Society needs entrepreneurs who will do well and then do good

Written by  Wednesday, 06 January 2016 00:00

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A few years ago, I had the opportunity to distil my entire life’s work and life philosophy into one graphic and one phrase. Having spent my career working in large companies, running my own businesses, and dedicating time to philanthropic, social, and community work, I became Master of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists in 2010. It was through this that I earned the right to apply to the College of Arms for my own official coat of arms. As part of the design process, you get to choose a motto that encapsulates your philosophy.

I gave a speech about entrepreneurship in Cape Town earlier in 2015 where I said that there has never been a better time to build a successful business. However, I’ve always believed that whilst creating wealth through enterprise is good, it’s what you do with the wealth that you create that really matters. My argument is simple: there is nothing wrong with doing well for yourself and making money, but this needs to be balanced by doing good and using that wealth to help others. Therefore, my wife and I chose as our motto for the coat of arms: ‘Do well. Do good’.

The moral obligation of entrepreneurs

There is an interesting yin and a yang between doing well and doing good, between making money and contributing to helping others.

The point remains that in order to use your wealth for good in the first place, you’ve got to be able to create it to then be in control of how it’s distributed.

I’ve observed that there are three types of people in this world: those who get their pleasure out of harming others; those who get their pleasure out of helping others; and those who get their pleasure out of pleasing themselves with no particular regards to anyone else. The first I call sadists, the second I call philanthropists, and the third I call introverts. What really matters for the future of society is that the philanthropists outnumber and outwit the sadists. Without a philanthropic heart, society becomes hopeless, and as such I view it as a moral obligation for entrepreneurs to be philanthropic in their actions.

I’ve made quite a lot of money in technology and communications. And I’ve given quite a lot of it away. I’ve given a lot of my time and expertise away as well, as I chair charities and I’ve been doing charity work for most of my life. If you were to go to my old college in Cambridge which helped me do well by providing me with a great education and life experience, there is a building called the Olisa Library, built using an endowment my wife and I made to the old college. Cambridge had helped me, so I helped them, and the many other people who will come thereafter.

The Olisa coat of arms, with the 'Do well. Do good' motto. The Olisa coat of arms, with the 'Do well. Do good' motto.

You should do your best with your talents and then you should contribute back. Never fool yourself that your talent is all down to you, or all for your own benefit. It is important not to let your talents or successes get to your head, and that that’s why the ‘Do well. Do good’ motto means a lot to me. 

Technology and social change

So what about creating wealth? There are two types of entrepreneur – the person who’s got no choice because there aren’t any jobs and they must make a living, and the person that’s got the visionary zeal to create the next Apple. Whilst the former are important, I believe that the latter are even more so as it is they who will create employment and wealth for many people. If you want to create something scalable, your product has to have global appeal. So if you take for example one of the things Africa leads the way in in technology – mobile banking and payments – it’s far ahead of the UK. It could therefore make sense to be entrepreneurial in this space and export products and services to the EU or America.

Technology has the potential to make African products and concepts available to the world in a way that was not possible 30 years ago.

Technology can also bring about cultural and political shifts, and play a big role in furthering democracy and political accountability across Africa. I can give a very good example to demonstrate this from the UK.

One of the most embarrassing things to occur in the context of government and governance was the MP’s expenses scandal, where legislators in the land of the mother of all parliaments were found with their snouts in the public trough. The numbers were small in terms of pounds but the numbers were large in terms of participants and those who turned a blind eye. It was deeply embarrassing for the UK because the moral high ground with which Britain traditionally carries itself had become seriously undermined.

The British public expressed their discontent at the system, and so the people changed the system – it wasn’t parliament or the political leadership that changed it. I was one of the five people on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) that put in place the new expenses system that is designed to ensure that another expenses scandal can’t happen again.

Where technology has aided democracy and accountability here is that anyone anywhere in the world can now log on to the IPSA website and find out how much taxpayers’ money any MP in the UK has spent on any item of expenditure since the last election. The data had always existed, but it’s the technology that has changed the ease with which the data is accessed, making it available to the people who then go on to choose the leaders of their country.

