One striking thing about Nigerians is that once a Nigerian excels in any field of human endeavour, that field becomes attractive to other Nigerians. That is why the emergence of Tope Awotona as a tech entrepreneur billionaire in the United States is a thing of note.
Last week, the news of the emergence of Awotona, founder and CEO of Calendly, as a billionaire was massively shared on social media. Even though Forbes had reported the story in 2022, it sounded fresh last week when it was shared. According to Forbes, in 2021, Calendly – a scheduling tool company -raised $350 million in funding from OpenView Venture Partners and Iconiq Capital at a price that shot up the value of the company to $3 billion. Consequently, Awotona’s stake in the company surged to over $1 billion, making him one of only two Black tech billionaires in the United States. Even though Calendly has big competitors like Square, Microsoft, Doodle, and Google, it is very popular in the corporate world.
Awotona is not the first Nigerian billionaire. But what is striking about his meteoric rise is that he is based in the US and achieved the feat in entrepreneurship as an immigrant who grew up in Nigeria but relocated to the US in his teens. In addition, he excelled in tech. He is recorded as the richest African immigrant in the US. As of Sunday, January 28, 2024, Forbes put his real-time worth at $1.2 billion, making him the 2,284th richest man in the world.
The 42-year-old Awotona was said to have set up about three businesses in the US which all failed. Eventually, the frustration he faced trying to set up meetings as a salesman made him think of creating a platform that could make fixing meetings seamless. He invested $200,000 of his savings as well as credit into the business and nurtured it until it succeeded.
His success has opened a new chapter for Nigerians in different parts of the world, especially North America and Europe. It has proved that the billionaire list in the United States is not the exclusive preserve of Caucasians and Asians. It has also shown that Nigerian immigrants are not cut out for only employee jobs nor are they excluded from founding IT-related businesses.
As big as the North American and European economies are, Nigerian and African immigrants and their children have been playing at the fringes. Despite the challenges in the African economies, it seems that it is easier for Africans to become billionaires while doing business in Africa than abroad. No doubt, factors like environment, race, etc. could have caused that, but there could also be the possibility that the need to play it safe is a contributory factor. When Nigerian professionals like doctors and tech experts relocate abroad, they earn very attractive salaries. When this money is converted to the naira, it becomes so much and buys so much in Nigeria even more than its dollar equivalent in the US. Other professionals in other less lucrative fields still earn enough to make them pay their bills, send money home, and live well. Once Nigerian immigrants can buy some property and invest in other fields that can guarantee a stable and comfortable future, they feel fulfilled.
Because of this situation, it seems these African immigrants are content with playing it safe. The fear of debts and bankruptcy is the beginning of wisdom for many Nigerians. The Nigerian system does not have credit cards. People usually pay for their purchases with a debit card or cash. Only big businesses and high-net-worth individuals are given the privilege of buying things on credit or even getting loans.
In addition, it is seen as a stigma for a Nigerian to be called a debtor, especially abroad. One thing most European and North American financial consultants say about Nigerians is that they don’t ever want to owe any money. Although the Western system encourages people to buy things with credit cards, so as to build their credit rating, Nigerians would immediately pay off their debt, to avoid “stories that touch the heart.” They are also usually too afraid to take a loan, to avoid getting trapped in a debt pit that they won’t be able to come out of easily. Even when they are told that rich people use loans to build their businesses and make more money by taking advantage of the legal loopholes in the Western system, most Nigerians are afraid of getting into such. They can’t imagine getting themselves into debt that would make them lose their property or declare bankruptcy. Such news would not sound good at home. Perhaps all these factors have made Nigerians and Africans in the Diaspora have limited success. However, the success recorded by Awotona may encourage more Africans to break that barrier.