So this evening, as I finished yet another Zoom call, I dwelled over the fact that in less than 48 hours, I had spoken with a team working on a technology platform for quantamental investing in the UK, , another on charter cities for entrepreneurs, one on mobility and technology across Africa, another one developing a transformative cancer therapy , one transforming Nigeria’s famous ofada sauce into a staple in Whole Foods stores in the USA, before yet another fintech with a twist on payments in Egypt, a team in Ghana working on KYC and identity tech, finally closing out with one making a bold claim of killing viruses including Covid and Hepatitis B viruses.
It got me thinking about how my Afropreneurship journey has led me to this point of spending my days poring over complicated decks and listening to entrepreneurs on Zoom smarter than I could ever hope to be, and it is quite interesting how the dots connect in hindsight, and how Allah’s Plan always manifests even when we have no clue.
The Afropreneurship journey is about a decade old, starting with when I got to the point in my career at Chevron where I wanted something different, but even before that, let me start off with how I found myself at Chevron USA. I have written elsewhere previously about my pre-Chevron career and also here!
So let me start in 2005, as I was busy writing my Msc Thesis with the mouthful topic “Non-parametric density approximation techniques applied to signal detection in particle physics; as part of preliminary design of multivariate data-analysis toolbox for use at the Fermilab Tevatron Collider, USA and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.”
It was a very demanding period of my life, as my Msc funding was running out, and I was not sure of when I would graduate or if I would find a job. These were the early days of Data Mining and Machine Learning, and I was working in the Data Mining & Machine Learning Group at the University of Houston under Dr. Vilalta and Dr Eick. I had no clue what I was doing, working on research spread across three schools and three disciplinary areas. I had to coordinate the particle physics part with Professor Bruce Knuteson at MIT, and Professor Paul Padley at Rice, and the Pattern Classification part with my own professors at the University of Houston, and the Statistics part with yet another Professor.
My nights were long, buried in Physics texts and research papers trying to make sense of leptons and quarks and why they needed to collide, and at the same time understanding probability density functions, Bayes’ classifiers, Parzen windows, k-nearest neighbors (kNN), and of course learning new programming languages to codify all this and train my models to learn and predict. In all of these, I didn’t even have the time to focus on job searching or on the companies recruiting on campus, until one fateful evening.
I noticed my Iranian lab mate, Banafsheh, all dressed up, and on inquiring, she mentioned she had been shortlisted on the school recruiting website to interview with Chevron USA the next day and they were having a reception that night to interact with the interviewers. Once she left the lab, I updated my resume, got several copies printed, put on my one suit which always hung on the door of the lab, and off I went uninvited to the reception. Yes, I gatecrashed!
8am the next morning, I got an email asking if I could make it to the campus interview same day. I got there (same suit), apparently performed well on all those situational leadership questions, and a few weeks later I got invited to the site interview!
Anyways, fast forward five years later, in 2009, I was having a great technical career at Chevron leading upstream technology deployments globally, but felt I needed to move from a technical career ladder to a managerial one, and I thought the way to do that was to get an MBA. But then I wanted to get an MBA only from a top school, and I was not interested in getting into debt. I began applying to a few schools leveraging the Consortium Program for minorities which would have gotten me a scholarship, but would have meant leaving work, and starting an MBA in 2010 or 2011.
Around this time in Houston, I used to run a monthly book reading club called “The Forum” for early career Nigerian folks. On one occasion, I invited a Dr. Kola Fagbayi to speak, an absolutely smart guy who was then a top flyer at Shell USA (he’s now a VP at BP),and he had mentioned that he took the highly revered Executive MBA at Rice University, an option I had never thought of.
First, I knew how expensive studying at Rice was, compared to other local Houston schools, and I also knew how tough it was to get into the regular MBA, not to talk of the Executive MBA in a city like Houston which boasted of top executives in every field.
