Born and bred partly in Ajegunle, Lagos, John Olajide rose in his business career to serve as chairman, Dallas Chambers of Commerce in the State of Texas, USA. The founder, Axxess, a global name in home healthcare services and Cavista, a global software engineering solutions company, speaks with Gboyega Alaka on his rise to the top, early career challenges, passion for women, foray into Nigeria and philanthropy.
Aside having made a name globally with your exploits with Axxess and Cavista in the USA and your role as one-time chairman of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, you also seem to have a passion for women.
I’m passionate about Africa’s future, I am passionate about Nigeria; and I hope all of my actions demonstrate that passion. And I appreciate the opportunities I’ve had, especially to really help women realise that I’m passionate about their gender. For most of history, we haven’t allowed women to participate in contributing to our society like they should have. And I personally believe the world would have been a whole lot better if we did not leave half our brain behind. Also, I have two daughters and I want them to know that anything is possible, and that they would not be held back or be discriminated against because they’re women.
With your successful exploits globally, why are you setting up shop in Nigeria?
I’m in Nigeria for three reasons. Number one is to create jobs for people. Number two is to create more jobs. And you can guess the third. Jobs, jobs, jobs. I am very passionate about economic development and about leveraging business and economic investments to improve the lives of everyone. Nigeria is blessed with human capital, and I believe the most important resource any society has is its people. We don’t even need natural resources; we just need people, and we can harness the creative abilities of the people to make things work. I believe we can achieve excellence right here in Nigeria; we’ve seen that on display right here at Cavista. I also want to make sure that as we keep moving our society forward, people understand that excellence can come out of every proud Nigerian. Everywhere I go, I chair different boards all over the place, I make sure the reference point they have for Nigerians is that of excellence. If you haven’t read about me in the Nigerian space, it’s because my outward inclination is not to be upfront, candidly. I’d rather just do the work and make the impact felt.
We understand you had a humble childhood in Nigeria before going abroad. Tell us about it.
I grew up in Amukoko in Ajegunle, Lagos, and I talk about it proudly. We need to create an atmosphere where everyone can be what they want to be. If someone like me, who was born in Ajegunle can be who I’m today, then any of us, even those unborn, can be anything. My dad worked his way up, he later became a distributor for Unilever Brothers, and then we began to climb the economic ladder, and we moved from Ajegunle to Ogba, Ikeja. I had my primary school in Ikeja, Allen Avenue; and then I went to Nigerian Navy Secondary School, Abeokuta. After that, I proceeded to university in the United States. In America, I worked harder than I ever worked in my life to pay my way through school. People think everyone that goes abroad has an easy life, no. In fact, I worked through the day and went to school at night. And I was paying international fees, so it was more expensive.
Tell us about your organisation Axxess.
While I was in college, I had an aunt that worked for a local healthcare organisation. It was a rather large organisation and I noticed there were a lot of people working at different stations; this was in 2001. So I started asking questions: are these people computer connected or networked? She said, ‘No, what is that?’ We take those things for granted now but it was a big deal 20 years ago. So I explained that it would help them improve their business, increase revenue and help them streamline their business and decrease the cost of doing business. I told them it would also help them become more successful as a business and help them improve their patients’ outcome. She liked the idea and took me to her boss, and he said, ‘wow, that’s a wonderful idea, why don’t you build the network for us? So I set out to build a computer network for them and I became their computer guy. They told other people and I started doing similar work for a lot of different people. That was how I paid my way through school. But very early on, I had seen that because the business was healthcare at home, where they sent medicine and professionals to go deliver healthcare services to people in their homes, they were underserved from the technology perspective. At some point, being the entrepreneur that I’m, I told my aunt, why don’t you set up your own organisation? And she said she didn’t even know where to start doing that, and I told her I help you figure that out, maybe rather naively, because if I knew how much work was going to go into it, I wouldn’t have said that. I knew the technology aspect of the business. Even though I did engineering, my passion for business was always there. As a kid, I already understood business. During holidays, my parents would have me manage their storefront at the market at Suru-Alaba. So the foundation for my entrepreneurial skills was right here in Lagos, Nigeria. So I became a 20-year-old consultant for her business and as I speak, the business is still thriving. And when people asked who did that for you, she just told them, ‘That’s the guy.’ And people were surprised. This 20 year old kid, what does he know? I went on to do similar work for a lot of different people and I realised the industry was underserved from the technology perspective; I thought they could benefit from cloud-based technology or web-based technology and operate more efficiently.
