Chase the vision, not the money; the money will end up following you.” –Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO
Chude Jideonwo isn’t speaking about the results from group therapy. He is talking about his proudest achievement in his last year as leader of his company, RED.
“Oh, yes, we met our revenue goals,” he adds. “Actually that was pretty uncanny, we met our revenue goals to the actual number. But you know, I have always thought that money is a pretty puny tool by which to measure a person’s life, or even worse the lives of a group of persons. I look at my team members – those in the company, some for more than ten years, and I look at those who have left – and see how vastly, massively they have grown. I mean, the guys from RED are the leaders in media companies across the country. You look at that, and you think, how can dollar signs be more important in the eyes of the world than that?”
This month, Jideonwo caused ripples in his home country, Nigeria when he announced that he was leaving leadership of the company he co-founded at 19, and has led for the past thirteen years, building several high-profile media brands across the continent – The Future Awards Africa, YNaija.com, Y! Magazine, Rubbin’ Minds and StateCraft, which has shaken things up in elections in Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya – to start what he calls ‘a new assignment’.
“It’s ridiculous for me to say this, being a 32-year-old who has seen some of the world,” he wrote. “But it only hit me in the past couple of years that this is the economic system that we have – enterprises build wealth, and the wealth is first and foremost for the benefit of the person who built the enterprise. I never quite got that. And because I never got that, I never ran RED like that.”
So, how did he run RED? Like a not-for-profit, he says.
“Adebola (Williams, his co-founder) and I have never taken a profit from this business, which is quite normal for many wise young businesses at the starting stage of course, because you’re building and re-investing. But, on a deeper level, we just have always had proper finance processes from the start, and so we never did that thing where you don’t know the boundaries between company monies and personal monies, and you just dip in to meet your needs as you grow. It just felt sacrilegious, like we were taking from a person, in this case a corporate person.
“We decided early on to be paid on personal commissions, and haven’t ever taken a salary, so that our fortunes are tied to the fortunes of the company. And we began to incentivize ourselves from early, to build the capacity of other team members as resource engines.”
If he didn’t build RED to make money, then the natural question would be: why did he build it?
“Because business was the only tool we had to actualise the vision. I like the idea of business. Actually I love it. The idea that you are forced to create products or services of value, and to find a resource model, and to compete for attention of people by fine-tuning and innovating and improving. Actually, what I love is the entrepreneurial method, which really you can find in not-for-profits, or faith organizations or even governments, but its clearest expression is business, where profits are the main incentive for creation.
“And you know the easy temptation was to found RED at the start as a not-for-profit, but we just couldn’t do it. We wanted the pressure to find products that people would buy, whether on a consumer level or on a corporate level. So yes, our first major product was The Future Awards Africa, clearly a missionary product to inspire people, to change lives, to rebuild nations. But the beauty of it was to answer the question: how can you do that while creating a resource engine that makes this thing sustainable, and create wealth to extend its impact?”
That model has worked very well for the company. It has held The Future Awards Africa successfully for 12 consecutive years, one of the very few awards projects in the continent to do so, reaching over 14 countries. Its television arm, Y! TV, has shows spread across the continent on Africa Magic, ONTV, and Channels Television. StateCraft Inc., its nation-building company working in elections, policy and citizen engagement, has advised and executed for candidates in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Liberia, and is presently working on elections in three other countries. The experience working in those elections have been shared in his new book, ‘How to Win Elections in Africa: Parallels with Donald Trump’.
Jideonwo is leaving all of that behind (while retaining a seat on the board on RED), to run a new company, called Joy, Inc – which is a teaching and media company, “mainstreaming the research and evidence on positive emotions and resilience to transform the culture and build a new generation of Africans focused on the greatest happiness for the greatest many.”
“Joy, Inc. incubated during my time at Yale (on a World Fellowship in the Fall of 2017) and based on my research there,” he says. “I had told our board at RED in the first quarter of 2016 that my job was done, and I was going to spend the next two years accelerating our existing succession planning, so I could leave in December 2017. They didn’t believe me. I mean, no one believes you. RED is, at some would say, at a height of influence across the continent, we are having our pick of presidential candidates to work within our country and others, our TV products grew 400 percent last year, for instance. It didn’t make sense. But I had always been fascinated by the idea of a brand that exists outside of you. That really shows that you built something.”
His initial plan when he went to Yale was not to start a company, but to pursue a PhD in theology. The decision to suspend his doctoral study plans and build a new company was bookmarked by a deeply personal experience he had in 2016.
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“I call it my ‘Big Bang Depression,” he says, with a laugh. “I have always had a personality tacking towards melancholy. All my personality types and profiles showed that, so I had dealt with bouts of unhappiness and being depressed up and down for years. In 2012, I had suffered a nervous breakdown, just because of my workload, and I just woke up one morning and said I couldn’t do it anymore. I got an acting chief executive for the company, and I just upped and left – first I went to teach at my high school, and then I went off to the United Kingdom for a month. I was sick from the hard work, and the stress. I had been tested by the doctor for everything. I was going to the office at 8am and working till 11pm every day. No weekends, no holidays. My goodness. To remember those times, is to remember war. If I had continued like that, I would have died. I have no doubt about it now,” he recalls.
