One striking thing about Nigerians is that once a Nigerian excels in any field of human endeavour, that field becomes attractive to other Nigerians. That is why the emergence of Tope Awotona as a tech entrepreneur billionaire in the United States is a thing of note.
Last week, the news of the emergence of Awotona, founder and CEO of Calendly, as a billionaire was massively shared on social media. Even though Forbes had reported the story in 2022, it sounded fresh last week when it was shared. According to Forbes, in 2021, Calendly – a scheduling tool company -raised $350 million in funding from OpenView Venture Partners and Iconiq Capital at a price that shot up the value of the company to $3 billion. Consequently, Awotona’s stake in the company surged to over $1 billion, making him one of only two Black tech billionaires in the United States. Even though Calendly has big competitors like Square, Microsoft, Doodle, and Google, it is very popular in the corporate world.
Awotona is not the first Nigerian billionaire. But what is striking about his meteoric rise is that he is based in the US and achieved the feat in entrepreneurship as an immigrant who grew up in Nigeria but relocated to the US in his teens. In addition, he excelled in tech. He is recorded as the richest African immigrant in the US. As of Sunday, January 28, 2024, Forbes put his real-time worth at $1.2 billion, making him the 2,284th richest man in the world.
The 42-year-old Awotona was said to have set up about three businesses in the US which all failed. Eventually, the frustration he faced trying to set up meetings as a salesman made him think of creating a platform that could make fixing meetings seamless. He invested $200,000 of his savings as well as credit into the business and nurtured it until it succeeded.
His success has opened a new chapter for Nigerians in different parts of the world, especially North America and Europe. It has proved that the billionaire list in the United States is not the exclusive preserve of Caucasians and Asians. It has also shown that Nigerian immigrants are not cut out for only employee jobs nor are they excluded from founding IT-related businesses.
As big as the North American and European economies are, Nigerian and African immigrants and their children have been playing at the fringes. Despite the challenges in the African economies, it seems that it is easier for Africans to become billionaires while doing business in Africa than abroad. No doubt, factors like environment, race, etc. could have caused that, but there could also be the possibility that the need to play it safe is a contributory factor. When Nigerian professionals like doctors and tech experts relocate abroad, they earn very attractive salaries. When this money is converted to the naira, it becomes so much and buys so much in Nigeria even more than its dollar equivalent in the US. Other professionals in other less lucrative fields still earn enough to make them pay their bills, send money home, and live well. Once Nigerian immigrants can buy some property and invest in other fields that can guarantee a stable and comfortable future, they feel fulfilled.
Because of this situation, it seems these African immigrants are content with playing it safe. The fear of debts and bankruptcy is the beginning of wisdom for many Nigerians. The Nigerian system does not have credit cards. People usually pay for their purchases with a debit card or cash. Only big businesses and high-net-worth individuals are given the privilege of buying things on credit or even getting loans.
In addition, it is seen as a stigma for a Nigerian to be called a debtor, especially abroad. One thing most European and North American financial consultants say about Nigerians is that they don’t ever want to owe any money. Although the Western system encourages people to buy things with credit cards, so as to build their credit rating, Nigerians would immediately pay off their debt, to avoid “stories that touch the heart.” They are also usually too afraid to take a loan, to avoid getting trapped in a debt pit that they won’t be able to come out of easily. Even when they are told that rich people use loans to build their businesses and make more money by taking advantage of the legal loopholes in the Western system, most Nigerians are afraid of getting into such. They can’t imagine getting themselves into debt that would make them lose their property or declare bankruptcy. Such news would not sound good at home. Perhaps all these factors have made Nigerians and Africans in the Diaspora have limited success. However, the success recorded by Awotona may encourage more Africans to break that barrier.
Nigerians love career success that comes with a financial reward. Once those two issues meet in any profession, Nigerians jump into it in droves. For example, basketball was not a game most Nigerians were passionate about, including Nigerians resident in the US. They saw it as an American game. Football (or soccer) was the be-all-and-end-all for Nigerians as far as sports was concerned. But following the success of Nigerian-born Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets in the 1980s and 90s, many Nigerians turned the attention of their children to basketball. Today, up to 10 players in the NBA are of Nigerian descent.
If Nigerians were not passionate about basketball, they were stunned about American football (which Americans and Canadians simply call football), because of the aggression involved in it. To many Nigerians, it seemed more like war than a game. But interestingly, at the Super Bowl (the final game of the US National Football League) in February 2023, a Nigerian was a member of the winning Kansas City Chiefs. At the end of the game, Prince Tega Wanogho – who was born in Delta State and left Nigeria in 2014 with the plan to play basketball – ran around the pitch with the Nigerian flag, shouting: “All the way from Naija, we did it!” So many other Nigerians are playing that game today professionally in the US.
Another career that looked like a joke was comedy. First was that it lacked respect. Second was that it was not a money-spinner. Nigerian ace comedian, Ali Baba, said that after he decided not to be a lawyer but pursue comedy as a career, his father cut off links with him for 10 years. Even though he sent emissaries to his father, the soldier would not budge. The first time they talked was when he bought a Mercedes Benz SLK and took it to his father in their hometown. Ironically, while parents of yesterday were mortified that their children (whom they laboured to train in the university) abandoned supposedly prestigious professions to go into comedy, parents of today are connecting their children to successful comedians to help them build their careers in comedy. The same thing goes for music, football, acting, etc.
Awotona’s success in entrepreneurship in the US is also unique because there is no element of “connection” or favouritism involved in it. Without taking anything away from successful entrepreneurs in Nigeria, there is a belief that many rich men and women in Nigeria succeeded because of favouritism, especially from government quarters. There is a joke that a person with nothing can be given an oil bloc by a friend in power which will transform the person overnight into one of the richest people in Nigeria. But in Awotona’s case, such does not exist. You can rise or fall by your efforts or luck. And when you rise, it is easy to see what caused the rise. Nothing is hidden. There is no wealth without enterprise. There are no millionaires and billionaires whose source of wealth is hazy.
Thankfully, Nigerians love the tech industry and have been incubating many tech businesses locally. Many have also relocated to other countries because of their tech skills. What remains is breaking into the global tech world. But with Awotona’s pioneering effort, the coast is clear for Nigerians and Africans to join the big league in the tech world wherever they are. If Awotona can do it, Ejiro, Olisa, Dayo, Aisha, Kweku, Hasani, or Lerato can also do it.