For Africa-based entrepreneur Yemi Lawani ’96, a desire to solve problems inspires him to start new companies
It has been 23 years since he lived on the Williston campus, but Yemi Lawani can still vividly recall his roommate, Nader Barhoum ’97, running into the common room to let Lawani know Yemi’s girlfriend, Leilani, was calling. Lawani, who spent his PG year—1995 to 1996—living in Memorial Hall, would race back up to the pay phone on his floor.
“I had a picture of her in our room,” he laughed. “Nader knew her; I was always talking to her.”
Though Lawani loved being at Williston, his connections to both Leilani —she was then a student at the University of Maryland—and to his home country of Nigeria, remained strong. In fact, in many ways, they’ve charted the course of his life, both professionally and personally.
Nearly five years ago, Lawani co-founded Neon Ventures, a Lagos, Nigeria-based investment and venture-building firm aimed at partnering with businesses in and around the technology sector and working to scale their growth across Africa. Successful projects include a Wi-Fi company distributing internet service across Nigeria; a health insurance and tele-medicine platform; and a business matching venue owners with event organizers across the continent.
He has also founded a number of businesses from scratch. Take Motocheck, a nationwide network of automotive engineers and inspection centers that helps car owners find trusted service providers. Originally formed to help Uber West Africa drivers inspect and report their vehicles’ certification reports, Motocheck has expanded to form an academy to properly train car mechanics.
“If you live in Nigeria, you realize the quality of vehicle services is really poor,” Lawani explained. His goal, and a cornerstone to his business approach, is on display here; there’s a need for change, and Lawani wants to act.
“We identify a real problem and try to solve it,” he said.
That same entrepreneurial spirit has been a part of Lawani’s life since his Williston days, as well as the string of academic and professional milestones he hit following his stint here. In 2000, Lawani earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech; that training ground propelled him to a job as a radio frequency engineer in Washington, D.C., where he worked for five years before earning his M.B.A. from Stanford University in 2007. Lawani said he knew he “wanted to do something different, to be involved in the decision-making side of business.”
It would be another few years before that dream —of both returning to Nigeria and working entirely with African-based companies—would be fulfilled, but his ship always seemed to be on course; he spent some time as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley, working first in New York and then Los Angeles, and then moved to London to work at Helios Investment Partners, a private equity firm focused on Africa-based businesses.
“After a couple years, I just found something was drawing me back to do things in Africa,” Lawani said, noting that the economy across the continent had started to pick up then, and he enjoyed partnering with Africa-based companies and seeing them thrive. He left Helios, started Neon Ventures, and has been there ever since.
His professional accomplishments have taken him across the world, but Lawani still thinks fondly of his time at Williston, the excitement of being a new kid in a new country, in a new school, on the precipice of a new life.
“It was amazing,” Lawani said. “The resources, the facilities, always learning from people; it opened your eyes to see there were a ton of possibilities. I didn’t fathom a high school with all that. It was incredible.”
And while the technology from those Mem pay phone calls two decades ago has certainly changed, Lawani’s devotion to the caller remained steadfast. He and Leilani got married in 2005 and have two kids. They even attended Lawani’s Williston roommate, Nader Barhoum’s, wedding about five years ago, in Jordan.
And some more proof that wherever you go in the world, Williston is there: Last year, Lawani and his wife were at a friend’s house in Nigeria; the man’s daughter was deciding which U.S. boarding school to attend, and Williston was in the running (and she ultimately chose to go there).
“They were thinking it through,” Lawani said, “and I told them, ‘It’s an amazing school, I loved my time there.’”