‘We will create more CWGs through Ausso Leadership Academy’
Austin Okere is the founder of Computer Warehouse Group (CWG) Plc, which is the largest computer security firm in the Nigerian Stock Exchange. An Entrepreneur in Residence at Columbia Business School, New York, Okere created Ausso Leadership Academy few months ago to mentor entrepreneurs to institutionalise and scale their businesses geometrically. He tells ODINAKA ANUDU in this interview that his intention is to create more CWGs, which is a highly successful business, in Nigeria.
You recently launched Ausso Leadership Academy (ALA) here in Lagos. Tell us why you agreed to share your experience at ALA.
There are three inspirations— two are altruistic and one is personal. Let me start with the first and the second. The first inspiration was that I wanted to advise others the same way I would have advised my younger self. If I had that kind of advice at the time I was starting my business, I would probably have avoided some of the mistakes I made. This is the advice I want to give to people so that they can benefit from it. The second inspiration was that I wanted to be the mentor I wished I had. Silicon Valley is the biggest entrepreneurship centre. Many companies have grown from there because they have a strong culture of mentorship. They also have a lot of business schools, even though these schools do not take the place of mentorship. Mentorship is done by businesspeople who are the best in their areas of influence. In business schools, there are basically professors that are teaching theories. It is important but in terms of practical experience, mentorship is more important.
The third reason, which I said is personal, is that many of our kids going to school abroad may not come back. In fact, their parents often tell them that there is nothing they are coming back to. Except we create something that will bring them, they will not come back.
One weekend, I visited three of my friends. Two of their wives had travelled to be with their children abroad. The third one had only the husband and the wife at home. I am a victim of that too. I told myself, if we support all manner of businesses— agribusinesses, technology, media— to grow, the young people will have something they are coming back to.
The purpose of the academy is to impact businesses so that they grow geometrically. If they grow, they can optimise jobs that they produce, so that we all can enjoy shared prosperity. Our children have gone and acquired knowledge, but the knowledge is innate unless it is applied on something here. I want to create a burgeoning business ecosystem that can attract our young ones back. The biggest asset of Africa is youthful population. However, it is an asset if there is something they are doing and a time bomb if there is nothing they are doing.
So what system or model will you run at the academy?
The academy is experiential. It is not a business school, but it is complementary to it in the sense that you need to know the theory. But when you take ‘intrapreneurs’ who are in various organisations and entrepreneurs that have gone out to blaze the trail, you will find that they need a certain kind of preparation for the journey ahead. Let us take the intrapreneur, for instance. He is someone who works in an organisation. He is not interested in starting his own business, but he has an innovation thinking capacity and is the future cradle of the business. He is entrepreneurial-minded but does not want to run into the stress of starting a business. If you have a network of people with a similar mind-set, then you have the next generations of leaders in that company.
Bring them here and let them co-inspire network with other inspired people. On the entrepreneur’s side, we are saying, ‘This guy started as a start-up, but he is still running his business as a start-up seven years after’.
Many entrepreneurs are still running their five to 10 -year-old businesses with the same mind-set of a start-up. But the business cannot grow without a structure. So we need to train them on how to put in a structure that will help them to institutionalise and scale the business.
Here, we teach you the changing and disruptive environment; the transformational nature of business, and these are by people that are themselves case studies.
We look at the most successful people and every day, one of them will come and share his story. People can relate better to them than Elon Musk and Bill Gates, which do not connect. But if you say Frank Aigbogun, Tony Elumelu and Austin Okere, people begin to connect because they feel these people have something helpful to tell them. They come to the class with an open mind of absorbing rather than an educational mind just to learn.
Reading about Frank Aigbogun is different from reading about Bill Gates. He has built a successful media house in the same environment that they want to give up. So you learn why he didn’t give up, what he did and the challenges he faced. So, the first week of the academy will be about the theory of setting one’s goals and milestones. The entrepreneurs we are talking about should be able to grow double-digits after one year of coming. And we say that the measure of success for us is that they should have imbibed the culture of corporate governance. If I want to impact 1,000 entrepreneurs in five years as we target in Ausso Leadership Academy, how many should I have done in year one? I should have done 200 in one year; 400 in two years; 600 in three years, and so on. So every business should break down what it wants to achieve to what is measurable, so that each year you know whether you are facing that direction or you need to pivot. Why does your business exist? In Week Two, we are going to have the champion entrepreneurs come and tell their success stories and the failures they have faced, and how they overcame those challenges. And we are going to have one champion each day in the morning. In the afternoon, we are going to have more practical and experiential learning and it goes into Week 3. In Week 4, which is optional, we are going to have one-on-one mentorship, which will take you to visit a champion in his office. When you get there, you see what you should be aiming and begin to even dream. You can discuss issues with the like-minded mentor.
