Spotlight: Meet Tom Ilube CBE
1. Tell us a bit about your background/story
I grew up in between London, and Nigeria and Uganda. I studied physics at University. I then worked in the technology industry for about 10 years for large companies like PWC, Goldman Sachs, the London Stock Exchange, and then became an entrepreneur. So, I started setting up companies; I would set them up, build them up, sell them or sell my stake, and then set up another company, I’ve probably set up six or seven companies over my career. Now. My latest company is called Crossword. It’s a cybersecurity company listed on the London Stock Exchange market, and it’s doing really well. On the philanthropy side, I’ve been setting up schools; I’ve been involved in education for some time. My most recent school, which we set up a few years ago, was called the African Science Academy in Ghana.
2. What inspired your career path / entrepreneurial journey ?
I always had an entrepreneurial element. While I was at University in Nigeria, I was already starting to try out some entrepreneurial ventures. I started a fashion company called Ace fashion for men (nobody knows this!). I went and bought lots of material, and then I hired some tailors. And then we designed some trendy trousers, and then we sold them around the University.
After University, I decided I needed a corporate career and developed down the corporate path. Although, there was always this desire inside me to get back out there and set up my own company and become an entrepreneur again. After about 10 years in the corporate world, I decided to become an entrepreneur. when I look back on it, I wonder whether I should have gone down the entrepreneurial path earlier. But I think you can start to be an entrepreneur, at any point in your career. There isn’t really a particular point when you should be an entrepreneur. This should be done when you feel ready, motivated, confident, and have developed the network to make it happen.
3. What challenges have you had to overcome along the way?
You will always have challenges in business, but you get to pick the challenges you want to take on. So, if you decide that you’re going to develop in corporate life, you’ll have particular challenges, such as corporate politics, have issues about promotion, and so forth. In entrepreneurial life, you don’t have those sorts of problems, but you have a whole different set of issues.
How are you going to raise money? How are you going to attract customers? How will you get that first client that validates you that then gets you the next client and the next client? As the business is successful — When do you exit? Do you accept? Do you stay with the company? Do you grow it even bigger? When a downturn comes, how do you survive the downturn?
Rather than thinking these are challenges, you should see it as this is what you do and part of the journey of being an entrepreneur. Solve problems.
It’s kind of like, if you were a swimmer, you wouldn’t see getting wet as a challenge. You would just see it as that is what you do. If you are an entrepreneur, you raise money, and you the hustle and bustle, that is what you do.
4. Has anyone been an inspiration or mentor to you on your journey?
Many people have mentored me or inspired me in one way or another, often without actually knowing it. My older brother, who passed away some years ago, Jim, was a huge inspiration. He was relaxed and navigated the world in a kind of easy way, while I was a bit more of a hustler and a bit pushy. My younger brother is very smart and a huge inspiration to me. The young people that I work with are great inspirations to me as well. Outside of my field, there’s a physicist called Richard Fineman, who’s whose ability to think about and solve problems in a really sort of interesting left-field ways that you wouldn’t have thought of, again, a massive inspiration to me. Kenneth Olisa, who I’ve known now for over a decade, or more, who’s enlightening in so many ways and always years ahead. Sometimes, you need to be able to look at someone who’s running ahead of you. These people often don’t realise that they’re being your mentors or being inspirational, but you are getting something from each of them. Those are probably some of the best mentors and inspirations.
5. Tell us about your journey as a philanthropist? What motivated you to start ASA?
It was probably about 15 years ago, when I started to have some degree of success on the business side. I felt that I wanted to make a broader contribution. One of my companies’ Chairman inspired me when I was having a tough time and struggling as a CEO.
I was doubting myself and struggling with some of the day-to-day challenges. I sat down with him to discuss and what he said was, okay, let’s forget about your day-to-day business at the moment; tell me about what you would want to achieve in the long term. I spoke to him about this vision of working in education in Africa and having a real impact. He then told me that I should look at my ability to build my business as the ticket that will allow me to fulfill my long-term mission. If I do this right, then I get to play the longer-term game. This became an exciting motivation for me.
As the businesses became successful and I made money, I was then able to think in more detail about the philanthropic impact I wanted to have.
I was involved in setting up several schools in the UK, and I set up a school called Hammersmith Academy and various others. I then focused on Africa. I was interested in helping young people who are exceptionally academically gifted, but come from less privileged backgrounds by creating a learning environment. This resulted in the African Science Academy, a school for young women who are exceptionally gifted in science and passionate about STEM subjects. We bring together girls from all across Africa — including Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Togo, Cameroon, and others. It’s fascinating. They complete their A-levels in 12 months rather than two years, and almost all achieve A’s and B’s and attain scholarships to attend universities across the world. It is probably the most satisfying thing I have ever done.
The school is funded by the African Gifted Foundation registered in the UK. We are always looking for supporters who are interested in changing the narrative for young African women who can go on to have an impact across the continent and globally.
6. What are the 3 top tips/advice you would give to anyone starting/launching a new business idea?
My top 3 tips:
1. Start with the customer (or client) rather than your idea. Immerse yourself in understanding your customer and how they think (whether it’s an individual or company).
2. Separate your purpose, what you’re trying to achieve in the long term, from your short-term game. Allow yourself the flexibility to adjust your game along the way while keeping the purpose fixed. This will give you a lot of flexibility along the way.
3. Embrace failure because you have to fail as an entrepreneur, and you will fail over and over. I am a master of failure; I fail constantly. I come back again, and I fail, but then I come back again and again, when everybody else gets tired, I keep going and going. Eventually, I win. Understanding your relationship with failure, embracing failure, and finding the way you can handle it. This drive is key to being an entrepreneur.
7. How do you manage your finances/savings and investments?
I am very cautious when it comes to my finances because what I do is only invest. I’m not an angel investor. So, from an entrepreneurial point of view, I invest in my own companies. Therefore, because I’m very exposed on that side for the rest of my portfolio, it tends to be fairly risk-averse. So, I work with a financial advisor, who looks after my portfolio, and we take a relatively low risk, low cost, low risk, diversified approach to investment portfolio theory. We make sure that we spread the assets across fixed income bonds and equities. I tend not to pick stocks; I’m interested in classes of assets. I monitor my investments through an online platform that allows me to see how my portfolio is doing. I’m not trading; I’m just setting it up in the right way, and then once or twice a year, I’ll rebalance the portfolio.
8. So, what’s next for Tom?
I’ve always wondered whether I could at some stage write a book, although I am not there yet. I need to think about what I want to share. But I will do so at one stage and it could be interesting. I want to do more on the education side; I think there are fascinating things to do there. I also want to think more about the future. I am always thinking of what life will look like in 20 or 40 years. I’m really quite optimistic about the future.
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