Cole Agbede

  • Degree Programme: MBA
  • Global Nationality: British/Nigerian
  • Scholarship: Borrows Scholarship
  • Profile Job Pre-programme: FIG M&A Associate at Fenchurch Advisory Partners
After moving to London from Lagos when he was nine, Cole Agbede (MBA2021) knew that when he grew up, he wanted to wear a suit and work in a bank like his father. Today, having risen through the ranks of the investment banking industry, he explains why he decided to pursue an MBA and how he became Co-Founder of the Black in Business Club.

I was born in the UK but moved back to Nigeria a year later, which is where I spent most of my childhood. My dad was a banker and my mother a social worker; they were both proud Nigerians and wanted to raise me with a connection to their home country. We lived in Lagos, where my earliest memories were of the heat of the African sun and being surrounded by people who looked just like me – which at the time I considered normal. I had a happy childhood, but for whatever reason – perhaps it was being born in the UK – I always dreamt of going back to London. When I was nine, we visited London for a holiday, and it brought back a lot of memories, as my mother had lived there before we moved to Nigeria. After some consideration, they decided the UK would offer better opportunities for my two little brothers and I, and made the decision for us to stay.

After eight years in Lagos, we moved to Surbiton in South West London, where I found myself the only Black student in my year group. I remember being taken into class on my first day; when the other kids were asked who wanted to look after me, everybody’s hand shot straight up, which made me feel really welcome. Back in Nigeria, I was good at school but not one of the best. In England, I was getting better grades, I was the fastest runner and I was the best at football. It really shaped me; it gave me confidence and an achiever’s mindset from a young age. If I’d have stayed in Nigeria, my perspective might have been different.

Being Black wasn’t a ‘thing’ in primary school, but it all changed when I got to secondary. As you get older, society starts to influence you; your teachers, parents, the things you read and the TV you watch all has an impact on your opinions and perceptions. I distinctly remember that shift; how I felt about race and how others around me felt about it too. Towards the end of my final year of secondary school, I remember my teachers calling my parents, concerned that I wouldn’t get the grades I needed to attend sixth form. I knew I was performing at the same level as my classmates; I was doing well enough but my teachers were suggesting otherwise. It was then that I started to realise that my experience was always going to be different because of my race.

“My greatest realisation about LBS and the MBA is that you don't have to fit in; you just have to belong”

When I was younger, I never knew exactly what my dad did – I just knew that he wore a suit and worked in a bank. But I did know that I wanted to follow in his footsteps. He actually suggested I study economics at A-level, which I did. It quickly became my favourite subject, which led me to choose it for my undergraduate degree at the University of Bath. Economics covered a range of subjects – data analysis, problem solving and economic theory – and while a lot of people in my year did summer internships, I just wanted to study, enjoy it and see where the degree took me.

After two years, I decided to join my degree’s Industrial Placement Programme to take a year out and gain work experience – which is how I ended up at Ernst & Young. Having attended a career event where lots of big corporates came in to give presentations, I applied for Ernst & Young’s audit department; I didn’t really know what the job entailed, but I knew they had a cool office in London Bridge so decided I wanted to work there! I hadn’t thought about investment banking at this point, but in my placement year I got to work on different projects with banks and brokers, which gave me a sense of how the industry worked. It soon became something I was really interested in.

Several months into my placement I discovered that auditing wasn’t dynamic or fast-paced enough for me. But luckily I’d learnt a lot about Ernst & Young’s corporate finance department, which was much more aligned to my interests. My endgame was to get an offer at EY, so during my placement year I tried to find a way to transfer departments. It was a risky move; generally, people are expected to stay in their professional lane. But luckily, I’d maintained a relationship with someone at Ernst & Young that I met at the careers event, and he became a mentor of sorts. He’d made the same move himself and introduced me to a member of his team who gave me a quick interview (which turned into a real interview) – leading to me landing a role within the corporate finance department post-graduation. It’s usually difficult to make that transition, but if you can meet the right people it can be a lot easier. That experience drilled into me the importance of paying things forward. If my colleague hadn’t given me the time of day, it’s unlikely I’d be where I am now.

“I was one of only two Black bankers within my organisation, the other being a friend of mine who was hired on my recommendation. Improving diversity within industries like finance was something I really wanted to be involved with”

In 2014, I started my first full-time role as a Corporate Finance Analyst at Ernst & Young. It was a great introduction to the finance industry, and gave me the chance to do my chartered accountant qualification in a new department. After qualifying, I started to think about moving into investment banking.

In 2016, I moved to Canaccord Genuity as an FIG M&A Analyst – which was a harsh induction into the reality of investment banking. In the first week, I’d be working on three projects a day. We’d have emails come in from clients at 3pm; it would get to 11pm and they still hadn’t been dealt with. I’d then be pulled into a meeting to begin working on them at midnight. I stayed for six months, before taking the opportunity to move to a boutique bank called Fenchurch Advisory Partners as a FIG (Financial Institutions Group) M&A Analyst. I was there for two years, working with some incredibly smart people who really took the time to involve me in deals and nurture my passion and experience.

I started thinking about an MBA because I wanted to step back and revaluate where I wanted to take my career. If I’d have stayed in investment banking, it probably would have been for the long haul. But by doing an MBA, I could explore my options and spend time thinking about what I wanted to do next. I knew it’d give me the chance to reflect on my weaknesses and improve myself – something that is incredibly difficult to do well do in a fast-paced role.

