Ken Olisa, the founder and chairman of boutique technology merchant bank Restoration Partners, and an IoD board member, has a technology career spanning 40 years. The philanthropist has also received an OBE for his work tackling homelessness in London. Here, he looks back at his rise to the top…
It was physically and intellectually impossible to imagine how my life would turn out. When I was young there weren’t any computers, it was the end of segregation in the US, and people assumed the world was always going to be a certain way. We didn’t talk about entrepreneurship and business at school. And most people who say they know what they’re going to do when they’re eight or nine are deluding themselves.
I joined IBM when the UK was going to hell in a handbasket. It was the Seventies and manufacturers were closing down. After graduating from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, I stepped into IBM, where people were known by their first names, nobody had to wear a jacket, and you could challenge senior managers. It was an exciting environment and very easy for a young man to have his head turned.
In my first job I learnt that anything is possible. I was given massive responsibility at IBM because I was bright and they trusted me. They taught me to be master of my destiny. A lot of people in business are fatalists: if the economy is growing they assume life will be good; if it’s shrinking then it’ll be bad. Fatalism is not the right way to behave in business. People need to learn that they can influence their fate.
There is nothing like being fired to define disappointment. I joined Wang Laboratories, a computer company, in 1981 and while I was there I came to a collision course in my career. I was running the European business and I fell out with the people running the overall corporation. We had a very different set of values and I thought the solution was to buy the European business from the company. I put together a tentative bid and I was fired. That was, and always has been, a matter of great regret. I should have been much braver.
My life is balanced between business and charitable work. My motto is ‘do well, do good’ and my personal agenda is about social inclusion. I am a black man who grew up on the back streets of Nottingham, but I have never felt excluded in my life. It doesn’t matter to me whether people are physically or mentally disabled, black, white, male, female or transgender – I’m just looking for the best talent. I am chairman of a charity called Shaw Trust, which helps 50,000 disabled and disadvantaged people every year get back into employment. It’s very uplifting.
Talent is having an innate ability to solve a problem. In sport, a talented footballer is someone who can score goals. In business it’s more difficult to define. People fall into two categories; there are corporatists, who are risk-averse, and entrepreneurs, who are risk-prone. One mistake businesses often make is confusing the two talent pools. The key is to get the context right by establishing a need and finding a talented solution.
If you haven’t got a strategy you’re not going to be successful. Having a three- to five-year objective is crucial. Most organisations think they have a strategy but they don’t, they only have a plan, which is a set of numbers and words. Your strategy needs to ask what success looks like. I try to keep people focused on the longer term – how we are going to get there and not worry too much if something goes wrong one week. It’s like skiing; there is no point sitting at the top of a hill plotting your whole route down. You’ve simply got to get to the bottom in one piece.
Affinity groups for minorities upset me. These are groups within organisations that are for women, black people or gay people, for example. They tend to be little groups of victims who feel under-represented on the board and in senior management. Often they think everything is done by the male, pale, and stale universe. It’s fatalistic. I’m not a victim, and I don’t accept that. I’m always at the top table – they should be at the top table too.
Anybody who thinks their business is not going to be transformed by technology in the next five years has their head in the sand. You can define the history of IT. There has been the mainframe age, the mini-computer age, the age of the PC, and, now, the age of ubiquity. Soon everything will be a computer. There will be applications written to take advantage of this – people will make their fortunes and businesses will become more efficient as a result.