“The journey back to Nigeria had a couple of false starts until few years ago.” – Ike Eze

Hi there, I am Ike Eze. I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from San Francisco State University and later got an MBA, Finance and Strategic Management from the Wharton School of Business. I returned to Nigeria from the US through a private equity firm, to assist their portfolio company as an Executive Director in January 2014. My role is focused on running strategy, corporate development, mobile money and a few other departments. I have been in the technology sector for over two decades via three startups, and working at two other global telecom/engineering companies. I was fortunate to have been present in Silicon Valley at the birth of ‘commercial Internet’ and to have participated by founding a tech startup that had a successful exit. At eTranzact, I’m actively engaged in growing a payment platform for the mobile generation unit as well as rapidly expanding the financial switching unit. I also act as a personal advisor to entrepreneurs and scale-focused operators dedicated to deploying venture and private equity funded growth capital.

The journey back to Nigeria had a couple of false starts until a couple of years ago. I had initially planned to return eight years ago but the global financial meltdown put that plan on hold just as we were about to relocate. But “all’s well that ends well” and here we are, back in Lagos.

It’s a pleasure to meet you and thanks for speaking to us. What was your childhood like?

My father, a career Nigerian diplomat, made global living possible. We initially left Nigeria when I was very young and lived in Bombay (now Mumbai), India for a few years, then on to Lomé, Togo for a couple more. We returned to Nigeria where I enrolled at St. Mary’s in Marina, Lagos for a little over a year then we were off again to London, England. This pattern was repeated with stops in Harare, Zimbabwe; Lagos and Enugu (where I spent great formative years at F.G.C. Enugu); and, finally San Francisco, USA.

For me, living around the world was fantastic. Interestingly, I didn’t realize until just a few years ago that one of my sisters detested it for the exact same reasons I enjoyed it: a new start every few years, new people to meet, different environments to explore and understand, and a novel culture to embrace. These were the things I looked forward to. I now fondly recall the Holi water balloons of Mumbai; the beach proximity of Lomé; the active nature of Lagos; the red soil and rain scent of Enugu; the enveloping fog of London; the rolling hills of Devon; the tranquility of Harare; and, the unrelenting ambition of Silicon Valley. I have enjoyed the opportunity to live a global life and thank the dice roll of birth that made it possible.

Great! Let’s talk a little about your education, how was life during your undergrad years at San Francisco state University?

As I enjoy new environments, San Francisco State was amazing. I met many friends and started my first tech startup after graduating with someone that I was paired off with during Year 1 Physics lab. We ended up as groomsman/best-man at each other’s weddings, and likewise with many other SF State friends.

On the educational side, when I began I already had a solid base in math and the sciences from FGCE, so ended up free to explore classes I had never thought of such as business, psychology, and history. I became keenly interested in business and have continued dabbling in understanding human psychology and biographies as personal hobbies.

Interesting! Why and how did you transition from Mechanical Engineering to Finance?

I had the opportunity to work engineering summer jobs in San Francisco at Pacific Gas and Electric (the power company) and Bechtel (one of the largest global engineering firms), but never did what I went to school for: designing high performance thermal engines such as those in sports cars and jet turbines. When I interviewed with General Motors they shared that I would have to design seats, latches, doors, chassis, and drivetrains over 20 years before I could touch an engine. So, I went to AT&T to do telecom. Being in Silicon Valley, I got to see startups established and grow such as Varian, Autodesk, Lotus, and others, and my interest was piqued as to how these companies were being built. However, to join these firms required either an astute understanding of microelectronics or software (which I didn’t have) or a business background (didn’t have that either). I needed to shift gears, and a return to Bechtel would afford greater business training and opportunities. I successfully rejoined Bechtel and within 2 years was in the Advanced Space and Defense business development group. After a couple of successful years pursuing remarkable projects such as dismantling nuclear missiles in Ukraine, building a nuclear-warhead storage facility in Russia and establishing ground launch operations for geo-stationary telecommunications satellites, I decided that a finance MBA would be the proper ticket to round off my experience before joining a startup.

Why did you choose to study at Wharton?
The Wharton School was an easy decision: I gained an interest in mergers and acquisition and corporate development after identifying and suggesting to Bechtel’s president that we acquire the Morrison Knudsen Group. We pursued it and lost the bid, however, the fire for M&A deals had been stoked and I was hooked. So, when looking for an MBA Wharton naturally came up as the #1 finance school globally. My journey to Wharton, however, wasn’t direct. It began with my application and acceptance; however, I deferred admission as the pace of startup funding and exits had increased and I was itching to be part of it. In a short 12-month span, I saw Netscape do an IPO, Yahoo go from funding to IPO, and many others go through the same process. My former physics classmate and I ended up deciding to postpone our graduate degrees and found our own tech startup, raise venture capital, and build a company. We concluded all this and sold the company within three years. Following that adventure, I asked Wharton to let me back in, they obliged, and I received my MBA in finance and strategic management.

