Jay Alabraba is cofounder of Lagos, Nigeria-based Pagatech, operator of the country’s largest mobile-payments service, Paga. Born and raised in Nigeria, Alabraba immigrated to the United States at the age of 16. He received a BS in electrical and computer engineering from Ohio State University and upon graduation moved to Redmond, Wash., to take a job at Microsoft Corp. In 2004, he accepted Stanford Graduate School of Business’ Charles P. Bonini Partnership for Diversity fellowship and spent a year leading projects for the neuroscience marketing team at Eli Lilly & Co.; he went on to receive his MBA from the GSB in 2007. Alabraba then worked as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs & Co. before returning to Nigeria in early 2009 to lead an M&A team at BGL Plc. A cofounder of Paga, he joined the company full-time in early 2010; the company now has 150 employees and expects to have 250 by the end of the year. In our interview, Alabraba discusses the cultural differences inherent in doing business in Nigeria versus the United States, the value and the challenge of importing Stanford GSB’s “touchy-feely” techniques into the workplace in Africa, and his regrets about not pursuing every opportunity to deepen relationships or perform to his potential.
In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?
Simplifying payments and access to financial services across Africa.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
I was 16 when I left Nigeria. At the time I moved back, all my work experience had been in the U.S. I learned that Nigeria was a completely different business environment. Early on at Paga, I questioned whether I should keep going and stay with the company. Building a business from the ground up is hard to do anywhere, but is especially difficult in an environment that lacks basic infrastructure and government programs that support startups. Cash was tight. I felt lost at times.
I reached out to someone who had many years of experience building businesses in Nigeria. He told me if I focused on “The Three H’s” — humility, hard work, and honesty — that the right things would happen and I would have no shortage of business opportunities.
Humility: In Nigeria, it does not matter how much education or experience or intellect you think you have; it doesn’t serve you well to appear arrogant because reputations are set quickly. Also, in African culture, one is expected to show some amount of deference to one’s elders, even in business settings.
Hard work: Nothing good comes easily. Keep pushing. You are not on break most of the time you are at work.
Honesty: This is a survival-of-the-fittest environment. Someone is always trying to relieve you of your money. In Nigeria, people say, “Shine your eye.” It means keep your eyes wide open, because anything can happen. There is a great deal of mistrust, and it has served me well to be honest and straightforward.
Many people here will say yes to anything to get in the door and then figure it out later. I am always clear about what we can and cannot do, even if it feels that it might not be strategic. At times, it looks like we have lost the sale, but 80% of the time, we are invited back.
What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?
I brought to Paga a lot of the touchy-feely stuff from Stanford. The concept of providing feedback to your managers is very new to most people here, as the typical workplace is more hierarchical, but our employees have really embraced it.
Now, my default position is to be in the weeds: working hard for long hours and getting deep into the model, often as a one-man team. There have been times when I have delegated a job to someone else, but then I jumped in to do it myself. My team has given me feedback saying that my meddling could be demotivating. So I am learning to step back more and let people make their own mistakes.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on how to build a great business?
Make sure that your cofounders are people you can work with long-term. You need to be able to confidently and comfortably disagree on important issues. You should also genuinely like each other.
What inspires you?
I have always felt a deep affinity for Nigeria, and I believe I have a role to play in making it a better place to live. I am passionate about improving education and developing real estate for lower-income families. For me, moving back here was always a matter of fact. I didn’t have an alternative. I believe I am required to make an impact here, and that is what keeps me going.
What is your greatest achievement?
I don’t feel I have done anything extraordinary yet. I cannot rest on my laurels. I have not changed the world yet. I am taking this one step at a time.
What do you consider your biggest failure?
There were certain jobs where I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, and I took my foot off the pedal too early. I didn’t represent myself well, and I didn’t take full advantage of the opportunity to learn. I have changed this about myself. I try to take opportunities when they show up and bleed them for all they are worth.
Also, if I knew then what I know now, I would have spent a lot more time interacting with people at Stanford. I think I spent too much time studying. If I could go back, I would plan to just do OK on the tests and focus more on deepening my relationships with people I met from around the world.
What values are important to you in business?
Integrity. It means relating to people in a way that is authentic and true. It spans the gamut from not ripping people off to not putting up a false front. At Paga, we follow through on our promises to customers and partners, and we do our best to be transparent in the way we do business.
What impact would you like to have on the world?
My desire is to be in a position to advocate for people and improve the lives of Africans. I would like to play a part in delivering on the promise of a better life for millions of people.
What was your first paying job?
I worked at a KFC near the first school I attended in the U.S., in Teaneck, New Jersey. I was there for less than a month.
How do you achieve balance between your heritage as a Nigerian and the cultural influences of the United States?
The tension is always there, but one learns to make them all blend together. The experience day to day of living in Nigeria is starkly different than what the average person would experience in the U.S.; however, the ambition and desires of people are similar and really quite basic, all around the world.
Take, for example, the idea of getting 360-degree feedback, or flat organization structures and open-door policies. These are not part of the typical Nigerian business culture. In the U.S., your level, age, gender, or race doesn’t matter; you are who you are, and a basic amount of fairness and respect is expected. In Nigeria, the way things usually work is that almost anything goes if the boss says so. Still, I have found that when you adopt some of these typically Western business cultures here and show consistency, team members eventually take to it.
What is the best business book you have read?
Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath. This has been useful in many situations in my personal life as well as at work.
Also Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton. I found it to be tremendously funny, but it took the subject matter seriously. The book explores interesting philosophies of what makes people happy and how the concept of status affects a person’s feelings of happiness. It makes you ask yourself: Do I pursue money or what makes me happy?
What businessperson do you most admire?
My dad. He trained as a quantity surveyor in the U.K. in the 1960s. He came back to Nigeria when the country had just achieved independence, and over the years, he has developed a reputation as a person who can be trusted. He is the guy that you go to when you want to know what is really going down. He got involved in the commercial banking sector later in his career and has chaired several of the largest banks in the country. He has never taken an actual political position but is an advisor for many politicians.
I have a strong image from childhood: my dad at the dining table with a pencil and paper doing work. I would see him there when I was heading to bed, and when I woke up, he was still there with a cup of tea, having worked through the night. Even while being such a hard worker, he was still a loving father. He spoiled us silly — still does, actually.
What is the most valuable thing you took away from your time at Stanford?
Stanford left me with the confidence that there is no one single answer to any question. It is not about the specific skills you have, but the overall tool kit that allows you to be effective in whatever situation you find yourself.
What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?
The modern smartphone, without a doubt. Apps allow you at the stroke of a finger to do work that would take the average person five hours to do otherwise. It eliminates the need for an assistant. It truly is a device that changes the way people live.
At Paga, one of our driving forces is the belief that the mobile phone could be the primary means by which people access financial services. There are 175 million people in Nigeria — the most populated country in Africa — and fewer than 20% of people have access to formal financial services. Yet 70% of people have access to a connected mobile phone. Paga allows the exchange of value over any communication channel. We even make it possible to transact over SMS, so the cheapest phone on the market can be used to Paga.
This piece was originally published on 5/28/2013 by Stanford Graduate School of Business, and is republished with permission. For more insights and ideas on business and management sign up for their free email newsletter, Stanford Business Re:Think. Follow them @StanfordBiz.