Doing an MBA meant taking a two-year career break. But I’d rather be the best version of myself for the next 40 years than fail to live up to my full potential for the next 42. I also wanted to think about how I could contribute to society beyond the world of finance. Previously, I was one of only two Black bankers within my organisation, the other being a friend of mine who was hired on my recommendation. Improving diversity within industries like finance was something I really wanted to be involved with.

I considered several business schools before realising that LBS was the perfect fit. I went to an MBA careers event, started to think about where I saw my future and kept landing on Europe; London’s a city I know and feel comfortable with. I did think about Harvard and Stanford, but couldn’t see myself pursuing a career in the US. Despite this, I connected with a Harvard alumni who took me to lunch; I asked for his opinion, and he actually recommended LBS! I knew about the School and its reputation, but it wasn’t until he put me in touch with an LBS alumna that things really clicked. She was on holiday at the time, but amazingly took an hour and a half out of her day to speak to me, which blew me away. That conversation showed me how invested LBS alumni are in the future of the School and its students. After that interaction, there was no competition. I knew LBS was where I needed to be.

The MBA experience has been everything I hoped for and more. It has allowed me to meet people from all around the world; my study group alone includes a German, Taiwanese, Mexican American, Columbian Brazilian American and an Italian South African. It has given me the chance to build my experience in the finance sector through my summer internship in investment banking at Bank of America. And perhaps most surprisingly, it has presented me with the opportunity to play my part in standing against racial inequality and helping change the narrative for Black professionals through my role as Co-Founder and Co-President of the Black in Business Club.

The Black in Business Club started as a community of just 11 Black MBA students. We knew we were a minority and after numerous conversations, started to think about how we could change that. After the death of George Floyd in 2020, we decided to take action. LBS is a global brand with a mission to impact the world, so we knew that by driving change at LBS, we could drive change in the business world too.

We put together a presentation, which looked at the School’s current situation, what we felt it should look like, how we could get there and how both LBS and LBS students could play their part. We knew we needed to take our ideas to the top, so we worked with the Student Association’s president, Santiago Fernandez, to strategise how to go about it, before reaching out to Dean François and presenting to him. It was extremely well received, so we set out to turn our ideas into reality. We launched the club in September 2020, and highlighted its inception by working with the School’s social media team and in-house magazine Think to work on a campaign for Black History Month, which was an LBS first.

The club has achieved so much in such a short space of time; it’s difficult to pick one thing I’m most proud of. There’s the ‘Intro to the Black in Business Club’ event we ran with the Marketing and Admissions team – inviting potential Black candidates from around the world to learn about LBS, speak to us and get advice on the application process. Being part of the first event of its kind and seeing LBS take such a stance was a really emotional experience. Several of our team members cried during the prep call, just because they never thought they’d see an event like that at the School. The launch of the ‘Black at LBS’ page turned out to be an equally overwhelming experience. It signalled to the world that LBS welcomes people from all backgrounds by promoting an initiative focused on the advancement and empowerment of Black individuals.

Throughout my life, I’ve found myself in situations where I’ve been putting in a lot but not getting what I felt I deserved. I experienced this at school and then again in my career, and it made we want to do whatever I could to make it easier for those that come after me. In previous roles, I’ve become accustomed to being the only Black face in a room, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, but many people haven’t had the same experience. That’s why I want to change the status quo.

“The MBA experience has been everything I hoped for and more. It allowed me to meet people from all around the world, build my experience in the finance sector and play my part in standing against racial inequality and helping change the narrative for Black professionals.”

In the past year, I’m glad to have seen a number of organisations championing racial equality. The work that Sky Sports has done to lead conversations on diversity and racism has been fantastic. I’m a big football fan, and definitely noticed a shift in the narrative following the death of George Floyd. Sky made it clear they wouldn’t be silent, and regularly denounced racism both on and off the pitch. A media company like that has huge influence, and it’s great to see a business like Sky – a company that could have stayed quiet and taken the easy route – speak out.

After graduating, I want to continue being involved with the Black in Business Club as a member of its advisory board. This is something my fellow Co-Founder and Co-President Tabria Lenard and I set up to ensure we continue to shape the club’s strategy and are accessible to new students. I’ll be continuing my career in finance, joining the FIG IBD London team at Bank of America. I’m sure many future club members will be interested in following a similar path, so maintaining that line of communication with the club will give me the chance to leverage my relationships and share my experience to increase the representation of Black candidates within London’s finance sector.

I’m proud to have achieved so much at LBS during the pandemic, which surprisingly didn’t disrupt the learning experience. The School invested in its online and hybrid technology, and it was a pretty seamless transition to a new way of learning. The primary disruption was to the social side of the MBA. We had several strict lockdowns in London which made it impossible to continue running the types of social activities that are core to the LBS experience. But as a cohort we’re very lucky that we had the first six months of the MBA in a normal environment. That gave us enough time to build the bonds that carried us through the tough times. 

My greatest realisation about LBS and the MBA is that you don't have to fit in; you just have to belong. I know that in most of the teams I’ll occupy in my career, I’ll be a 'minority'. But my objective is not to fit in but to belong, which means I can always continue to be my complete self. My LBS highlight has been setting up the Black in Business Club alongside Tabria. While it has been time-consuming and at times mentally draining, it has been a truly rewarding experience and I’ve met some amazing people along the way. The response from the LBS community is something that has made me feel like I do and always will belong at LBS, which is a great feeling.

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