The Lunch Hour

The Lunch Hour, Dr. Benjamin Akande, President, Champlain College, Vermont

Dr Benjamin Ola Akande is the current and the 9th President of Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. From April 2018 to April 2020, Dr. Akande served as Assistant Vice Chancellor of International Programs-Africa, Director of the Africa Initiative and Associate Director of the Global Health Center at Washington University in St. Louis. He served as the 21st President of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri from 2015–2017; he was the first person of colour to head the 168-year-old institution. Dr. Akande currently serves on the Board of Argent Capital, a $4 billion asset management company. He is a member of the Board of Enterprise Bank & Trust ($5 billion assets), serving on the Regulatory and Compliance Committee. Dr. Akande is a much sought-after commentator in America’s national media. He has appeared on Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN, CBS Evening News and St. Louis affiliates of FOX, ABC and NBC. His commentaries have appeared in USA TODAYFinancial Times, and on public radio’s Marketplace. He served as a director of Ralcorp Holdings, Inc., a $5 billion publicly traded manufacturer of high-quality private food labels and has consulted for Anheuser-Busch, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Voith, SeaWorld, and many other corporations.

Dr. Akande holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Oklahoma and completed post-doctoral studies at JFK School of Government at Harvard University and Saïd Business School at Oxford University. He is a respected economist, scholar, and global consultant to Fortune 500 corporations and institutions in the higher education space in the areas of strategy, leadership development, corporate responsibility, and market positioning.

I was a 38-year-old Professor and Dean of a Business School that had about 14,000 students and that had campuses in places like China, Geneva, London and Vienna, Austria. I was given the opportunity to lead that and I did it for 15 years. It was exciting, I had a great time”.

University, Science or Arts?

I was a liberal arts student at Comprehensive High School Ayetoro, a school that was founded by Harvard University professors back in the late 1950s on the model of American secondary school education. In form three, I was identified after an assessment by the Guidance Counsellor as more suitable for the arts. So, I specialised in subjects like economics, history, literature, geography etc. This steered me towards studying economics.

Where did you study economics?

I got my PhD in economics at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. I focussed on economic development, public policy and energy.  One of the reasons why I focused on energy was because of the Nigeria energy space. The goal was to eventually return home and be a contributor in that space. But things kind of turned out differently. I ended up staying around here in the United States.

What’s the biggest lesson you left the university with?

I think the biggest lesson was the value of persistency, the importance of relationships and also the willingness to continue to learn. So even after I finished my degree the learning process was continuous, it never ended. And lastly, I left with a sense of appreciation of the value of networking, making friends before you need them. That has paid up for me in spades with the relationships I have been to garner over the years.

Do you remember any teacher from high school?

My high school economics teacher Mr Akande. We have the same last name. He was the guy that basically planted the seeds of the love for economics in me. He broke down economics in a way that was structural, that was memorable, that applied to everything about life and I got the bug and it never left me. Interestingly enough, I was in Nigeria about a year and half ago and I went over to see one of my class mates who at that time was the Commissioner for Establishment in Oyo State. He said he had a surprise for me and in walked in my high school economics teacher, Mr Akande. I was so shocked. I remember that I just hit the ground.  I prostrated. He shouted “No Prof”, but I told him that he is the one that inspired me to grow to where I am today. It was special. He has retired but the impact that he had on my life was very significant.

From a college or university perspective, two people made an impact on me. One of them is a man by the name of Robert Simmons, my history professor. I took history courses as an undergraduate. I love history and he had the ability to teach history as if he was there when it happened. He would captivate the students with remarkable story telling, details that connected the different events and he always told me that life is history Benjamin. He showed how important history is. He often said, you got to be able to tell stories to the people that you are trying to lead, to people that you are trying to convince. He says, use history to put things in context. Tell people stories about things that worked, the things that didn’t work and then stories in terms of taking them into the future that they don’t currently see by painting a clear picture of what that future would look like. I will never forget him. And then lastly, Doctor Kondonasis, my PhD advisor. He is Greek. He used to tell me stories of the Leventis family who used to have the Leventis store in Nigeria. He knew them, they were also Greeks. He spoke about their industriousness and their entrepreneurship. He was a great mentor of mine. He is about 90 years old now and he is still with us now. I need to give him a call to check up on him.

Who Was the Greater Influence, Mum or Dad?

