I remember back in 2012, when I won the Tony & Awele Elumelu Prize for best graduating MSC student of my set, at the Usman Dan Fodio University in Sokoto state, Nigeria. I was so excited to receive the
N500,000 Naira cash, which contributed to the launch of my school – Brilliant Footsteps International Academy – the prize money definitely came at the best of times! I was able to start working on the school’s infrastructure, building furniture, and sourcing other relevant items. Every penny of the prize money went into building my school, which today competes with BUA International Limited, as regards jobs creation, in my state. `
I always had a passion for imparting knowledge, so I decided to go through the business-as-usual way of graduating, getting a masters or Ph.D., and then securing a job as a lecturer. I initially did a masters in banking and finance, before I obtained an MSC in economics. Then, I went further to get a Ph.D. in economics, and finally in 2006, I started my career in lecturing.
While lecturing at the university, I had all the feelings I hoped I would get from the experience, like realising my passion, being able to establish intellectual connections, and being able to impact lives, but it wasn’t 100% what I wanted, until I stumbled on a teaching role at a nursery/primary school.
When I taught little kids, I felt more connected to them. I began to nurture this idea of marrying my university job with teaching pre-school kids, and eventually the idea came to life.
But there was a problem – I was not cut out for a regimented life. Yes, being a lecturer who is working day and night to grow through the ranks to become a professor can be interesting, but within a short while I began to feel bored.
All I was doing was ticking the boxes to achieve what was needed to be promoted to the next level, but it was not exciting. Soon, it dawned on me that I was not a nine-to-five person after all. I needed the freedom to do other things and live my life the way I wanted to.
At that point, I decided to start a number of side-hustles. I travelled between Lagos and Kano buying and selling items like shoes, and even cars (I was a bus driver at this point).
Lecturing gave me a steady income, but I didn’t have the ability to freely express myself, and I think that was what made me begin to venture into entrepreneurship.
Being an entrepreneur came naturally to me. I continued running my school, my lecturing role and my side-hustles concurrently, from 2012 till 2020 when I voluntarily disengaged from my service at the university.
Brilliant Footsteps International Academy was setup as a solution to an obvious problem.
When we started in 2012, we looked at the Nigerian, educational system especially up here in the North. We saw that there were numerous schools around but so many things were missing, especially in terms of standards and quality. We also observed a prevalent problem that I call futuristic terrorism, which refers to the mindset of our youth that so easily resorts to extremism.
We wanted to build a one-stop shop school that would solve the problem of quality education, while building a growth mindset in the young ones living in this part of the country.
Our school exposes our students to the aspect of Islam that grooms them to become adults that will desire to contribute to nation-building, as against a raw kind of Islamic curriculum that blindly focuses on scriptures without looking at the other side of tolerance. We are driven by three principles: conventional standards, Islamic curricula, and skill acquisition for entrepreneurship. We blended these three things together in a way that will disrupt the status quo.
As part of the steps, we took to evolve and stay on top of our customers’ needs we observed some inconveniences that were already attached to parents and had become the norm. In response, we provided lunch daily for our students, they observe one hour of siesta daily, they prayed in the school at the appropriate times, and they had adequate space and facilities to play in the school.
There was a boom for our services amongst Sokoto parents when we set up because of the level of convenience that our services provide. We helped relieved a lot of their stress and they felt safer. They were able to save more money and commuting was less risky. Also, the kids were doing better because they didn’t have to go through the stress of going back home, changing a uniform, and taking a very fast lunch and coming back out for other activities.
Even after 11 years, and all the expansion to the school, I still teach – alongside being the owner/ MD of the school, I am also the acting HOD of the Arts and Social Sciences department.
I have remained very active in the field, so as to set a pace of standards and to create a sterling service that is nationally competitive and emphasizes Islamic knowledge. This helps to ensure that our students are always plugged into society with a developmental mindset.
We incorporate different aspects of technology into what we do. All our students are enrolled in computer programming and artificial intelligence classes. They also take vocational skills classes like bag making, bead making, and so on. We also fly in professionals who teach them diction. We are intentional in creating a world-class institution for our students.
Today, we have 6 branches across the state, with 3000 students and almost 600 staff.
I would not say we have gotten to where we want to be, because it has always been my dream to build a university and I hope to actualize this dream.
My story may seem inspiring, but trust me, what we see now did not happen overnight, and I must say it has not been easy. The toughest challenge I face every day is to ensure that I am constantly making the right decisions to build a legacy that continues making an impact even 100 years after I am gone.
I foresaw this moment in time 10 years ago. Back then, when I will talk to people, I would tell them that I would build a school that is the first choice of every parent in Sokoto State.
A most memorable moment at positively and permanently impacted my life was when Mr. Tony Elumelu said; “you become successful when you don’t have to micromanage.” There was a time where I had to be in everyone’s business across the school, but today I can tell you that I often go a whole month without visiting any of our 6 school branches, because I have been deliberate in capacitising our staff and empowering them to take ownership of their roles. I have built a financial accounting system where I am not the signatory – I don’t control the accounts, I just receive a salary. We also have equity system that allows me to share profits with my managers.
In building this governance structure, it remains top-of-mind to prioritise the welfare of my staff, their families and my household level, because a school is beyond the building, the infrastructure, or the plan, it is also beyond the system. A school is the teacher.
We are intentional about training and connecting our teachers across the globe. We recently liased with Kent State University in the United States to train our teachers, and that is just one of the opportunities that we have been able to provide them with outside of Nigeria. We do not compromise on investing in areas that directly affect our quality, from manpower, to the infrastructure to everything that we do.
I see myself more like a social entrepreneur. The Foundation provided me with global exposure. Being an alumni of the Tony Elumelu Foundation got me into the White House, it also took me to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, where I spoke and got so many opportunities. I have expanded my international network and spoken to people across the globe and gained so much.
Being an alumni also gave me mentorship opportunities. I have made connections with different CEOs from the Foundation. I remember Parminder Vir (Tony Elumelu Foundation CEO 2014 – 2018) once telling me to stop flying around and work on my business. I assure you that till today I have not travelled out twice because I keep on recalling what she said.
The Foundation has put me on the map and given me a lot of visibility. People know who SHADI is. I have a video where Barack Obama mentions my name and mentions the name of the school.
Through the Foundation I have created a CV in waiting for my would-be graduates because they have video evidence to tell anybody in China, in Japan, in any part of the world that Barack Obama knows of the existence of their school, even though it is in one corner of Nigeria called Sokoto. People ask me, how much I got from the Foundation? I tell them I received a seed capital of
N500,000 and they’re surprised.
It is not about the money. There are other things that mean more than money in a business. For me, I am proud when my kids go to the American Embassy, and with just a Google search of the name Brilliant Footsteps, my school appears everywhere. It might not be quantifiable to others but to me, it means a lot. It is an asset.
I would end this by reminding us that as an entrepreneur, an important factor is funding, but you must have the two “I” s. The two “I” s mean idea and integrity and they guide me.
So, ask yourself, do you have a workable idea? Do you have the integrity to push out that idea if you get the right investment?
African entrepreneurs, my story is proof that when you have the idea and the integrity, the investment would come.
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