Entrepreneurship: An Antidote to Youth Unemployment

Published on 8th August 2017

I am always pleased when I receive invitations to address young people. The opportunity to impart knowledge, share my experience and interact closely with our youth is an honour I consider invaluable. Knowledge is the greatest gift, there is no gift as great as knowledge to mankind and to the world. When people are knowledgeable, they become good entrepreneurs, they do great things for mankind but when people are not informed and do not have knowledge, they go astray.    

The topic- “Entrepreneurship: an antidote to Nigerian youth unemployment” is one that I am passionate about and one that is extremely relevant today given the unemployment challenges that we face in Nigeria and Africa at large. The current unemployment concerns cannot be solved by more government jobs – we need to democratize job creation! The surest way to achieve this is by creating and empowering more entrepreneurs. Only entrepreneurs can create the millions of jobs we need to power our economy out of poverty.

In Rwanda, while addressing a group of inspiring young Africans, I discussed the topic: ‘How do we get to 10 million jobs by 2020?’ I emphasized that African leaders – government, private sector and development partners – must focus on three central issues if we are to meet our goal of prosperity and opportunity for all. One of these pillars is ‘Entrepreneurship.’ I stressed the need to assist our young entrepreneurs by creating the enabling environment and supporting policies that allow them to thrive.

Let us rescue our young African entrepreneurs by providing them with all the tools they need to succeed! If we are serious about solving the unemployment challenges we face in Nigeria and by extension Africa, we must fully address these issues restraining our entrepreneurs from reaching their full potential. Addressing issues such as access to land and capital, fair taxes and less government bureaucracy, will go a long way in supporting SMEs to grow their businesses.

I am here to share what I consider vital values necessary to succeed in business and in life. I am not here to pontificate or theorize, no.  I am sharing with you, as much as possible, practical, real life experiences about entrepreneurship and the values that have brought me this far, believing that these nuggets will enable you become even more successful than some of us.

We need to create our own Jack Ma, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and we need to multiply our Dangotes and Elumelus. The difference between some of us and others lies in the transformative power of entrepreneurship. If a one-time regular Tony can come this far at a time when we had more limited resources, opportunities and many more challenges here on our continent, then you should in fact, do much better than us. This is what you owe yourself, and this is what you owe all of us who place a lot of confidence and resources in you. But this is not only about you and I, it is about contributing to the development of our communities and our nation at large. It is about using our skills and talents to create jobs, to create hope and empower people to fulfil their God-given potentials.

Entrepreneurship can change lives, can change communities, can change nations, but I must tell you that the journey to entrepreneurship is tough, and I must say this often, there is no quick fix about it. There are values and attributes that you must possess to succeed as an entrepreneur. I call them the #TOEWay.

The first thing I tell people is that you should dream BIG. No limitations, no boundaries; feel free to dream. Two, think of how to translate these dreams into realistic implementable actions. You need to make sure your dream is long term in orientation. Steve Jobs, for instance, had a very ambitious dream. His vision was to ‘put a computer in the hands of everyday people’ and this is what defined his life’s work. His vision was big, bold and intoxicating, but it was also a specific dream which allowed him to concentrate all his energy towards making it work. But you need to realize that to dream is one thing, to get it done is more important – execution! When you have done the reality check, repurpose your goal. Afterwards, translate this dream or purpose into action because it is that translation that defines success. If you dream and you do not translate it into action, you will not be successful. Translate your dreams to action

The process of translating your dreams to action entails the following: First is, you need to build milestones into your dreams. Then you must make sure you assemble the right resources. There are different types of resources you need to assemble for you to accomplish your dreams: some could be financial, others human, it varies. But it is important that you ask yourselves what you need to accomplish your dreams as an entrepreneur, then you work hard towards putting these in place. Next, as an entrepreneur, you need to check your milestones from time to time, am I on course? What did I miss? How did I miss it? What can I do to correct it as an entrepreneur?   This is very important. I call it checking yourself from time to time in a realistic fashion.    Have a mirror. A mirror is someone that you have confidence in, that you can check in with from time to time. When entrepreneurs do well, they mostly have business mentors.  It would also be nice if your mirror is like a mentor, someone who has accomplished something in that field that you can go to from time to time to check with.

Finally, you must work hard, to achieve success in life is not rocket science, you just must put in the time. On hard work, Michael Jackson for instance was renowned for his excellent work ethic, which explains why he remains one of the greatest musicians of all times.    Some would think dancing and singing do not require any significant efforts but beneath those enthralling videos and captivating songs are hours and hours of practice and sweat.

When Micheal Jackson was producing the video for ‘Thriller,’ one of the ground-breaking music videos of the 80’s, there was an eight-week period where he had to work like slave, staying up days at a time to ensure that everything was perfect. This is the same type of thoroughness and diligence that you must apply to your business.