Tell us about some of your greatest achievements while at Boston Consulting group.
Boston Consulting Group is a special place with some of the smartest people you’ll ever meet. The good thing about such an environment is that companies bring in big problems for BCG to wrap its collective mind around to solve. One such problem was figuring out how to increase the sales of a global company from $5billion to $10billion in annual sales. We ended up proposing a brilliant solution to the client, however I don’t know if it was ever implemented. Consulting is great in that it taxes your intellect to solve challenging problems, however, you often have to pass that solution back to the client to implement and are relegated to watch from the sidelines. I discovered from my consulting experience that I liked devising solutions AND implementing them. So, I returned to tech and founded and exited two other startups.

So, when did you start thinking about moving back and how did you know the time was right?
It had been in the air for a while and a few years back three friends and I were to launch a $150million private equity fund based in Lagos for a South African bank. The global markets put an end to that plan given the financial crisis of 2008. When the global markets returned I linked up with Africa Capital Alliance and we figured something out with one of its portfolio companies, eTranzact.

What does your current role as the head of the mobile money unit, eTranzact international entail?
PocketMoni (eTranzact’s mobile money unit) reports to me and I’m responsible for the P&L, but more importantly the expansion of the product’s adoption and usage. Mobile money is one of those “big problem needing deep thinking” challenges. One of the primary challenges it faces in Nigeria is that distribution is without the backing of telco’s which have agent networks. CBN made the right call to initially exclude telco’s, but mobile money adoption has been slower than expected and more expensive without them. This year CBN has changed some rules to permit telco participation and we look forward to its reviving effects.

PocketMoni has seen substantial growth over the last year and we ended 2015 with one of the largest user bases and as the second largest in value moved through the system in Nigeria. We expect to end this year in the number one spot, and have assembled a fantastic team to achieve this coupled with an engaged board of directors that supports our direction. As we see from some other economies, mobile money is the future of e-money and we are fortunate to operate at the center of such a tectonic change expected in the industry.

Nigeria has and is fast embracing electronic transaction solutions for day to day business. Do you think these solutions are secure enough or need improvement?
We run very secure systems and are always on the lookout to improve them. As you know, with technology systems, people are always trying to game them. The industry has embraced a rapid response time to resolve these loop holes and make transactions even more secure. If you look at mobile payments globally, the real-time nature of Nigeria’s puts it on the cutting edge. Even with the maturity of the US market, transactions are not real-time, except with cash deposits. Here we have a real-time network that brings with it it’s own unique challenges. I’m proud with the way we’ve embraced these new challenges with creative solutions. Our experiences should permit the building of a local knowledge base that is adaptable globally as the rest of the world catches up to real-time mobile transaction processing.

Has the move back been worth it so far?
The move has been great. The family took a little while to adjust – the kids are wrapping up their second year in school and can tell me more about Nigerian pop-culture than I knew at their age. And, my wife has acclimated nicely to Lagos as she gets her bearings. Prior to the move, I returned to Nigeria annually for a few years so the adjustment for me wasn’t challenging, however being permanently here versus transient is much better for my whole family.

What do you do for fun and where would you recommend for relaxation?
Fun is usually the weekly football game, hanging with the kids or dinner with my wife. We love dining out and have been pleasantly surprised with the gastro scene in Lagos that has built over the last couple of years.

For relaxation we travel (US, France, the village…but we will explore more African countries this year, and on future trips), plus I spend time advising and working with tech entrepreneurs and businesses – a majority of my non-working/non-family time is with growth-focused companies and transferring knowledge from the US to Africa. Last year I became the Chair of Pocket Presents, a company focused on this, and I’m leading the effort to take a group of people to Silicon Valley for a week to explore how to technically scale companies – see:

What is your favorite Nigerian dish and why?

Egusi soup with anything: pounded yam, garri, semo… It has been a favorite since childhood and when your wife and mother make it like mine do, every other dish pales in comparison.

On a final note, do you have any move back tips for prospective returnees?

Just find a way to do it. There isn’t a best time and acclimating will take some effort. However, I’d suggest finding a situation or “soft landing” if possible to permit time to settle into Lagos at a reasonable pace. The speed it takes to settle in will surprise you: one day you’re thinking about your favorite local bagel shop and suddenly you’ve acclimated and you’re fending for the neighborhood suya spot. It happens very quickly.

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