Diverse leadership in the UK

My father came to the UK from Nigeria on a boat in 1947/48, a lonely student trying to become a lawyer in London. At the time, he was a rarity. Today the Powerlist features a cross-sector list of enormously influential people of African and Caribbean heritage in the UK, and there are many more worthy influencers and leaders outside that list of 100. However, while the Powerlist proves that people from diaspora communities can rise to the top, the numbers are still small. Whilst change is happening, it’s not happening fast enough. We need to become even more impatient. It’s OK to be impatient.  

Ken Olisa speaks more about his background at a Success Talks event in 2015

The change within two generations of the inventory of potential leaders from diaspora communities in the UK is far greater than it’s ever been, but the reason for the current lack of black people in positions of senior leadership is also an issue of inventory. If you imagine that you will probably have to be in your fifties or sixties to end up on the board of a major company, there just aren’t very many of us born in the 1950s and 1960s to occupy those positions. When I was growing up, I was one of the very few black people in Nottingham. Two generations on, this is no longer the case but there is much to be done to ensure that these future leaders can reach the top.

Change will continue to happen, driven by two things – the inventory increasing and the barriers to progress fading away. Increasing the numbers of suitable candidates is achieved by showing the scale of the opportunities available – and here the Powerlist has an important role to play. Tearing down the barriers to progress is largely a matter of working on the grey matter between the ears of talented members of people from diaspora communities. As my career and those of other Powerlisters have shown, there are in fact, no insurmountable impediments to achieving the highest levels of society in the UK. But getting there entails doing well – really well – at what you set out to do. Leaders don’t come second – never mind coming at the bottom of the class! We also acknowledge our shortcomings and don’t blame others for our failures. By definition, winning means being better than everybody else.

That being said, not only must future leaders be self-motivating, society in general and employers in particular have an obligation to ensure that the rise of talent isn’t impeded by unconscious blockages. And here, future leaders need to display an impatience for change.

In the last government, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skill, Vince Cable, launched a new initiative to encourage more diverse boards, this followed the enormous success of increasing more women at board level. Previously there weren’t any women on half the boards of FTSE 100 companies – now every board has at least one and that’s happened in the lifetime of one parliament. This is proof that things that once seemed permanent and deeply engrained in decades of culture are capable of changing very quickly.

I repeat, it’s OK – even important – to be impatient, otherwise things won’t change.

The pride and fall of Ozymandias

One of my big lessons from life is that failure to progress is largely personal rather than systemic. People of talent hold themselves back because they think that they are victims rather than believing in their own capabilities and shooting for the stars.

However, there is another side to this lesson – as our mothers told us, pride comes before a fall. Getting too big for one’s boots and believing that success is all down to talent and doesn’t depend on the help of others is equally dangerous.  

Hubris – excessive pride and self-confidence – is brilliantly caricatured in Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias.  

It speaks of the statue of a great pharaoh commissioned by himself but which now lies in pieces decaying in the desert.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

An artist's impression of OzymandiasAn artist's impression of Ozymandias

Ozymandias reminds everyone that no matter how big you think you have become, unless your achievements are substantive and sustainable they will count for nothing.

The best way that I have found of staying grounded is to help others. By working in charities I am constantly reminded both how fortunate I am compared to the lives of so many others but also I am able to return the help that I have received from so many people over the years. From that inspiring teacher to the stranger at a foreign airport, my life chances have been enhanced by the support of others. I know it and I never forget it – charity work is a way of repaying that generosity to those in greater need.

Which brings me back to my motto.

Never limit your own ambitions. In all things you should aim for the highest levels that your abilities can take you. But, as you build your legacy, remember Ozymandias, whose investment in temporary, self-absorbed, and ostentatious displays came to nought.

Instead, my experience shows that the more you do to help your fellow citizens, the more your fellow citizens will do to help you.

Or, put more simply: ‘Do well. Do good’.

Ken Olisa OBE,

Lord Lieutenant of Greater London,

and Founder & Chairman of Restoration Partners




Additional expert insights coming soon.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 13 January 2016 00:08

Ken Olisa

United-Kingdom Nigeria

OBE | Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London | Businessman and philanthropist | First British-born black man to serve as a Director of a FTSE-100 company (Reuters)| Founding Chair of the Powerlist Foundation


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