Most importantly, we are going to expose the entrepreneurs to investment opportunities. We are looking for where to put money, but we want to be sure that the money is going to the right direction. The people that want to attract capital will pitch to these investors through the methodology that the investor wants. What we promise is exposure, but to attract capital, you have to do the due diligence. There are five things that are important in the way the academy is structured.
One is innovative mind-set. Disruption will always come knocking and when it does, what do you do? Many years ago, people that used to visit me came with tape recorders, but there are phones that can do that today. If you say, ‘I have invested in the tape recorder and I won’t buy a phone’, you are not thinking forward. We need to break that obsolete model. Don’t look at what you have done but what you should be doing. The other thing is co-inspiring networking. We put many people in a room and each uses the other’s contacts. This will accelerate growth with minimal error. The other one is corporate governance and code of ethics. A company cannot grow geometrically as it should if the director is your brother and the finance officer is your sister and you take money the way you want. You have to differentiate yourself as a person and the business. The other one is code of ethics. It is more expensive to look for a new customer than to attend to a repeat customer. A customer already knows you and you don’t have to market to him. We have to do away with the mind-set of cheating the customer. Look at all the years of business you will do with that guy. The other one is mentoring. Some people sometimes do not want to talk in the class. They do not want someone to copy their businesses, but with one-on-one mentoring, they can talk privately with the mentor. Then, of course, the opportunities we are bringing.
So what motivated you to set up this business?
When you have nothing left to prove, then the passion you have to give back takes over. Bill Gates has run a successful business. Microsoft was at one point the biggest technology company in the world. Then you now have him being one of the richest men in the world. But did he go home to sleep? No, he started Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He is even trying to eradicate malaria. So, what we are doing is not to prove a point but to give back to light up the society. I define a billionaire not necessarily as someone who has accumulated a billion in currency but someone who directly or indirectly touches a billion lives. If a small company was employing 50 people before and because of the impact at ALA, it is employing 200 people, you will see they have many family members who will benefit and we will have shared prosperity. In this case, we take care of everybody’s needs instead of few people’s greed.
This is what I am doing in my own corner to connect the ecosystem. We need power, broadband and roads, and if you can provide security, fine. Nollywood just exploded without government assistance. We are trying to replicate that Nollywood phenomenon and we are trying to produce many CWGs, which is the biggest ICT security firm in the Nigerian Stock Exchange. We need to create more CWGs to have much more impact.
How long will a mentor at ALA work with an entrepreneur participant?
There are three things we are doing in terms of mentorship. The first is that the man that has started a business and runs it successfully despite challenges can talk to the class about how he succeeded and overcame challenges. The second one is the one-on-one mentorship. Many of the mentors do not have all the time in the world. So what the academy does is to have the mentors speak. They can also give the executives or entrepreneurs two hours in a day. Because he is paying for that time, he takes it seriously. The third is for the entrepreneur to keep the clinic class.
How will a business executive or entrepreneur benefit from ALA?
Let us say you were doing N500 million two years ago and now you are doing N400 million, your business is that of turnover without growth. In fact, if you look at what half a billion naira could buy three years ago and what it can buy now, you will notice a big difference. If you were doing import, N500 million could buy three containers three years ago but may just buy one now. So by attending ALA, and through mentorship, you are able to grow the business in a way that you grow the business to N1.5 billion. You will make that money because you are interacting with entrepreneurs of similar size. People are asking, ‘What about small entrepreneurs?’ We are interested in them, but take CWG as an example. The company is employing 600 people, and if you have 100 of such companies, that means 60,000 jobs. How many of the small businesses will create 6,000 jobs? So where should we focus our efforts? From my mentorship experience, there is nobody that is looking after big businesses so that they do not stagnate. Business schools seem to do that, but that is where professors teach people theories. If you talk about any school that brings business owners and entrepreneurs together and provide experiential opportunity and practical mentorship, there is none. This is first of its kind. It is something people are waiting for. If you cannot afford to leave your business for three weeks, you are actually the person that should be here. You are not a robot and you need to go on vacation.
