Tolu Adeleye: Spreading Passion for Tennis and Life

Tolu Adeleye co-founded AJ Tennis Academy International, using tennis to help kids in emerging economies achieve their potential.
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Tolu Adeleye

Co-founder of AJ Tennis Academy International

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Highlights

While he was born in the U.S., Tolu Adeleye grew up in Nigeria. At the age of 15 he was given the choice to stay with his family or to move back to the U.S. and support himself. He chose to set out on his own.

He co-founded the AJ Tennis Academy International with a goal to build a world class tennis academy in an emerging country, providing new opportunities for kids.

A car accident a few years ago left Tolu with a significant brain injury from which he is still recovering, but he is still traveling and working toward his dream for the Academy.

He is driven everyday by the idea that opportunity is all about inspiration and opening people’s eyes to their own potential.

Transcript

Intro

IVAN STEGIC: Hi there! You’re listening to ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us! I’m your host, Ivan Stegic. This podcast is supported by TEN7, a technology studio whose mission is to Make Things That Matter. Online at ten7.com

We all have a story, don’t we? We’ve all had successes and failures, joy and disappointment, love and sadness. And yet, we’ve all made it here… to right now! Our stories are one amongst eight billion others… eight billion other stories, each of them unique, each of them grand in their own way, and each of them a window into the humanity that connects us all. ONE OF 8 BILLION tells the life stories of people from around the world… let’s listen!

Guest

Our story today is about Tolu Adeleye, the co-founder of AJ Tennis Academy International, a group that is working to provide opportunity and inspiration for kids in developing countries through sports.

For Tolu, opportunity is a gift to be nurtured and shared, and sports are a way to even the playing field for kids around the world. That’s why he co-founded the academy and is using tennis to help kids in emerging economies achieve their potential… let’s listen.

Interview

IVAN: Welcome to ONE OF 8 BILLION, would you please introduce yourself.

TOLU ADELEYE: Excellent. The name is Tolu Adeleye. A bit about me, born in DC to Nigerian parents. And spent much of my formative years in various parts of Nigeria for boarding school, which included middle school and high school. I moved back to the U.S. in my mid-teens, went to college in Maryland, worked on the East Coast after college in New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, and a few other cities on the East Coast, then left for business school, again on the East Coast in Boston, worked there for a little bit. And then a few years ago moved to Minneapolis for a job. And here I am speaking with you today.

IVAN: It's lovely to have you on. I'm so glad to be talking to you. Now, I don't often talk to people who are expats and have returned to the United States. Usually, the story is I started outside of the United States and immigrated and here's my story, but you have parents who are Nigerian, born in the U.S., became an expat, and then came back. So, tell me a little bit about your childhood and what caused all of that?

TOLU: I didn't have a whole lot of choice in becoming an expat since I was only about three or four years old when I left. And my parents didn't exactly consult me in that decision. But after high school, I finished high school early, at about 15 and my parents essentially gave me the choice, become a Nigerian citizen and go to school here or head back to the U.S. with your passport. And here's a few dollars to help you get settled there. But we will not be returning with you and will not be supporting you. And good luck to you, whatever happens to you.

I hadn't been away from my parents for six years prior, taking the next step and becoming fully independent to me, at that point seemed like the logical next step. I had a brother who had been in the states in the same context, born in the U.S. and then returned a year before I did, he was about 17 or 18 years old. So I returned, met up with him, moved here and got a job at the McDonald's and started college and paid my way, both with the money I made and some scholarships and some financial aids here and there to help me sail through college.

IVAN: And what does your now look like right now? You're in Minnesota. You've moved here for a job? What does your now look like?

TOLU: It’s a good question. The now has been a bit challenging. I moved here for a job just in terms of context. I got an MBA, so I've been in the business world, both in management consulting and investment banking, and I've done sort of both of those things before, consulting investment jobs. And I've also done it internally for some big Fortune 500 companies. A few years ago, a few friends and I co-founded an organization called HA Tennis Academy International. The mission of the academy is to leverage tennis to help kids around the world, mostly in emerging economies, achieve their potential.

