Tom who?

Features Posted 08/02/18
‘Introvert’ entrepreneur charms university audience with tales of persistence in pursuit of a job, t’ai chi and the importance of the next Big Idea

He set up the UK’s first national internet bank, he once shared a stage with Bill Gates in front of 2,000 people, he claims to have undergone 16 interviews to get his first job and he was named the UK’s most influential black person in 2017. So why haven’t most of us heard of Tom Ilube?

The packed auditorium of a lecture theatre at the University of Kent shows that many of the eager students of Kent Business School at least know who he is and are anxious to pick up some tips from this top entrepreneur.

He stands before us, looking the epitome of cool in light jeans, a checked shirt and blue jacket, calm and totally in charge. He soon has everyone entranced with his witty, sparky style of presentation and it’s hard to believe he considers himself an introvert. He has that audience absolutely in the palm of his hand, the perfect presenter.

Over the next 40 minutes or so, Tom takes us through his career from graduating with a BA in physics from the University of Benin, Nigeria through his Masters in Business Administration from the Cass Business School, London, and his ceaseless search for a job in the City.

“I was nothing if not persistent,” he says with a smile. “I decided I would write to every company in the UK beginning with an A and work my way from there. I finally got a job with British Airways.” It takes the audience a minute to register the joke, but the response is warm and Tom has worked his magic.

He adds with feeling: “Rejection hurts, but it is how you deal with it that matters.” His greatest lesson? The importance of working up a “30-second elevator pitch” – the speech you make when you find yourself in a lift with someone who can influence a decision over a business idea you have.

After his time with BA, Tom got a job with Goldman Sachs – but only after 16 applications. Ironically, he didn’t even like the job when he was finally offered it and did not stay long with the company. “I had a bit of money saved, came up with a business idea and went to pitch to private investors”, he tells us.

Factfile

Tom Ilube describes himself as a technology entrepreneur and educational philanthropist. He once shared a stage with Microsoft pioneer Bill Gates, in front of an audience of 2,000 and describes the experience as “extraordinary”


He serves as a non-executive director at the BBC and is described on a Buzzfeed profile as an “unassuming, softly spoken man who looks a bit like your maths teacher”


Ilube has more than 30 years’ experience delivering commercial technology systems to a range of blue chip organisations, including Goldman Sachs, PriceWaterhouseCoopers and CapGemini


He founded the UK’s first online bank – Egg, launched in October 1998. He built it to four million customers and a £1 billion value, then “quite quickly sold it to CitiBank”. Since then, he has founded several start-up technology businesses and is now CEO of Crossword Cybersecurity, based in Richmond, Surrey


He is proud of his heritage, with an English mother and Nigerian father

As Tom warms to his theme of how to sell yourself and your business idea, he shares his thoughts on how to devise and set up a company. “First, have an idea, second find the money, third set it up, fourth retire. Only kidding on the last one.” He says the key, once you have an idea for a business, is to think “who is my market?” and to be specific.

“It’s vital to get your customers to see the product, whatever it is and say ‘I want that’. Then you need to find the money and here the key is, once again, persistence. I have stood in front of people 200 times, making a plea for funding. I am good with failure.”

Learning to sell yourself and your idea is not enough, however. You need also to gather a great team around you, says Tom. “You cannot be a great sole entrepreneur,” he adds. Know yourself, be committed, start with an aim and work towards it. Make a bold promise to yourself. Form, storm and perform.”

At the end of his confident, tightly performed speech – given without apparent notes, Tom invites questions from the audience and the hands shoot up. Subjects include “how did you finance your first venture?” “How do you organise meeting people to pitch for money?” “Are grad schemes worthwhile?” and “How do you strike a balance between getting into a market early and not showing you are immature?”

Tom considers each for a moment, before giving his measured response, leaving the inquirer looking happy and satisfied. One of the questioners uses one of my favourite interview techniques, asking “How do you relax?” The answer is perhaps surprising: “I’ve done t’ai chi for 15 to 20 years and I practise it daily. It focuses my mind and keeps me on track.” Tom even gives a tentative demonstration of the slow-moving Chinese meditation/movement technique, to the amusement of the audience.

At the end of the lecture, I grab a couple of minutes with Tom for a pre-arranged face-to-face interview. I learn he is 54, has been married 24 years and has a daughter of 23 who works in the charitable sector and a son of 19 who is studying geography at university.

Asked to describe his management style, he tells me: “To listen, but know the difference between agreement and alignment.” Hmm, a bit deep for me – perhaps there’s something of t’ai chi here. Time for two more quick questions, as the minders hover to whisk him off for his train back to London: “Have you got an idea for a new business?” He replies quietly: “Yes, I’ve always got something on the go. I have a team working on it at the moment, but it’s not ready for publication yet.”

My final question is whether he thinks he will ever retire. “Yes, but more likely I will shift my emphasis towards charitable work”. Knowing his dedication as chairman and founder of the African Gifted Foundation, a UK-based education charity focusing on the provision of science and technology in Africa and its launch of an all-girls’ science and maths academy, he’s already well on the way.

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