(pictured above: Hakeem Belo-Osagie is among Africa’s richest men.)
Hakeem Belo-Osagie, chairman of the Nigerian operations of Etisalat, the country’s fastest growing mobile telecom network, addressed an audience of students, faculty and community members at the Broyhill Auditorium as part of the school’s “Journeys to Success” speaker series.
Belo-Osagie’s well documented humility was evident during his remarks and the subsequent question and answer period.
The “Journeys” series brings distinguished speakers to campus to discuss their journeys to success, explained Alta Mauro, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, which hosts the events with the help of the School of Business, the Office of Personal and Career Development, the Office of Diversity & Inclusion and the African Studies, the program’s co-sponsors.
Belo-Osagie addressed the audience in a candid, self-effacing manner, unapologetically laying bare his failures as well as his accomplishments.
“It would be a disservice to the next generation for them to have the feeling that they should never fail,” he reasons. “…One of the things you can do for the next generation is to let them know things happen.”
Although Forbes magazine currently ranks him among the 50 richest people on a continent with a population of more than a billion, his career had humble beginnings, the Harvard Business School alumnus said.
“I was the lowest paid member of the Class of 1980,” revealed Belo-Osagie, a philanthropist and member of Harvard University’s Global Board of Advisers. “In fact, my salary was so low that I actually got a call from Harvard Business School to find out if one of the zeroes had been left off.”
Belo-Osagie poked fun at his own follies, letting the audience in on some of the less glamourous aspects of his journey, talking about a “mental illness” that afflicts many business school students, wherein careers that don’t command high salaries or are not in a consulting firm or investment bank are equated to death.
“I stand before you as living proof that there is life after death,” he quipped.
Belo-Osagie said the world where he cut his teeth as a young businessman is “fundamentally different” from the world where the WFU students will launch their own careers. To illustrate his point, he offered four certainties that a political science professor at Oxford University presented to Belo-Osagie and the other undergraduate students at the start of the semester. The professor predicted, and students agreed, that in their lifetimes, they would never see a female prime minister of England, an African American president in America, an end to Communist reign in Russia or to Apartheid in South Africa, he said.
“The world is changing at an incredibly rapid pace,” he declared. “Nothing that I say to you today can possibly be accurate (in the future) because the world is going to change so fundamentally that I could not even conceive how that world will be.”
In lieu of offering strategies, Belo-Osagie advised the students on some important rules to live by, encouraging attendees to use their imagination, think for themselves and be flexible, both in their thinking and their approach.
“There cannot be any success in life without the willingness to accept change,” he said.
Belo-Osagie founded his first company in 1986, at a time when he says entrepreneurship was regarded as “strange and bizarre” in his native Nigeria, but he pressed on. In order to be successful in business, one must be willing to take a risk, Belo-Osagie said. He implored the students not to be deterred by the possibility of failure.
“Do not think about failure,” he said. “Go ahead, assuming that you will succeed.”
Shortly after his first big success came his first major failure – a finance house he set up along with some friends that suffered a rather seismic demise, a “completely and totally deserved failure,” in Belo-Osagie’s estimation, and a valuable learning experience. His next two ventures – a securities trading outfit and the hostile takeover of Nigeria’s second largest bank – were smashing successes, partially because of the lessons he learned from the finance house’s collapse, Belo-Osagie said.
Despite his storied career, Belo-Osagie said his many accomplishments pale in comparison to the things that are truly important in his life.
“Success is not worth it without the enduring happiness that comes from a close-knit family, close friends and a sense that one has contributed to something that is larger than yourself – more important than you – to the community. We ultimately are measured … by the legacy and the impression that we have left, in the memories of our friends, the contributions of our children and the way that we have contributed to society.”
Mauro thanked Belo-Osagie for his candor and insight, which she deemed “beneficial” for all those in attendance.
“I’ve seen very many smiling faces during your remarks this afternoon, and even during your Q & A,” she told Belo-Osagie. “(That) lets us know that we’ve hit a sweet spot with this collaboration.”