Meet Surayyah Sani Ahmad,a serial entrepreneur, wife and mother. She is the co- founder of ETHCO GROUP UK, TECH TANK SOLUTION , former CEO at YDS ONLINE and the philanthropic mind behind FEED THE NEEDY CHARITY. In this exclusive interview with the beautiful and bright mind, Surayyah tells us how her entrepreneurial journey kicked off, the challenges she faced, how she overcame and of course how she was able to raise private equity and sell her company YDS ONLINE within 5 years.
Tell me a little about yourself, and take me on a ride about your early life.
My parents are nomadic Fulanis by design, we hardly stayed in one location. We were always relocating from one state to another. I was born in a northern community in Ibadan and spent most of my life there, then the rest in the north, while moving around with my parents. My education was on and off, I was 12 years old and hadn’t gone past primary 1, I couldn’t speak English. I understood a little, but not on a conversational level.
Surayyah Sani Ahmad went further to talk about her background; she said:
At some point in my life, I had to relocate to Abuja. I attended Command government primary school, after which I attended Tudunwada in Zone 4, Abuja, Nigeria. I was really dedicated to studying and was really getting good grades, maybe because I had been delayed for years,so when I finally got the opportunity to get educated, I pounced hard on it. Then came the Nigerian Turkish International School scholarship competition that involved over 600 students from all over the FCT. Just 3 candidates from the 600 students who wrote the examination were picked, and I was one of them. I rounded off my secondary education at the Nigerian Turkish International School. I was hoping to make it into the Turkish University, but that did not happen, then I opted for ABU Zaria where I met my husband. He got admission to a university in the UK to further his education, then we relocated together. On getting to the UK, I also decided to further my education and I had to pick up jobs so I could pay my school fees and bills.
How did entrepreneurship start for you?
I have been doing entrepreneurship for a very long time since I was a teenager, 16 years old precisely, but in terms of having a structured business, I started that in 2015, when I started an e-commerce company. Before that, I worked for some companies in the UK; JUST EAT and OCADO UK. Those were the e-commerce companies at the peak of their game at the time. I got a lot of experience from working with them and started my own e-commerce and fulfillment service company YDS. YDS was an e-commerce company, servicing Nigerians who wanted to buy things abroad. We were supplying wholesalers and retailers from the UK, the United States, Malaysia, Turkey, and Dubai. We also did fulfillment services, at the time, we took on Miniso fulfillment, and we were fulfilling all their orders nationwide and within West Africa. I started YDS all by myself and then grew it to 30 employees. We also raised some equity funding of about two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in 2020. It was after we did that raise, we expanded the fulfillment service and took on Miniso. Miniso never had an online store, we prepared a proposal and took it to them, and they gave us permission to create their first online store globally. We kicked started that and managed the entire process, from the website, management, maintenance, delivery to customers, fulfillment, nationwide and sometimes, across Africa, from Niger to Cameroon, Chad, and others. All this happened a few weeks before COVID, and it was really tough for us, having to open fulfillment centers with all the restrictions on movement across the country. Two years down the line, I am selling YDS to a local company that wants to remain private because they are trying to break into the e-commerce market and expand their brick-and-mortar stores across the country and across Africa. They intend to create lots of innovative products across that customer base, one of which is getting software as a service product out of it, as well as maintaining the main YDS products.
What were the challenges you faced when trying to set up and keep the company relevant?
I set up YDS and ran it for five years, and I must confess how pretty difficult it was, especially at the beginning when I was the only employee at the company. I was doing everything by myself, and I wasn’t raising any funding. As you know, e-commerce is traditional, it’s not like starting a high-growth venture company. A lot of technical things had to be put into it. At some point, I never thought I could raise funding because it was a traditional company. It became quite impossible because I was still working for OCADO UK at the time and I was running this company that was growing really fast on the side. The company was growing at such a really fast pace that we had to expand and employ more people. It was hard to match the pace of growth with the pace of development at the same time. It was quite difficult, I won’t lie.
Having built YDS for five years, how easy or how difficult was it to let you go?
Well, it doesn’t feel like letting it go, because when you are acquired, you’re still part of the team in a way, right? You don’t just sell a company and go away. When you sell a company, a lot of the time, the company that is buying will get all of your employees, they’re actually taking all of my employees. Then I’m going to remain on their team for a couple of years to ensure that they achieve their growth strategies, even though I’m not going to be the CEO. It doesn’t feel like letting go. Because for me, what was more important was ensuring that the company had the potential to grow. It was in the right hands, would get the right funding, and the employees would also grow. This is an achievement for me because, at the end of the day, I’m not letting go of my baby. Instead, I am helping those that built this baby with me to also grow within the company. Honestly,
It doesn’t feel like letting the company go; it’s more like having everyone win because you all contributed to its current growth. It is more of a win-win situation.
How much was it sold for?
I would not like to disclose the exact amount. It is a very private acquisition, but I can give you a clue. I can say I am selling YDS for seven figures in dollars. YDS also has a technology subsidiary borne out of that because a lot of people wanted us to deploy our technology to them, so we created TECH TANKS. TECH TANKS is a tech consulting company that deploys software and other tech services to organizations.
