Toyin Umesiri is an entrepreneur and the convener for the Trade with Africa Business Summit. In 2017, she made the big leap from corporate America into full-time entrepreneurship to focus on increasing trade between U.S. and Africa. After over a decade of working in corporate America, at Fortune 1 & Fortune 150 companies. She is now taking all the lessons learned, skills acquired and global networks built as leverage in empowering businesses on the continent of Africa.
Tell us about your background
I was born in the northern state of Kaduna, Nigeria. For my first degree, I attended Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta and graduated with a BSc. in Mathematics with a minor in Computer Science.
In the fall of 2004, I arrived in the U.S. to pursue a Master’s program in Information Systems at Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, Michigan. Upon the completion of my graduate degree in 2006, I joined Whirlpool Corporation in Michigan as an Analyst.
I grew my career there designing and developing global technology solutions that addressed complex business problems in manufacturing, finance and supply chain. In 2013 I was hired as a manager to help roll out the global sourcing solution for Walmart in the UK and North America.
I am passionate about empowering women and I have had the opportunity to serve on various leadership committees that advanced women’s agenda. In 2016 I was published in a book called ‘Leading Women’ and was also featured as a leading and inspirational woman in technology on the platform.
What made you walk away from Walmart to start Nazaru, and what skills would you say you acquired that prepared you to start your own company?
I have been on a journey of reconnecting with Africa for the past 2 years. It all started when I made an emergency trip to Nigeria in 2015 following the passing of my father. And that one trip changed my life.
While there I had the honour of writing a mini-biography of my father which gave me a front row seat to understanding how he lived. The experience rocked my world and I came to realize that my late father was a man that served his community in meaningful ways.
Following that trip, I decided I needed to be of greater service to my generation. I didn’t know exactly how to help then but after 2 years of research in this area, I do now. When I returned to my base in Arkansas I made a strong commitment to Africa. Being naturally situated in the global headquarters of Walmart it was there that I first ignited my dialogue on Africa.
It began with asking questions like
– What does Africa need?
– What are the current levels of Africa’s Non-oil exports to the U.S.?
-What will it take to increase these numbers? e.t.c.
As I engaged stakeholders and business executives around the world it became clear that there was a huge gap in information available about the region. This knowledge is now informing the type of work that I do through my company Nazaru LLC and the Event ‘Trade with Africa Business Summit”.
Nazaru is a platform that allows Africa’s exporters to showcase what they want to sell on the global market. Following various conversations with decision makers around the world, it appears that there is little to no visibility on what Africa has available. We are starting with visibility to the commodity as phase 1 but there is a long-term strategy that we are working hard towards.
For over a decade I have led multiple multi-year, multi-million dollar projects across the supply chain, manufacturing, procurement, global sourcing and merchandising and this has allowed me to know what it takes to run a large business end to end. In my past roles, I also designed multi-year technology roadmaps and strategies working with executives that ran the multi-billion dollar company, Walmart.
I am grateful for the experience and opportunities that I had there to grow my career but when my passion for Africa grew too big to joggle with my daily responsibilities, I knew it was time to follow my heart.
How did you come up with the name ‘Nazaru’ for your Startup?
Due to the uniqueness of my work and how closely tied it is to my faith and work journey when it was time to name my company I wanted something with deep symbolism. Nazaru has its roots in the scriptures (John 1:46) and is short for Nazareth.
There was a question raised in that verse that said “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and Philip answered, “Come and see”.
In Africa’s case, there are many who still who do not think much of Africa, but we can prove them wrong. Africa is filled with hard-working men and women, young and old focused on positioning themselves for a better future.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far and how do you deal with
When you are inside of the corporate world all the resources you need are right there and
provided for you. Outside not so much.
The other challenge is getting people to hear about what I am doing and getting them to support. It has been very rewarding and the cool thing is that many people actually have a passion for Africa so my role, I am coming to realize, is to serve as a catalyst and a connector.
To make the event successful,l I have the partnership of large recognizable brands and trade organizations like the World Trade Center and USAID East Africa Trade and Economic Hub. Their engagement and support allow me to have a greater impact and reach more people so that African based businesses can benefit from engaging in increased trade with U.S. companies.
How is the event ‘Trade with Africa Business Summit 2018’ different from other held events focused on Africa?
The Trade with Africa Business Summit is different in that you will find business executives
leading this new conversation on Africa.
I have found that most conversations on Africa are being led from a policy or philanthropic standpoint. This is great but in my opinion, if we want to move the discourse from AID to Trade then business leaders on both sides must take a more central role for real change to occur.
What I am doing is making a strong business case for Africa that should put the force of “corporate America” behind this dialogue.
With all the economic projections and population growth that is happening on the continent, Africa exists centrally in a business context and not only in the context of war, famine & diseases.
What is your vision for Nazaru and how do you plan on realizing it in the near future?
We have a three-phased approach defined in our short and long-term strategy. Phase one is to provide visibility on what exists currently so Africa’s exporters should get registered on the platform.
Phase two is introducing ‘Africa-made’ products into new markets and Phase 3 is a few years away.
What advice would you have for other entrepreneurs and Africans in Diaspora who wish to start a business in Africa?
Do your research and don’t be in a hurry. Also, build a strong network and finally let people
help you. Depending on how grand the vision for your business is, I would say invest as
much time in digging deep so you can position your company well.
Do you have any mentor or mentors you looked up to when starting out?
The story of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, inspires me. He was a visionary leader that focused on serving the needs of rural America over 50 years ago. The company he founded, on strong business principles, then grew to become the number 1 company in the world.
My experience at Walmart has thought me what vision, hard work, humility and teamwork can accomplish.
What are some of the quotes you live by that have shaped how you manage your life and business?
Here are some of my favourite quotes:
“If you don’t know who you are, people will tell you who to be”.
“Africa is not poor. It is the land of diamonds, platinum, gold, oil and the rarest of resources!” and “Africa is rising because Africans are rising”.