For long term orientation and focus, you must realize that the journey of entrepreneurship is a long and difficult journey. You must make sacrifices to be able to get to the destination. You must be disciplined, resilient and show tenacity because it is a long journey with up moments and down moments.  When I think of resilience, I think of the story of Jack Ma, the richest man in China. Jack’s story is one of determination and resilience. He was not born into a wealthy family. When he applied to go to University, he failed the entrance exam twice. He finally passed on the third try. In fact, he was rejected by Harvard University ten times.

After he graduated, he tried applying for jobs and was rejected by more than a dozen companies including KFC, before he was finally hired as an English Teacher in China. Today, he is the richest man in China with a networth valued at approximately $36.2 billion. But Jack remained undeterred, he continued to be focused. Today Jack Ma’s company Alibaba is an e-commerce giant – one of the most valued in China – that employs thousands of people globally.

Similarly, Jeff Bezos, the Founder of Amazon, who only two days ago briefly overtook Bill Gates as the richest man in the world is a lesson in tenacity and resilience. He founded Amazon in 1994 at only age 30.  Amazon has grown to be recognised as leader in innovative breakthroughs that have transformed the global retail market and the way consumers see “buying and selling.”

It is important that as entrepreneurs, you have the discipline to save, to defer certain spending. You should be able to commit to making sacrifices today for a better tomorrow. One of the richest men in the world, Warren Buffet, is known for his modest and frugal lifestyle. Despite his fortune, Buffet lives in the same house he bought in 1958, which he says he would not trade for anything. He buys cars at reduced prices, like those that have a little damage, because he considers cars a depreciating asset. In his words ‘Success is really doing what you love and doing it well.” It’s as simple as that.  Getting to do what you love to do every day – that’s really the ultimate luxury. Do not use your profits or earning to purchase the latest cars or houses. Ensure that you are as frugal as possible with your expenditure while you accumulate your capital.

The culture of Excellence is very important for entrepreneurs. As entrepreneurs, we must emphasize quality in all pursuits. If you are long-term in your orientation, then quality becomes second nature. This is because you don’t want to compromise. You want to do it right, knowing that in year 1, year 2, you might not make so much money but in the long run as you build what is called brand equity and people begin to have confidence in you, your product and services and recognize the quality, they will patronize you big time.

Today’s great companies, Prada, Apple, Microsoft, Tata, etc. started as small companies, family businesses even, and today, they are billion-dollar businesses. You can build that kind of business too, but to do that you must think long term because Prada did not start 10 years or 20 years ago. You must also institutionalize quality so when people hear your brand name, it resonates and is understood as synonymous with quality, durability, reliability and trust.

As aspiring entrepreneurs, you must understand the importance of quality, reliability, integrity and above all professionalism. The short run attention to excellence might not give you returns, depending on how you define returns, but in the long run, it will give you significant returns, as long as excellence remains your watchword.

To build to last, you must think long term, prioritise quality, excellence etc. but most importantly, tell yourself: I’m in this business for the long haul. This orientation will shape almost everything you do. You will be compelled to put in place foundations and structures that will help you to institutionalize the business.This should be the aspiration of every entrepreneur and especially for those of us who come from Africa.

Steve Jobs started Apple, and though he is gone, the Company is waxing stronger today. This is the mentality we must have as we start out business as entrepreneurs.  We need to think legacy, we need to think sustainability, and we must explore how to institutionalize these.

Personal Experience

The story of UBA, which everyone talks about today, was driven by these principles. Some of them we started with, and others we adapted or improved over time.  I am sharing with you today, experience that has come over three decades.  Before today’s United Bank for Africa, we started as Standard Trust Bank (STB).To build STB, we acquired a bank that was distressed (at a more difficult time than the time we live in today) and we set out to turn around this Bank.  We imbibed the principles I have shared with you.

First was let’s think long term. To do this, we defined what we call, the three-tier strategic intent for Standard Trust Bank (STB) at the time. The first-tier strategy was to turn the Bank around and make it viable. We gave ourselves three years to achieve this guided by short milestones that we kept checking to make sure we are on course.

Then second year strategy intent for us was to make STB one of the top 10 Banks in Nigeria. At the time, we had over 120 Banks in Nigeria.The third-year strategy intent was to become one of the top three Banks in Nigeria.We were guided by our major philosophy to democratize access to financial services in Nigeria.

So, for entrepreneurs, the lesson there is to think big, think long term, set short milestones. As you achieve them, it spurs you to do more. When we achieved the position of a Top Three bank, we set out again to conquer more. Why? Because entrepreneurship is a long journey, you don’t give up until you accomplish your mission. Today, UBA has presence in 19 African countries, UK, France, and is the only sub-Saharan financial institution in NY. How did we accomplish these? We set time frames, we worked hard, we assembled resources. When we needed more capital, we went to the market to raise money. And because we were credible with a track record, we received the desired capital. When we needed more human capital, we went to hire more people from the right markets.

