Hakeem Belo-Osagie (in his own words) is either famous or infamous, depending on the audience. The warm welcome he received when taking to the stage at the evening Gala of the Wharton Africa Business Forum (WABF) 2015 made it strikingly obvious which the 600 strong audience considered him to be. Amongst the audience of Wharton MBA students and alumni, students from other prestigious universities, and esteemed young professionals, we had the honour of being party to a keynote speech delivered by Mr Belo-Osagie.

For those of you who are unaware, Belo-Osagie is the chairman of Etisalat Nigeria and was previously Chairman of The United Bank for Africa. He is also a philanthropist, being among the largest donors to the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, and having an endowment fund for the promotion of Africa at Yale. According to Forbes, Belo-Osagie is also the forty-first richest man in Africa in 2014. “For those of you who want to ask about my wealth – I have not done so badly” he tells us, pre-empting the inevitable question. However you would not guess this to observe him as he stops to take photos with participants, giving them permission to tell him off if he does not speedily respond to their emails.

During his time at WABF, Belo-Osagie came across as tremendously humble, warming the audience with his calm demeanor and self-deprecation. Before speaking of his ‘Africa Story’ he expresses his delight of being asked to address a group of young people who, in his words, “had nothing better to do on a Saturday night!” Perhaps one of the most sought after men in the world for his opinion on all things Africa, Belo-Osagie insists that he is not so listened to at home! He jokes that his wife does not take his business advice, his second daughter stopped listening to him when she started working for McKinsey, that his third daughter stopped listening when she went to Yale, and that his son has never listened to him!


The Journey

The theme of the conference was ‘My Africa Story’, and Belo-Osagie speaks poetically as he recounts his, beginning with his time studying. After completing a Law degree at Cambridge University, he achieved an MA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford University. In 1978, he studied for his MBA at Harvard as the only black student among the 800 students. He jests about the Arab and Middle Eastern Society taking pity on his lone self, inviting him to join; before long they invited him to become the Vice President of the Society! Having faced the challenges of being the only black student, Belo-Osagie expresses how impressed he is to see the progress that has been made, as he stood in front of 600 high calibre (and mostly black) students, alumni and young professionals. 

“I’m always suspicious of stories when people’s lives go according to plan!”

Belo-Osagie continues his story by telling us about the many hurdles he faced when embarking on, and then during, his professional career. “I’m always suspicious of stories when people’s lives go according to plan!” he tells us, believing that often, chance and indeed failure play a big part in success.

Belo-Osagie’s early career did not go quite according to plan. Having received 47 rejections from his 50 job applications at Harvard, he went back to Nigeria with, he says, no focus or direction. “There’s life after rejection” Belo-Osagie insists, empowering us to persevere, even through what seem to be the darkest of times.

“There’s life after rejection”

Upon taking a job with the Federal Government of Nigeria, Belo-Osagie became the lowest paid member of the Harvard MBA class of 1980. His pay was so low that his salary was classified as by Harvard as ‘voluntary work’! Nonetheless, Belo-Osagie cites his time in Government as the best years of his life. His recount of this time is marked with many anecdotes of hazard-ridden situations. One example is when the Government was overthrown whilst he was on holiday in Ivory Coast. He recounts his alarm when his wife (then girlfriend) told him to listen to BBC, where there was an announcement that all Government ministers and Special Advisers (which included him) should report themselves to Government for arrest! Belo-Osagie was fortunate enough to be one of only two individuals re-elected to government. To this good fortune he owes his mind-set of being “good to everyone you meet”, as you never know when the relationship will be of service to you.

In addition to his job application rejections whilst at Harvard, Belo-Osagie provided additional examples of ‘failure’ in his repertoire. He tells us that he only became an entrepreneur after his attempts to become a lawyer failed; when his best friend needed a partner for his new law firm, it was decided that his wife was a better candidate for the role than he was!

Despite the success of his first business venture in petroleum consulting, his second venture in finance was a resounding failure. Belo-Osagie admits that he “hated” the subject at University, so his foray into the area was quite ironic. He takes a majority (‘80-90%’) of the blame for the multi-million dollar loss of the business in 1990, but cites it as the best thing to have happened to him. “Never be afraid of failure”, he advises us.

“Never be afraid of failure.”


Key Lessons

“Don’t listen to the voice that tells you to be ‘realistic’.”

Of course no Business School keynote address would be complete without the obligatory list of lessons! Belo-Osagie offers the following:

  1. Be bold… don’t hesitate… go for it! “Don’t listen to the voice that tells you to be ‘realistic’,” he warns, asserting that this voice is essentially telling you to reduce your ambition. In response to individuals who advise that life be taken one step at a time, he makes parallels to walking towards the end a cliff, which has another cliff ahead of it. In such a case, he warns, it would be unwise to walk across. In such a case, one must leap!
  2. “Act with the confidence that your education has entitled you to act with.” Life is uncertain, he says, but we should keep on “walking through fog”, even if we cannot see the end of it.
  3. “Failure will happen… it’s the precursor of future success”. Belo-Osagie advises that when we are caught in a storm, we should “dance in the storm” and persevere. And when all else fails, we should consider “the proverbial swan” that looks calm above the water, but is in fact frantically paddling its feet beneath the surface!
  4. Have courage. Belo-Osagie tells us that courage is not the absence of fear – stupidity is! Rather, courage is experiencing fear but not allowing it to paralyse us.

“Failure will happen… it’s the precursor of future success.”


Seize the Opportunity

“I can’t believe how sexy Africa is now!”

In considering the opportunities in Africa, which Belo-Osagie considers to be huge, he reflects on how during his time, he has witnessed a change in the perception of doing business with Africa. He talks of his earlier days in finance, when at pitches he spent much of his time convincing investors and potential partners that Africa is not in fact a country, answering the frequent “How stable is your country now?” question, and absorbing the feedback from investors that despite how adventurous they were, “Africa is a stretch.” “I can’t believe how sexy Africa is now!” he jests.

Belo-Osagie is excited about what the current generation of young business people and leaders can achieve, and urges us to seize our opportunities. He talks not just of opportunity, but also of responsibility. Among his many calls for action, Belo-Osagie reflects on the responsibility/possibility of our generation to create the large African corporations of the future, comparing it to his generation’s responsibility and accomplishments of creating large national corporations, and those of his parents’ generation in securing African independence. Belo-Osagie is in fact confident that our generation will do better than his (no pressure then!), defining this as the very definition of civilisation.

“You will be measured not by what you succeeded in, but by the scale of what you attempted.”

Belo-Osagie goes so far as to write the end of his African Story. In the evening of his life, he tells us, he sees himself on a veranda rocking chair, soaked by colourful memories of battles fought, won and lost. He urges us to live our lives so that we may be able to do the same, rather than reminisce about the opportunities missed. “You will be measured not by what you succeeded in, but by the scale of what you attempted.”

To end this poetic tale, of the past, present and future, Belo-Osagie ends with a quote from Robert Herrick, popularised by the Robin Williams film, Dead Poets Society: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”, adding the line from the film: “Seize the day [boys], make your lives extraordinary”.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may… Seize the day [boys], make your lives extraordinary”.

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