Kola introduced me to the Director of Admissions and I went through a very thorough admissions screening and interview process, and through sheer luck and a couple of unexplainable coincidences, I got offered an admission to join the Executive MBA in 2009! It was a dream come true, especially when I saw the roll call of my classmates and I was one of the youngest and probably the least experienced. The rollcall included a NASA Flight Mission Commander who had overseen the most recent Space Mission, Olympians, top Houston CEOs, and some other very smart folks.
Now admission in hand, where would I find the $100,000 to pay for tuition?
I found out Chevron had a program where you could get your tuition costs reimbursed as long as you did well each semester. But here we were in the middle of the 2008/2009 financial collapse, where people were being let go and budgets slashed. Who was I to go ask my boss for money for tuition, and not even the $30,000 that other Houston schools were charging, but $100k!
But then, I didn’t see the harm in asking, so I shot my shot!
I asked HR, and learned that the budget for tuition reimbursement was fixed and never impacted by recessions and budget cuts! And regarding my fear of being asked why didn’t I choose a cheaper school in Houston? It was unfounded!
And that, my friends, is how I got into Rice University and got funded in the middle of an economic recession, with the plan to use it as a stepping stone to climb the managerial ladder at Chevron.
Fast forward to one evening in early 2010, while still in first year of B-school, I was introduced by one of my mentors, Marshal Sulayman (who later became the first Nigerian Partner at Deloitte Tax USA) to another young man who had just relocated to Houston, Biola Lawal, and became CFO (and eventually CEO at Erin Energy). In a conversation, Biola mentioned previously working at Oando in Nigeria, and mentioned in passing one of the young people who worked with him and had risen very fast, by name, Yomi Awobokun.
I got home that night, and searched online about Yomi, and one thing led to another, and I found out about a program he had participated in, called Nigeria Leadership Initiative-Future Leaders Program. I dug in and loved what I was seeing ,and applied for the program, and luckily, I was invited by First Bank, the sponsors, to visit Nigeria in May 2010 on an all-expenses paid trip to Lagos, to spend a couple of days with other young Nigerians to deliberate about the future of the country. I have written in detail about that experience here.
So a week before my Nigeria trip in May 2010, I was sitting at the Anderson Commons, at the Jones Business School at Rice, when the Late Professor Bill Arnold sat next to me and started asking me questions about who I was etc. On hearing I was from Nigeria, he invited another Professor Marc Epstein over to sit and eat with us. Marc then tells me about his project working with Rice MBA students and entrepreneurs in Rwanda and Malawi to commercialize low cost health technologies. He asks if I have any links with universities and entrepreneurs in Nigeria as he would like to expand the program to Nigeria. Never one to say No, I of course say Yes, I can do that, and get a mandate from him to engage with academics and entrepreneurs in Nigeria.
That May 2010 trip to Lagos after several year away from Nigeria was a very risky but pivotal one in my journey of becoming an Afropreneur! It was risky because the conference days fell within the second semester exams for the first year of the MBA, and I had to take my exams in Lagos and send them over.
I remember writing my Cost Accounting Exams on my laptop while in a car on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway while going to Abeokuta, and in a particular case, looking for a cybercafé in Abeokuta to scan my exam papers and send it back to the Professor.
In retrospect, I am indeed glad I made the decision to make the trip even though I came close to canceling it.
I made so many friends in Nigeria during that program many of whom I remain friends with till today, folks like Chude Jideonwo who was my roommate and spoke about his plans to take over the journalism and media space, and would in later years go on to form Red Media and YNaija, to Farouk Gumel who was then at PWC and would later on work for the late Chief of Staff –Abba Kyari in the Villa, to Toyosi Akerele of Rise Networks, to Hassan Rilwan, who would later head the Kaduna Scholarship Board..
However, the most important relationship I built at the NLI Program was with Dr. Muntaqa Umar Sadiq who was at that time completing his intercalated Medicine/Business degree at Imperial College, UK, and about to start an MSc in Biosciences at Cambridge University. Smart as he was handsome and jovial, we bonded and spoke of dreams of building a company together around Healthcare technology etc.
