Career & Success

Profile of Purpose: The Boy from the Streets

How one entrepreneur from the streets of Lagos created a successful HR company.

February 15, 2022

Meet Afolabi Abiodun, founder and CEO of SB Telecoms and Devices, a company creating HR solutions for small and medium businesses in Nigeria and across sub-Saharan Africa. From street hawker to debtor to entrepreneur, Abiodun is proof positive that a boy from the streets can find success.

No one ever doubted that Abiodun had the drive to succeed. But his lack of business knowledge often got him into hot water — and debt. After incurring millions in debt, he ran away from home to avoid embarrassment.

To make matters worse, Abiodun explained, “It was actually my grandma’s property that was used as collateral for my business. The banking office went straight to my grandmother and told her ‘your property will be sold.’”

A message from his brother changed his course. “He said: You can run fast as long as you want, but the problem that you’ve left behind will haunt you for the rest of your life.” Abiodun came back and the rest is history in the making.

The challenges Abiodun faced running his own businesses, such as recruitment, payroll, and other human resources tasks, led him to create SB Telecoms, an easy-to-use HR application that handles everything from recruitment to retirement and hiring to firing.

“When people talk about problems, I say to people, ‘Yes, it’s easy to say we don’t have infrastructure in Africa. Power is a problem. But I mean, for me, this is a way of life for me all my life, the road has always been bad. This is the world I know. I try not to complain about it. I try to solve it.’”

Listen to his mini profile to hear how street smarts and business smarts can help propel entrepreneurs on their journey forward.

Grit & Growth is a podcast produced by Stanford Seed, an institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business which partners with entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build thriving enterprises that transform lives.

Hear these entrepreneurs’ stories of trial and triumph, and gain insights and guidance from Stanford University faculty and global business experts on how to transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.

Darius Teter: Welcome to Grit and Growth from Stanford Seed. I’m your host, Darius Teter. Thanks for joining us for another installment of our Profiles of Purpose documentary series. These short-form stories are told entirely from the perspective of business owners and they offer firsthand accounts of the struggles and joys of building impactful businesses in challenging markets.

Barack Obama: It starts with a passion. If you start off just saying, I want to make money, but there’s no clear mission behind it, then when you start hitting some of these barriers, sometimes it’s very hard to push through them.

Darius Teter: That was Barack Obama, speaking at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit hosted at Stanford in 2016. At the conference, more than 1,000 entrepreneurs and investors from 170 countries met to create networks and exchange ideas. But perhaps no one embodied the spirit of President Obama’s words more than invitee Afolabi Abiodun.

Afolabi is the founder and CEO of SB Telecoms and Devices, which creates HR solutions for small and medium businesses in Nigeria and across sub-Saharan Africa. His path to success was by no means straight. He started small - as a street hawker - and then tried some risky ventures that landed him and his extended family deep in debt. In this episode, we’ll hear how Afolabi went from self-imposed exile to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, and the fundamentals that continue to power his journey forward. Here’s Afolabi Abiodun.

Afolabi Abiodun: When people talk about problems. I say to people, yes, it’s easy to say. We don’t have infrastructure in Africa. Power is a problem. But this is a way of life for me. All my life, the road has always been bad. This is the world I know. I try not to complain about it. I try to solve it.

My name is Afolabi Abiodun. I’m the CEO of SB Telecoms & Devices. Our solution today is solutions that small to medium enterprises work with to manage their operations, their human resources, from recruitment to retirement, from hire to fire. It’s a simple to use, human resource application.

I became an entrepreneur because immediately after school, looking for a job was not an option for me. So I started my small business of making phone calls and retailing recharge cards. Got a small space on a major road. So what I do in the evening after the sales I made in the morning, is that I would go on the road and try to wave cars down and sell to them.

I really didn’t have any corporate background. I’m coming from the streets to start my business.

Darius Teter: Afolabi clearly had the drive to succeed, but he lacked business knowledge, and that got him into hot water.

