Whoot Africa

15 Questions with the CEO – Ola Dantis of Cornerstone Associates

Here on Whoot Africa, we not only showcase brands, but we also talk to the people behind those brands and have them share with us their back stories as well as give tips on how to successfully start and run a business.

Welcome to Whoot Africa’s – 15 Questions with the CEO.

Today, we will be talking with Ola Dantis, CEO of Cornerstone Associates  


1.      Can you tell us a little about yourself and Cornerstone Associates as a brand you represent?

My family moved to the UK when I was 16, so I lived most of my adult life in London and Birmingham. Fast forward 10 years, and I was back in Lagos, ready, academically equipped to explore whatever opportunities were available and mentally prepared [well, I thought I was] to take on any challenges that came my way, as well as to ride the “growth” ship here in Nigeria.

Cornerstone Associates [www.cornerstoneassociates.com.ng] as a brand is positioned as an indigenous strategy consulting firm that institutes excellence within leading corporations, governments, social sector organisation across Nigeria, and Africa.

Our domain name reiterates our firm’s intention to initially focus on the Nigerian market.

We evaluate issues through an African dimension, and offer solutions of global benchmarks.

Cornerstone Associates offers a range of perspectives to attain sustainable results in Nigeria: Strategy, Innovation, Leadership, Organisational Change, Strategic Marketing & Sales, Economic Development, and Digital Strategies.

Cornerstone pulls together local expertise as well as diaspora perspectives of Nigerians, and Africans to power our economy and fuel the next engine of growth.

We also remain relentless in our approach of creating sustainable jobs for Africans.

A proudly African firm.


2.      How did you get started in Business and what did it take for you to get to where you are today?

My mother had always said to me that I could be very over-ambitious. From an early age, I have read entrepreneurship books and had my eyes set on discovering more. In addition, my fascination with businesses in general led to my first real venture into the profit and loss world i.e. business. Learning to remain humble whilst enjoying the doubling profits of stock options and preventing a wound of loss from haemorrhaging, served as a strong foundation into the business world.

As a disclaimer, I am under no illusion that I have reached my zenith yet, barely scratched the surface, as there’s more work to do, legacies to leave behind. Having said all that though, it took giving up comfort-ability, resisting the norm and deeply understanding failure as a ladder to success. Let me explain this, most people go to school, study a particular course of interest [or not], get a job, get a family and live happily [or not] ever after.

Well, for me, I always wanted more, more in terms of fully venturing into uncharted zones of life that does not have a predictable outcome as the one I’ve described above.

I guess my mum is right! I am over ambitious!


3.      What were you doing before your Cornerstone Associates kicked off and why did you decide to start Cornerstone Associates?

Undoubtedly, my altruistic passion for empowering others played a major role in my returning home saga. Shortly after my return, I was introduced to work with a non-profit called ACEAfrica.

My first meeting with Kiki Harrison [the Founder/CEO of ACEAfrica] was truly filled with bursts of inspirational bits, as she shared her vision for the charity. Of course, I was sold and started working pro bono to grow the charity with the rest of the team.

The goal of the charity was set at 1 outreach/month, so one month we could be repairing a borehole and giving out meds to people in Bassa Village, Abuja, while another could be talking and giving clothes donation to the young people in Agege, Lagos.

At ACEAfrica [www.aceafricacharity.org], we worked on developing strategic long-term plans to grow the charity. Surprisingly, the plans were actualised before time, as we raised ₦3,000,000 (£12,000) from the members of the Lagos Polo Club in a single Gala event [March 2013]. This particular anecdote, as then President gave me the most pleasure, and was truly overwhelming to see the impact of our collective hard work and bootstrapping, meaning the charity could now take on bigger projects to empower lives of Africans.

You can view this at: [http://www.facebook.com/pages/AceAfrica-Nigeria/178950952215715?fref=ts]   And watch the ACE Africa http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFWjU9YGIsA]


4.      Did you know you were going to be an Entrepreneur all along or did it happen by chance?

I was going to be a doctor, and always had the vision of coming back to build several health care centres in Nigeria, and Africa, so I suppose in some way, the seed of entrepreneurship had always been in there.

