Tony Elumelu answers 10 questions on entrepreneurship

Chairman, UBA Plc,
Mr. Tony Elumelu was recently among some of the world’s most successive
entrepreneurs invited by Thought Economics, a journal of intellectual capital,
which is read in over 120 countries to share his thoughts on entrepreneurship.
Other successful entrepreneurs that were interviewed  for the exclusive publication include; Sir
Richard Branson (Founder of Virgin Group), Robin Li (Founder of Baidu), Sir
James Dyson (Founder of Dyson), Professor Muhammad Yunus (Nobel Peace Prize
Winner and Founder of Grameen Bank), Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw (Founder of Biocon),
N. R. Narayana Murthy (Founder of Infosys), Tim Draper (Founding Partner,
Draper Associates and DFJ), Jamal Edwards MBE (Founder, SBTV), Nathan Myhrvold
(Founder & CEO, Intellectual Ventures), Wendy Kopp (CEO & Co-Founder,
Teach For All), Tory Burch (Chairman & CEO, Tory Burch), Steve Case
(Co-Founder,  America Online – AOL
&  Revolution), and Jerry Yang (Co-Founder,
Mr. Tony O. Elumelu (CON)


Mr. Elumelu, in the
interview, shared his ideas on what drives him as an entrepreneur, his passion
and inspiration and hopes for the future and also gives some advice to future
See excepts of the
interview below;
Tony O. Elumelu is
a visionary entrepreneur and a philanthropist. Born, raised and educated in
Africa, Mr. Elumelu has been responsible for creating businesses across the
continent, in sectors critical to Africa’s economic development.
In 2010, he founded
Heirs Holdings, an African investment holding company, with investments in
financial services, power generation, oil and gas, agribusiness, real estate
and hospitality. In the same year, he established the Tony Elumelu Foundation,
an Africa-based and African-funded philanthropy, dedicated to catalyzing
entrepreneurship across Africa.
He is Chairman of
Heirs Holdings as well as UBA Group Plc and Transcorp Plc, which is Nigeria’s
largest listed conglomerate.
In his early
career, Mr. Elumelu turned the financially distressed Standard Trust Bank (STB)
into a top-five financial services player in Nigeria. In 2005, he led the
largest merger in the banking sector in sub-Saharan Africa, between STB and
United Bank for Africa (UBA). Today, UBA operates in 19 African countries, as
well as New York, London and Paris.
Mr. Elumelu is the
author and leading proponent of “Africapitalism,” an economic philosophy which
advocates for the private sector’s commitment to Africa’s development through
long-term investment in strategic sectors of the economy, that drive economic
prosperity and social wealth.
In 2003, the
federal government of Nigeria conferred the honour of Member of the Federal
Republic on Mr. Elumelu. In 2012 he was awarded named a Commander of the Order
of the Niger for his service in promoting private enterprise. In 2013, Mr.
Elumelu received the Leadership Award in Business and Philanthropy from the
Africa-America Institute Awards. He was also named African Business Icon at the
2013 African Business Awards.
Mr. Elumelu
presently serves as a member of the Global Advisory Board of the United Nations
Sustainable Energy for All Initiative (SE4ALL) and USAID’s Private Capital
Group for Africa Partners Forum.
He sits on the
Nigerian President’s Agricultural Transformation Implementation Council and
serves as Co-Chair of the Aspen Institute Dialogue Series on Global Food
Security. He played a leading role in the formation of the National
Competitiveness Council of Nigeria and now serves as its vice chairman. He
chairs the Ministerial Committee to establish world-class hospitals and
diagnostic centres across Nigeria, at the invitation of the Federal Government.
What does ‘entrepreneurship’ mean to you?
 For me, personally, being an entrepreneur is
an innate talent, as well as a learned one.
My mother owned restaurants and was a major distributor in the consumer
value chain. So, growing up, I was able to see firsthand the far-reaching value
that entrepreneurship creates. Now that I am a seasoned professional,
entrepreneurship has come to mean many things to me: as a businessperson,
entrepreneurship has enabled me to create wealth, for myself, my investors, my
colleagues and stakeholders. Entrepreneurship has also created an avenue for me
to impact humanity positively, by creating and supporting more entrepreneurs,
through the Tony Elumelu Foundation. Entrepreneurship has empowered me to raise
the standard of living for entire communities, particularly on my continent –
is the role of entrepreneurs in an economy and society?
 I believe that entrepreneurs, like other
private sector operators, have an obligation to channel their acumen toward
enhancing their social environment, as much as their financial statements. I
run an Africapitalist organization, which means that my businesses create value
for shareholders and society alike. For example, our Transcorp Power Company is
one of our nation’s top power generators—in 2013, we inherited a plant that generated
less than 150 megawatts of electricity and now we contribute 750 megawatts to
Nigeria’s grid, more than 15% of the country’s output. With increased power
output, businesses, schools, hospitals and even private households are better
able to save on running costs, freeing up capital for critical expenditures. We
also run an agribusiness, Teragro, which is Nigeria’s first local producer of
juice concentrate. Until Teragro began processing these concentrates, working
directly with local farmers and giving them increased access to the wealth they
help to create, Nigeria imported 100% of the concentrate used to manufacture
juices that are consumed locally. Thus, our activities contribute to the
companies’ bottom line, while creating jobs, improving quality of life and
retaining more local value within the country.
It is inarguable
that entrepreneurs play a key role in addressing social and global issues,
particularly poverty. Personally, I am pleased to see that global leaders now
agree that entrepreneurship, not charity, is better able to create progressive,
sustainable development that benefits the poor. This is why the United Nations
has included the promotion of development-oriented policies that support
