Thirteen years ago (July 30, 2004), I moved back home to Ghana. The following Monday (August 2), I became the second person to start work at Standard Trust (now United Bank for Africa) in Ghana.
I had left Accra 11 years earlier (in September 1993) on full scholarship to study law at Oxford. The plan was to return immediately I earned the degree, but one thing led to another and in the three years before I finally made the move home, I’d been busy building and living an American dream.
While attending the 2004 HBS Africa Business Conference, the words of Bunmi Oni, a speaker at the conference, inspired me to make the move. He said, “Dare to dream but don’t dream unless you’re willing to live your dreams.” For 11 years prior, I’d been dreaming about going back home someday, but someday never came. Before the conference ended I was already considering my move and the next day, I gave notice at Diageo and became voluntarily unemployed. I was about to embark on an uncertain African dream.
When hiring me to be part of the start-up team that would set up and operate UBA in Ghana, Tony Elumelu paid little attention to my 10-month post-MBA-experience, my lack of relevant management experience and zero retail banking or Ghana experience (except if you counted national service). Yet, as Head of Corporate Services & Legal, I was responsible for four key departments - brand management, strategy, business services and legal - and an integral part of the executive team of the bank.
Becoming an expert
My lack of experience I could do nothing about, but coached by Elumelu and his other experienced executives, I quickly learnt to become an expert in the future – an expert in understanding the customers on whom the survival our bank depended.
I’ve always been a dreamer, but working with Elumelu made me a worse dreamer than I previously was. In the words of Bunmi Oni, I learned to dream only those dreams I was willing to live.
So if you ask me what I’ve been doing these last 13 years, I’d say I’ve been dreaming and living my dreams as well as empowering others to live their own. At Standard Trust, we developed products and services that were more appropriate for the economy we lived in and among others launched Ghana’s first zero deposit account - the Standard Cashless Account. And since 2005, in the classroom, I have challenged my students to go out and live their entrepreneurial dreams.
Oxford & Beaumont, the law firm I started in a room I could barely swing a cat in, would go on to grow rapidly and become a market leader and change maker. And in December 2015, I persuaded Africa’s largest firm to buy into the dream I had to make Oxford & Beaumont a pan-African firm.
Irritated by the fact that not enough Ghanaians are telling inspiring stories that might, in turn, encourage others to dream and attempt to live their own dreams, I wrote Kuenyehia on Entrepreneurship to provide a step-by-step guide for turning ideas into profits and packed it with lots of stories and case studies of Ghanaian entrepreneurial ingenuity. Since February 2015, I have also been writing a weekly column in Graphic Business to celebrate the achievements and efforts of entrepreneurs building businesses across a wide range of sectors; conscious of how little we celebrate, as opposed to pulling down our entrepreneurs.
Through the work of the Akua Kuenyehia Foundation (www.akuakuenyehiafoundation.org), my sisters and I – in honour of our super-mom – are empowering many girls to get the sort of education they dream of.
Through the Kuenyehia Trust (and the Kuenyehia Prize for Contemporary Ghanaian art – www.kuenyehiaprize.org) I’m encouraging our young artists to pursue their artistic dreams. Only in its third year, we already have attracted over 3,000 entries and have provided valuable exposure and business development training to our shortlisted and winning artists.
My adorable son, Prince Elikem Nutifafa Yaw Charles Edwin-Carmichael Kuenyehia Jnr, who turned five a few weeks ago, is a constant reminder to me of why it is important that we all create a culture of dreaming and nurturing dreams. It is dreams, not aid or trade, that will propel Africans into prosperity.