By Nick Travis, partner at Smith & Williamson
This article was originally published in Smith & Williamson's Enterprise magazine, a thought leadership publication for entrepreneurs and growth companies. You can download this issue of Enterprise here.
Fleeing Idi Amin’s reign of terror and being tied up as a suspected looter at just nine years old put risk into perspective for the young Tom Ilube. In comparison, working on the UK’s first internet bank, launching a ground-breaking credit service or a series of new schools, was a walk in the park.“Even though people think of entrepreneurs as risk takers, in reality, we take calculated risks. It’s like mountain climbing. The decision to start climbing the mountain is quite risky, but once you get going you have a map, you’re tied to the right person, you’ve checked the weather. You execute the task in a risk-averse way. For me, it is important to make a bold statement of where the company is going, being smart, calculated and careful about the steps I take along the way.”
Tom’s early days were spent flip-flopping between London, Nigeria and Uganda with his father’s job. The family had to leave Uganda ‘in a hurry’, escaping through Kenya and back into the UK. In a short time he had re-established himself in London, only for his father to ask him to join him in Nigeria. Reassured that his favourite sports - ice skating and rugby – were big news in Nigeria, he went along happily, only to find that his father had stretched the truth.
“We got pretty used to coups – we’d turn the radio on, hear the military had taken over, put the kettle on. Perhaps it gave me a sense of perspective when it came to risk-taking. For me, what counts as a risk has a higher bar.”
His entrepreneurialism started at university in Nigeria, selling – incongruously - trousers, bow ties and maths textbooks as a package deal. It proved surprisingly popular and a useful supplement for his Applied Physics degree. He came back to London and started job-hunting.
In this, he took ‘tenacious’ to a new level. Armed with the Computer Users Yearbook, which listed every company with a computer department, today that would apply to every company - but that wasn’t true at the time. He applied, systematically, to every company in the book, starting at ‘A’. He only had to get as far as B, when British Airways gave him a job, but not before multiple rejections along the way.
“The postman was pretty happy when I got a job,” he says. One company told him ‘we will never offer you a job’ but to him, this was just the start of a conversation. He’d wait two weeks and then apply again. Once established at British Airways, he began working his way up, building expertise and contacts at a number of blue chips, including the London Stock Exchange, PWC and Goldman Sachs. He even found time for an MBA at CASS Business School.
The Internet was in its infancy and Tom and a group of like-minded business people started to consider the potential for a new internet bank. This was the start of Egg, the UK’s first internet bank and the start of a banking revolution. He was the technical director. Ultimately Egg gathered four million customers, listed on the Stock Exchange and redefined banking for a generation.
“It was an incredible experience. Everyone started to realise that the internet was a real thing, not just for selling trinkets. Egg was one of the first internet-based institutions and it opened everyone’s eyes. We were creating a new brand in a very traditional market.
“We needed to create a brand with customer and press cut-through. Egg was a bold name, something fresh and different. We wanted to make sure that people knew not to expect the same from Egg as from HSBC. Luckily we were backed by Prudential and having centuries old financial institution behind us allowed us to alleviate any concerns”.
He left Egg in 2005 before it was bought by Citigroup a couple of years later. After the experience of a start-up, he didn’t want to go back into a huge organisation. He started Garlik, an online identity protection company. It was venture capital- backed and built up over a number of years before a sale to Experian, the credit reference agency.
Tom’s next stop was Callcredit, a credit reference agency created by Skipton Building Society. After founding and building up Callcredit, Skipton wanted to sell it. He was involved in the management buyout, funded by a private equity firm, shortly after it was sold by Skipton. Tom became the Managing Director of the consumer division. This morphed into a new initiative called Noddle: “It was a free credit report initiative. The model hadn’t been used before. People would get their credit report and the system would then suggest other loans or deals that could be appropriate given their score.”
After four years and a sale to a private equity firm in Chicago, Tom was back to a blank sheet of paper: “That meant a serviced office and a flip chart and a list that looked something like: 1. Start company, 2.
Take the day off. Slowly I get into it!” This resulted in the launch of Crossword Cybersecurity PLC, which is about commercialising cyber security, bringing in ideas from universities.
Crossword was listed on the London Stock Exchange’s AIM market in 2018 and Tom continues to serve as CEO. Tom also took on an external Board position, being appointed as a Non-Executive Director of the BBC in 2017.
But as his business career progressed, Tom wanted to make a more fundamental social impact. “My mother was a teacher and taught in England, Uganda and Nigeria. As my career started to develop, I was one of a handful of black executives asked to speak in schools I decided I was going to get invested in philanthropy in much the same way as I had been invested in my entrepreneurial activities. Not a few pounds here or there, but very focused.”
Through his work in schools, he became increasingly interested in the choices people were making, particularly around the world of STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths): “It has done wonderful things for my career and it’s what I’m interested in. I even paid a visit to the Sante Fe institute in New Mexico on my honeymoon.” (He is still married and went back to the same place on his 25th anniversary).
He started working with the Lilian Baylis Technology School in Stockwell, London, helping turn it into a technology specialist college. It worked well and has since become a high performing school. His ambition went one step further, however - to set up a school from a blank sheet of paper. He went back to that serviced office and the flip chart. The result was Hammersmith Academy.
“We saw it as a model for a 21st century school. It’s been going six years and it’s doing really well, getting young people into Oxbridge and Russell group universities.”
This provided a blueprint for an even more ambitious project – setting up a school in Africa focused on technology. Tom is the Chair and founder of the African Gifted Foundation, a UK education charity focused on science and technology in Africa. They recently launched the African Science Academy, Africa’s first all-girls science and maths academy. In a recent Ted Talk he said: “One girl with a passion for science can change the continent of Africa.”
If that sounds exhausting, he insists he has had plenty of help along the way: “You can’t do everything yourself, you’d have a heart attack. You have to rely on the people around you to do what needs to be done. Your job as a leader is to tell a story.
What journey are we on? If that is told strongly and clearly enough, the people around you will bring it to life.”