Setting up a consulting firm wasn’t in the vision I must add, my part time jobs while at university revealed new abilities I just had to leverage upon, such as realising my superb selling skills, and could articulate solutions and ideas to people seamlessly, eventually closing a ton of sales deals, all of which came natural to me.


        “There’s a blurry line between entrepreneurship and delusion, always have your reality glasses on” – Ola Dantis


5.      What do you love most about your business and your life as an Entrepreneur?

TD Jakes explains in his book Repositioning Yourself (Living Life Without Limits) that our work should only be a tool to living a better, more fulfilled life. This school of thought I totally embrace.

What I love most about my business is the scope it gives to really adding value to organisations through people.


A client of ours Emmsmith [(www.emmsmith.com)] consulted our firm to review their corporate and business unit strategies. Specifically, the short-term loans segment of the firm’s diversified portfolio had been struggling with their customer processing time. Undertaking critical evaluation of the process, we developed, tested and deployed an e-form with a slider loan calculator feature on their website [www.emmsmith.com/loans.htm]. Solving this problem was not easy, as we had to get the client’s team to support and embrace the change in their organisation.

The website we helped create for the firm went live, which has now completely modernised the way micro-finance is accessed by the average Nigerian online, and so far we have seen positive traffic coming through the site.

What I love most about my life as an entrepreneur is the autonomy of self. Waking up and not knowing what your day will be like is encouraging and largely fulfilling. In addition, the possibility of creating so many jobs for people is also a major determinant that keeps me going on the entrepreneurial path.


6.      What keeps you and the Cornerstone Associates team motivated?

My family remains the greatest motivation for me, and I must also add, I have a fantastic fiancée that understands my goals and buys-in into the dream [well, most of the time].

There are two broad approaches to motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic sources of motivation. At Cornerstone, we focus on the intrinsic sources of motivation, which are autonomy, competence, relatedness, and self-esteem, as oppose to extrinsic cues such as remuneration etc. We ensure that all CAL’ers [Cornerstone Associates people] have the independence to show competence whenever possible, whilst increasing the connectedness amongst all. Reiterating why our firm exists to all of our people helps to keep everyone on the same page and gives meaning to the work we all do.


7.      What do you think are the most important personal skills someone must have to be successful in business?

An innate ability to filter out noise, and stay focussed! Noise can be in form of people, activities, and/or business opportunities. Spotting them from a mile is crucial to staying focused on those things that matters most.

Humility is the single most important skill any successful businessperson must have, though, there must be a fine line between being humble and timid.

Another skill, tailored to this part of the world, is to be acutely in sync with peoples’ motivations, and finding out early on what makes them tick can be very important.


8.      How do you envision Cornerstone Associates in 5-10years from now?

I envision Cornerstone Associates to remain a powerhouse churning out job-creating ideas that are sustainable, scalable and impactful in Nigeria, and Africa.

Essentially, our firm acts as a spin-off hub for other ideas; we are constantly exploring new and innovative thinking. For instance, the issues surrounding raising capital in Nigeria for start-ups has remained a challenge for several years now. Consequently, the current investing climate quenches many potential job-creating ideas out before they see the light of the day, and many of us know there are many high net individuals in Nigeria.

So what we are looking at is how trusted bridges can be aligned between investors and entrepreneurs, which mutually benefits both parties and the country. We are exploring the practicability of an online platform that joins these parties together.

Also, another idea [Impact Sourcing] epitomises our belief of job creation, where simple technology tasks are outsourced to those who wouldn’t normally be able to assess jobs. Globally, youth job unemployment has created a youth bulge, more close to home, Nigeria with about 74 Million unemployed aged 15 – 24 years old youths needing jobs. One way of mitigating this issue of youth unemployment is through social inclusivity.

These ideas would be spin-offs from Cornerstone Associates.

We would like to think Cornerstone plays a pivotal role in the next 5 – 10 years within the social impact space.


9.      What are the obstacles you encountered in your business journey and how did you overcome them?

Interestingly, little or no attention is paid to Strategy in this part of this world. Of course, some business leaders know of and/or even studied strategy at some point in their life. However, paying a firm to come into their organisation to do some strategy work for them simply sounds absurd. During conversations with business owners, some say to me, but it’s my business, how can you know more than me? Well, I say to tell them-Strategy cuts through a variety of fields such as Succession Management, Sales Strategy, Social Media, Strategic Marketing, Growth, Leadership, etc. And it’s not about telling you how to run your business, it’s more about how you can sustainably run your business better!

