I’ll be sharing a series of excerpts from Risk and Return, the book about the origin of CardinalStone Partners written by Yomi Jemibewon. I believe the book contains a lot of insights about career, business, marriage and self-discovery generally. For context, Yomi attended Adesoye College Offa, before moving to the US for his Bachelors and Masters degrees in Virginia Tech, where he studied electrical engineering. Afterwards, he worked at Motorola before heading to Wharton for his MBA, after which he worked as a consultant at Bain. In all these academic and professional pursuits, he excelled and is generally regarded as very hardworking and smart by those who know him. He is also from a privileged background as his father was the military governor of Oyo State when he was born, even though he had retired before Yomi left for the US.
As I started writing the book and reflecting on the things I had learned, I realised that my story is more than just a collection of lessons on how to make it in Africa, and this book is not just for repatriate entrepreneurs, immigrants of colour living In the West or people interested in doing business in a developing economy.
It is for anyone who isn’t happy doing what they are doing, or happy with where or how their life is unfolding. it is for anyone considering another path and debating whether to take a leap of faith. It Is for anyone of any race, any gender, any age, any nationality, any profession, any educational level. and at any phase in their lives, who has woken up one morning and said: “Something needs to change.”
I was certain that my feelings (of emptiness) weren’t caused by the amount of work in the office. The emptiness came from the fact that I felt no personal connection to what I was doing.
Helping a twenty-billion-dollar company maintain their 6% market share for the next 5 years didn’t feel like I was making a difference. Being told in subtle ways to change my vocabulary, to alter my accent and to suppress my Nigerian-ness, was not feedback I felt like getting.
I didn’t feel like I could laugh the way I wanted to laugh when I wanted to laugh. I didn’t feel like I could truly express myself or be myself. I felt like I needed to talk a certain way and be a certain way even when I didn’t feel that way. I didn’t feel like the Yomi I had to be in the office was the Yomi I wanted to be.
The voice said, “Returning to Nigeria isn’t worth it, my friend.” But the other part of my brain, said: “set aside emotion and think about it Yomi”.
Failure was a strong possibility, yes. That would suck, yes. What if Nigeria didn’t work out?
I would still have my MBA and my years in consulting. Everything I had learned and everything I knew, would make up a toolbox I wouldn’t lose just because I moved away. I could find my way back and re-inject myself into the U.S. economy if necessary.
Okay. Maybe I would have lost some years compared to my peers. I would be starting over at 40 when my mates were in their prime. I might feel embarrassed or humiliated.
But was life about what the world thought of me or how I felt about myself? I mean, let’s be real. Some of my peers were miserable where they were and would probably get more miserable with every rung of the ladder that they climbed. Were these the people I wanted to use as a metric for success?
Yet there was a link to America I couldn’t just walk away from, and that was my Taiwanese American fiancée, Tricia. We had talked about the possibility of not living in America all our lives but we had always framed it as a future proposition. Now I was nervous to tell her that I had pretty much decided on moving back to Nigeria. We had asked our selves questions about cultural differences:
1. Would she be able to function in an environment where many conveniences she was used to were missing?
2. Would she be able to adapt to the culture?
3. Would our parents be happy and accept the mixed-race children?
4. Was I diluting my culture by marrying a non-Nigerian?
5. Would our children be Nigerian and have Nigerian values?
We had talked about these things but now we needed concrete answers. I was worried that it would all be too much for her. I shifted in my chair trying to gauge her reaction.
She told me I had her full support, and that if things worked out, she would be willing to join me in Nigeria.
I had been doing management consulting at Bain (USA) for just under two years. But there was no Bain activity in Nigeria, and the company had no interest in prospecting for jobs in the country.
McKinsey & Company was the only seriously active Big-3 management consulting firm operating in Nigeria but didn’t have a residential office. Though consulting firms like PwC, KPMG and Accenture were active, they were mostly involved in tax consulting, financial due diligence, and work in the financial advisory field. I had no interest in that stuff.
I also wanted to do more than just strategy consulting; I had always felt it stopped short of the action. I wanted to get involved in implementation. So, I believed the best fit would be a place that allowed me to help businesses develop and then execute their strategy. I wasn’t interested in the big companies where you get lost in the shuffle and didn’t necessarily see the direct impact. I was thinking small to mid-size companies
I got a call from Femi, a brilliant classmate from Wharton, who worked at Goldman Sachs. I had told him about my plans to move to Nigeria 3 months earlier. After pleasantries, he said:
“I and two other guys are working on a plan to raise some capital to start an investment banking firm in Lagos. Would you be interested in joining us?”
I was surprised. Even more so when I asked, “How much are you guys looking to raise?”
And he responded, “Three billion naira”
That’s approximately $24 million at the time. It sounded far-fetched. But Femi was not the sort of guy that makes prank calls about money matters. If he said that was the amount, he and his partners must have arrived at it after serious calculation and calibration.
Their confidence that they could raise this kind of money blew me away, and it made me realise how small my own dreams had been. I was only looking to raise $250,000 for working capital, and maybe $3 or $4 million to acquire a business later.
All the partners knew each other for excellence based on past experiences and encounters:
1. Femi finished with 1st class degree in accounting from one of Nigeria’s top universities. He started his career with PwC, went to Wharton for his MBA and joined Goldman Sachs from there. He worked with Michael in PwC and we were mates at Wharton
2. Michael started his career with PwC, moved to IBTC, and then to Vetiva. He left Vetiva for an MBA at Oxford. On completion, he was hired as a Director by Standard Chartered. Michael worked with Femi at PwC, and with Mohammed at IBTC.
3. Mohammed started his career at IBTC, before moving unto Zenith and then eventually to Renaissance Capital. There was a joke that they had to hire 4 people to replace Mohammed when he left a role because of how dedicated he was.
Me: Yes these profiles look intimidating. But the truth is that none of these guys came from privilege except Yomi himself. However, they started with good first jobs, and were patient enough to get to executive levels of their careers before venturing out for entrepreneurship.
By our 4th meeting, we got offers for more money that we asked for! What? Wow! All we had was a business plan and pitch book – no assets, no income, no nothing. Yet, each investor we met was ready to fund our business like they had been waiting for it.
The problem we had was not getting our target investors interested in our business, but instead being oversubscribed by the 3rd meeting. One investor we approached wanted to give us the entire N3 billion but wanted 60% of the business. We couldn’t accept that because we did not want a single external investor to have more than 10% shareholding.
We couldn’t believe how excited these guys were to give us N3 billion! Like they were ready to write cheques right away. The major issue was agreeing how much shareholding to give up. However, we bent a little to secure commitments.
Within a month of that 2-week road show, we each resigned from our respective jobs and agreed on a date to resume at our new business.
Sometimes things got really tight. A couple of us who were married relied on our significant other for major expenses. Tricia (my wife) paid the rent on our home for the first 2 years I was at CardinalStone.
CardinalStone did (and are still doing) fine eventually. Not without challenges of course. The company spun off a proprietary trading unit by hiring a whiz bond trader – Niyi Ogunbayo. Essentially, one person helped the company generate significant earnings. Shows you the importance of talent to a business.
As the economy recovered from the 2008-2009 recession, the company also fared much better too. CardinalStone scored major wins through investments/acquisitions of Stoneworks, Arco Marine and City Securities Registrars Limited (CSRL). There were also a lot of engagements for investment bankers around that time thanks to the bank reforms carried out by Sanusi Lamido Sanusi (SLS).
Yomi’s story resonated so much with me as I can draw parallels between my journey and his. I believe anyone at a turning point in his/her life (especially as career or business is concerned) will also find it useful.