Growing up in the dusty, bubbling, and chaotic streets of Papa Aajo, Mushin, a community that houses the iconic Ladipo Spare Parts Market, is no small feat. If you have ever owned or driven a Tokunbo (Imported used) vehicle, then you certainly have felt the influence of Ladipo, a place driven entirely by survival. My mum, who was a Math and Chemistry teacher and later became a principal of a secondary school, had opened a buka in one of Ladipo’s streets. As a young Tossele (a nickname I picked from the streets), my schedule after school was to work in my mum’s buka as the Chief Operating Officer (COO). I had to clean, take the opening stock of drinks available, pound yam, and stir the amala. Even at an early age I was indeed great with numbers, and it was difficult for any mischievous customer in the streets of Ladipo to rattle me.
Being a stickler for details, the amala and pounded yam had to be very smooth and carefully wrapped in a cooler as I waited patiently for the customers to start streaming in. Every other afternoon, an elderly man called Mr. Olanlandu would walk into the restaurant, order for his meal along with a bottle of Stout and call out to me in his usual baritone voice, “Accountant! Accountant!” It was in that buka that I caught a glimpse of my identity because someone recognized the potentials in me. Since then, I have risen from young Tossele to the man who sees potentials in others and Africa.
Over the past decade, Nigerians and Africans have become more aware of the possibilities within the Tech industry. We are seeing great numbers of people, both young and old, take up roles as Software Engineers, Product Designers, Product Managers, and many more. In contrast to some decades earlier, where everyone had to stick to traditional career paths to become either a lawyer, engineer or doctor, young people are now being encouraged to be innovative and entrepreneurial. However, while our interest in tech has been relatively recent, the Indians have been doing this for much longer.
Recently, there has been a trend of Indian CEOs, particularly in the US, taking up significant roles and standing out amongst other immigrants and even locals. These CEOs all seem to possess certain traits that I believe are responsible for their successes. So, what sets them apart, and what can we glean from them as a people?
India’s Tech Industry
India was a destination for low-cost, outsourced software and support services in the late 1980s when the labour arbitrage model became a cost-effective solution for multinational companies. However, the country has undergone some profound changes in transforming its entrepreneurial setup in recent times. Graduates dreaming of a job at Google are quickly being replaced by graduates who aspire to establish the next unicorn.
In Bangalore, popularly known as the “Silicon Valley of Asia” and “India’s IT Capital”, out of the 12 million people who live there, nearly one million are software developers. The number of IT colleges have long surpassed 100, and the startup mania is pervasive. India is no longer a passive recipient of menial software tasks; it has become an epicentre of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Indian startups have raised close to US$50 billion in the last six years, with more than 40,000 startups launched. With 14 unicorns at a cumulative valuation of US$61 billion, Bangalore has been the biggest driver of India’s startup growth story. This success rate has encouraged interest in digital entrepreneurship as a career path, which can help build a tech-savvy workforce. In a recent survey of young people in India, a third of the respondents indicated an interest in entrepreneurship as a career (The Scalers, 2020). This interest in tech and entrepreneurship has spread into other parts of the world, including the United States.
The Rise of Indian-born Silicon Valley CEOs
In the United States, men and women of Indian origin dominate tech spaces and lead companies in Silicon Valley. More importantly, while Indians only make up 1% of the United States workforce, they make up a significant part of the top roles within and outside tech. Among the 4 million Indian immigrants in the country, about one million are engineers and scientists, with over 70% of US-issued H-1B visas – work permits for foreigners going to Indian software engineers (The Washington Post, 2017).
These incredible statistics can be ascribed to the immigration policy changes made in the 1960s. Prior to the 1960s, the United States Immigration Act of 1924 restricted the number of immigrants allowed into the country through a national origins quota that offered visas to only 2% of the total number of people of each nationality in the country.
By the 1960s, emphasis on family unification and skills replaced national quotas, giving entry to an initial wave of well-educated and skilled scientists, engineers, and doctors. Soon after, they were followed by many software programmers migrating to do their master’s in computer science and electronics. This increase in Indians in tech coincided with a decrease in the number of Americans interested in computer science and engineering, causing many IT professionals in the US today to be Indians.
Last week, Parag Agrawal, 37, replaced Co-Founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey, 45, as the new CEO of Twitter. He joins the elite club of tech giant CEOs of Indian origin, from Sundar Pichai (Alphabet/Google), Satya Nadella (Microsoft), Arvind Krishna (IBM), Shantanu Narayen (Adobe), and Raghu Raghuram (VMWare). Besides being of Indian descent, they were all brought up in middle-class families, studied at premier Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and universities in India, and migrated to the United States for postgraduate studies, securing MBAs, MSs, and PHDs.