entrepreneurship in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In many
developing countries where competing priorities and limited resources can
overwhelm government systems, the private sector is uniquely positioned to
mobilize the capital assets that can realize lasting, positive social
transformation. The relationship between corporation and community is
symbiotic: by contributing to raising the standards of living around them,
these entrepreneurs are also positioning their businesses to profit from
increased disposable incomes, a healthier, better-educated pool of potential
employees, and numerous other benefits.
What are the key drivers for an entrepreneur?
Ask any
entrepreneur and most, if not all, will tell you that they are driven by
passion. This passion could be for a single, innovative idea, or it could be a
passion to do something that changes the world. But without passion, it would
be impossible to stay the course of this most challenging of vocations, and
rewards at the end of the journey make all the struggle worthwhile.
What are the characteristics of a great entrepreneur?
Great men,
regardless of their chosen profession, have shared characteristics: discipline,
zeal, competitiveness. They are driven to succeed, and often this requires a
brazenness or boldness that most will identify as risk-taking behaviour, but is
often calculated. Great entrepreneurs do things differently.  They exhibit traits that set them apart from
the general population and, though not all were born leaders, I believe their
achievements make them leaders among their peers.
What are the sources of entrepreneurial ideas?
I run my businesses
according to the principles of Africapitalism, which calls for businesses to
commit to development through investing in long-term ventures that increase
economic prosperity as well as social wealth.
This means that a successful business is one that creates value for its
stakeholders but also makes a long-term, sustainable contribution to the
communities that it supports and that support it.
What are the characteristics of successful invention and innovation?
Being wealthy as an
entrepreneur is both a blessing and a responsibility. Not everyone who puts in
years and years of hard work, or burns the candle at both ends while others
were asleep, will find wealth or success—and not everyone who does that seeks
wealth.  This is why I view the ability
to create wealth as a blessing, but it also means that the wealthy one has a
responsibility to share: share experience, share knowledge, and indeed, share
the wealth, but in a sustainable and coordinated manner such that one can
create meaningful transformation that lasts for generations.
What is social entrepreneurship?
I have been able to
use my skills and training as an entrepreneur to the benefit of others around
me in the practice of philanthropy. The Tony Elumelu Foundation practices
catalytic philanthropy, which means that our charitable actions are designed,
much like my businesses, to invest for long-term impact.  Practicing catalytic philanthropy, which we
pioneered in Africa, has led to the creation of our flagship programme, the
Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme, through which we committed $100
million in grants to 10,000 entrepreneurs around Africa for the next ten years.
These grants will build businesses, create jobs, increase employment around the
continent and generate over $10 billion in revenues over the next decade.  We have already completed the first cycle,
selecting 1000 people from 51 countries around Africa with enterprises in
agriculture, education, ICT, healthcare, construction and several other key
sectors. This is real impact, and it is the driving force behind my philanthropic
How does entrepreneurship manifest in the arts?
On the surface, I
suppose there are certain tools and technology at the disposal of
industrialized countries that are lacking in developing nations like Africa.
However, the core of being an entrepreneur is the same regardless of culture:
entrepreneurs represent a class of people who overcome a series of
psychological, financial and sometimes even physical barriers to implement an
idea and turn a profit, while solving an economic or social problem.  I don’t find that attitude to be
Rather than view
this from a cultural perspective, I prefer to consider the individual and his
environmental circumstances. The individual who has big dreams and is
tenacious, resilient, and unrelenting, with the ability to translate ideas into
action often succeeds, irrespective of where he comes from. Similarly, an
individual in an environment where the entrepreneurial ecosystem is well
developed, i.e. where there is power, good roads, security, etc., is also more
likely to succeed than one who is expected to support himself in nearly every
What is the role of government and policy in entrepreneurship?
It should be every
government’s role to create the enabling environment for entrepreneurs to
thrive. Entrepreneurs, through their innovation and hard work, create the
opportunities for employment and economic growth that serves nations in
numerous quantifiable and qualitative ways. When government policies support
the growth of the private sector, they start a ripple effect that will
ultimately resolve basic societal challenges, from unemployment to a lack of
social amenities, which can be provided from the tax revenues gained from
robust companies.
What would be your message to future entrepreneurs?
I think it is
paramount for future entrepreneurs to build sustainable companies that will
create value for their stakeholders over the long-term. It is also important,
however, for these companies to have a social impact. My investment firm, Heirs
Holdings, makes long-term investments in key sectors—financial services,
energy, real estate and hospitality, healthcare—through which each of our
companies add to Africa’s economic prosperity and social wealth. This isn’t the
easiest path to success, to be sure, but it is responsible and it is my firm
belief that this is the foundation upon which great legacies are built.
You can read the full interview  here


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