Commencement Speech


“Employee, Employer, and Empowerer: Pathways to Success and Impact in an Uncertain World”

By Tony O. Elumelu C.O.N.

Delivered at Babcock University’s Postgraduate graduation ceremony

June 4, 2015


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Thank you very much for the introduction.

I am pleased to be invited to speak at one of Nigeria’s leading private universities.

I would like to thank Prof. James Makinde, the Vice Chancellor and President of Babcock University, for personally inviting me here.

Thank you too to my colleagues at UBA, Prudence Mordi and Ayoku Liadi for working hard to ensure I am here today.

And to you postgraduate class of 2015, congratulations on being awarded another degree.

You have demonstrated a commitment to improving yourself and inspiring others.

Your family must be proud of you. Congratulations to them too!

I earned my postgraduate degree in 1988.

The day I had my graduation ceremony, I could not post my graduation photos on Facebook because Mark Zuckerberg was still a toddler.  And I couldn’t dance azonto at my graduation party because frankly, we hadn’t figured out that we could be so creative with our legs.

That said, the year 1988 was in many ways like 2015.

I, too, was heading out into a world at a time of uncertainty.  Nigeria – and much of Africa – was under military rule with no end in sight, and the Cold War was still very ‘hot’ with nuclear war still a very real and looming possibility.  Oil price was around $15 per barrel.

It was a time of global uncertainty, like we face today.

In 1988, the World Bank estimated the outstanding external debts of developing countries to have reached $1,320 billion. This posed a serious problem to the sound development of the world economy and the international financial system.

The Nigerian government, in response to the economic crisis, introduced structural adjustment programmes and reduced fuel price subsidies.

Parents here will remember the chaos that followed: transporters raised their prices, workers went on strike and students held protests.

Today, we are in the midst of another economic crisis.  You have seen the headlines: youth unemployment rates are soaring, not just in Nigeria but across the Africa.

As I look at you – Babcock’s postgraduate class of 2015 – it occurs to me that many of you may be looking toward the future with the same trepidation I had when I was sitting where you are now, 27 years ago.

I have deliberated hard about addressing you today.  I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in nearly three decades since I was in the seat you are in now.

Two answers came to me:

On this wonderful day when we are all here to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to share with you the pathways to a successful career.

You have grown up in a highly connected and globalised environment:

You have access to new technology, new ways of communicating and working together – numerous opportunities I never had as a student.

Yet, some of you may feel like you lack what it takes to take advantage of these opportunities.

So, today I will talk broadly about how you can achieve success as an employee.

Secondly, I will discuss how you can create opportunities for yourself and others, through entrepreneurship.

And then I will conclude by discussing the art of empowering others.

Empowerment isn’t just crucial for young people it’s crucial for everyone. In empowering others, we develop our country, our continent, and our planet.

Pathway One:  Employee Phase

When people graduate, the natural thing to do is look for a job.

Sadly, a postgraduate degree is no longer a golden key that will open doors at any workplace and have people falling over themselves to give you the job of your dreams.

A recent survey of CEOs in the UK highlighted their concerns that young people’s horizons were not broad enough for a globalised and diverse economy.

The story is not entirely different in Nigeria.

In a report by Philips Consulting, CEOs were not impressed with graduates’ ability to work on their own as well as their critical and analytical thinking skills.

However, the good news is that many organizations now have developmental programmes meant to equip graduates with the business, analytical and leadership skills needed to be successful in the company.

At UBA, we have the UBA Academy which we set up in 2008, to train and develop our workforce, so they can continue to be at the fore-front of best-in class professionals in the world.

Our dedicated Learning and Development professionals are always working on closing any competency gap in our work-force.

However, I did not start my career at UBA with an in-house training academy.  I started at Allstates Trust Bank and will share with you a few things I learnt as an employee.

After my initial training programme at Allstates, it was tempting to assume I would be given a period of grace to get to grips with the job.

Far from it.  There were customers to attend to, loans to structure.  And so I hit the ground running immediately.

I learned innovation.  I challenged paradigms.  I worked harder than most people!

I learned how to turn abstract information into reports for my bosses.

I learned how to make presentations, drive hard negotiations, and close a deal.

I learned team work.  Postgraduate class of 2015, you will get nowhere if you don’t get on with those around you – whether they are your superiors, peers, or subordinates.

In the bank, some people focused on the short-term gain – the biggest bonus and the exciting job title.  But I learned the hard truth: there were ups and downs.  And one needed to be patient and wait for the opportunities to arise.