On that trip, I didn’t forget my mandate from Dr. Epstein and spent time visiting universities including public ones like my alma mater, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, and also private ones like Lagos Business School where I got introduced to Peter Bamkole at EDC, and Enase and others at the Business School. All in all, it was a good trip that formed the foundation of pivotal friendships and relationships for the future.
As I was about leaving Nigeria, my Houston mentor, Marshal, connected me with his brother who was an editor at Tribune Newspapers and asked him to interview me about my trip to Nigeria and my career generally. I ended up saying a couple of things about entrepreneurship and why Nigeria needed to encourage people with ideas etc.
Bear in mind, this was in May 2010, a time it wasn’t a fad yet to be a tech entrepreneur, and there was no CChub, no Impact Hub or anything similar, though there was Mo-Mo by Emmanuel Oluwatosin and a few other initiatives/gatherings..
On getting back to Houston, I shared the Tribune interview by email with a few friends including Damilola Agboola who forwarded it to another friend of his , Michael Oluwagbemi, who then asked Dami to introduce him to me, and that meeting was eventually what led to the birth of Wennovation Hub, in July 2010, and the many things that have come thereafter including the creating of the word Afropreneur (and trademarking it) and the playing of a pioneering role in the Nigerian technology ecosystem. By this time, I was also quite active in the Houston tech scene, creating the Next Cool Idea program at Rice, which was a 72-hour startup weekend event.
Anyways fast forward to early 2011, and I am busy remotely setting up Wennovation Hub along with the rest of the team, Along with Kevin Simmons, I lead Business development for a new edtech focused on Africa and win the 2011 Dell Technology Awards, , get accepted into the Harambeans Fellowship where I render poem recitations , win the 2011 Sallyport Award for extraordinary contributions to Rice University , get profiled as one of the top black students in the history of Rice University, and thinking of my post MBA plans (and resisting being persuaded to do a PhD in Business degree by my Rice professors) , as life at Chevron is seeming less appealing by the day.
Around this time, I also cofounded Afyazima (Elpida Diagnostics) with Muntaqa at this point with the goal of distributing cheap point of care diagnostics across Nigeria. Then in one of those great coincidences of life, I see an email on a group mailing list that mentioned scholarship opportunities for a graduate program at the University of Oxford.
Out of curiosity, I click on the link and find out that as I already was in an MBA program, the only graduate course I could do at Oxford, was a M.Sc. in Global Health Science at Oxford. I put in my application without thinking much of it, especially as I didn’t meet many of the prerequisites for the course and had zero medical background and only managed a credit in Biology many years earlier. My personal statements and essays were very clear on me being an outlier and why they needed an outsider in the room. Well, something seems to have worked as I got admitted, along with both the Weidenfeld Hoffman Trust full scholarship, along with a Kellogg College scholarship! One interesting twist though was that I didn’t get the actual scholarship for developing countries which was what led me to apply to Oxford, but instead ended up getting the Weidenfeld scholarship as one of five American scholars selected for that year! (along with Ouleye Ndoye, who would later play a key role in my leadership of the Oxford University Africa Society)
I took a leave of absence from Chevron and arrived Oxford in September 2011, to discover that unlike during my EMBA program, I was probably one of the oldest in my class, and probably one of the few ones who had no clue about most topics we were going to be learning; from Diabetes Mellitus to Health Economics to Global Disease Burdens. I quickly realized also that unlike the USA where there was GPA, and continuous tests, my Oxford program only had term papers and a final exam, and you either failed, got a Pass or got a distinction.
After a lifetime of First Class Degrees at undergraduate and graduate levels, I quickly told myself I didn’t have any point to prove again by aiming for a Distinction. Not that it took much to persuade me, seeing as there was going to be stiff competition from the very young eggheads in my class, especially the six young female medical doctors from Nigeria (three of who ended up with Distinctions). Rather I quickly busied myself with Oxford politics and ended up becoming not just the President of the Oxford University Africa Society (under the tutelage of the Late Prof Raufu Mustapha who was to write me this prized reference letter shortly before his death in 2018) , but also an officer of the Oxford University Students Union representing the entire Medical Division.