Both of my parents influenced me, not one greater than the other. My mom was quiet, influential, and forceful. She kept us in line, she kept reminding us not to blow it. She always reminded my sisters and I that we had an obligation to continue to do the right thing. My dad, the late Dr. Reverend S T Ola Akande, was the one who acted as the motivator. He gave us unimaginable goals that made us wonder- how can anyone accomplish all that? He encouraged my sisters and I- I have four sisters- to benchmark against him. He was highly accomplished. Both my parents played a very influential and a very important role in my development and I am very grateful.

When did you leave home for good and what’s the biggest lesson you took away with you? 

I left Nigeria on August 23, 1979 for Texas. I was seventeen years old. I was scared to death. I was going from Nigeria where we all looked like each other to a place where I automatically became a minority overnight. My dad told me to view the transition as a tabula rasa, an uncarved rock. He told me to be open-minded, to meet people where they are and in fact to meet them more than half way whenever necessary. I went to Texas with that mentality and it really worked for me. I did not arrive with preconceptions. I was open and humble. I made lots of friends in Texas and many of them are still friends today. I went back to my university in Texas in 1995 as Dean of the Business School. It was my first academic deanship. Interestingly, I was leading people that had taught me economics at the university. I was much younger but they gave me the opportunity to lead them because they believed in me.

What’s your take on “structural racism”?

It exists. I have lived in the United States for over 40 years now but I have been really fortunate that I have been able to avoid it but I have to tell you it is real. It comes at you in a very unconventional way. The way I define structural racism is that they question everything that you are trying to do, they misunderstand you, they misrepresent you and they use culture as a way of blocking your initiatives. Even if they are telling you that Black Lives Matter. Structural racism is alive and well and you will find it in the most unexpected places. People believe racism is a conservative thing. No! There are Republicans and there are Democrats who have not gotten the message yet. It is about people. I have always found a way to rise above it. I have always found a way to meet people where they are and not to allow racism to define me. Structural racism is alive and well in the United States. We have some way to go but at the same time there are a lot of really good people in this country that are working very very hard to try and overcome that and I really appreciate it.

What your first job and what is the main thing you learnt from it?

I had several part-time jobs. But my first real job was teaching working adults economics at another university while working on my PhD. I was an adjunct professor at the University of Central Oklahoma. My students were people coming back to the university to finish their education so they were much older than I was. I learned patience. I also learned to make sure of being ready for the unexpected. Expecting that people will challenge you on what you say or just challenge you for who you are.

Who is your best boss ever and why?

My best boss ever is Doctor Neil George. He was Provost when I became the Dean of the Business School at Webster University in St. Louis. Neil George recruited me from the University of Oklahoma, my Alma Mata. He told me, “Benjamin I want you to come here and to take us to a new place. You have the autonomy to be able to do it but I am going to hold you responsible for meeting those goals.” It is the best job that I have ever had and it prepared me for greater opportunities in the future and it was enabled by Doctor Neil George. I am still in touch with Neil George. He just turned 80 the other day and I sent him a video message to thank him for giving me the opportunity to be Dean of the Business School. I was a 33-year-old Professor and Dean of a Business School that had about 14,000 students and that had campuses in places like China, Geneva, London and Vienna, Austria. I was given the opportunity to lead that and I did it for 15 years. It was exciting, I had a great time.

Also Read: The Lunch Hour – Atedo Peterside, Chairman, ANAP Foundation

Two or three things that you have learnt in your career that they don’t teach in business schools

Trust. Trust is difficult. How do you trust people you don’t know? How do you trust people that may not trust you? But I have always learned to lead with trust and let people prove me otherwise. We don’t teach that in business school. We should be teaching it. I think that is one. Secondly, resilience. Resilience is an important attribute because it speaks to always coming back, to getting up when you fail, looking at failure as real time feedback. And the last one I think is having a sense of constructive impatience. Constructive impatience is important because it speaks to the urgency of the moment, constructive in the sense that you do the work, you focus on the due diligence but you are impatient in trying to make sure that you get things done. Those will be the three things that we don’t teach in business school but we need to start thinking about.

What are the two things you prize the most when you are hiring people to work with you?

I want them to show me that they have done their research on the organization. It’s not enough to just want the job, I want to see that you have actually done the due diligence on us. I would ask them, what do you know about us? That usually throws people. You should know about the place you are applying to work. You should have done your deep research on that. I would also ask them the important question, to tell me about the biggest failure of their life. I wait and sometimes I would get responses like, “I have never failed.” That usually shocks me. But when they tell me their biggest failure, I would ask a follow up question-what did you learn from the failure? We all fail, no doubt about that. The key is to reflect carefully and draw some lessons from our failures.

