Kharkov, the second largest city in Ukraine, is the unlikely location where Oke Okaro was baptised in the world of business during the Soviet era. In 1990, Okaro left Nigeria, as a teenager, on a scholarship to study electrical engineering at the University of Kharkov. Since then, he has had a rollercoaster career that has seen him grow from a trader in consumer products, such as Sony’s Walkman and Nike high-top sneakers, to the C-Suite of global finance and media technology corporations.
Along the way, he branched out as an angel investor and technology entrepreneur. Today, Okaro is a hands-on investor in several fast growing start-ups in Nigeria, including Gloo.ng, an online retailer of household goods, and ACE (Africa Courier Express), a technology-enabled logistics company.
Okaro’s journey began when he decided to abandon his academic scholarship to study computer science in Britain.
“When I left Kharkov, I was 16 and only had $200 in my pocket. I moved to London with the understanding that I had taken the decision on my own account and as a result, I was fully responsible for personally supporting every aspect of my life; I had to make it work on my own and failure was not an option. I didn’t have anyone in London and upon arriving roughed it out day to day, figuring out where I’d sleep and find the next meal,” he says.
“I did pretty much every odd job you can think of. I worked as a bricklayer, cleaner, security guard, bouncer, nurses’ assistant, fast food and electronics sales person; pretty much everything. However, I never for one second lost focus of the prize which was to get my degree in computer science.”
After graduating in 1996 and working in Britain for a year, as a software engineer, Okaro, ignoring advice from friends, quit his job and moved to New York in pursuit of the American dream.
Once again, he didn’t know anyone in the city and camped out in the student hostel at Columbia University. Within a few weeks, he landed a job at a major financial securities firm, Greenwich Capital Markets, where he worked as a software engineer designing and building fixed income derivative trading systems. After three successful years, Okaro once again decided it was time for a new challenge and set his sights on an MBA. He applied and was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
In the summer of 2001, while on the program, Okaro took up an internship with Qualcomm and landed in the mobile sector just as the telcos in the United States (US) were starting to invest in their data networks.
“At Qualcomm I got the privilege of working on one of the first mobile apps in the US, and also the rollout of the first mobile application development and distribution platform, BREW, (Binary Runtime for Wireless). This was 2001, six years before the iPhone and seven years before the App Store. Back then, Japan was the market leader and the US market was in its infancy. People in the US hadn’t even got into texting much. Despite this, from seeing what was starting to happen in Japan and from my experience working hand in hand with the leading US telcos at the time, Verizon and Sprint, I knew mobile was going to be huge in the US and much bigger than in Japan. This was when I knew I was going to be the mobile guy.”
MBA degree in hand, Okaro went on to explore turnaround venture opportunities. However, this proved unsuccessful and he counted his losses and moved on. He then joined a global sport media company, where he started its mobile business and led the design, product and engineering teams. Okaro created a portfolio of pioneering and award-winning products that set the standard in the mobile content industry.
Within a few years, his products had gained a massive global audience and were generating annual revenues in excess of $75 million. Recognizing his trailblazing achievements, Apple’s executive leadership invited Okaro to join them onstage during the iOS 3.0 launch event at Apple’s Cupertino headquarters in 2009. After six years, Okaro moved to another global media company in 2010, this time a finance organization, where he started their consumer mobile and connected devices business and again produced outstanding results. In a short time, his creations amassed a monthly audience of 17 million unique users, generating multi-million-dollar revenues and winning a host of industry awards, including app of the year from Apple.
Though successful, Okaro had always wanted to be involved in Africa’s technology revolution. To test the waters, he developed the first football mobile application in 2007, and targeted it at Africa. Observing the encouraging uptake, Okaro sensed the opportunity and decided to get involved.
“The [football] app made it pretty clear to me, as far back as 2007, that people in several African countries valued quality content and a great experience. Having seen this at the start of the mobile content revolution in the US, I wanted to get more involved as an entrepreneur but couldn’t because I was employed full time. I struggled with this for a really long time then it finally occurred to me that the most effective way to play in the market was as an investor in talented entrepreneurs with exciting digital ideas,” he says.
Leveraging his network of contacts, Okaro sought and cultivated relationships with entrepreneurs on the continent which led him to make first-round investments in a number of startups.
From his vantage point, Okaro sees abundant opportunities for innovation in Africa, especially around mobile technology.
“Observing from the sidelines, the telco’s are well positioned to be at the forefront of the technological revolution on the continent, but it appears they don’t have the vision or talent in place to think through and execute in a way that has never been done. No market, except Japan when it started, has similar characteristics with African countries. Just like it was in Japan, the majority of people who come online in Africa, will come online on a mobile device and for many, their entire digital existence will be on a mobile device.”
“This presents an incredible opportunity. They need to understand that if they want to maintain their leadership position in the market and play a pivotal role as a broader participant in the economy, it is imperative that they create a frictionless enabling environment for entrepreneurs and new businesses.”
Declining to elaborate on his next challenge, Okaro offers a confident smile, leaving no doubt about its success.