Uncovering the opportunities

London Business School’s (LBS) first African Scholarship paved the way for Oritsedere Ogbe MBA2013 to come to London when his finances were impacted by having to contribute to his mother’s kidnap ransom. Here, he describes why the scholarship meant more than money to him, and why he’s now giving back to Africa.

Dere Ogbe

Most MBA students expect to have their negotiation skills put to the test at some point in their career. But when Oritsedere Ogbe received news that his mother had been kidnapped in his native Nigeria, shortly before he was due to begin his MBA at LBS, the stakes were much higher than usual.  

“I would say it’s one negotiation you don’t want to lose,” says Oritsedere – known as Dere. 

The dramatic turn of events had a happy ending. Following a kidnapping at gunpoint on her trip home from church, his mother was released unharmed as the result of a ransom deal carefully orchestrated by Dere and his family. 

“The overall process was about two weeks,” says Dere, describing the events that followed the traumatic abduction. 

“First of all we had to find someone who would stand in; dealing with kidnappers is a complicated business, so you have to find the right middle man to talk with them. Once we had one, we negotiated and paid a ransom and then they released her. They dropped her not far from the city and she made her way back home.”

Although his mother was returned safe, the incident left its mark on Dere, who says he’s now a less risk-averse person, more decisive and focused on making the most of his opportunities. 

“You suddenly realise that you have one life and you have to try and make the best out of it,” he explains. “Before that traumatic event, I was centred on questions like what do I do today? How do I do my job? How do I deliver?’ 

“All of a sudden your whole set of priorities just slip and you really begin to think about what’s important to you.”

Dere’s key commitment at the time was his ambition to pursue an MBA at LBS. But with his mother’s kidnap and the ransom payment, that plan looked uncertain.

After writing to the School to explain his circumstances, Dere was awarded LBS’s first African Scholarship, in recognition of his high potential, and he took up his place to study in 2011. 

“It means you belong at LBS”

While the financial assistance made his London studies possible, Dere says that the scholarship which allowed him to study at LBS meant more to him than just the money. 
“For me, having grown up in Africa, there were a lot of different things that went through my mind,” he reflects. 

“It’s not just about the content or the course, it’s about doing an MBA in London when you’ve  grown up in a different place, a different region and a different culture: you ask ‘is this the right step for me?’ You’re aware of questions like ‘can I really fit in?’ 

“The scholarship really affirmed LBS’s belief in me, it means you belong at LBS in a sense; they saw enough potential in me to want to invest. That really led me to have a bit more self-confidence and think ‘this is the right path for me’.”

“There’s no doubt there are challenges”

The scholarship also shaped Dere’s commitment to his home country, Nigeria. As well as his current role working as a strategy consultant for Shell, he also runs a charitable organisation aimed at helping small-scale artisan entrepreneurs in the region expand their market reach globally. 

“As an African scholar it’s not just about where you come from, it’s also about where you’re committed to in the long-term,” he says. 

Dere sees huge potential for Nigeria’s future, despite the instabilities that rock the region, and believes that entrepreneurial creativity will be part of the solution as people create new centres of opportunities outside Nigeria’s traditional industries and government careers.  

“There’s no doubt there are challenges in the region,” he admits. “But I am really excited about what I see happening. There has always been entrepreneurial spirit in the region but this time there is a real sense of excitement about what is achievable. People are taking the initiative and doing very well with it. 

“Regardless of what’s happening at a macro-level, with governments and infrastructure, I have no doubt about  there being a real change taking place underneath all the noise. For me, that’s where the opportunities are.”

Dere sees innovation in the work of the artisans he is involved with. The challenges for most local business is not about getting started or innovating; it is about escaping the size trap and upscaling them to have a wider reach, which is where he focuses. 

African businesses have to work with challenges we take for granted in Europe, all the way from infrastructure to security. 

“To bridge that gap, you have to think differently and act in a very creative fashion,” says Dere. “The world doesn’t see much of it because it tends to be on a very small scale. The people I’ve work with are very creative in developing business models and products but lack the scale – they don’t become big news. 

“We tend to think about investment for a start-up in the UK as something that starts at US$100,000, and when you have to borrow US$100 to set up shop, you have to think totally differently.”

“Africa is now the opportunity”

Dere says that many of his peers – who like him have studied abroad and worked for large international organisations – are returning to Nigeria, bringing their skills and experience with them. 

“The world is a smaller place,” he says. 

“There’s no constraint anymore and Africa offers a unique opportunity to shape things. The overall numbers might still show people leaving Africa, but I think there’s a strong undercurrent of people going back and setting up their own businesses and making their own opportunities.

“I feel very much like this is the inflection stage. For a long time people were really tied to government structures being a source of revenue and income. I see a lot of people moving out of that and doing their own thing, creating their own opportunities. 
“When you see this strong growth as people create value outside of the traditional industries traditional areas – that’s a positive sign.”

“The key thing is having a long-term goal” 

Dere may describe his ambition as being more focused following his mother’s kidnapping. But an anecdote from his youth reveals a steely tenacity and an already-present gift for patiently concentrating on long term strategy. 
Before studying for his MBA, he worked in various engineering roles for BP, focused on the upstream sector, having studied for his first degree in mechanical engineering in Nigeria. 

“The PC age came in Europe before reaching Africa, but as a young undergraduate I knew this was something exciting and wanted to have my own computer,” he explains. 
Being a struggling student, he didn’t have enough money for a new model, so after saving up, he visited a marketplace to haggle over a second-hand computer. 

“They sold it to me, but for all the money I had,” he laughs. “So I didn’t have enough money for transport home. 

“I had two choices. I could have left it and gone back home but I decided to buy it and carry it all the way back home on foot. This was in the days when a computer set consisted of a big white box and a 15kg CRT monitor, and home was over 6km away on typical hot and scorching afternoon. That is not an experience I would recommend.”
It was a valuable lesson to Dere, though. 

“We all have low points and high points and along any career there are setbacks,” he says. 

“But the key thing is always having a long-term goal in front of you and understanding that whatever you’re going through is just temporary. So when I bought that computer, I understood that I was only going to feel the pain for a day and afterwards it would be gone and I’d just feel the excitement.”

Author: Hannah Marsh