Today, UBA is a development force for our continent, democratizing banking, and creating access to financial services for over 14 million customers across 1000 branches and cash centres. It is this long-term aspiration that fuelled all our accomplishments at UBA. As I said before, if we accomplished all this, you – our younger ones can even do better. It is not rocket science, it is just these principles – philosophies that guide you to success. No matter what happens after this session, remember those philosophies that I shared.


My discussion on entrepreneurship would be grossly incomplete if I do not share an economic philosophy I developed called – ‘Africapitalism.’ Africapitalism posits that the private sector has a key role to play in the economic and social development of the African continent. This is not just a theoretical philosophy, it is informed by my over 30 years of private sector experience and engagement in Africa. Africapitalism espouses that for Africa to develop, long term investments in critical sectors of the economy must occur and it must be made by the private sector and It also charges Africans to embrace the following mind-sets:

First, Africans must lead the way. It’s absurd and difficult to expect people to invest in your continent when you decide to put your money in Swiss Bank accounts, when you don’t have belief in your continent. So, with us as Africans, the philosophy of Africapitalism is ‘in Africa, for Africa’; support the continent, lead the way so that our partners can join us in investing in Africa because indeed to a large extent, I believe that investment is what would help us as a continent to develop and create jobs.

Second, we must Come up with innovative, home grown and bottom-up solutions for ?the seemingly intractable challenges that we continue to face. With this I must say that I am impressed with the way young Africans are leveraging technology to come up with innovative solutions to problems in agriculture, healthcare, financial services, manufacturing etc. I know this because companies such as CCHub, Budgit and COMSAT that got support from the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) continue to break grounds in using technology to make our society a better place.

The technology landscape is growing massively and has attracted millions of dollars and investors in the last 5 years. Companies such as Andela, Tizeti, PayStack, Kudi.ng, Spark.ng, IrokoTv, Hotels.ng continue to push the frontiers in Nigeria’s technology space.  In fact, our youth have made such advances that when Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg embarked on his first visit to Africa, his first stop was Nigeria. With bright and creative minds such as these, it is only a matter of time before young Africans build technologies to rival the Ubers and Ebays of this world. My prayer is that I am called to invest in these and make billions too!!!

Third, ‘Nobody but us will develop Africa. Africa’s destiny lies in the hands of all of us, Africans.’ Through Africapitalism we can build resilient, competitive and self-reliant economies while empowering our teeming youth population. We can also achieve development that is sustainable and inclusive and in the process, reduce poverty by creating prosperity for the majority by broadening access to opportunities which can drive self-empowerment in a way that does not breed dependency.

Therefore, in line with my philosophy of Africapitalism, the Tony Elumelu Foundation, through our flagship programme, the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme has committed $100 million towards empowering the next generation of African Entrepreneurs that will transform Africa for good in a sustainable fashion that recognizes self and human dignity.

Our programme is a $100m initiative committed to identifying, training and funding 10,000 entrepreneurs in Africa every year, over a 10-year period, in the hopes that these ones would go on to create at least 1,000,000 jobs and help our entrepreneurs generate $1 billion in revenue. So far, we have empowered 3,000 people who are creating jobs, paying taxes and solving problems within their communities.

I want to encourage all of you who decide to embark on the path of entrepreneurship, to imbibe and practice the principles of Africapitalism that incorporates inclusive prosperity, sustainability, social wealth creation, local value addition, etc. Not least because you are Africans, but because Africapitalism ensures the most reliable path to long lasting success in business. Africapitalism reduces tension, volatility, fosters peace and a sense of shared prosperity. But let me say that I would be insincere if I attempt to glamourize entrepreneurship or simplify it. It is not simple and as I said, it is a long journey and one that is tough. And the unpopular truth is that only those who have grit and resilience can make it through the end.

You must realize that your success is not only for you and your family, it is for your community, your country and all of Africa. Africa needs you and all your energy and intellect. Africa needs your creativity and innovativeness. I recognise that there are external factors that can frustrate your entrepreneurship journey, therefore everywhere I go, I call on government at all levels and the Policy makers to do as much as possible to make the business environment conducive for Entrepreneurs. I urge them to recognise that when entrepreneurs succeed, the citizenry succeeds. Indeed, when people don’t have a stake in the economy, there shall not be peace.

Our leaders should always consider their legacy, and one way they can create a lasting legacy is by empowering our young ones to fulfil their entrepreneurial ambitions. So, my young brothers and sisters, go forth and embrace entrepreneurship. Imbibe the #TOEWay because I have used them in my own journey and I believe they will lead you to greater successes. To attain long term success, adopt Africapitalism as a guiding philosophy. Develop a keen sense of awareness that Africa is in dire need of leaders both in the private and public sectors and your ideas can indeed transform the continent. Let’s rise in unison to transform Africa and create jobs.

By Tony O. Elumelu, CON

Chairman, Heirs Holdings Group and  Founder, The Tony Elumelu Foundation.

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