We have made it 9am to 3pm, and there are two breaks. For the extreme case of people that want video conferencing, we also have it but on request. But the programme will not affect your business and you will leave by 3pm and avoid traffic.
Let your business run like a global business. Whether it is JP Morgan or Dell, these are people’s businesses that have become big businesses.
So how will the academy impact small businesses?
When big businesses do well, they lift up small businesses. If you look at CWG that I founded, as a big business, we are doing businesses with about 200 SMEs that are doing supplies. The big business makes the small business survive. Small businesses will not get government contracts, but they get businesses from big businesses. Two, they serve as beacons. If the high-achieving are not in a company, what happens to the company with the low-achieving?
If the big businesses collapse, small businesses will be dead. However, we are going to have targeted programmes for small businesses. We are going to have targeted programmes at affordable rates for small business owners. One or two weeks in May, we could have programmes targeted at them.
If corporate organisations send business executives to Ausso Leadership Academy, will they not be preparing them to leave their companies to start on their own when they are needed?
This is a very important question. Even when I was running CWG, people used to ask me why I was sending people to overseas to get bigger certificates. But there are always choices. I choose to give the best to my staff so that they will bring the best output that will make me stand out. I can choose not to, but the output will be suboptimal, and when this is the situation, the other company that has put the best in its staff will lead. Businesses are about people. Not everybody wants to set up businesses; otherwise nobody will work for someone else. A lot of people have entrepreneurial minds but work for others. We call them intrapreneurs. They can do all these things but they don’t want the risk of starting on their own. If you do not invest in one of such people and he sees another fellow who is developing and making progress, he may jump out and become an entrepreneur even though that is not in his own nature. Take Satya Nadella of Microsoft, he didn’t start Microsoft but is one of the best CEOs of the company. This is the case with Google and LinkedIn. They are intrapreneurs and we need to recognise them so that we don’t lose their entrepreneurial skills. The other one is to bring them to the table so that they share their ideas. So, don’t be scared that they will move if you train them. That is a risk, but the risk of not training them is even bigger.
Why will you recommend Ausso Leadership Academy to prospective entrepreneur participants?
ALA fills a gap. There is a gap. Supposing someone comes with a solution, you need to embrace him. ALA is something that has been needed but nobody wants to do it. There has been no medium. People need jobs but how can we provide jobs when businesses are struggling? If you are even making donations in a church and you give N200, 000 this year and N100, 000 next year, your pastor will meet you and ask questions.
People just want an opportunity to get jobs. It is businesses that employ people and most of these businesses are big entrepreneurs. These businesses need be supported. People need the capacity to manage these businesses, which is what we will provide.
In your view, how can we create an Apple whose market capitalisation is almost $1 trillion, in Nigeria?
The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is now. That business you talked about was built upon existing knowledge and structures. The Internet started with the military needing a certain communication. Someone took it and added more functionality. Someone built on it and upon it. Electric cars and self-driving cars are based on other people’s inventions. Big companies in America needed certain mentors to look at. Do we have such beacons here? Look at Odutola Biscuit and Abiola’s Concord, if these businesses thrived, we would be building upon them. But they come and they die, because there is nothing like ALA that can hold them and say, ‘You started with this mind-set; you have done five years and the mind-set has to change.’ You cannot own something to die; let other people come in. Do like Austin or Bill Gates, but let that business go through a cycle of succession once you are alive. What was lacking is that there was nothing to look up to. I fear for our big companies. If the owners die, people will lose their jobs and so many companies will close down and people working there will lose their jobs. This is because nobody at one point in time said, ‘Let us put in insunalisation; let us scale the business; we have to start looking at legacy and sustainability’. Many big businesses run like one man army— one big army and other dwarfs. Have strong CFOs, chief marketing persons and others who can manage the business. Are we prepared for what will happen? We need to catch those businesses that are going to replace the big ones that are no more, tell them not to follow their paths and teach you how to scale it.
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