagosbusI have spent the greater part of the last six months in and out of Lagos working on old and new hustles. It’s a city I have grown to love and hate in almost equal measures. Attractive as it is with its unlimited opportunities, it also drives me crazy with its lack of order and craziness especially when compared to other cities of its size, and I feel a few pounds lighter each time I exit the Murtala Muhammed International? Airport (after concocting different tales of why I am not giving them anything-ranging from I am a student, aid worker, corper etc.)

As I hustle around the world, I am often asked to describe what living in Lagos is like, and I struggle with how best to explain the contradictions, the boundless energy and the Nepa-induced early nights, the swarm of people day and night, and the lack of a public transport system.

One description i have found interestingly apt (while a bit controversial) is Robert Neuwirth’s description of Lagos in his 2012 book “Stealth of Nations” in which he describes the global rise of the informal economy. I reproduce excerpts from the book below, but strongly encourage you to get a copy!

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“To many, Lagos is the urban nadir, the vilest, most squalid and criminal place on the planet. Basil Davidson, the British-born historian of Africa whose love for the continent is palpable in all his works, recalled his emotions when he first touched down in what was then the Nigeria capital back in the 1940s, when the city had a population of about two hundred thousand:” Lagos already seemed to me, as it still does, a perfectly horrible place to be, and anywhere else would be better.

Lagos is, so the narrative goes, the most dangerous city that isn’t in a war zone, a metropolis of schemers, a dark, desperate, and duplicitous place where every encounter is a potential threat. It’s a story told over and over- and often parroted with perverse pride by Lagosians themselves.

Today, the city is home to between 9 million and 17 million people, depending on where you draw the lines, and who’s doing the counting. Lagos is one of the fastest growing cities on the planet, with an estimated 3000 people arriving every day. Yet the infrastructure has not kept pace. This makes everything here seem supersized-the traffic jams worse than anywhere else, the pollution thicker, the poverty more appalling…….”

Foto druk verkeer in Lagos, Nigeria. Als voorbeeld; graag keuzebeelden Traffic jams form along Nnamdi Azikiwe street in Lagos January 22, 2003. Drivers in Lagos are stopping to gape at UFOs - unidentified flashing objects - that have been mysteriosly appearing at busy intersections around the city of Lagos, the commercial nerve centre of Nigeria. REUTERS/George Esiri GE/GB

“…..The buses have no route signs, the taxis have no meters (you have to negotiate strenuously if you don’t want to be cheated), and, if there’s a tie-up, people might simply pull onto the wrong side of the road-flashing their lights or honking their horns- and blast the wrong way down the highway. ambOn bad days, Lagos has a Victorian pall, and it seems impossible-and potentially dangerous- to breathe too deeply.”

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“……….Lagos has no municipal water pipes. Unless the government suddenly gets a lot more foresighted and interested in investing in infrastructure, it never will. Instead, those who can afford it- and the majority of people can’t—drill deep wells (locals call them boreholes), and pump water up. They filter it, test it, and if tests as good, drink it. For those who don’t have the money, System D invented Pure Water.”

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“At first glance- even at second and third- Lagos doesn’t appear to make sense…………………………………………………..”

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“To a newcomer trying to take it all in, Lagos seems a vast and menacing swirl of humanity struggling for a buck…………………….. 

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But when you have stayed put long enough, your view of Lagos changes. What had been an undifferentiated mess suddenly becomes sensible—or, perhaps more accurately, comprehensible.

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The traffic jams remain intolerable, but at least, they are understandable in a city that has outgrown its colonial infrastructure. The feeling of threat remains, because with electricity seldom available, the nighttime landscape is a series of black holes set between feeble flares of light from the kerosene burners used by the few small-scale merchants who stay open late, but the tales of crime fall away- a part of history, but not current reality.

If Max Weber was right that the “city” is a marketplace, then Lagos is the absolute apotheosis of a city.”

“…Lagos is the world’s largest street market, and everything here——-from buying something to drinking a soda on the street to simply talking with your neighbor—is an exchange…………

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Trade may make Lagos seem frenzied and disorganized, it may sometimes appear aggressive and threatening, but trade built the city and continues to define its culture…………….

