In Lagos, there’s huge wealth
disparity. You see people who are
incredibly wealthy—who ship their
cars to Paris to get them serviced.
You see people who maybe get one
meal every two days. And for the
most part, they live side by side.
It’s a city of amazing contrast. It’s
crazy cramped. It once took me
two hours to drive a mile. But
people love that chaos.
My family lived in the suburbs. My
maternal grandma built an import-export textile business that became
very successful—she owned many
homes and sent all her kids to college, despite not having a degree
herself. My mom co-owned a small
pharmacy with my aunt, in addition
to holding down a day job at the
central bank of Nigeria. My dad was
a microbiologist who, one day, up
and left his job at Unilever to forge
his own path. He started many
businesses—at one point, he was a
distributor of industrial chemicals.
My parents were my role models.
When I was 12, I watched my dad
die in a carjacking. These guys
followed him home and demanded
the keys to his car. He threw the keys
at them. And they shot him.
If that had happened in the United
States, I would have gone through a
lot of therapy. In Nigeria, it happened on Friday and I went to school
on Monday. For six months, I
couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. That
insomnia has carried on to my adult
life. I’ll probably have it forever.
In February, I visited my dad’s
gravesite. It was my frst time going
back there since he died. I felt like
he didn’t get a chance to complete
his work. There was a part of me,
from a very early age, that wanted
to redeem him.
In 1996, my family moved to
Atlanta. It’s a big city like Lagos,
and it also has crazy trafc. That’s
where the similarities end. Lagos
has an absolute absence of law,
order, and structure. Lagosians
don’t think any rules apply to
them: If they see a line, they go
around it, and rules are suggestions, more or less. Nigerians
love that: “If I’m assertive and
aggressive enough, I can get away
with whatever I want.”
I raided my bank account and
401(k) to launch Calendly in 2013.
Eventually, I ran out of money
and started to seek VC funding.
I had a working product, and customers using it, and everyone said
no. Meanwhile, I watched other
people who ft a diferent “profle”
get money thrown at them for shitty
ideas. Those VCs were ignorant and
shortsighted. The only thing I could
attribute it to was that I was black.
Many people would get upset
about that, but I wanted to prove
them wrong. I grew up in a country
in which all the people in power
looked a lot like me. A city in which
you can will anything to happen.
The whole experience made me
hate raising money. But it forced
me to become resourceful, scrappy,
and maniacally focused. I learned
how to stretch each dollar.
Today, I’m very grateful. The
business is approaching $30 million
in recurring revenue, and growing
more than 100 percent year-over-year. It’s been proftable since 2016.
And I’m the majority owner.
Being a foreigner really helped.
I grew up in a country where
99 percent of the people looked
like me, so race wasn’t something I
consciously thought about. It’s good
to have that mentality. You can dwell
on all the reasons you shouldn’t do
something or why it’s harder for you.
Or you can just go out and do it.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DIWANG VALDEZ ● ● ● JULY/AUGUST 2019 ● INC. ● 49
When Tope Awotona founded Atlanta-based online
scheduling startup Calendly in 2013, he ran into a
common problem for black founders: securing VC
funds. The experience taught him to stretch every
dollar so that he’d never have to rely on outside
funding. He credits his family in Nigeria for
showing him the way. AS TOLD TO CAMERON ALBERT-DEITCH
Tope Awotona j His dad would be so proud
How I proved the