How my dad used trick me back to Nigeria at 10 —Teniola
Mr Olusola Teniola, President, Association Of Telecom Operators Of Nigeria (ATCON), has dual nationality. He carries both Nigerian and British passports. He shares his story with CHIMA NWOKOJI and SEGUN KASALI.
YOU have dual nationality; where exactly did you grow up?
I was born in London in 1966 in Greenwich where they have the GMT time. My father was in UK in 1960 and my mother came to UK in 1961. The UK then was a different place probably over just 10,000 Nigerians. So, I was brought up in South East London. I went to Kessington Primary School and there were only two black Nigerian families that lived in that area: Dr Oshodi, and Teniola (my family). The rest were all whites, not even Jamaicans. I was known to be very troublesome in school. In fact, I was part of the sprinting team. I was good at sprinting. My father was very concerned about the academic angle. He said to me that you are now going to Nigeria to meet your people. So, I finished my primary education in the United Kingdom but I came to Nigeria when I was 10.
Homecoming must be a different experience.
I came to Nigeria in 1977 after my father had told me that Nigeria was just like London and assured there was no much difference. With my big afro hair, I returned to Nigeria and was surprised to see what I had never seen on TV in my life before: shanty roof tops and other stuffs. I had never seen such in my life. My mother came with me and kept me in custody of her brother in the then Surulere. Her brother was exposed to European ways, which was lucky for me because I couldn’t eat African meals. After like a week, I was taken by road to Ondo State to meet my people in Idanre.
Did you continue education here?
I was enrolled in a grammar school after an interview as the entrance was waived for me. There was discipline and it really helped me. The value system of the older generation was more honourable than what we have now. After my WASC, I went back immediately to the UK. I was always very good in science-related studies. I didn’t really study hard, but I left with reasonable grades. After I did A levels in the UK in Pure Mathematics, Applied Maths, Physics and Electronic combination, I went to South Bank Polytechnic then, but is now a university and I was one of the first to graduate from the institution with honours in Computer and Information Engineering in 1989.
So what happened after your graduation?
I was very lucky because before even when I graduated, I had three job offers waiting for me in the UK. I worked on some very complex projects in 1994, ranging from Google to many other top international IT organisations.
What would you have been doing if you didn’t follow your current professional road?
Remember I said that I am very privileged and I know that it is that privilege that works. I met and I have met some very distinguished white engineers. When I mean distinguished, some of them may be late, but they know me because I am their product. They told me everything that I need to know in the technical realm of telecoms. I was blessed. In fact, the Nigerians that I have met and I know in the UK used me as mentor. So, I made the decision that I would not be limited by my colour. I wanted to become a manager and on two occasions white people were put over me. So I became a freelancer. Luckily, for me, I had a colleague that remembered me when he went to CISCO systems and because she knew me, remember this is where a lot of whites were, they let me in in year 2000. But I already set my sight on being a CTO or running a company. So, when I joined CISCO, I shelve my ambition because they didn’t want me to realize that ambition, saying if you go, who will do your job. But when I was made voluntarily redundant, I took the package that they paid me to do my MBA and that was a watershed in my life. There, I met three very rich white men in Portugal who gave me the chance to run their telecoms company. I was the chairman of World Telecoms for four years and during that time my face was in the newspapers quite a lot. Because of this, the ambassador of Nigeria then reached out to me to come home and use my skill sets to help Nigeria during the Obasanjo administration and that was what I did. In 2005, I came on a plane to come and see the then Minister of Communications, Chief [Cornelius] Adebayo, who is very close to me and he gave me the opportunity in 2009 to enter the Nigerian space around telecoms as the chief operating officer. I came back to Nigeria permanently after I won an ICT licence to now contribute my quota to the Nigerian telecoms landscape. And as God would have it, from there, I became the CEO to a South African telecoms company. That is what brought me to Lagos after I had spent three and a half years in Abuja. And then from being the CEO, I was now pushed by the Germans to become the lead representative and prime partner for West Africa and Nigeria. And from there, I found this calling. I called it a calling because I have been with ATCON for almost 10 years. So, ever since I came into the country, my bosses have been telling me that they wanted me to become the president of ATCON. Now I have been the president of ATCON for three years and I will hand over to the next generation.
You don’t want to continue?
No. I don’t have any plan of coming back for third term (Laughs).