However, beyond their education, Indians are claiming top positions in major companies because they are perceived as humble, gentle, and incredible leaders. This can be due to their culture, traditions, family values and, of course, growing in a country of over a billion people, most of whom are hampered by rampant corruption, weak infrastructure, and limited opportunities. Additionally, the humility in these CEOs also stems from the fact that they worked their way up the ladder, setting them apart from other leaders who have been said to be arrogant and entitled.
An excellent example of their gentle leadership would be when Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft in February 2014, inheriting a toxic work culture from his predecessors Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates. Kicking off his new role, Nadella set out to completely transform the work culture and end aggressive behaviours.
As a result of the cultural shift and the strategy changes, Microsoft’s market cap grew from US$300 billion at Nadella’s ascension to US$2.5 trillion today (Fortune, 2021). The same pattern of incredible leadership skills is seen in Sundar Pichai and Jayshree Ullal of Arista Networks.
Fast-Tracking Nigeria’s Tech Industry
Nigeria has a fast-growing tech industry. We have entrepreneurial, innovative, and passionate men and women who are constantly developing creative solutions to the myriad of problems that plague our nation. This year alone, Nigerian tech startups operating across several sectors in Nigeria have raised an estimated $248.6 million, an equivalent of N102.77 billion in funding in the third quarter of 2021.
This represents an increase of 103% compared to $122.76 million raised in the second quarter of the year. A further breakdown of the data shows that firms in the financial sector received almost half of the total amount raised in the period under review (Nairametrics, 2021).
Today’s Nigerian tech space shows that the industry accommodates skilled youths with strong entrepreneurial spirits and bright ideas. However, beyond these incredible ideas, Nigerian youths must begin to create an identity for themselves to become global leaders in the future by recognizing that we are gifted like the Indians. By carving their identity within the tech space, I believe that young Nigerians can build the next big thing and create a trend of Unicorn CEOs in the next few decades.
However, while Nigeria ranks first in having the highest volume of startups – over 750 – amongst other African countries, several systemic issues such as stifling government policies, poor infrastructure, and education, little or no access to credit, and security problems continue to impede the growth of the tech industry in Nigeria.
To combat these issues and accelerate growth within the tech industry, the government needs to increase the budgetary allocation to education significantly. Over the last 7 years, the highest allocation to the education sector has been 7.9 per cent of the total budget, against the UNESCO benchmark for developing countries which stands at 15 – 20 per cent.
This move would significantly improve research and development (R&D) in the country. India spends about 0.7 per cent of its GDP on R&D as compared to 0.2 per cent by Nigeria (UNESCO, 2019). Much empirical and theoretical work emphasizes that R&D is an essential contributor to economic growth. R&D spending is likely to lead to growth through its positive effect on innovation and Total Factor Productivity (TFP) (Romer, 1990; Lucas, 1988).
Furthermore, a much-needed structural and fundamental change is imperative to the development of our education system. There must be a provision to learn soft people skills, leadership skills and management of resources as these are skills required by any entrepreneur or founder.
To truly transform our country, we need to see more partnerships between the government, private sector, and tertiary institutions to provide the funding and implementation required to set up ultra-modern IT institutes, labs, and hubs across the country. The public sector needs to establish and promote the right policies and an enabling environment to drive tech development and growth in scale.
The private sector has to leverage its wealth of resources and partnerships, both local and foreign, to create platforms, structures, and initiatives to harness, enhance, and channel tech creative skillsets innate in Nigerian and African youth to become a global identity. In his book Digital Africa: Investing in Africa’s Most Untapped Source, Drescher(my MBA classmate at INSEAD) surmised that local capital created through real estate, mining, and construction returns to those industries instead of moving to more transformative technology firms. Foreign private capital lacks the knowledge to assess country risk across sub-Saharan Africa, and development funds are incapable of assessing the project risk of local technology companies. If sub-Saharan Africa is going to make the most of this moment and reap the benefits that a young, digital-savvy population can produce, those funds need to change their strategies and put their money where private investors currently fear to invest. (2020, p. 17)
Parents need to expose their children to IT education from an early age, especially if the potential is there. Finally, creatives should look beyond the four walls of classrooms and harness the tons of resources online to build in-demand technical and soft skills.
I am confident that through our collective effort, we can begin and advance this crusade to make Nigeria, and Africa, the next Tech success story.
- buka – short for bukateria, an inexpensive and casual restaurant, typically selling food that is prepared in advance
- Tokunbo – Yoruba name meaning “from overseas” or “from across the sea”
- Amala – An indigenous Nigerian swallow food native to the Yoruba ethnic group in the western states of Nigeria.
Tosin Osunkoya, Founder, The Bulb Africa, CEO, Comercio Partners Asset Management Ltd