The solution is educating business leaders young and old about the importance of planning ahead, strategically i.e. succession, corporate strategy and vision implementation.

Also, the cultural aspect could be a deal breaker too; some folks just can’t have younger people tell them what to do, it’s a fact here! So the solution is to ensure that you not only know your stuff WELL, but you should always have facts and figures when necessary to justify whatever it is you’re saying.


10.  How would you describe your leadership style?

Servant Leadership | Charisma has been mentioned as part of my leadership attributes. Fundamentally, I feel strongly about the bottom-up approach to management. Giving people the power to forge their own destiny can be the greatest gift of all, whilst providing support and mentoring when needed. Conversely, I have noticed that forcing and mandating rules on people don’t usually yield the desired results. Consequently, my adoption of this style of leadership.

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11.  Why did you choose this line of business/service or product and when did you know it was it for you?

Spotting how to better do things was always something I relish. Though, I was fortunate to get a scholarship to study for my masters’ degree programme at the University of Birmingham Business School, which helped make this passion a reality. Part of my studies had a great focus on Consulting; so going into Consulting  was perhaps inevitable.


12.  Who was the most influential person or mentor in your life?

Barack Obama | His personal life story and the subsequent political ascension is purely remarkable, a true visionary. I wouldn’t bore you with anymore of him; sure we all know the rest of the story!


13.  What was the BIGGEST risk you’ve taken? 

When I started trading stocks, I focussed on penny shares, and at that time JJB Sports [JJB:LN] was one of them. After much objective “research”, I went ahead and bought the stock, I made some money and remained excited. At this point, I had grown my portfolio a fair bit and naively assumed the expert role on stocks. Cashing in on this particular stock, I took the biggest risk by buying more of it even though I had already made enough money from it. So my bet was on the London 2012 Olympics, hoping it will draw enough people to buy more sporting merchandise from JJB Sports. Sadly, my assumptions were misconstrued and I lost all my positions, as the company announced that it was going into administration.

Self-discipline a skill I now pay more attention to!

Lessons learnt!


14. What do you think about college education? Should kids go to college now or get into business if they feel it’s a better choice? Considering some of the world’s greatest never had college education, your thoughts?

However way one wants to put it, college education is increasingly becoming important to businesses. Yes, some of the world’s greatest never went on to college [university for UK], but to effectively run their business they need those who did, so it only makes sense to acquire these skills with the intention of using them.

Unapologetically, in this time and age in order to run a sustainable and successful business college education I believe is absolutely vital. Sure, if a kid has a great innovation or talent that requires no more education to take it to the next level then that’s fine. More often than not, college education still remains highly important, many ideas are still coming out of many universities.

Facebook started at Harvard, most of their employees at Facebook are from Ivy Leagues. Some say Mark Zuckerburg dropped-out? Really?! He has impeccable programming skills, some of which can be attributed to the fine education he got at one the world’s best university.

Richard Branson does not run Virgin Group with loads of other Richard Bransons, he gets people smarter than him to do that.

I want to refrain from glorifying the whole college-drop philosophy as much as possible. We have college drop-outs and we have genius minds! The world’s greatest am betting my punt that they are more of the latter.

Knowledge is power!


15.  What would be the most important piece of advice you could give to young entrepreneurs and why?

Discover something that you can’t wait to get up in the morning to do, but bare in mind, whatever it is, you should be ready to do for free, if need be. This stuff [when you discover it] should be fun and not considered as work, it’s largely a passion!

Some like to design peoples’ faces [make-up], others enjoy designing websites and software.

Learn, Learn, and Relearn! Maximise your time, learn another language [Chinese maybe], learn programming, strive to get comfortable with financials [I know it can be a pain], and most importantly visit other parts of the world – travelling is extremely therapeutic and a creativity booster I have found!

By learning new things, you add more value to YOU, when benchmarked against others in the world. I say More Skills = More Bills!

Challenging the conventional and aspiring to excellence keeps the entrepreneurial fire burning.


Lets follow one another @OlaDantis on Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | LinkedIn

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