Looking back, is there any experience you wish to re-live?
No. One thing I have learnt is to have mentors. I could say that I have more white mentors than black mentors. That is because of my upbringing. You should treat every experience, whether good or bad, as a learning curve and see it as an opportunity for development. You see, I tell people through sports that it is not difficult to get to know the character of some people by the extracurricular activities they get involved in because they define the friends they walk with and also show the true character of the person. I play golf; I play chess and I play squash. It shows I am a competitive person by nature and it is true. I am the first born of my father. My father was actually competitive.
Is any of your children exhibiting your traits?
They all carry the DNA of their grandparents. But yes, my daughter does sport that not many Nigerians do. You see! When you are learning a sport, it could be frustrating but be patient. I have been playing golf and badminton for many years. It is important to understand that it is not an accident that people become leaders because you have to have followers. I am also a follower of someone. My mentors define my behaviour because I still learn things that I want to adopt. You could hear from many people, I use sports to do that. It is not only about work because work is just a fraction.
How did you meet your wife?
I met my wife in Abuja through my HR Manager. I returned from my normal trip from abroad and I still keep contact with my people in other countries. So, on my trip back, she was concerned about my lack of female companionship. So, she introduced me to my wife, who was then the head of Legal Department for Ecobank for Northern region. She is a banker and a lawyer, who also happens to come from Akure. So, we met and we got married in Abuja and we are blessed with children.
What attracted you to her?
One thing about me is that I like independent and smart women. She’s got that. Those are my type of women that can handle my type of personality and that was what attracted me to her. There is nothing I regret. I see every experience as a lesson. I am a competitive person by nature which can be seen in the games I play.
How do you make out time for family considering your work demands?
Well, you have to make time through sacrifice. I make it. I don’t go out to beer parlours. You won’t see me there.
Does that make you a teetotaller?
I am not a social drinker. I don’t go to big parties and so, those time that I have, I spend with family.
You cut a cosmopolitan image…
I was born in London and so, I am very cosmopolitan.
But you do African dishes like amala?
No, but I eat pounded yam with my ewedu. I am very selective with what I eat (Laughs). I don’t take amala.
How do you relax?
I read a lot and I read to curtail the curious mind that I have. I think a lot and that is why I push beyond anything you give me. I think this explains my troublesome nature while I was growing up and which made my dad to bring me back to Nigeria. But I read to ensure that I am current because I am very passionate about technology. But I say with all humility, I am a very lucky man because I have been trained by some very smart white people
What other life situations pointed to you being lucky?
I will share something with you that you don’t know. In the UK when I graduated, it was the time of digitalization of telecoms and that was why I said I have met some fantastic people in the course of my journey. They told me things that I would have never known was in existence. So, I see it as an opportunity to share in Nigeria. Now I know why they said they need you back home. There is something you have that you need to give to the nation.
Are you really making the desired impact around here?
I will let them give me the verdict. I will not want to blow any trumpet but I can assure you that we are not even scratching the surface of our potential. That is how far technology has gone and I have been privy to some of that. So, we should leverage on the Diaspora to get us to where we want to get to. I have enough challenge to stay here.
Like many Africans, do you also have a preference for male children?
You know when we were fighting wars, everyone wanted a male to fight war because males fight wars. Do you know that we are in a service-oriented ecosystem and they say females are better at administrative tasks. In some countries, women are presidents. In some countries, women are pilots. So, the value of a woman has increased to the level where that statement which you made no longer really applies. I have two daughters and I bestow on them the best they can be. Sky is definitely not the limit. Technology! You either know it or you don’t know it. It is not about brawn; it is about brain power The sooner we realize in Africa that it is not about male or female, but it is about knowledge the better for us. Whether you are a girl or a boy, technology does not discriminate. Whether they are lawyers or physicians, they have to understand technology. The days have gone that you can pretend that it is not going to happen. This is the future and that is what I tell my children. Even, I have a two-year-old boy who is already on the phone. So, why are we going back the old way talking about things that does not apply. You know what concerns me most is a lot of African sense that are outdated and that have been proven to be ineffective. We have some people that don’t want change but want the old ways. I say to them they are going to be like dinosaur, embrace the future and stop complaining about the past. You know dinosaur came and becomes extinct. They become irrelevant.
Is Nigeria ready for Artificial Intelligence?
I don’t think Nigeria is ready for that.