Kunle Olafare (Class of 1990)

Lessons in life

As CEO of SK Financial, Kunle Olafare works with many high-profile clients in sport and entertainment. His City career has included nine years as Head of Advice, Financial Planning at Kleinwort Benson as well as active involvement in many community roles: he is a board member of the Haberdashers’ Livery Company, Surrey County Cricket Club and the Lord Mayor’s Appeal. Kunle has set up financial education programmes for young Premier League footballers, pupils and undergraduates. He has an ambition for personal finance and law to be on the national school curriculum, taught by current finance and legal professionals.

I messed up my education three times. I was bright at my primary school Camelot but I messed up my GCSEs at City of London School (CLS) then my A-Levels at Haberdashers Aske’s and dropped out of my Financial Services degree at Bournemouth University. I didn’t take any responsibility. I didn’t understand who I was.

The big turning point came when I was 24. I realised I needed to take responsibility. I’d racked up loads of debt at Uni and was still living like a student. There were times when I didn’t have a permanent residence, so I was technically homeless. I realised I needed a proper career and applied for my first job in financial services. As the saying goes: there’s two important dates in your life: the day you’re born and the day you realise why.

My parents had come to London from Nigeria in the 1960s. My dad was head of Business Law at Middlesex Polytechnic and he tried to set up a number of businesses too. He had a decent income and he made it a priority for my brother and I to go to fee-paying schools. But I wasn’t prepared for it.

It was only one bus from the Old Kent Road to Ludgate Circus but CLS felt like a different world. I was so used to the working class world of the Old Kent Road and I didn’t understand what I would get out of school. I rebelled. Academically, I went through the motions. I didn’t take full advantage of the opportunity I was given.

I was dealing with a lot of family issues when I was at CLS. I had spent time with my foster family when I was in primary school. I loved spending time with them but my parents stopped that when I was 11 and we never talked about it. I would run away from home a lot and try and go back there. So, that was all boiling up inside of me.

Athletics was the only thing I put my heart and soul into at School. I was really good at hurdles and represented London. The athletics teacher, Mr Bailey, gave me confidence. He took me all over London to these events. I’ll always remember him for that. No-one at home was interested.

CLS opened my eyes to so much. There were things I didn’t enjoy but also things I loved and so much different stuff going on that you wouldn’t get at a regular school. I realise now that the varied backgrounds of my school friends helped me to become completely confident dealing with anyone now, however rich or famous or otherwise.

My first job was working in a clothes shop. I was 16. It was the summer of 1988 and I had the Style Council in my head. I got the 53 bus to Regent Street and went round the West End, giving out my CV. At Holborn, I walked into Reiss and they gave me a summer job! £90 a week. Being around people older than me, hanging out in London, learning about what they were doing in their lives, picking up how everything worked. I loved it.

I always loved any job that involved talking to people. After Reiss, I had a Saturday job in a butcher’s in Greenwich, which was great fun too. After I dropped out of University, I started promoting gigs in Bournemouth and managing artists. I loved it. I realised I could talk to anyone and people trusted me.

In business and in life, if you give people time, they will always remember you. I have high-profile clients in sport and media and those can be hard worlds to get into. It’s based on trust. But if you give people time, listen, understand, remember and deliver, they recommend you to their friends and the business grows. You don’t help people so that you will be rewarded down the line – but that is one of the things that happens. It’s a virtuous circle.

I try to surround myself with people who are brighter than me. I love being the one in the room who knows the least. When I got involved with Surrey, I looked at the people around me and thought, ‘Wow’. I realised I didn’t know as much as I should. It gave me a challenge. But I realised I could put my heart and soul into it and that was something that Surrey needs from me.

I have a very strong sense of community. It probably comes partly from my foster parents, the Willoughby family. I didn’t realise until I was older how much of a positive impact they had on me. I set up the Willoughby Fund, initially to help students at Bournemouth get deposits for their accommodation. Then I changed it to funding school prizes for community-minded pupils.

I may not be able to help with your problem but I am a good listener and that’s a start. Errors of the fools are lessons for the wise. I played the fool a lot. I want to share with youngsters the mistakes I have made and the wisdom I have gained. Some of the things that happened to me, I would not want to happen to someone else.

I always remember acts of kindness. At School, my classmate Jacob Krichefski showed me kindness when I needed it. He invited me to his party; a small thing but it was significant to me. Jacob actually became famous as 'Anthony' the son in the Maureen Lipman BT adverts. My mate on the TV!

It’s easy to say what you don’t like doing as a teenager but it’s really important to work out what you do like. Find out what you like. Write it down. Then commit to making it happen.

There are always people you can learn from, people who will help you. You just need to find them. There’s a whole community around, say, cricket or athletics, if that’s your passion. Or, if someone like me gives a talk at your school and you enjoy it, come up and say, ‘Hello’. Make contact. Find someone in your extended family who you can talk to. Build your own network, find your own mentors, find your own voice.

Even if you have a bad Monday, you might have a good Tuesday. I am probably one of the few CLS pupils who has had so many chances and failed but used those failures to spur me on and eventually succeed. I didn’t give up. Commit. Do not quit.


Photo: SKfinancial.net

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