Founding one successful company is enough to last most people a lifetime. Recently, UCLA students got the opportunity to hear from a man who’s started five.
On May 21, the annual Ronald and Valerie Sugar Distinguished Speaker Series featured a discussion between Dean Murthy and Tom Ilube, an entrepreneur, technology executive and educational philanthropist.
Ilube is the CEO of Crossword Cybersecurity — a UK-based tech commercialization company, the founder of Hammersmith Academy — a secondary school in London known as one of the UK’s most innovative technology schools, and the chairman of the African Gifted Foundation — a charity focused on promoting science and technology in Africa.
He has been named the most influential person of African or Afro-Caribbean heritage in the UK in 2017, and appointed a Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II to honor his support of technology through philanthropy.
In 2016, Ilube launched the African Science Academy in Ghana, the first all-girls math and science academy on the continent that is so popular that there are 20 applicants for one seat. The school exclusively enrolls 15-to-17-year-old females from less privileged backgrounds who are interested in pursuing math and science.
Ilube proudly shared how a street vendor became an engineer after attending the Academy. He said he believes that the school is transformational for the lives of women whose educational aspirations may be dismissed by their parents and community. “The high school years are influential and learning technology can provide huge leverage for students,” Ilube said.
Ilube was born in England, but he spent his formative years in Uganda and later earned a degree in physics from the University of Benin in Nigeria. He returned to London to start a tech career, having taught himself how to code at university. This was much harder to do then.
“There was a computer locked up in a room which students never saw,” Ilube said. “We used to handwrite computer programs, submit them to someone else, and found out the next day whether our program worked.”
Based on his ability to program mainframe systems, Ilube was first hired by British Airways. He transitioned into consulting at PricewaterhouseCoopers and went on to become an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. When he saw the internet taking off in the ‘90s, he decided to become a tech entrepreneur. He’s never looked back since joining this unique field.
The key to success is to get ready for failure until you can break through.
“In a startup, you can believe you can conquer the world or [that] everything will fail — all within an hour,” Ilube said. “I started with a blank sheet of paper and started a company.”
Although he has founded five successful startups, Ilube still believes that his core skill is failure. “I’ve heard ‘no’ more times than ‘yes.’ The key to success is to get ready for failure until you can break through.”
His advice to students interested in building a business: Focusing on the customer first and then following with the technological solution, rather than taking a tech-centric approach. He also emphasized that entrepreneurship is a team sport.
“Each one of us have strengths and weaknesses and need others to fill the gaps. The lone entrepreneur is a myth,” Ilube said.
Ilube also said that as a black executive in London he had to learn when to push through and when to maneuver around roadblocks. “Tech companies still have a diversity problem, and you have to work that bit harder and smarter to navigate the workplace. Finding mentors and sponsors can be helpful when you find that you’re just not getting that promotion.”
Currently, Ilube is focused on how the world will be changed by artificial intelligence, and what that could mean for Africa.
“With the advent of internet-of-things, robotics and autonomous vehicles — all underpinned by AI, Africa cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and spend the next 50 years catching up,” he said. “The only raw material needed is brain power and Africa has 1.2 billion people. We need to unleash this talent.”
Ilube is concerned about the emerging errors he’s witnessing in AI as a result of algorithmic bias.
“Machine learning is only as good as the data that underpins it. While there are techniques that drive machine learning without data, such as Google’s Alpha Zero, I’m concerned with getting rid of bias in data and algorithmic racism. AI ethics, including how we live and manage in an AI-driven world, is an important issue to consider.”
Commenting on what led him to champion science and technology in Africa, Ilube shared that he’s more concerned about making a difference than having wealth, a fancy car or a job title.
“People only care about what you have done for others, and I want to live and tell that story now.” Paraphrasing Nigerian-born author, poet and Brown University professor Chinua Achebe, Ilube added, “Until lions have their own story-tellers, tales of the hunt will be told by the hunters.”