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Caleb Obiagwu on leadership for entrepreneurs: Share your ideas to make them better

Caleb Somtochukwu Obiagwu started or co-founded four businesses as an undergrad at Syracuse University: Syre, Attendpro, HighStreet, and SafeLoot.

Obiagwu graduated from SU in May with a degree in computer engineering. He stayed in Syracuse to work on the four businesses until the end of July. Then he flew to Lagos, Nigeria, for a one-year appointment with KPMG, the multinational consulting company. “I wanted to get more experience in consulting,” Obiagwu said. “I realized that consulting and learning how big companies operate is a great learning strategy.”

He expects to return to New York next year to earn a master’s degree in business administration.

His advice for anyone aspiring to lead their own startup: First, anything can be started if you just begin – so get going. Second, share your ideas because that will make them better.

Near the end of our conversation, I asked Obiagwu if there is anything else he wishes he had a chance to say. There was a pause, and as I’m about to go on, he answered:

“I want to say to the Black girl or boy that reads this story: Your dreams are valid. Just because you don’t see people like you in the industry where you want to work, you can truly do anything you want. There are only four Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. But your dreams are forever valid. Yes, there will be setbacks. But just do it, and when you do it, I promise you we’ll get there. I hope five years after you read this about me, I am out there – with others – setting an example for you. That is what I’d want to say.”

Tell me about the businesses started at Syracuse.

In my freshman year, I began Syre. I have a co-founder – Zachariah Reid.

Syre started off as an acronym for Something You Rarely Expect. It’s an entertainment system for self-driving cars. I’ve been working on that for the past three years. My team and I figured everything was going to become more autonomous. We knew brands like Google (Waymo) and a company called Cruise are building self-driving cars. We wanted to have a foot in that industry. So we came up with an entertainment system that uses the windshield as a display monitor.

We already got a provisional patent. With Syre, my goal is that we finalize the patent while I am at KPMG. So, by the time I get back to the U.S., it is full steam ahead. I took down the website because I wanted to rebrand it before we launch. My eventual goal is to sell Syre to the right company – for the billions I know it will be worth.

And then I have Highstreet. I currently have two other partners. Highstreet is an eCommerce website at www.highstreet.africa. It’s meant to be an exclusive and high-end clothing store online where people can shop clothing specifically with an African origin. We highlight the brilliance of the culture. These are African retailers that do amazing stuff on the runway and are hardly ever brought up because they’re not Gucci or Louis Vuitton. My partners and I are always adding more retailers to our site and getting more sales. I like having passive income and different sources of revenue.

Then, we have AttendPro. I like making everything one word. It makes it easier. (Laughter)

Attendpro is a device to easily and seamlessly contact janitors about spills, leakages, or damage in bathrooms or laboratories – all at the push of a button. Basically, we use software and hardware to alert janitors and prevent $20 problems from becoming $20,000 problems in big corporations.

David Mbrah is the main person and co-founder. We started working together to build that. David resides in California. We realized it takes a while for people to report problems when they see them. People don’t even know who to report a problem to – I experienced that while I worked at a company. Attendpro puts hardware in bathrooms so that people can push the right button when they see leakage or a spill or there’s lack of soap or there needs to be more stuff added.

My last business is Safeloot, which I started this year with two co-founders as an aid for the Black Lives Matter movement. Safeloot is basically a website showing Black-owned businesses across America. It’s a way to help people support Black-owned businesses. At the same time, a couple of friends and I realized that if Black-owned businesses are looted – and I’m not saying we endorse looting any type of business – this could mean the end of their livelihood.

Safeloot was a company my team and I coded and made within three days. It was really volunteer work to assist and help the movement. I didn’t know if it would be a business.

I already have spread myself thin. So yeah, as far as Attendpro and Safeloot, I’m not sure where they’re going, but I’m optimistic.

I actually love creating businesses. Creating stuff is an art form. For some people, it’s music, or writing, or dance. My art form is creating businesses. I have ideas, and I love trying to make them real, because they seem like living things in my head.

Tell me about growing up and early roles in leadership or entrepreneurship.

I grew up in Nigeria, and everyone wants you to be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer. Early on, I knew I wanted to build something great. My first influence was Steve Jobs. I remember being about 10, before Apple ID or Face ID existed, and I wrote those kinds of ideas down in a book as the future.

I am the only son of my parents (Emeka and Vivian). My oldest sister was in England throughout her education, and now she lives in Milan, Italy. My youngest sister resides in Canada, and I’m in the United States.

There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with being the only son. Especially as you grow older, your father knows you’re carrying his last name, you’re taking up the mantle. So that name has to live on, preferably in a good light.

Growing up, my mother complained that I loved breaking things. I still do. (Laughter) I think that’s the start of every great thing. I was intrigued by anything and everything. I wanted to see how things worked. When I was younger, my dad made sure to invest in us, which I’m grateful for. For example, he sent us to a young leaders conference, and he sent us to a Harvard Leadership Conference. He made sure to send us yearly, to meet people, to experience new things, and to learn how to communicate with people.