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Spend enough time there and you come to realize that it is exactly this——–the irrepressible hubbub, the hyper-entrepreneurial give-and-take, the ceaseless frenzy of talk and exchange- that holds the city together.”

 

The author goes on to say great things about the entrepreneurial nature of Lagosians despite all the odds stacked against them, but I particularly found the above descriptions interesting (and fairly objective). What is your take?

 

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Overcoming the Fear of Growth

“There will never be a perfect time to do something that stretches you. That’s true whether you are starting a marriage, having your first child, changing careers, or wrestling with any number of challenging goals. That’s not a license to be reckless and never think things through, but at some point you have to embrace the uncertainty because it is the only path forward.

You can’t be ready for true growth. That’s why it’s growth. All you can do is step into it with everything you’ve got. “

by James Clear

Sometime in 2014, two famous men walked into a recording studio. They were working on a rap album, but at this particular moment they were talking about marriage. The first man was someone you would expect to be working on a rap album. His real name was Olubowale Akintimehin, but he is better known as the hip hop artist Wale (pronounced WAH-lay). The second man was someone you would never expect to be working on a rap album, the popular comedian Jerry Seinfeld.

Wale was partnering with Seinfeld for his fourth album, The Album About Nothing. During this particular session, he brought Seinfeld into the studio to ask him questions, record their conversation, and hopefully grab a few soundbites for the album.

While working on a track called The Matrimony, Wale questioned Seinfeld about his thoughts on marriage. At first, Seinfeld talked about what it felt like to get engaged. He explained the combination of excitement and nervousness and helplessness that made engagement feel like being strapped into a rollercoaster headed to the top of the hill where the marriage awaits.

Wale paused for a moment, looked at Seinfeld, and said, “So, even if you make plans you never think you’re really ready for marriage?”

“No,” Seinfeld said. “It’s like any growth. You can’t be ready for it because it’s growth. It’s going to be new. You’re going to have a new life. You’re going to be a new person.”

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You’re Not Ready for Growth

I like Seinfeld’s definition of growth. You’re not ready for marriage. You’re not ready to start a business. You’re not ready to move to a new city. You’re not ready for growth … and that’s exactly why it will make you grow. Start before you feel ready.

By definition, growth must be something that makes you feel unprepared and uncertain. If it was comfortable and easy, it wouldn’t be growth. It would be normal. It would be standard. It would who you already are.

 

There will never be a perfect time to do something that stretches you. That’s true whether you are starting a marriage, having your first child, changing careers, or wrestling with any number of challenging goals. That’s not a license to be reckless and never think things through, but at some point you have to embrace the uncertainty because it is the only path forward.

You can’t be ready for true growth. That’s why it’s growth. All you can do is step into it with everything you’ve got.

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Dying Slowly

By Martha Medeiros

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You start dying slowly
if you do not travel,
if you do not read,
If you do not listen to the sounds of life,
If you do not appreciate yourself.

You start dying slowly
When you kill your self-esteem;
When you do not let others help you.

You start dying slowly
If you become a slave of your habits,
Walking everyday on the same paths…

If you do not change your routine,
If you do not wear different colours
Or you do not speak to those you don’t know.

You start dying slowly
If you avoid to feel passion
And their turbulent emotions;
Those which make your eyes glisten
And your heart beat fast.

You start dying slowly
If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love,
If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
If you do not go after a dream,
If you do not allow yourself,
At least once in your lifetime,
To run away from sensible advice…

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Take your turn, because it’s rarely given!

I finally got my copies of Seth Godin’s new book – What to do when it’s your turn – today, and it’s so interesting that I immediately jumped into it.

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I find particularly interesting his story on “being stuck on a broken escalator”.

While it seems obvious what the folks above should do, the reality is that many of us are indeed stuck on life’s broken escalators, unable to see that all we have to do is walk right off the escalator.

Just turn the broken escalator of your life into stairs that get you where you need to get to in life instead of waiting for someone to rescue you or fix the escalator.

The stairs may not be as convenient as a working escalator, but it gets the job done and beats being stuck in a spot!Ask yourself today, which of life’s escalators am I stuck on? What is stopping me from using the stairs, no matter how inconvenient to get to where I need to get to?

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It’s ‪#‎yourturn‬. It’s always your turn. To act.

Take your turn, because it’s rarely given!

 

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