The most important things I learned were hard work, resilience and excellence.  My advice to you postgraduate class of 2015 is:

Work hard so you can stand out.

Hard work and excellence made my bosses Toyin Akin-Johnson and Ebitimi Banigo first notice, and then, subsequently, believe in me.

At 27, I went from being a boy to being a boss when I was appointed a branch manager at the bank – the youngest ever bank branch manager at that time.  All the things I had learned earlier had come to play.

Then I continued learning.

I learned that I had to be absolutely comfortable managing people who were older than me.  The best ideas never came from me operating alone in a silo, or – quite frankly – from the management team operating alone.

It came from those people I managed.  I learned to listen, to be decisive and to be fair but show firmness where necessary – but above all to learn from everyone.

I am telling you this story so that you understand how much you can achieve with excellence and hard work.

The times we live in have been quite challenging, but the reality is, you need to be bold and courageous.  Don’t let your journey end before it even begins.

I would like, at this point to acknowledge two Babcock graduates who currently work for me.

Odiri Oginni studied Accounting here at Babcock and now works at the finance department of United Capital Plc.

Adeola Oduntan read Computer Science and now works in the IT department of the same company.

Well done to the faculty and staff of this institution for feeding hungry minds and equipping them with the tools they require to succeed in their chosen fields.

Education is not just about learning in the classroom.  It is also about learning how to cope in the outside world.

Pathway Two: Employer/Entrepreneur Phase

Some graduates have no problems at all coping in the outside world.  I have met many young men and women who went straight from University to a boardroom.  A rising number of young entrepreneurs are defying the economic downturn by launching their own enterprises.

This is happening not just in Nigeria, but all over the world.  In the UK, a new generation of young business owners are leading the way out of the economic crisis, according to the annual Simply Business Start-up Index, which reveals a 29 per cent rise in firms started by 18-25 year olds since the recession took hold in 2008.

It’s a leap of faith, jumping from a classroom to your own business. But it is a leap that can be rewarding for you and to others as well.

And this brings me to the second part of my speech – entrepreneurship and how people can succeed by working for themselves.

A few of you have probably applied for jobs via the online site Now, how many of you are aware that Jobberman was co-founded by three university students who shared the same interest in the internet space?

These students started the firm from the Obafemi Awolowo University campus during the Industrial Strike Action by Nigerian Academic Staff Union (ASUU) of August 2009.

Three students defied ASUU and the prevailing challenges and circumstances at the time, and started Jobberman because it required little capital and there was a huge market for their product.  Today, the firm is Africa’s leading online job site.

This is entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship means you no longer have to wait to see who will give you a job, you can seize the opportunity to secure your future and in the process, create jobs and livelihoods for others.

Entrepreneurship is how we become masters of our destiny and tackle the serious challenge or ill that poverty and mass unemployment pose to the stability of our societies and economies.

However, unlike the team at Jobberman, I didn’t become an entrepreneur straight from the university. I graduated, got a job and climbed the corporate ladder.

While I was at Allstates Trust Bank, my mentor Ebitimi Banigo helped me to develop my strategic thinking and to channel my ideas into concrete actions.

I learnt all about leadership and how to run successful businesses. So when the right moment arrived, in my early 30s, I had the self-belief to make the switch from employee to employer.

My partners and I read the banking landscape at the time, and knew that many of Nigeria’s more than 100 banks would be in trouble.  We set up a company that would focus on turning these troubled banks around.

In 1997, my partners and I took over the shuttered Crystal Bank and rebranded it in to Standard Trust Bank (STB).  In no time, we were out-performing most of the other banks in Nigeria.

How did it happen?  We achieved unprecedented growth through innovation and by pursuing customers who had not previously had bank accounts or were underbanked.

This approach helped create a culture of responsibility and accountability. It also facilitated payments, and opened up access to credit for tens of thousands of financially disenfranchised Nigerians.

Though economic profit was our primary motivation, we made it easy for people to have access to banking services.  This made me understand that even when a business is in pursuit of profit, it can also deliver a meaningful social return as well – this was the foundation of the economic philosophy of Africapitalism which guides the way I conduct business and make my investment decisions.

The success of STB allowed us to merge with the much larger United Bank for Africa (UBA), in 2005.  But, we wanted to do even more, so we opened bank subsidiaries in 18 other countries across Africa. And just as we did in Nigeria, we gave an opportunity to customers who had never opened a bank account before or were being poorly served or underbanked.

