In business, the role luck plays in success and personal achievement is rarely discussed. If luck is mentioned, it is done with slight condescension, and usually dismissed as a product of hard work, not deserving significant attention. While hard work is paramount – and I have written extensively about the importance of working hard – history and my own experiences show that there is often a large element of success that hard work alone can not explain. It is simply not true that “you make your own luck.”
I started my career as a salesman, a copier salesman to be specific, young, hungry, and hardworking, but the reality was that I was just one of the thousands of young Nigerian graduates, all eager to succeed. How did I get from there to where I am now? Of course, hard work, resilience, a long-term vision – but also luck.
A year after earning a Master’s degree in Economics from the University of Lagos, I applied to join a new generation bank, Allstates Trust Bank. The bank’s one-page newspaper advertisement demanded a minimum of a Second Class Upper result, but I applied regardless, submitting a cover letter and filled out application with my Second Class Lower Economics result.
By a stroke of luck, my application was reviewed by the Chairman/CEO, a painstaking man who carefully read my cover letter and was drawn to the confidence in my words. “I know I may not have met the qualifying criteria for the advertised roles, but I am intelligent, driven, ambitious and I will make the bank proud. My Second Class Lower result does not demonstrate the full extent of my intelligence and ability, and I know I can do so much more.” He read those words and took a chance on me. Though “unqualified”, he decided to throw me a lifeline, an opportunity.
I was invited to join the shortlist, followed by a long series of interviews and even more tests. At the end of a very rigorous process, I received good news – I had a place as an entry-level analyst. Even now, I wonder: What if the founder had not personally gone through my application? What if my application was rejected at the very beginning? What if I never got the opportunity to work at Allstates Trust Bank?
The story continues: Within 12 months at the bank, aged 27, I went from analyst to branch manager – the youngest ever bank branch manager at the time. I was hard working, energetic, creative and prioritised getting things done, but it was also good fortune that my bosses Toyin Akin-Johnson and Ebitimi Banigo took notice, and then, believed in me. They took a chance on me by appointing me as branch manager after an incredibly short time in the bank. They recognised in me the raw materials needed to make a good leader and were prepared to invest in me and my ability. My rise to branch manager within a short period is a great story but I know in my heart, I was lucky, as well as deserving.
This position of branch manager was a solid platform which launched me into several top leadership roles. When we, a small group of hungry, determined, young outsiders, took over struggling Crystal Bank, it was as a direct result of the preparedness and exposure that we received early from our superiors and mentors. Without the intervention and goodwill of these people in my career, I would not have been prepared to take on far greater roles. These learning opportunities laid the pathway to future achievements. To put simply, I was lucky enough to be identified and trusted so early in my career, and this put me on a unique road to success. I keep this in mind – it is humbling and also drives much of what I do today.
When I left UBA as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in 2010 to pursue other interests, I made a vow that through the Tony Elumelu Foundation, I would “institutionalise” luck and democratise access to opportunities for young Africans. I promised to leverage the success I have enjoyed, to spread luck and hope, provide opportunities and to empower the next generation of African entrepreneurs to succeed. Without luck in my early career, I would not be the man that I am today. I am a leader and philanthropist today because I encountered people who gave me a chance early in my career. It has been a lifetime goal to pay this forward in a transformative and impactful way.
Over the past three decades I have spent as a banker, investor, and turnaround expert, I have had the opportunity to meet thousands of entrepreneurs, like me. Many of them are young people with incredible dreams and business ideas but without the experience or access to mentoring and support required to build successful businesses. But most importantly, they have not yet been exposed to the right opportunity.
Our entrepreneurs are hard at work across the continent, identifying gaps in the market for specific products and services, and bridging these gaps with their innovation and ingenuity. Yet, many of these budding entrepreneurs often lack the capital, the networks, the training, the support to take their small business to national or regional scale. All they need is a helping hand, some luck, someone to believe in them and take a chance on them.
So, when I am asked, “Tony, why are you and your family doing this? What is in it for you?” I smile and recount my own story of luck. Luck is real, it is powerful, and I am committed to spreading it as far as I can. I am a beneficiary of luck, and I am passionate about sharing it across the continent, to all 54 countries.
– Elumelu, a renowned philanthropist, is the Chairman of United Bank for Africa