GREGORY UGWI: The Idea Alchemist Behind Thinkum8 min read

Gregory

Gregory Ugwi is a former strategist at Goldman Sachs, established in 1869. A company committed to advising companies on buying and selling businesses, raising capital, and managing risks for over 150 years. With Justin Zhen, a former college classmate and hedge fund employee, he leads a multi-million dollar company with Goldman Sachs as one of its clients.

Interview

Hello, Gregory. It’s a pleasure to have you.

Few months ago, you had an insightful conversation on Just Go Grind podcast with Justin Gordon, a fintech founder. Tell us more about Thinknum?

If you’re born in a really rich area or a well-developed country, school may not play much of an important role. For me, school was a great vehicle to move up economically. So, I grew up really poor. When I was 10, I passed a test; I did really well, so I got a scholarship to Loyola Jesuit College in Abuja which is one of the best schools in Nigeria. When I was there, I did pretty well and I actually had the highest score in the 2003 JAMB examination. Over a million take this examination as you know to go to the university and I had a single-handed score and I did well on the SAT as well.

So, I got financed to go to Princeton. The story I’m trying to tell here especially to young people in Nigeria is that education, learning is critical. You might think it’s cool or not cool or it doesn’t matter but if you do really well, you can tell how far it will take you. That was the beginning of the journey for me. And it wasn’t like my parents made me study. My parents didn’t know of Princeton University. So, one has to be self-motivated. You’ve to get it done and pay attention. At Princeton, I connected with different people. You get to meet all kinds of people across the world. Then I went to work at Goldman Sachs.

I recently did a Fireside chat with Marty Chavez, former CFO of Goldman Sachs who was like a mentor and a boss. He had a lot of powerful lessons on how he navigated. So, I took all the lessons I learned from Goldman Sachs, and then when I found a problem I was passionate about solving which is indexing data from the web, helping businesses to use that data to make better decisions. I jumped all in and started building Thinknum, and that’s what Thinknum does.

Thinknum posts all the data with 12 data to our plans; KG Base is a tool that we had used internally but now we’re exposing it to our users so they can organize the data they’ve in-house. And this is the platform where we tell stories on how we’re building Thinknum and how people build businesses and just the importance of building great companies.

What was your experience like getting your first customers to take advantage of the services your business was providing?

It was very challenging. When you’re in Goldman, people want to talk to you. Like it’s a brand name; It’s in New York; You get invited to parties; Everyone wants to talk to you. When you leave Goldman, your phone stops ringing. It’s kinda like nobody wants to talk to you. For me, it was hard to separate like in terms of ego, the brand, the fact that I was riding the Goldman Sachs brand versus whether people were really interested in me.

So, you’d realize that 99% of people were only interested in Goldman Sachs brand. So, that made it sort of challenging. But you just deal with that. The second thing is when you tell people of your start-up idea. People generally will be positive. We are social creatures; We try to be positive to each other. They tell you your start-up is great but it’s like not telling someone their baby is ugly.

So, you get a lot of fake ‘Oh, great start-up!’ But the test is how people actually act. When you ask them if they can actually pay. Many people will buck. That’s when you’d discover the truth. For us we really focus on when we’re giving demos. If they’re wowed, they’re probably going to buy and if they’re not wowed they are not going to buy. For me, it was really focusing on people’s actions not believing the hype but trying to wow users.

What was it like for you at Goldman?

As a quantitative strategist, we build models to value securities, for trading. For me, it was really learning how to shape products that have impact on business in a professional efficient manner. And I’ve written codes.

What were your personal experiences in Nigeria and what motivated you to venture into business?

Lagos is like everything. But there were a lot of challenges while growing up. I remember in ’94 I was going to school and there was a riot. It was during the MKO Abiola election in June. Literally, we were going down the street with my dad and my sister and we see people rioting with their cutlasses. We had to get out of the crowd with my dad running carrying my sister. I was like 8.

The truth is my experiences were very positive. I had a lot of fun and I was very happy because you kind of not care about material things. You just come from school; You go out and play soccer all day. It was actually a pretty happy childhood. You know NEPA will take out the light, so you don’t have electricity. We didn’t have running water. They were challenges when I look back now. In terms of Lagos in general I had a happy childhood. In my view, it’s time for us to shift to human capital.

There’s a lot of potentials, but it goes back to focusing on education to make sure that we’re not just getting resources from the ground in terms of oil but we’re actually using our minds to create the world we want to live in. So the time for that is now. So we need to focus on education, entrepreneurship, building businesses, investing in businesses, using our creativity to design the world we want. The people are great and the culture is great. Everything is set up. We need to develop our human capital, create start-ups, tech, and do more seed investing. My dream is to have a successful enduring lasting company. I plan to be in Lagos and invest in 100 start-ups and try to start this process of shifting the economy to one driven by human capital.

Already, we see that you’re one of the investors of New Amsterdam FC. What really sparked your interest in soccer?

I love soccer. Remember in ’96, Atlanta, there was Kanu Nwankwo, Okocha, and we won the Olympics. That was a great experience. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve played soccer all the time. There was USA ’94 with Yekini, Omokachi. We did pretty well, eventually we got knocked out by Italy. Robert Baggio scored the penalty. Have always loved soccer. The opportunity came where someone was starting something new that is based on human capital very directly like soccer. And in Manhattan, we don’t have a professional soccer club, so this was an opportunity to fill that void and I was able to invest.

What would Gregory Ugwi say is the one thing that’s responsible for your success that drove you to this point?

I will say it’s been having a vision for myself. When I was growing up in Iyana-ipaja, school sometimes tries to push on us, learn this and learn that or friends try to pull you in another direction. But ultimately, what’s your vision for yourself? Where do you want your life to take you? What do you want to see in this world? So, my mother sort of guided me to develop that for myself. At the end of the day, we’re born and we all have this journey while on Earth.

We should use school and leverage it as a tool to get all the information you want to help you go places but you shouldn’t be a slave to it. At the same time, you have friends you connect with but you shouldn’t let them distract you from your goals and ambition. You’ve to develop self-awareness and realize that other people also have visions for themselves. So, you learn to have the empathy to work with them and understand what they want to do, and help them to get it. And this helps with your journey as well.

Thank you so much Gregory.

By Elijah Christopher

Elijah Christopher
Elijah Christopher, a journalist at A New Touch Of Africa, is also a creative writer, a poet, and an IoT enthusiast. He contributed to the collaborative poem written in celebration of Edwin Morgan Centenary, the first Glasgow poet laureate and Scottish national poet from the University of Glasgow. He loves meeting people and learning about new places, cultures, events, and lifestyles.

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