Growing Up In Nigeria: The Secret Of Success For Tope Awotona, Founder Of Atlanta’s Calendly

Kevin Mwanza
Written by Kevin Mwanza
Tope Antwona
Tope Antwona, founder of Calendly. Photo: simplybuckhead.com

Tope Awotona is a successful entrepreneur with a business that generates $30 million in revenue annually.

He’s the founder of Atlanta-based Calendly, a beautifully simple scheduling tool that serves more than 30 million people worldwide and is doubling its growth year after year. He attributes his achievements to growing up in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and most populous country.

Awotona grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, as the third-born in a family of four boys. His parents were middle-class. His father worked as a microbiologist at Unilever and his mother was the chief pharmacist for the massive clinic system owned by the Central Bank, the country’s largest employer.

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Growing up in a big family full of laughter, Awotona learned about things like discrimination, entrepreneurship and ambition. These lessons motivated him to succeed when he went to the U.S.s for his higher education at the University of Georgia.

“I skipped two grades as a kid and have always been an ambitious person, seriously ambitious in a sense,” he told Abernathy Magazine. “Primary and secondary education is great in Nigeria, but university-level education isn’t so good.”

Awotona’s parents always ran a business even as they pursued their day jobs. His mom co-owned a small pharmacy with his aunt, while his dad left a job at Unilever to start an industrial chemical distribution business. His father was later shot dead in a carjacking incident.

Awotona’s maternal grandmother built a successful import-export textile business that helped her own many homes and send her children to college despite herself never earning a degree.

Tope Awotona on shortsighted VCs

The unruliness and aggressiveness of Lagosians, who only see rules as “suggestions”, helped build an assertive side that pushed him beyond the toughness that Black entrepreneurs face when seeking venture capital funding.

“I watched other people who fit a different ‘profile’ get money thrown at them for shitty ideas,” Awotona told the Inc. “Those VCs were ignorant and shortsighted. The only thing I could attribute it to was that I was Black.”

Not getting VC funding in the earlier years of building Calendly helped him become “resourceful, scrappy, and maniacally-focused”, he said.

Calendly, which he started in 2013 after leaving a sales role at EMC (later acquired by Dell), is now grossing $30 million in revenue annually and has been profitable since 2016.

“I grew up in a country where 99 percent of the people looked like me, so race wasn’t something I consciously thought about. It’s good to have that mentality,” Awotona said.