Last year,Amazontook one long, highly publicized look across the U.S. and came to a simple but devastating conclusion: For the most part, American cities did not have an adequate number of talented tech workers to support its planned second headquarters.
One Nigerian-born, St. Louis-based entrepreneur wants to change that.
Five years ago, Ola Ayeni was struggling to find enough full-stack developers forEateria, a digital marketing tool for the restaurant and hospitality industry. Faced with an almost insurmountable problem, Ayeni did what all natural-born entrepreneurs do: He tried to solve it himself.
In October 2014, Ayeni launchedClaim Academy. Initially, its mission was to train developers for Ayeni’s startup.
Today, Claim Academy is one of the fastest growing, most accomplished coding schools in the country, placing graduates in startupsand large multinational companies.
It’s not smart to bet against a man who loves his adopted country so much that he wants to try and fix one of its most pressing problems: a wholly inadequate technology workforce.
And even if he doesn’t reach his goal, Ola Ayeni will make an impact on any community or population he serves.
The founder and owner of two businesses – Eateria and Claim Academy – Ola is an immigrant entrepreneur with the ambition to solve problems and the desire to help make a difference in the community.
Nearly 18 years ago, Ola arrived in the United States from Nigeria. Fascinated by America since he was a kid, he had always wanted the chance to make his way across the Atlantic to capitalize on his entrepreneurial spirit and experience the American dream.
“I came from an entrepreneurial family, it’s in my DNA. Even though I became a veterinarian by training, my biggest passion wasn’t to be practicing veterinary medicine, but to be practicing the business aspects,” he explains. “I wanted to go to America to learn bigger things that I wanted to do along these lines.”
Until about two years ago, Ola lived in the suburbs of Chicago, where he worked for several companies and began raising a family. He reached a point, though, where he thought to himself,
“I want to do my own thing.” One particular experience ignited the spark for his first business idea.
“I wanted to solve a problem,” he explains. “I noticed that this restaurant near my area where I was living in Chicago had closed. I asked the owner why, and it was not because the food wasn’t good, but because they were not busy during the week.”
As a rough statistic, approximately one in four restaurants will close after their first year, not because they do not cook good food, but because they do not know how to effectively promote their business.
“For me, as an entrepreneur, you don’t ask for permission to solve a problem. You just go solve it,” Ola says. That is exactly what he set out to accomplish.
“We are very proud of what we’ve accomplished,” said Ayeni. “When we started the Academy, we were just trying to find and train qualified employees for Eateria. Today we have a 93 percent job-placement rate and graduates who average a $60,000 starting salary. We are really proud of those numbers because they show how Claim Academy is impacting our community.”
That impact includes a specific desire to help military veterans and underserved populations. Ayeni also wants to graduate enough qualified developers to make cities across America more competitive in a technology-driven economy–regardless of whether they border an ocean or a cornfield.
Our future plans include expanding the number of students we graduate and the number of cities we serve,” said Ayeni.
“I am proud of the impact we’ve had in St. Louis, but my dream is to one day make the same impact in Denver, Kansas City, Toledo, and the rest of America. We want to make a difference anywhere and everywhere we can.”
Though impressive, the power of Ayeni’s message isn’t in the number of students he’s graduated, or their starting salaries.
The power of his message (and his coding school) comes from the belief that changing your destiny begins with you and you alone.
It’s a belief that reinvention starts with small decisions.
For Ayeni, it was the decision to find and educate his own work force.
For his students, it’s the decision to seek a better life.
For communities, it’s the decision to cast aside old and badly outdated workforce-development models and listen to a highly motivated entrepreneur who wants to educate a workforce, improve his community, and solve one of the main problems Amazon identified in its HQ2beauty pageant.
His company, Eateria, is an all-in-one tool for restaurants, providing assistance with all components of digital marketing to help promote their businesses. While the idea originated in Chicago, Ola applied for an Arch Grant, an award competition that provides startup money to develop businesses in St. Louis.
When Ola visited St. Louis for the first time, he fell in love with the city, and met so many great people. “If I win this, I will move here,” he vowed.
He indeed won the grant, and moved with his family to St. Louis in August 2013 While developing Eateria, he recognized a need for software developers. “We don’t have software developers in St. Louis” he says.
“Recruiters make it difficult because they move people from one place to another. It becomes difficult for companies to find talent, and they can’t find developers.”
This problem inspired Ola to start another company, Claim Academy, a coding boot camp to train developers. “It was because of need” he explains. “That’s how [Claim] started.”
In speaking of about his own ethnic community in St. Louis, the Nigerian immigrants and Nigerian Americans that he knows are all successful, educated individuals. He explains that they are all good people who truly want to add value to the overall community, and their professional careers are dedicated to improving the community.
“That is what we need in St. Louis, more people that can do good things for the betterment of everyone.”
In the future, Ola wants St. Louis to be seen as the best place to live and work. “We are going in the right direction to be the next best technology hub to foster entrepreneurship,” he explains, “and we need to attract more talent.” Ola’s opportunities that have led to his success convey to the value of coming to St. Louis, a city with the resources and the people to help you achieve your goals.
“Here, people are cheering for your success,” he says. “It’s good to be here.”