FIRST CLASS: Why Opeyemi Olugbemiro Is No More Waiting For Success

Solomon Elusoji  
Updated June 3, 2022
Olugbemiro Opeyemi
Olugbemiro Opeyemi is a strong believer in the Nigerian project. Illustrator: Benjamin Oluwatoyin


When Brand Communication specialist Opeyemi Olugbemiro graduated from university, he was passionate about nation-building. He ran a radio show, organised conferences, and consulted for a State Government. But he was struggling with his finances. Somehow, he believed everything would fall into place if he kept on building a community of like-minded people who could transform Nigeria into one of the most desirable countries on earth. It didn’t, until he tweaked his engagement with the world.

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This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.


SE: Why do you believe in Nigeria?

OO: Since I’ve known myself, I have always believed in Nigeria. The only time I had doubts about my belief in Nigeria was in October 2020. After October 2020 I couldn’t recite the national anthem for about four to five months.

Where were you?

I was at home in Lagos when October 20 happened. I was at home, praying. I was helpless. But I have always loved the country. Maybe because if you look at the world in general, we are one of the most educated immigrant populations in the US in health, technology, sport, administration, beauty; everywhere you see amazing Nigerians at the top level. The only thing we are not getting right is the system and the place. The system is how to provide an enabling environment for people to succeed. So, I have the belief that if we can get the systems right, we have enough amazing people to push the country forward. 

The system you are talking about, how is it going to come to be?

I don’t know at the moment but what I am looking at building, and which has inspired a lot of my efforts over the years, is achieving a critical mass of people who also believe. And that is why a lot of my events focus on building solution-driven communities. When I launched Convage, it was building a solution-driven community. When I started Gemstone at the University of Benin, Ekehuan Campus, it was the same. When I started my blog, it was about building a solution-driven community. I believe in ripple effects. 

When I was on radio in Akure it was about bringing a lot of more solution-driven people on air so that more people can know them. Because if you don’t have an image you cannot aspire to become something, so you need an image. That has always been my way. I don’t trust the existing political system, to get things done the way things should be, but I also know that you can’t do anything without them. I know one way or the other, we have to work with them to achieve the Nigeria of our dreams. 

Do you think of going into politics?

I don’t know. At the moment it has never crossed my mind. What has crossed my mind is getting enough money to ensure that a lot more people get access to the right thinking and don’t think the way the system has conditioned us to think. I listened to someone who said he looked at his productivity outside the country – I think when he was in the UK – and when he came back to Nigeria, he realised that either it was either he replicate his UK experience in Nigeria for his people or take his people out of Nigeria to build a startup. So I do not know at the moment whether I’d go into politics, but one thing is certain, I’ll work with people who can scale my influence, to get more people to do better with their lives. I don’t know maybe I can help the country as a system, but I’m very sure I can help Nigerians. 

Is your belief in Nigeria shaking?

Yes, it is. 

It showed how much work needs to be done. So maybe I have been underestimating what needs to be done to get us to the promised land. That day showed us that a lot more needs to be done.

I am not in support of breaking up Nigeria, but I strongly believe that the current structure should be negotiated to ensure that people agree to stay as one Nigeria.

So you advocate for a referendum?

I will advocate for a conversation. I don’t want to use the word referendum.

I mean conversation with a focus where people are allowed to say what they want without being scared of repercussions. A lot of the conversation has been coloured and tainted by different political agendas.

I believe that Nigeria should be one but I also believe that oneness should be negotiated. More like, let us decide this thing together.

I don’t even believe that when you divide us, any of the units will be able to survive without each other. We are too close to say just go just go and mind your business. It’s a lie, it will not happen.

We are too close. How do you want to do it? We are already culturally and socio-politically designed to see things in a certain way.

What would you describe as your most interesting work?

In 2018, the Ondo State Government wanted to do a development conference and the conference was to bring partners from across the country and across the world to come and discuss Ondo state and how they can support it. And they wanted a branding for the conference. The branding was to be international enough, for international partners to be able to connect with. And local enough for people on ground to be able to get inspired to action. 

And I led the team, that was my first public sector engagement.

We designed, ideated and defended in front of a number of commissioners and permanent secretaries and it got me going to the secretariat a couple of times to defend what I have. This is 2021, going into 2022, and the idea of that design, which spiralled from just a conference, has now become how the government describes its achievements. At the end of the day, the logo had a DO. So DO is ‘do’, and DO is ‘Develop Ondo’. And it became a double entendre. So when the Governor says talk and do on his posters, the DO is from the work I led with two other designers – I led the strategy, communication and execution part of the plan.

Then in November 2016, I covered the Ondo state election. And I covered one of the biggest local governments, Odigbo. Then I also saw the level of work we need to shift Nigeria, because I was on the field. From security, to administrative to political. I saw it in real-time. That was my first time covering an election, so I was trying to capture everything. But my driver kept saying we shouldn’t stay too much in any place. 