My first business was selling lollipops to younger classes. I went to a boarding school in England, and the lollipops were contraband. I was seen as a troublemaker, but that was the age (13) I really discovered demand and supply. There was a huge demand for the lollipops, but no one could get their hands on them. So I used day students to buy the product. I would sell the product in school. I made money, reinvested that into buying more product, sold that again, and made more money. That was when I started getting the grasp of what business is.

I got in trouble as usual. (Laughter) I realized I don’t like conforming. I just wanted to do things my way. I took up crazy odd jobs that confused my parents about what I wanted to do with my life. I remember working as a bartender in London. In Nigeria, I had a job in an office, but I left the office to go into a mechanic shop. I wanted to learn how cars run and work. I wanted to learn how they tune up cars, paint cars, or change the oil in cars.

What did you parents do?

My mother is a lawyer, and my father is an accountant.

There was a period where my dad was a big name in a bank. Out of nowhere, he lost that job. I remember how distraught and worried he was and how he started looking for the thing he could build for himself.

At that time, I fully realized that when you’re working for someone else and the business doesn’t need you anymore, you’re tossed to the side. I didn’t want to go through that. At least if I ever went through that, I wanted it to be because of something I did, not something I couldn’t control.

I realized that for me to succeed, it would come from self-motivation. I had to rework my mind. The things that I had to leave up to God, I would move up to God. But most of it I could do before God had to help me. That’s when I started learning.

What’s your advice for effective leadership as an entrepreneur?

The first one I always tell everyone to do is begin.

Anything can be started if you just begin.

Most people feel, Oh, I need to do this first. They don’t get started.

Beginning doesn’t need to be you putting down money. Beginning can be writing it down. It should just no longer be in your head. So begin – it’s the most important thing people forget to do. Whatever your dream is, write it down. Take that first step and trust things will work out.

The second thing is to share your ideas.

Everyone is so caught up thinking: Oh, someone is going to steal my idea. Someone is going to take it from me or say they thought of it first.

But no. Sharing your ideas is what makes ideas better. Share your ideas with a partner or co-founders. Yes, you won’t get all of the money, and you have to split it with other people. I remember my father telling me: It means more to have half of something than all of nothing.

Third: Never, ever knock someone else’s idea. Never look at someone else in a demeaning manner. Look at other people as if their ideas are valid, because that says a lot about who you are. You need to be able to accept that other people’s ideas may not yet be refined, but they are a stepping stone. Appreciate everyone for that.

The fourth thing is love. Everything can be summed up in how you treat your customers and how you treat employees. Showing love is the glue that makes a business successful and makes you a good person in my eyes.

Do you think your advice applies to leaders in other positions, to leaders in established companies?

Definitely, I would say these apply to anyone at all, whether an entrepreneur or a leader in anything. I guess for the big bosses in the big companies, begin would not really be necessary. But even there, I don’t think companies hire CEOs who have never branched out to start something, on their own or as part of the workforce.

What does it take to think like an entrepreneur, to establish and run a new company?

First, I would say to think like an entrepreneur, think outside of the box. Thinking outside the box doesn’t need to be some great new manifestation. It can be something very simple. I believe you can stand on the backs of the people before you and simplify an idea. Basically, you’re making something simpler and simpler.

But thinking outside of the box is not enough.

An entrepreneur for a startup has to be driven. You’ve given up 9 to 5 for something that you’re not sure is going to make more money. You’re working 80-plus hours. You have to be crazy. (Laughter). You have to love it. You have to love what you’re doing because you’re doing something different. You’re going against the grain. You don’t like being told what to do. You don’t like being told how to run, how fast to run, where to run to you. This is your mind working itself.

An entrepreneur is a problem solver that always has solutions. If he doesn’t have solutions, he doesn’t bring up the problem.

This may be related to your entrepreneurial instinct establishing Safeloot. I saw a news story from February 2019 in The Daily Orange about you and a racial assault. Four white people attacked you and your friends near campus and displayed a gun. If that’s an experience you want to share, here’s the opportunity.

I definitely can talk about it. What happened is I was hit on the back of the head and suffered a concussion in an attack with racial slurs.

I was at a birthday party here in Syracuse on Ackerman Avenue. One of my friends went outside and was being beaten up. I went out to help him. I got hit in the head repeatedly and ended up in the hospital with a concussion.

I remember feeling helpless and knowing it could have been over. Getting hit over the head was, I guess, the easy way out. The hard way out would have been I was shot.

I kept thinking, I didn’t even do all the things I wanted to do with the businesses, with school, with life.

It really all could have ended. I remember making my business partners promise that if something ever did happen to me, they would keep doing what we started and finish it. That was my biggest thing. Finish it. That would be the best you can ever do for me.

I made myself a promise to chase my dreams with energy and vigor. That’s the promise I made to myself. And that’s what I did was Safeloot. It’s the promise I’m keeping to myself. There’s injustice in America. You’re just seen as Black. Police stop you, and they don’t ask about you. You’re just Black. There are no questions before or after that. You’re just Black.

The weekly “CNY Conversation” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. To suggest a leader for a Conversation, contact Stan Linhorst at [email protected]. Last week featured Denise Battles, president of SUNY Geneseo. She says leaders create trust, build relationships, and are transparent to prepare for crises.

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