What are you currently working on?
Currently, I just started a new company in the UK called ETHCO. We relocated a year ago. ETHCO is leveraging AI to help ethnic and independent convenience stores go online using low-touch technology. We raised angel investment for that company and we are about to do a pre-seed.
Do you have other businesses you do on the side?
By virtue of my experience, I get a lot of startup advisory positions, so I do small ANGEL INVESTMENT in early-stage companies. To make it official, we created TECH TANKS LAB, a subsidiary of TECH TANKS, it enables us invest in early-stage companies. I like to call myself a Techpreneur and Angel Investor.
When you say you are into Tech, do you mean you do coding and all that tech entails?
I do have a bit of knowledge when it comes to coding. I understand how it works. Um, currently in terms of my professional qualification, I’m a technical product owner. I lead tech software teams to deliver products.
I work with system analysts, UI/UX, software engineers, and so on. I understand how all of these things work. I can code to a basic level, but I didn’t really progress to continuing to coding deeply because I found that I was better at a management level than I was at a coding level.
What are the misconceptions you think the world has about you?
I have worked completely hard to get to where I currently am. Sometimes I work really hard and break down into tears out of severe exhaustion. I know in Nigeria we don’t believe in social mobility, and there is a strong ideology about people who come from poor backgrounds, have no chance of being successful in life, and only people from WEALTHY background are likely to be successful in life, due to their good educational background and support from their wealthy parents. But here I am, breaking the barriers and changing that narrative. It breaks my heart whenever I hear people saying I have only been able to attain this level of success because I came from a wealthy home, categorizing me as a privileged child which in actual sense, the opposite is the case. I remember how difficult it was for my mom to pay my school fees while I was in Tudunwada, I decided to help out by buying earrings with my lunch money from Wuse Market in Abuja and selling them to students just to help pay for my school fees. As time went by, I even upgraded to selling stickers and sweet[candy] to fellow students at my school. Funny as it may sound, I was able to make so much money to pay my school fees and also afford to pay for other students’ whose parents couldn’t afford to pay.
Is it safe to say you have been an entrepreneur and philanthropist since you were a teenager?
Yes, I have
As a serial entrepreneur, what drives you?
What drives me, is basically walking into any room and realizing I am the only Northern woman there, making an impact. That makes me want to keep pushing because I know the impact I am making is or would one day be a strong inspiration for any girl child who is currently passing through the same difficulty or even worse than I did, knowing it can definitely get better, if they put in the right effort. I want them to know that even though society has made them believe that the chances of them being successful are slim, they can actually change the narrative and even be way better than me if they are determined to.
What’s your daily routine?
I wake up in the morning and pray because I am very religious. I proceed to 30 minutes of Yoga, shower, have my celery and apple juice, drop my kids at school then start work at 9 o’clock and take a break at 12;30 pm, prepare lunch for my kids and go back to work, take a break at 3pm then get back to work at 4pm and work till 8pm, then continue the next day. I literally work more than a 9-5.
AFTER YEARS OF PRACTICING ENTREPRENEURSHIP, WHAT’S THE GREATEST LESSON YOU HAVE LEARNED?
Learning how to learn and unlearn. If I put my mind to something, I won’t stop till I achieve it.
And for me, I think that is what makes it really fast for me to do the things I am doing. Because I had a lot of catching up to do in my education while I was growing up. And I had to learn how to quickly choose the most important and critical things for me to learn and build on that really fast and just continue from there. I took a course in business and learnt the most important things that I could learn really quickly then I implemented. I think that in a world that is really fast-paced, metaverse today, blockchain tomorrow, AI, VR. There is so much going on, when you are running a business, you find out your company can become outdated very quickly, so the ability to learn and implement the most important things very quickly is the biggest differentiator because companies who don’t learn very quickly, die very quickly.
Where do you see your brand in the next 5 years?
I see my UK brand at an IPO level. What I want to do with my current company is to help communities. I started my charity when I was 17 18. I did that because I went to my communities and saw a lot of people, I know who couldn’t feed their children and would come to beg for 200 Naira, which was not up to a dollar to feed their children. That really touched me and made me want to help the needy. And I think at the back of everything I do, even in this business, there is that social responsibility to help communities and ETHCO is filled with the most underprivileged communities in the UK. And they are the communities of ethnic minorities who came to the UK to establish businesses and haven’t got the technical skills to run their businesses. I have been at that stage when I didn’t have any of those skills and I had to learn. I feel strongly that with the right tools and the right type of platform, these people will be able to adopt technology and they will do that very well. For example, a lot of these store owners have missed their children’s school activities for years. I was speaking to one of my children and she told me all her education, her father has missed all her school activities simply because they wake up by 5;00 am to work and close by 11;00 pm, every single day, 365 days a year. Families are really suffering as a result of this lack of operational efficiency of ethnic and independent convenience stores, and much more than a business that if you are solving a real problem, a real pain point, you are going to get a business out of it anyway. You are also going to get a business that your customers are going to be very passionate about and actually love your product. That is what we want EFCO GROUP to be.