Today the United Bank for Africa has over 7 million customers in 19 African countries – supported by over 20,000 employees.

So though I started my banking career as an employee, 27 years later, my group of businesses have become one of the largest employers of people in Africa.

At Heirs Holdings, we measure our success not only in terms of profits but on how we help to create social wealth for all Africans.

Leveraging Success to Empower the next Generation of African Leaders

When I left UBA in 2010 to pursue other interests, I made a promise that through the Tony Elumelu Foundation I would institutionalize luck and create 1,000 more UBAs.  I wanted to leverage the success I had enjoyed to empower the next generation of African entrepreneurs to also succeed.

In entrepreneurship, it’s important to remember that it’s a long-term journey and that nothing is ever easy or perfect. You can start with an idea and over time you can refine it as the market or demand changes. If you are waiting for the perfect time, you may never get started.

Over the past three decades I’ve spent as a banker, investor, turnaround manager, I had the opportunity to meet thousands of entrepreneurs, like me.  Many of them young people, with incredible dreams and business ideas but without the experience or the access to mentoring and support required in order to build successful businesses.

I’ve also met entrepreneurs who are already running home-grown businesses and have clear understanding of the local market.

Like the team that founded Jobberman, they can identify gaps in the market for specific products and services.  Yet, many of these budding entrepreneurs often lack the capital, the networks, the training or the support to take their strong small business to national or regional scale.

And that is why I launched the $100 million Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme, also known as TEEP. This programme is identifying and providing mentoring, training, networking, and funding for 1,000 African start-ups per year for the next ten years.

Through the Programme, I have committed $100 million to support the next generation of African entrepreneurs.  These may be the next UBAs.

TEEP kicked off on January 1, 2015, and by the time we closed the application portal two months later, we had over 20,000 applications from 54 African countries and territories!

Eventually, with support from Accenture and a pan-African selection committee we selected 1,000 amazing entrepreneurs from 52 African countries.  These entrepreneurs are currently undergoing an intensive 12 week online training programme with the support of over 400 mentors from around the world.  In July they will all come to Lagos for a boot camp to close the formal training part of the programme.

I am delighted to say that a Babcock graduate is one of those chosen in to the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme class of 2015.

Tejumade Fola’-Alade holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Studies.

After a brief stint with a major online retailer, she is going off to start her own online firm. Good luck to her as she begins the journey towards self-dependence.

We hope that TEEP, over the next 10 years, will create 10,000 African-owned businesses, generating 1,000,000 new jobs and contributing $10 billion to revenues across Africa.


In closing, I want to say to you, the post graduate class of 2015, that your education doesn’t end here.  It begins now, so always approach all of life’s new experiences with an attitude of learning.

I’ve presented to you two equally valid paths you can follow to succeed in your career.

Whichever path you choose, remember to be hardworking, creative, innovative, energetic and passionate about what you do, and always have the courage to seize opportunities.

Remember also that education is not only a privilege in Africa, it turns into a duty upon completion.

You have been empowered by your education, so you must ensure that whatever you choose to do, wherever you choose to do it, think about how you can give back to your community by empowering others to take charge of their own lives and well-being.

Recognize also that your country and your continent are your community.

Do not allow your religion, ethnicity or nationality to become the chains that limit your vision, your network and your ambition.  Rather, use them as bridges to expand your world by embracing their common principles of humanity, solidarity, charity, honesty and the search for the common good.

These principles will enable you live anywhere, befriend anyone, trust the best in everyone and bring down all barriers and boundaries to your success.

I tell you this because I was born in Jos, Plateau State. I studied in Bendel State University, Edo State. I went to the University of Lagos. I did my National Youth Service in Sokoto. I work in Lagos and my businesses are all over Nigeria. And  I am all the better for it. So, we must not have ethnicity or religion as a block. Under governor Fashola, one of our companies was given a rare opportunity to develop the Falomo Shopping Centre in the heart of Lagos. I am from Delta State. I am not from Lagos State. That’s the new Nigeria.

And that is what it is all about – bettering ourselves, bettering our communities, and making a better future for the next generation of Africans.

Your generation is capable of making a better Nigeria.

Your families, your teachers, believe in you, and more importantly, Nigeria needs you.

Congratulations on this achievement. I pray that you all succeed in your chosen careers.

And that through you, our nation will continue to be a shining example to other nations.

God Bless you.

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