From Nigeria to St Louis: Serial Entrepreneur Ola Ayeni's path to Claim Academy
Claim Academy helps train people who have little or no background in software programming, in 12 weeks, so they can pursue high paying tech jobs in software, cybersecurity and Geo-spatial sectors. President and founder Ola Ayeni had no idea that was in his future when he was a child in Nigeria. Although both of his parents were entrepreneurs, Ayeni was good at science and he thought he would best find success in life as a veterinarian. Of course he sold pens and books to classmates along the way, because his parents trained him to always look for opportunities, and he started his first business while at veterinary school.
“I started out selling veterinary products across the country, that was my first company,” he said. “I’d fly from Nigeria to England and buy products, then repackage them and sell them to the veterinary practices back home.”
Excited by the freedom and income he wanted more opportunities than what Nigeria could afford him, so he emigrated to the United States. Starting with effectively nothing, he imported drums from West Africa to sell on eBay and CraigsList. Other products like electronic dog collars followed.
“People were happy. I was getting reviews, but I still didn’t know how to do business in America so I decided to go into academics for several years,” he said, all the while doing ‘the entrepreneurial thing’ on the side. “At that point I needed to go into this full time, so I joined Bristol Myers Squibb in the neuroscience group to learn how to be a salesperson… how to be a marketing person… in America. I became one of their top five in the nation… then went out on my own.”
But he launched two other businesses before Claim Academy. The first one he grew to a million dollars, then exited. The second, Eateria, is a digital marketing platform for restaurants that he started in Chicago.
“I was the national winner of the Miller Beer company business plan competition, winning $50,000,” Ayeni said. That set him on a path. “Then I won $60,000 from Microsoft Biz Pack Program, and another $50,000 from a company called Braintree in Chicago, then I won the Arch Grant in 2013” and moved to St. Louis.
Eateria was the third fastest growing startup in St. Louis in 2014 but Ayeni ran into a problem. He couldn’t find enough local Java developers, and had bad experiences hiring remote developers in, India and Pakistan. He brought in a friend from Chicago and started polling St. Louis companies to see if they had the same problem… which they did!
“We put together a curriculum… for a software developer coding class,” he said. “We trained four people, and all of them got hired and we’re like ‘Oh, wow! This is cool!’”
So he started Claim Academy in 2015 (while still running Eateria)… and it just keeps growing. Ayeni recently held a ribbon cutting ceremony for a new building. Since moving to St. Louis he’s put down roots like never before.
“Claim Academy has partnerships with the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, Department of Labor, Department of Defense,” he said. “St. Louis has been good to me… so I begin to build relationships with people. I’m on the board of Downtown Partnership, Greater St Louis Inc., GeoFutures… I was part of the integration team where we put in Civic Progress, Regional Chamber, Arch to Park and others. All these organizations are put under one umbrella so we can compete with other cities on any level with a united voice.”
Ayeni isn’t just a key part of the St. Louis tech ecosystem, he’s perhaps it’s biggest booster and says he is brimming over with gratitude.
“There are so many people behind the scenes that are doing incredible work to make our region better,” he said. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be a part of that and add value because I believe that in the end… we’re going to be measured by how we impact other people’s lives.”
Ola Ayeni, CEO
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