“But 2016 was when it really happened. First, I was deeply disillusioned about our client who was now Nigeria’s president. Looking at his first few months and seeing him repeat the errors of his predecessor, I knew he would be a disappointing president. He would serve his purpose, which is to help us build a competitive democracy, but he wouldn’t do more than that. And then, I had my health issues, and then in the middle of that, for the first time in 12 years, the company had a cash squeeze. Four businesses, not enough money to catch up with expenses. And so for the first time in our lives – you have to remember this is a business that has never had debt, and never got an injection in equity – we had to dip into our savings to run operations. That shattered my entire identity, my entire ego, how I saw myself in the world. For four months, I was in this deep darkness of the soul. And at some point it was so dark, that I actually briefly thought of suicide…”
He shares this story often at The Joy Masterclass and The Joy Congress, two of the products of his new company. It’s almost impossible to believe that a young, accomplished person like Jideonwo who has been in the limelight since he was 15, as a TV presenter on the Nigeria Television Authority, and whose business has always been both influential and profitable would even entertain the thought of suicide.
“That’s the thing about depression,” he explains. “It is sneaky, unreasonable, and relentless. It warps how you see the world, and steals your soul. And this is why I often share this story to create the social permission to get help. There are very many young and old people, people on this fast lane, who are dealing with the exact same challenges. Emotional and mental health challenges are stealing the joy and balance of so many people. Look at the stats – 17 million people minimum dealing with a mental disorder in South Africa every year, and in very conservative numbers, over 7 million have depression in Nigeria. Joy, Inc. is working with research partners this year to establish the actual data. We know, based on our work that it is much, much more.”
His experiences with depression, his subsequent passion project teaching young people about joy at his master classes, and his research at Yale conspired to change his mind in the third quarter of 2017 to abandon – “suspend,” he says – his doctorate plans.
He talks about this sudden change in plans with amazement now. How he thought he would spend the next four years in the United States “talking exegesis” and “learning Greek”, but realizing as he studied that something remarkable was happening in the world.
“You know Jack Ma spoke just last year about the love quotient,” he explains “I mean one of our goals is a human-centered economy and at WEF (World Economic Forum) this week, that’s precisely what the Pope called a moral imperative. Why do I get excited over trust rates in my company? Because people are paying close attention to happiness economics and subjective wellbeing as a policy goal, and people are now taking Norway and Denmark seriously and you find that one of the reasons they stay so high on the happiness index is because of high levels of trust. It is not just because of economic growth. It’s because the fabric of the society is tightly woven. And when that happens, people thrive. I’ve been to Denmark, you feel it on the streets, you can’t have the UK loneliness epidemic in Denmark. It’s a fundamental whole, flourishing society.
“And I began to say to myself: Yes Chude, Nigeria is often hostile, leaders are wicked and perverted, the people are, as I wrote this week, cynical, suspicious of goodwill and grudging in compassion, because of what our society has done to us. We are all waiting for the economy to improve so that we can be happier, yet the research from wealthier nations and the work that Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina, and Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania have done on ‘learned optimism’ and the ‘broaden and build’ theory shows that we’ve got it all wrong. We think we will be rich then we will happy. But no! Happiness and resilience are precisely the skills that lead to happiness,” he says.
Despite the serious attention being paid across the world to these new metrics of human success, like the “massive, inspiring work Arianna Huffington is doing with Thrive, or how Krista Tippet is transforming conversation with On Being, or what Sir Richard Layard is doing on wellbeing economics at LSE”, Jideonwo was concerned that in Africa where this thinking is most needed, nothing seemed to be happening.
“No talk about positive emotions, no talk of the research on altruism, nothing,” he says. “I realized at that moment that I just didn’t have the time for a PhD, not now. My personal experiences had prepared me viscerally for a moment like this. I wanted to help people be happy, and not just happy but be able to create communities that flourish, to help build societies that resonate with these virtues: kindness, empathy, compassion, altruism, forgiveness, and yes yes yes, love. Joy, Inc. was the result of that. Apparently when I felt that stirring in my heart in January 2016, the universe was ringing me right to this point.”
The company’s primary products are the master classes focused on consumers and enterprises, consultancies for organizations rebuilding their cultures and increasing employee engagement and retention, boot camps for schools and young adults, an e-commerce store called The Joy Store, and its media products including the new blog, The Daily Vulnerable, and The Joy Podcast – and an extensive ten-year plan that includes a tech platform already in development, a data company, and a multi-media franchise.
Joy, Inc, registered as a benefit corporation based in Miami, Florida, is also pioneering a new business model, where all profits go to charities. Its first product this year – The Joy MasterClass made about N500,000 ($1,370) in one day (“And we had a massive waiting list: we could have done a masterclass every 3 days and been fully subscribed!”), all of which went to three selected charities – The Hearts of Gold Hospice, Mentally Aware Nigeria, and She Writes Woman.
“And we do all of this while staying true to our spirit. We don’t couch the words to make them less ‘warm’. It is joy, it is love, it is compassion. That’s what we are about. And yes, we entrepreneurs talk a good game, from Silicon Valley to Yaba about ‘changing the world’. But we often end up changing our worlds and that’s it. This massive income inequality, this massive wealth gap. All for what? For more islands, and more luxury rides and more yachts?
“I guess it makes sense that many of my role models through history, those that really resonate with my spirit are not business people – St. Francis of Assisi, MLK, Shane Clairborne with his community-focused work in Philadelphia, and the incandescent Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I mean, MLK died without a will! But he transformed the world! How can we build businesses that focus not on shareholder value, not on private wealth, but on public good?
“Too many people are in poverty around us. The world is in too much of a mess. Too many people are lonely. Suicides are increasing. Sexual abuse, substance abuse. It’s such a desperately messed up space. I am not sure we need more startups helping people get addicted to buying more things. I think we need businesses and organisations that answer the real questions people are asking of the world in their hearts and in their souls today.
“We’re fired up by this urgent imperative. I am fired up like I have never been at any point in my short life.”