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What a home healthcare organisation does is send medical professionals to people’s home to go and provide care, and then after documenting that care, the organisation that sends them would collect that information and thereafter bill the insurance company and whoever they need to bill and manage who they need to manage. Now there were times when the organisation would have to wait two weeks before they get documentation on what’s happening to that patient, and that’s not effective because the patient could be dead. So we came up with a web-based technology, where they can provide excellent healthcare and get these information in real time and set out to build the technology to help them become more efficient.
Interestingly, I thought it would take me just six months to build the technology, but the first version took me four years. It was that difficult. And after four years of work, you’d think it would be an amazing platform but the very first client we went to see, it did not work. So my very first experience was failure, candidly. We went back to the office, worked on it all night and got it working. The next day, I called the lady but she said ‘Sorry John, yesterday was a total waste of my time; I like you… but I don’t ever want to see you again.’ But we kept at it, and today, we’re the leading provider of technology for healthcare at home in the world. We’re number one all over the United States, we have clients in the UK, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Canada, India, the Philippines; more than 8,000 actually.
You are a principal partner in the Ekiti Knowledge Zone project, tell us about it.
When people talk about Ekiti State, what do they think? The highest number of professors, PhD, knowledge, human capital; but that hasn’t translated into economic success or prosperity for the people. So what we want to do is leverage what our people are best known for and figure how we can partner with the government to export that talent to the world. Imagine exporting thousands of software engineers servicing clients globally in the world. We’re talking billions and billions of forex and all this devaluation in our currency would just disappear.
You have you hands in a lot of pies – technology, health and now agriculture, what inspires you?
Every time I visit Nigeria and go to Ekiti to spend time with my dad and family, I see the challenge of poverty on a scale you have never seen, because there are no opportunities there. What you don’t know is that we have been involved in a lot of philanthropic work. In fact, there is an organisation called Grace for Impact that has been doing a lot of eye surgeries for people with cataract for over 15 years in Ekiti State, which I have been funding. We bring experts from around the world who conduct surgeries, and people who hadn’t seen in a year start seeing again. What’s a greater gift than that?
During Covid-19, we gave food and money, but the challenge is that this kind of philanthropy is not sustainable. So I thought what else can we do to make a difference here? Remember, I’d also served as chairman of Dallas Chamber of Commerce; I don’t know if you know this, if the Dallas region were an economy, it would be the 23rd largest economy in the world. I’ve travelled all over the world attracting business for that region, but then my thoughts were never far away from home. What can I do for Africa, what can I do for Nigeria? What can I do for my home community? The land in Ekiti is so fertile that if you throw a seed on the ground and you come back in two weeks later, it would have grown. So I thought agriculture is leveraging what Ekiti has in abundance, which gives us the opportunity to create thousands of jobs. Already we have 400 people working on our farm daily; for the first phase of the project, we are creating 5,000 direct jobs, and then 10,000 indirect jobs. Our vision for Agbeyewa Farms is to be Africa’s leading agro-allied company; and our mission is to transform lives and communities through sustainable investments.
How did you overcome the legendary racism in the US to rise to such enviable height?
Prejudice is human nature. And you’d find different expressions of that here as well – tribalism, nepotism, it’s no different. But I also believe there is something in human nature; all cultures reward excellence. So what may have been a disadvantage was actually an advantage to us because we were forced to be more open and more transparent about who we were and owned the narrative. I just told them, I’m John Olajide, and this is who I’m. Don’t let anybody tell you about who I’m. When you experience a person yourself, then you can be able to say, no, this is excellence. And you can’t argue with excellence. You know it’s in our nature to give back in any community we operate – whether in Nigeria or in Dallas. One item of Axxess way is to be the model of a socially responsible organisation, and I’m proud to say that we are a model corporate citizen in Dallas and in Nigeria as well. When you invest in a community’s success, you build trust. And when you lead, it is obvious that you are a leader. And when I served on that board (of Dallas Chamber of Commerce), my colleagues graciously asked me to serve as chairman. I was the youngest chairman in the 113-year history of that organisation.
What’s your take on the current Japa trend?
I think when people don’t have economic opportunities, they have to make decisions to provide for themselves and their families, but when a generation of young people are disillusioned and are not making contribution to their own society, because they want to go somewhere else, that society where they’re departing from suffers – because they are channelling the energy that could be used to be more productive here to go somewhere else. Now how many people are going to end up going somewhere else? The vast majority are still going to stay here. And that vast majority are going to be disillusioned because they don’t believe there’s a future here. So I believe that what we need to do is to create economic opportunities here, so that they can leave their fullest lives here. And if you still want to go all over the world to acquire knowledge, then that’s wonderful.