What kind of music do you listen to?

I am into Afrobeat. I like Davido. I like these up-and-coming Nigerian musicians, Olamide and the rest of them. They are telling stories. They are modern-day Shakespeares. I love their beat. My kids listen to these Nigerian artistes so I listen to them too. It’s story telling at it’s very best. They are in their elements when talking about difficult conditions in Nigeria and trying to find a way out. It’s good stuff. And then of course I am a big jazz fan. I love contemporary jazz, I am an old guy. I have always loved Afrobeats.

What kind of books do you like to read?

I am an avid reader. I read daily. I start my day with New York Times and Wall Street Journal, usually at 5 a.m. just to see what’s going on in the world. I get my weekly dose of The Economist because it provides me with a broad view of the world. The book that I am reading right now is Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity by Scott Galloway. The author argues that if we just wait for the coronavirus pandemic to go away and then start life again, we would have missed an opportunity.

What is the single policy you recommend to improve the quality of education in Nigerian universities? 

I think that the universities in Nigeria that would own the future are the universities that are not just looking at teaching Economics or teaching Literature or teaching English but embrace the opportunity for a multi-disciplinary approach to creating new majors. You can’t tackle the future one dimensionally anymore. You need a multiplicity of preparation. So the universities that would own the future in Nigeria are the ones that are able to embrace such programmes as cyber security which is a critical element of our lives. Majors that combine more than one area so that you would see a major for instance in Economics Psychology or an area of Biophysics where you are combining two areas that were standalone areas in the past but can better solve some of the biggest issues that we face when combined.  I think a number of our universities in Nigeria right now have inadvertently become irrelevant and the reason why they have become irrelevant is because they keep doing the same old things and hoping for a better result. That is what irrelevancy looks like. Irrelevancy is worse than death because when you become irrelevant, you don’t matter anymore. Whatever brand or name you had, it’s gone. Because you refused to transition, to transform yourself and that’s what’s going on right now in a lot of our institutions of higher learning.

What economic policy could really make a difference to the lives of the Nigerian Masses?

We have to create jobs. There is simply not enough jobs in Nigeria and that’s why you have kidnapping going on. Kidnapping is a result of an economy that just is not producing jobs and until we find a way to resolve that, it is going get worse before it gets better. I think that one of the fastest ways to generate jobs is infrastructure. When you invest in infrastructure, whether it is road construction or it is rail construction, it has a way of creating multiplier effects that impact so many parts of the economy.

What is the single biggest thing that Nigerians could learn from American history?

That America is a work in progress, that there is no perfection and even with the long history of democracy, things have not worked out the way they should and we should constantly be looking out for ways to improve. That is what America is doing right now, looking for ways to improve.

What’s the best use of money to you? 

The best use of money to me is to create opportunities for others. My main investments have been on my kids but now that they are sort of out of college or getting ready to get out of college, I need to start thinking about the next generation. So, my thought is going towards how to assist the next generation of Nigerians to get to where they want to go. I love mentoring and I will spend good money to mentor. That for me is the best use of money. It is not to buy material things because you can’t take those with you but to be able to have an impact on people’s lives and ask them to pay it forward. That’s what I always tell people, pay it forward.

You are starting a Leadership Training Series, Executive Leadership Session with Dr. Benjamin Akande. Who is this meant for and what should they look forward to learning? 

It would be a conversation about what leadership looks like, the challenge of leading, the possibility of being able to lead from where you are and the ability to get things done even if you don’t have authority, even if you don’t have titles. Some of us have had to do this over the last 40 years and have found a way to be successful in doing it even in the most complex place on earth, America. I think there are some takeaways that I want to offer. How do you lead from where you are? How do you own that process? And then how do you adjust when things don’t work as they should? Adjustment is one of the critical aspects of leadership because often times we are dealt cards that are not winnable but then we have to find a way to win with them. That’s when you make adjustments and so I look forward to conversations and spending time with the participants. People would leave really energized and ready to go back to work in a way that is much more compelling than they came in.

Oluwatomi Otuyemi

Oluwatomi Otuyemi, a Geology graduate from Crawford University, has 5 years experience in corporate corporate communications. He has a passion for storytelling, and investigative reporting.

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