The “end” of a matter doesn’t always reflect the motivation behind it’s beginning. And neither can one use how a thing begins, to accurately project how far it will eventually go. There are times when a modest ambition can result in greatness and can even lead to a change in the course of history. In the same vein, some of the biggest investments, some of the most elaborately set up projects with the loudest introductions to the world have disappeared as quickly as they appeared.
Call me cynical but had they exited with a loud bang, that would have at least lent them a “glorious” moment in history that would compel us to remember them but as if determined to be forgotten forever, numerous melts into oblivion with nothing more than a whimper. “Do not despise these small beginnings” is an admonition anyone would do well to take to heart. Let me give you a couple of illustrations.
English Independent Schools, better known quite ironically as Public Schools, are generally accepted to be the most prestigious secondary schools in the world and they parade several unique attributes to support this position. The majority of them are several centuries years old with some as old as five hundred years and beyond. Of course, this doesn’t automatically confer upon them a label of excellence but it would be difficult for anyone to totally discount the advantage of centuries of teaching experience and the continuous pursuit of excellence over that period. Neither should one minimise the possible edge they could enjoy from long held character building values and traditions.
A little research would reveal that most of these schools were established with a clear and well thought out vision and ethos, which time has both allowed and assisted to mature into a pervading culture; often unique to each school. Competition amongst these schools for academic supremacy, sporting glory and numerous other extracurricular activities over the centuries, would expectedly lead to the highest of standards. As the good book says, “iron sharpeneth iron”. The pedigree these schools have become globally known for, has led some to establish franchises in different Asian countries; Thailand, China and Singapore to name a few. Such schools as Harrow, Shrewsbury and Sherborne have taken full advantage of their perceived exportable values.
But now, to the crux of the matter. It may interest you to know that most of these schools were actually established to cater for the poor, but you should try telling that to parents who currently pay between forty and forty-five thousand pounds a year in school fees per child! There couldn’t have been anything further from the mind of the founders of these schools, than to establish a school that would ultimately cater for the English as well as the international elite. I say this because in many cases, the land and original building used to start the school, was donated in the will of a privileged individual as his dying wish; with strict instructions for it to be used as a school to educate children of the poor and clergy in that village or town.
Over the years, the product of these schools has held sway at the very top of British society, though the push back against such obvious and unapologetic elitism, which they’ve been seen to represent, has led to a gradual whittling down of their influence in more recent times.
The last few decades have seen the United Kingdom gravitate, almost inevitably, towards a more egalitarian society. Having said this though, the vast majority of British Prime Ministers attended ‘Public’ schools, with one particular school producing twenty of them. Perhaps more significant is the composition of the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s cabinet, with two thirds of his Ministers being products of the ‘Public’ school system. I have my doubts that the founders of this system, who sought to provide for the disadvantaged, would have foreseen just how elitist or dominant they would eventually become.
The Michelin Guide, now available in over 20 countries, has proven to be a faithful and indispensable companion to diners seeking fine cuisine, since it started listing and categorising restaurants in the 1920s. But the founders of this publication had no such ambition in mind. The famous Michelin brothers, Edouard and André, found themselves in a conundrum. They dreamt of the great fortune their innovative tyres could make for them but there was one small snag. There just weren’t enough car owners to sell them to.
In fact, the whole of France could boast of only about three thousand cars at the time. They needed a more vibrant market if they were going to make any money at all, so they turned their attention to employing a gimmick. In order to improve the popularity of automobiles, they decided to publish a magazine which featured useful information for motorists, such as maps and instructions on how to change the tyre of a vehicle, which literally seemed like rocket science to just about everybody at that time. In an attempt to enhance the appeal of the magazine, it widened its scope by including a guide on good hotels and restaurants. The magazine was introduced purely as a gimmick to get more people to buy cars, resulting in an increase in the demand for tyres.
The magazine was never the focus, which explains why it was given out free for years. Apparently, the first print was for over thirty thousand copies. An expensive gimmick you may say but it worked. Michelin tyres have become a global brand with very few rivals but unpredictably, the Michelin Guide which recommends the best restaurants, adjudged so by the Michelin Stars awarded them by the Michelin Guide in-house gourmet experts, has established its position as the leading authority in fine cuisine. Chefs across the globe make it their lifetime ambition to earn the coveted Stars and proudly let out a breath of relief when they eventually get it. There’s no greater recognition for a chef and the restaurant that employs him. But this was far from the plans of Edouard and Andre Michelin.
Incidentally, Ikoyi, a Nigerian restaurant became the first African restaurant in London to be awarded a Michelin Guide Star as recently as 2018.
The lesson I take away from this is that only God truly knows tomorrow but this should not deter us from getting up and taking that bold step forward. Our plans may impress some, while others may even mock us behind our backs. Such plans may appear gargantuan and impossible to many or they could even seem small and insignificant to others. History, as well the Nigerian business terrain is replete with many organisations that people didn’t think were worth a second look in their first few years of existence but which later became too big, too impactful and too successful for anybody to ignore.
I can bet that many of the Michelin brothers’ compatriots would have dismissed their Guide as a sad joke by people desperately grasping at straws but where are these mockers now? Tenacity and the ability to think outside the box brought the brothers success and a name still relevant over a hundred years later. For the fourteen years till Amazon eventually broke even, Jeff Bezos found himself the butt of jokes too, for foolishly relinquishing a job which fetched him an annual income of more than half a million dollars at the youthful age of thirty-two. He “pursued” a ridiculous dream. But who’s laughing now?
Changing the nation…one mind at a time.