I spent more time at Oxford attending and participating in debates at the Oxford Union, and attending invited (or gatecrashed) talks all over Oxford, than I spent studying. I was more likely to be found at the Said Business School engaging with entrepreneurs and meeting famous visiting speakers, than I was to be found in the library at Headington where the Global Health students were. I became the ‘Uncle’ to the Nigerian students in my class and would have them not just teach me what I didn’t grasp in class, but also cook great meals to accompany the group study sessions.
They would joke about my unserious academic attitude as I would spend most weekends in London representing the African society at one key public event or the other, or attending global conferences in Washington, and even leading business development for another health technology startup at Oxford for which I won the 2012 Dell Technology Award again, and I would reply half-jokingly, that I was only at Oxford to get their email addresses , so I could call on them in the future. I ended my Oxford year working on an m-Health project with the Clinton Health Access Initiative and the Ministry of Health in Swaziland, and hiking Swazi mountains.
So that was how I ended up with three master degrees in very diverse fields of Computer Science, Business, and Global Health. My late Dad would usually joke that my laziness in doing a single PhD was what led to me doing three masters degrees. At that point it wasn’t immediately obvious to even myself, what I was looking for in this confused educational journey, and I would later add a stint at Singularity University to it, but I would just tell anyone who asked, that I was in the business of technology in health!
But this birthday week, as I ended that last call and looked back, it all seemed to make sense when viewed backwards. The ability to understand the difficult fields of particle physics and multivariate statistics, while juggling datamining and pattern classification, and the diverse educational experiences of computer science and engineering, business and global health were what were now behind my complete ease at listening to, learning from, and engaging with entrepreneurs from very diverse fields, connecting dots between the disparate sectors, and yet being able to ask meaningful and probing questions of them in deciding to invest or not.
It reminded me of the closing part of my Oxford application statement where I said in big English;
“I would love to benefit from attending Oxford University because I believe that this experience would distill my personal and business experiences, my bent for entrepreneurship, my background in technology and statistics and blend them with my local roots and global education into a fine brew that will increase my motivation and commitment to providing leadership in solving the complex global health challenges in the developing world.”
Also, prior to each of those Zoom calls, I have always been able to find an expert in my network, who can provide a quick deep analysis (and education) to me of the problem area I was currently entertaining.
So I would call on Daniel Diemers (Singularity) on issues that were crypto related, and my cousin, Hakeem Gbadebo if it had to do with institutional investment and quants and stuff, and when it had to do with cancers and bioscience, Dr. Onikepe from my Oxford days was just a WhatsApp message away, and of course for those things space related, it was either Dr. Raheem Bello or Kwatsi from Nasa.
As famous therapist, Esther Perel says on the importance of relationships:
“Life will present you with unexpected opportunities, and you won’t always know in advance which the important moments are. Above all, it’s the quality of your relationships that will determine the quality of your life. Invest in your connections, even those that seem inconsequential.”
So as I was writing this, I dug out my 2005 M.Sc. thesis on Particle Physics , and this line in the introduction section struck me:
That statement could have applied to my 2005 pattern classification work in Particle Physics , as is it applies to my 2020 pattern classification work in angel investing which is essentially ” identification of interesting entrepreneurs/events/ideas, by separating small and strong signals from all the hype and noise out there in the early stage space.”
I am right where I started, and it all makes sense now, viewed backwards.
Afropreneur Idris Ayodeji Bello, December 2020
So I started this as a tweet about connecting dots in retrospect, and how a host of unplanned events, diverse educational experiences, and relationships built over time have contributed to my ability to handle investing in diverse sectors, and a few hours later, the tweet had turned into a 3700 words write-up which is really an abridged story of my pre-investing life!
Hopefully it finds its space in my yet to be written book on “Investing in the Dark; a Decade of Finding, Supporting, and Investing in Afropreneurs”