The entrepreneur who feels Nigeria has left small business to navigate COVID-19 alone.

Ada Osakwe, is an award-winning food entrepreneur, investor and passionate African development advocate. She is the Founder of Agrolay Ventures, an investment firm focusing on early-stage innovative food companies in Africa. Since 2015, the firm has built a portfolio of 10 high-growth investments in food and technology, including The Nuli Juice Company, Nigeria’s fastest-growing farm-to-table beverage producer and a restaurant chain. She has an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, MSc in Economics and Finance from University of Warwick, U.K. and BSc in Economics (First Class Honours) from the University of Hull, U.K.

On June 19, Osakwe addressed the Kellogg School of Management Class of 2020. She is the first African to be given this  honour and fourth black woman; following in the footsteps of outstanding Black-Americans: Edith Cooper;- Global Head of Human Capital at Goldman Sachs in 2017; Roslyn Brock, Chairman Emeritus of the NAACP in 2012 and media titan Oprah Winfrey, in 2011.

“I was incredibly honoured that not even up to a decade after graduating from Kellogg where I earned my MBA, I was invited to address the class of 2020.”, said Ada. “As a young woman who has worked hard to promote Africa in all I do, this meant a lot to me. I was sad when due to COVID-19, I was unable to join them in person. But by God’s grace, we will do so next year”.

With a critical phase of their lives upended by the pandemic, the class of 2020 completed the last few months of their MBA degree Program virtually, rather than in the classroom, and they will receive their diplomas in the mail or on their phones. Recognizing the need to offer extra inspiration at this extraordinary moment in history, in her commencement speech, Osakwe praised them for their bravery, resilience and courage as she told of her career through business school and a private equity company in New York on her way to becoming an entrepreneur.

“After my time in New York, I went into public service, joining the Nigerian Minister of Agriculture as his Senior Investment Advisor. This high-level role gave me unparalleled exposure at the highest levels. After four years, I gave up all the power and influence that came with my position, deciding to become an entrepreneur instead. Friends disappeared overnight, and my phone wasn’t ringing anymore. It was a difficult time as I felt I had to prove my professional capabilities to people all over again and rebuild my entire private-sector career from scratch. Thinking back, it was just what was needed to motivate me to make sure my start-up,  Nuli,  became the fastest-growing beverage brand and fast-casual restaurant chain in Nigeria,” she said.

“So, in your quest to thrive, there will be curve-balls thrown your way and you’ll have to take risks, it’s a given. But you’ve just got to trust your journey,” she advised the graduating students. 

Furthermore, she stressed the importance of  finding your voice in troubled times.

“Globally, we are at a tipping point, as we see various forms of injustice being revealed. And so now, more than ever, the world needs brave leaders like you, and me, and all other Kellogg grads around the world, to provide solutions to the existential problems being faced by humanity. And so it’s so important to find your voice and help others find theirs too, during these extraordinary times.”

This message was important to Osakwe. She has been very outspoken about the Nigerian Government’s poor response to calls for support for small business owners in Nigeria through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Small businesses, like mine, a group that makes up over 80 percent of the labour force of my country, have been left alone to navigate these shaky waters,” Osakwe, the chair of the  Small Business Networking Nigeria, a new organization founded by small business owners to represent their collective voices and interests on issues around policy and business environment.

“So for the amazing women among you, let your brilliance and awesomeness shine through as you keep amplifying your voices. As a young woman, throughout my life, I have suffered all forms of biases and discriminatory practices in the workplace and society. But this has never stopped me from forging my own path to greatness. And so go ahead and crash through that ceiling, tear down those walls, and create your nice, comfortable seat on multiple tables.”

As a Black-African, in her speech, Osakwe said she will always speak out against racial injustice and urged the non-blacks to also find their voices on this issue as allies to ensure there is more equality, tolerance and acceptance for all.

“I truly believe crises have the ability to bring out the best in humanity. Class of 2020, you have a front-row seat in this journey to shape the world we want to see; a better world.”

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