Afolabi Abiodun: You know, of course, there’s having the technical know-how to run a business. I was unfortunate not to have worked in any other organization before starting my business, so I got virtually everything wrong. So I learned my lesson the hard way.

In 2005, when I was leading a recharge card business with a 26 million Naira debt, which would probably be about 100,000 – 220,000 US dollars, at the age of 26, I actually ran away from home. Okay, because it was actually my grandma’s property that was used as collateral for my business then, the banking office said that they went straight to my grandmother and told her, “Your property will be sold. So start preparing, pack your bag and baggages. We need to evict you.”

I was coming from a customer’s place when the news was shared with me, so I took the first available bus (not knowing where I am going) to Accra, because I just felt, let me abandon the problem in Lagos and move on with a new life.

But I got a mail from my brother that said, “You can run fast as long as you want, but the problem that you’ve left behind will haunt you for the rest of your life. Your grandmother is in the hospital. Your mom will soon join. So the option is entirely up to you to decide.” So that brought me back.

So that for me has actually been one of the things that keeps me going every day, that I really need to make her proud, pay off the debts which I have and do several other things for myself and my family and my community.

Afolabi Abiodun: In high school they said after graduation, 40% of you would get employment and 60% most likely would not.

I try to emphasize, you know, the picture of the cat in the shadow of a lion, and when we are asked to interpret the picture, what I saw was a cat that was questioning his creator: Why was I born a cat? Why am I not born a lion? You know, I’m coming from the streets to start my business. You know, education is something I take very seriously, education that would help me run my business better. So I enrolled for a certificate in entrepreneurial management in Pan-Atlantic University. I really didn’t want to be part of the problem that governments would need to solve.

Running my small business, one of the things I find very challenging — or things I can’t really stand — is employees not turning up to work when they should. As a CEO, I have to run the recruitment, I have to pay salaries, a whole lot of stuff that revolves around human resource management. Then, because I’m also a small organization, getting people to stay for a long time in the organization is always a challenge. So I needed something that would manage that for me so that led me to the solution I’m selling today, which is human resource management, a web-based and mobile application. If you look at the whole entrepreneurial journey, it’s right from my grandma and my mom’s shop, to retailing my recharge card and to the company I run today.

So I used my own problem to create a solution that thousands of organizations in Nigeria, and we have some in Ghana and Guinea today using the same application. So I’m looking at the future because every time people talk about, “We need to build successful businesses that would help eradicate poverty.” But the small medium enterprises — they don’t have the working tools. We don’t have the working tools, and one of the most important working tools, of course, is tools to manage your human resources. You want to hire, get the right recruits, you want to pay salaries, you want to give them loans, you want to manage shifts, time management, and you really would like to see all of these things happen in a simple way.

We’re doing that already, reorienting Africa, and in the process of solving the problem, I’m making myself comfortable. I’m making my family comfortable. And that’s the reason why President Barack Obama would want to meet a special guy like me. Isn’t that amazing?

So now, the boy from the streets, invited to the White House for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, it goes beyond myself. I get passion from seeing problems getting solved as expected and that makes me happy. No matter how small you are, no matter where you are from, you actually can be anything you hope to become.

Darius Teter: I’d like to thank Afolabi Abiodun. Since the Summit in 2016, his time at Stanford, he’s used what he learned to grow SB Telecom and Devices into a regional powerhouse. In 2020, when international security manufacturer ZKTeco decided to start a West Africa office, they trusted Afolabi to set up their subsidiary in Nigeria. Now SB Telecoms owns 40 percent of ZKTeco West Africa, and Afolabi functions as the CEO of both companies.

Darius Teter: Grit & Growth is a podcast by Stanford Seed. Laurie Fuller researched and developed content for this episode, with additional research by Jeff Prickett. Kendra Gladych is our production coordinator, and our executive producer is Tiffany Steeves, with writing and production from Andrew Ganem and sound design and mixing by Alex Bennett at Lower Street Media.

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