Tony Elumelu Keeps Breaking Barriers

By Bola Atta

The Group Chairman, United Bank for Africa Plc, who also founded the Tony Elumelu Foundation, is not a man who accepts that boundaries exist to keep you out.

Sitting in on his meetings, you will always find a variety of men and women with different interests and backgrounds as well as age groups. Tony loves the Millennials. He can’t get enough of them because according to him, ‘You never know where your next best idea can come from’. He doesn’t consider anything impossible and is very keen to make other people’s dreams come true.

Elumelu himself has always dreamt big and as much as he respects boundaries, institutions and governance, he also realizes that boundaries are not meant to be seen as obstacles but goals.

A student of economics who also got an MBA degree, he was determined to make a difference at a young age. He got his first job against the odds. His degree didn’t qualify him for the position to which he was applying, but he didn’t see this as an obstacle. He tried for the job and got it.

A couple of years later, he was the youngest branch manager at  Crystal bank in Nigeria, where he worked. His boss and now mentor, Chief Ebitimi Banigo, saw the potential in the young Elumelu and was going to help him through the initial barriers.  It wasn’t long before Elumelu became one of the youngest Bank CEOs in Nigeria at the age of 34.  He had acquired Crystal Bank which was about to go into receivership and had seen this as an opportunity towards the goals he set for himself. He named the new bank Standard Trust Bank, which he later merged with the United Bank for Africa, the biggest bank in Nigeria and remains to date, one of the biggest African banks on the continent.  The merger was a dream come true. It was the largest ever merger in the financial sector in Nigeria. Elumelu had conquered a huge barrier.

I don’t believe he dreamt of being a billionaire(perhaps he did) but I don’t think this was the objective as he pursued his career. He is a dreamer and he is a risk taker, but which highly successful entrepreneur has ever emerged at the top without those two qualities?

It was a little more than dreams that got Tony to the place where we know him today: Serial entrepreneur and philanthropist. We have often heard him say that he has always wanted to help others achieve their dreams. He wants to cross borders but never alone. He prefers to take tribes with him; Tribes of rich and successful young entrepreneurs. It is for this reason that he decided to make his fortunes count and in a big way. He has committed U$D100 million to making the lives of young entrepreneurs across the African continent better. An initiative that he launched over three years ago through his Foundation.  The Tony Elumelu Foundation’s Entrepreneurship Programme has been changing lives since it was launched in 2014. Over 3000 lives have been transformed through funding, world –class mentoring and networking as well as the type of exposure that will grow businesses and sustain them.

Tony dreams of creating over a million jobs and U$D10 billion in revenues on the African continent by 2024. These are goals! And Elumelu when he sets his goals, doesn’t see any barriers that cannot be crossed.

Africa is proud of the achievements of this billionaire as he allows many to share in his fortunes. He is keen to alleviate poverty on the continent. He is also keen to energise the youths and make them demand of their governments what they are entitled to at the minimum. (

Tony believes in Africapitalism. He founded this ideal which presupposes that the private sector has a pivotal role to play in the development of any nation. However, private sector needs to be able to work with governments in order to create wealth. Africans can help take the continent out of the barrier of poverty. Sustainable growth according to the theory of Africapitalism, will only occur if governments and the private sector work together to ensure the necessary elements are in place.

Elumelu has received a lot of accolades and awards for the crusade he has embarked upon across the continent. A crusade of change and of poverty alleviation. A crusade that doesn’t know barriers but success. Tony has crisscrossed the continent on what can be best described as a leadership tour, motivating and energizing the youths. He has taken this leadership tour further out of Africa too. He recently spoke with a group of young fellows at MIT in Massachusetts; gave a speech at Chatham house in London and to young Entrepreneurs in Chicago on the invitation of President Obama and his foundation.

This month on December 4, 2017, Elumelu was honoured in New York city by the Business Council for International Understanding(BCIU). He became the first African to receive the prestigious Dwight D. Eisenhower Global Entrepreneurship Award. On the same night he was honoured, Bill Marriott, the Chairman of Marriott International Inc also received the Dwight D Eisenhower award for Leadership. Past recipients include Carlos Slim, Lakshmi Mittal, Ratan Tata, Lord John Browne and many other world successful leaders who are making a difference in the lives of people. 

Chairman UBA Group, Tony O. Elumelu receiving his Dwight D. Esienhower Global Entrepreneurship award on December 4, 2017

Grand daughter of former US President Dwight Eisenhower, Anne Eisenhower; Tony O. Elumelu; Executive Chairman, Marriott International, Inc, Bill Marriott and Peter Tichansky, CEO of Business Council for International Understanding

Africa has woken up to the fact that they have a son of whom they can be proud. The world is taking note of the achievements of Tony Elumelu. At the gala in honour of Elumelu and J.W Marriott, George W Bush (Former President of the United States of America) said of Tony: ‘I am impressed with Tony’s philanthropic initiatives which are powering job creation and entrepreneurship in a region (Africa), that is very dear to Laura and me.  To receive an award founded by President Eisenhower, has added meaning. Eisenhower provided example in leadership, which we can all learn from.’

We all can certainly learn from the fact that Tony Elumelu will continue to break down the barriers as he sets new goals each time. He has always had a strong admiration for Michael Jackson as have many in his generation. But Tony’s admiration comes from the point of view that not only is MJ possibly the best artist of all time, he was such an ardent worker who put his best foot forward all the time. According to Elumelu ‘Michael Jackson to me is an epitome of hard work and perfection. He never left anything to chance and always worked double hard in his endeavours’.

Elumelu got a chance to break yet another barrier this past weekend at the End of year party for his group of companies, Heirs Holdings. He isn’t an artist. That’s not one of the titles we would ever add to his name. However, Tony Elumelu became Michael Jackson for three minutes when he made a surprise stage appearance as non other than his hero, Michael Jackson. It was not spontaneous. Tony worked tirelessly to become MJ for three minutes. He would get off work, rest for a bit and have his dance lessons from midnight to 4am. He did this for 4 straight days and still woke up to get to the office at 8 am.  As I watched him rehearse, I learnt something yet again from Mr. Elumelu. It started off for me as just a stage appearance. A fun skit to add some colour to the event. But Tony took this so seriously. No amount of ‘you are good to go’ was good enough for him. He wanted it to be perfect. He wasn’t just going to do a skit, he was going to be perfectly MJ. Elumelu had broken another barrier. He performed against the odds, on stage in front of 2000 people as Michael Jackson, and held the audience spell bound. It was no easy feat.

Tony Elumelu performing on stage as iconic star Michael Jackson, before an audience of 2000 guests

We congratulate the Group chairman of UBA, Chairman of Heirs Holdings and Founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, as we remain very proud of him. There are still many boundaries yet to cross and no doubt Tony Elumelu will be making strides to remove obstacles along the way.
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