Entrepreneurs are made not born. It is part of a deeply held cultural belief that the qualities that make up entrepreneurs, like creativity, ingenuity, and passion, are the result of innate personal qualities. Although there is some truth to this, it is not the whole story. In fact, belief in this half-story may be the reason why many people (maybe even you) do not pursue their entrepreneurial passions and why many more do not consider their current work entrepreneurial.
Entrepreneurs are made. They are made from their childhoods, families, and life circumstances. They are made from their obstacles, failures, and successes. And most importantly, they are made from their past and present work experiences. One of such entrepreneur whose childhood shaped a passion for entrepreneurship is Kent R. Ford. He shares from the basics on how he got started and his experience as an entrepreneur and how he is now guiding early stage entrepreneurs as a mentor on the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme.
Born in Indiana, USA a state whose motto is “Crossroads of America”. Kent says he learned the value of hard work and diligent study from his parents and grandparents early in life and has maintained these values throughout his career and aims to pass-on these virtues on to my children. From an early age of 7 years old, he took a decision to travel the world and have a career in the international arena. This catalyst for this unusual path to a career he says was his mother, who exposed him to movies, books and magazines with International themes thereby sparking my curiosity and giving him what became an insatiable appetite for all things international. This quest for an International career became the focus in his university and MBA studies.
While in the university, Kent ran a business selling newspapers in the local hospital. From that singular experience he would learn the importance of working long hours and making impactful decisions, that shaped his entrepreneurial endeavor. Upon graduating with an MBA, Kent joined forces with a highly regarded businessman to create Corporate Services International, a consulting firm that would facilitate cross-border business opportunities in Asia and Europe, just as the Cold War was ending. After several successful years together, he sold his share of the business and shortly thereafter began another company, Global Development Solutions, this time focused on delivering innovative solutions for the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other development agencies. After a successful ten-year run he sold his shares of the firm in order to move his career into a new direction he says he rightly believes would allow his work to be of value to an even larger swath of people around the world.
With several businesses to his name, one would ask what drives Kent, Passion and integrity he says are his driving forces “I love my work and feel blessed to be able to have been doing such work for nearly 30 years. I love the travel, the people, the diversity, and the complex challenges that we encounter. I maintain my integrity by always keeping my word; even when it is uncomfortable to do so. One thing that I have seen throughout my career is when I have encountered people who have not kept their word or were otherwise cavalier in approach, they not only do themselves a disservice, but they also injure those around them. This is incompatible with how I believe one should carry on in life”
Along the way to success, Kent and his teams have like every entrepreneur encountered challenges which he says are necessary and important part of any business and career. From the usual challenges of financing, staffing, maintaining agility to dealing with epochal changes that impact the vision and direction of a firm or practice area, he has seen it all but he takes on these challenges not as a problem; but only as a situation requiring a solution, retaining a thoughtful approach to the challenge, bringing in the best minds available to create a solution and moving ahead from there.
The journey as a serial entrepreneur Kent says has been a long one aided by mentorship. “Throughout my career I have had mentors and feel that those relationships have been some of the most formative in my career. For instance, upon leaving university for my first professional job, I was mentored by a man who guided me in some of the most important aspects of navigating my early career. Then, a few years later, just as I wrapped up my MBA studies, I met someone who became the most important mentor of my life and someone who I eventually joined to start one of the businesses I have founded” This informed his decision to give back, mentor to help early stage and aspiring entrepreneurs through the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship programme which he says he has been a supporter the ever since he learned of the launch of the program in 2015.
Considering the impact that mentors had in his life, several of whose wisdom and sage advice were instrumental in guiding him when he was starting out in career, Kent says he jumped at the opportunity when he was given a chance to become a TEF mentor. Being a mentor under the programme is however not his first opportunity to mentor as he has had the opportunity to be a mentor many times in the past 10 years and aim to continue doing so for as long as I am able.
This year (2017) Kent has served as mentor to two entrepreneurs – Joel Stephens from Ghana and Kambone Stephen from Zambia. Who he remains in touch with even after the mentorship programme, and remains committed to walking along beside them for an indefinite period as they continue to develop their ideas and businesses.
On his style of mentorship, Kent says he goes into every mentor-mentee relationship looking at it as if it will be a multi-year endeavor on his part, expecting the mentees to be prepared when they meet and to let him know how they feel about his advice and guidance. He says “As a mentor I believe that sharing and imparting my personal values upon the mentee is important to developing a strong, trusted bond from the outset. This exercise is not only about me sharing my personal values, but it is also about the mentee sharing his or her own values so that we both understand how we look at life, business and relationships. I love hearing about the different ways mentees look at life and how they have arrived at this point in time and how their values have defined who they are and, just as importantly, who they will become someday.”
For Kent, Mentorship is a journey he has embarked on and one he will be on for long he says “The Tony Elumelu Foundation’s Entrepreneurship Programme has been a tremendous opportunity for me to extend and expand my mentoring and it has given me a chance to learn new and refined techniques for mentoring the next generation of business leaders. I am honored to have had the chance to meet the mentees and dedicated professionals associated with the Foundation’s Programme and will cherish these experiences and memories throughout my life. It has also provided me with new ideas and techniques for engaging my own staff as well as helped make me a more rounded, articulate and dedicated mentor in the future”.