The Story of James-Breaking the Barrier. #EMBA27

Ikenna Ngonebu Written by Ikenna Ngonebu · 3 min read >

Today, I would discuss my interaction with a friend of mine- a Nigerian public university student. For the sake of his privacy, I would call him James, however, this is a real-life person and I would share real experiences. As most of us know, the public universities in Nigeria have been inundated by strikes, stories of dilapidated hostels, poor academic learning environment, and students’ apathy to learning.

Over my experience with various students, I found that there were still a bunch of them that still broke this chasm and pushed forward to create a successful existence and ultimately bright future for themselves even in this chaos. They have been able to excel in academic pursuit despite all the shortcomings in the school system. They have become shining pillars of hope for other students in the hitherto collapsed system. Very few students have exemplified this space like James.

I hope that somewhere, somehow, a current public university student would pick up this blog, go through and be inspired to break the barrier holding them.

First Interaction

I am a startup investor and advisor and have worked in this space for a while with so many young people. I met James through a colleague who was working on a groundbreaking business opportunity. Though I was not part of the project, I knew a lot about the day-to-day operations. James came to one of the virtual meetings quite early and appeared in the waiting room.

Now you must understand that I thoroughly respect timeliness. I was getting unfortunately used to a lot of young people especially students, attending virtual meetings late. It has become part of my expectation in 4 years of advisory and investment journey and sadly so. I correlate the level of seriousness of someone to a business meeting to his time of attendance. James came early, joined the meeting immediately he was admitted from the lobby and his first word won my admiration. He greeted everyone and stated: ‘I had thought deeply of the business challenge and have found a way to resolve it. Can we discuss’?

James Background.

James was an electrical engineer at one of the public universities in Nigeria. After initial interactions with him, I asked around through some of the school contacts and was impressed with the feedback I got. He was very dedicated to his studies but still had a bit of time for social activities. Being very brilliant and one of the top performers in terms of grade for his set, he still never stood out as such. He came from a poor background, struggling to pay his fees and all, so he had a lot of side hustles through which he could keep himself financially buoyant. Yet he was extremely humble and smart. It was like he had a dream, a passion, and knew what he wanted. He avoided distractions and was a clear thinker and problem solver.

In addition, he had clear talents in digital business solutions and good expertise in mobile applications development.

Participation in my Friend’s Startup.

James was critical to the successes made in the business. He not only brought great ideas but was willing to spend late nights in between studies to try our options. What baffled me was that he still did not compromise his academics in any way. If James does not join a meeting on time, please check the mail or chat- he must have sent an explanation or excuse earlier. Even with that, he would have sent his piece of the project for all to have in his absence beforehand.

His attention to detail, focus to work and passion for success were unprecedented. He was hungry to learn and experiment.  I remember during one of the long lecturers’ strikes which put students out of school for about 4 months, James turned that period into a budding entrepreneurship training period, made lots of money from building mobile business apps for various companies, and became a household name of some of my digital startup friends.

James did not let the strikes overtly impact his life. He did not waste it galivanting all over the place. Though his colleagues engaged in lot of social vices, he was busy learning new skills for himself. He decided to make the best of his time, capitalize on opportunities available and create a bright future for himself.

James Now.

I was not surprised he graduated from university with a first-class in 2020. In addition, he got admission with a full scholarship to about 5 universities for his master’s degree in the United States. Eventually took one that offered an automatic Ph.D. program right after the course. Interestingly, he is still part of my friend’s startup business which has now grown and regularly participates in the meetings as well.


Despite what life throws at one, the option is for us to determine the impact. We can either break or utilize the energy for our good. James had it tough. Life threw some curveballs at him. He grabbed it, mastered it, adapted the format, and used the energy to position himself for success and greatness for the future. He is on that path.

Dear Nigerian public university student, even with the tough academic environment, the strikes, the terrain, and all, you can still become the best you can ever be. GO BE IT.


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