Out of Akure, someone wanted to launch a power bank. It was designed in Akure, but production was done in China. It was made in Nigeria but it was shipped all the way from China. When he met me and wanted to sell, I said we won’t just sell it as ‘made in Nigeria’, but as an experience, as something that helps people work, on its own quality. We sold out twice. And that convinced me that I could actually do what I wanted to do.

How do you define success? 

Success for me is a ripple-effect of impact. I am a lot more driven about people being satisfied and happy, than acquiring money for its own sake. If I ever get rich, as rich as those people on the Forbes list, the motivation will be to inspire more people to believe that it is possible to do so, legally. Success is being able to fund and execute projects that have scale of impact. 

What is the biggest factor that helped you to succeed in the journey?

God. You cannot succeed if you are not alive. Then the second – and this is important to me – is people. I always say that e don tey wey I sabi book but your ability, intelligence and brilliance will only take you to a point, but access to the right people is the only thing that can scale. You can be good, that’s fine, but there are a lot of people that are also good or even better than you.

I group people who have helped me into three categories: One, people who inspire me, two, people I inspire and three, my contemporaries who are doing a lot more to open doors for me and people who are mentioning my name in rooms. 

I can trace a lot of my success to when we relocated to Lagos and I started doing a few more jobs. I have a lot of NDAs for some of the biggest companies in Nigeria and people started to know me and because of that it opened a lot of doors for me. People started calling. I am now working on a project for a bank that will launch next year. That’s how it works.

Like I said people who inspired me, people who I inspire and lastly contemporaries who open doors. Babajide Duroshola used to say – I think it’s an Andela thing – that talent is equally distributed but opportunities are not. And one of the reasons for that is because not everybody has access to the right people. I didn’t grow up in a rich home. So, we are where we are because we started seeing the right images. And it’s the images that made it possible, that we can believe. Now I can aspire to do more. 

What are some of the mistakes you made?

The first one is connected to, I didn’t learn about money early. So, my relationship with money was not the right one. So I came out of university and was pursuing impact, volunteering for civic causes . . . 

Isn’t that a good thing?

No, it is not a good thing. If I could go back, I would do it another way. I was pursuing impact, civic education, running shows about developing Nigeria, achieving the Nigerian dream. I didn’t even know enough about money. I can be empathetic to people. I saw money from a survival perspective. I did jobs for almost free. I had a lot of respect for money. So when they call some certain amount I would be like, so people have this money?

How did that change?

People. Access. As much as people say that reading changes, if you don’t have human beings that can reinforce those readings, it doesn’t do as much work.

I met Kitan David in Akure and I started working with him. He was one of the loudest voices in tech. And I saw an image that young people can be successful in tech without cutting corners. I started studying him and started to realise the possibilities in tech. Then I started seeing some other people. Kitan was very intentional about images. 

For example, I used to think like if someone or an organisation sends me money to fly somewhere, I’d rather take the bus and save more money. But I stopped thinking that way. Sometimes I see invoices and see what people charge for the same thing I do.

One of the biggest was when I wanted to charge 50k for something and my boss was passing, he saw it and said I should add two to the figure to make it N250,000. I did and the client agreed to pay. The first time I charged over 600k for a job, I could hardly believe it. I wanted to call the price, but I was scared. But a mentor told me never to be afraid to name my price. 

Assuming that being smart and intelligent will make you successful is nonsense. I was very confident in my brilliance. But if I could go back, I’ll be more intentional about relationships and converting ideas to execution. 

What is your advice for someone starting up?

Understand money early. Know the right people. Know that everything in this life is intentional. People think that some things are organic. But the number of things that are organic are not as much as the things that are intentional. 

When I was 25, I tweeted to Editi Effiong to give me some life tips. And he invited me to his office. One of the first things he told me was that time and chance happens to us all, but consistency increases your odds of time and chance happening to you. You can’t control luck. The only thing you can control is that at every point, you are excellent enough for luck to meet you working hard. That’s where intentionality comes in. 

What change can people do now to start seeing results?

Find God. Then take out time and know yourself. I don’t think there is a successful person that I know that is not self-aware. If you listen to people like Jeff Bezos and Jay-Z, you realise they are self aware; they know their strengths, their weaknesses; they are confident. 

The world most times, especially when you want to enter another level, they don’t give you what you deserve, they give you what you ask for.

So you need to know what to ask for. The world is unfair. If you are supposed to get a million and they ask you how much you want and you tell them N6,000, they will give you N6,000.

Who do you think qualifies as a First-Class Nigerian?

Victor Fatanmi. His heart is so innocent and pure it annoys me sometimes. Prosper Otemuyiwa. Peace Itimi, who is one of the people who has influenced me the most. Praise Philemon, who is a mentee that pushes me to be better. Iyin Aboyeji. The strength of his conviction is amazing.

First Class is a column about extraordinary Nigerians aged 35 years and below. It collects their thoughts on what it takes to thrive as a young person in Nigeria. 

Do you know someone who fits the bill? Recommend a name here.

Sign up to receive the latest installment of exclusive First Class interviews in your email.