So, I spent some time working on that evenings, weekends and holidays, including travel and some of the other administrative work that that required, as well as my normal job. Unfortunately, a few years ago, I got in a car accident, suffered a bit of a brain injury. I've been having a little trouble getting back to my normal self. So going through a bit of medical and rehab trying to get myself back to normal shape. But in the meantime, while I recover, I'm spending time resting my brain to help it recover, as well as spending some time on the academy trying to see if I can give it a little more energy to get it to the ideal state. And the ideal state is to build a world class tennis academy, somewhere in an emerging country. Right now the target is Nigeria, where we can have continuous, structured and more planned programs for these kids.

IVAN: Wow, that's an incredible aspirational goal for an academy of that sort. I know that tennis was a big thing for me growing up in South Africa and playing tennis as a young kid and growing up watching Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg and all of the guys that played in the eighties and nineties. Very young ages achieve such success and wondering how I could do that. Not realizing that of course, I didn't have the talent. [laughing] But it was a dream. So, I imagine that there are so many young lives that could be changed across Africa in that way.

TOLU: Oh, absolutely. What I find interesting is, Ivan, if you can allow me to give you just a little bit of phase history here. If you look back in the seventies and eighties, where the Americans and the Eastern European sort of dominated tennis. So, you have obviously the people you mentioned, Becker, Edberg, Connors and whatnot. And then if you look at in the last 10/15 years when Eastern Europeans dominated tennis, Lubitsch, Djokovic, and many others.

If you look at Serbia, a country of about 5.5 million people that had a lot of talented people, Janowicz and many of those people. And then you think of what happened 15 years prior, was essentially the opening up of Eastern Europe, where those opportunities essentially flooded eastward. And these people became incredibly hungry, and now have emerged on the scene. The question I ask myself is, is this a time for Africa? Can we see an opening up of the opportunity in Africa so that these kids can have an opportunity? And they can't come to the U.S., but can we take the opportunity to do them. And one of the things I've done the last few years, while I recover from my brain injuries, I literally traveled about 15 countries in Africa, everywhere from Nigeria, to Ghana, to Ivory Coast, to Rwanda, to Kenya, to Congo, speaking with the tennis authorities, and sharing my vision with them to say, "Hey, look, we can bring talents here to help train the next sort of generation of tennis players."

So, if you think about what gymnastics is to China, and to Russia. What soccer is to Brazil. What short distance running is to Jamaica? What long distance running is to Ethiopia and that part of the world. Can tennis sort of become what it is right now for either Nigeria, for Rwanda, whatever country I was talking to.

But for that to happen, there needs to be a development, an ecosystem so everything from identifying talent, to training, to competition, to exit strategy, and then an opportunity to reintegrate them back into the tennis community. That ecosystem needed to be built. And my passion is to help build this with whatever government was interested in partnering with us to help accomplish this vision.

IVAN: I love this vision. I love the fact that you are attempting to help so many people in one fell swoop. I think that's wonderful. Did you want to play tennis when you were young? What did you want to do when you were growing up? Is that even a thing in your mind?

TOLU: Ivan, that’s a great question. I think back with my driving ideas when I was a kid and I vacillated from wanting to be a Wild Animal Refuge person, because I loved National Geographic. At one point a gas station attendant because I saw their pockets bulging with cash, and I thought that's an easy way to make money, invention to business and whatnot. The thing I essentially never thought about doing was sports. Ivan, as someone who spent some time in South Africa you might appreciate this. But the idea of sports for most African parents is considered a waste of time.

So, besides some sort of occasional running and stretching and whatnot in my primary school and boarding school, there was never really any sort of attention to sport and was highly discouraged, certainly by my parents and by my teachers. But in my early thirties, when I came upon tennis, I began to realize how important sports is, not just to physical development, but also in terms of mental development, and tenacity.

Just a quick short story if you can indulge me, Ivan for a second. I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outlier a few years ago. And this is part of what led me to this idea. And he talked about how a lot of students from great public schools, who were just top notch academics, but never really played any supports, leave their public schools and end up at top academic schools, whether it's Harvard or Yale, or Illinois, Champaign or whatnot. And they now compete with the best of the best from their regions.

What ends up happening is these people end up getting their first B or the first C or their first D ever in their lives. And then they become very crestfallen. And typically, what happens is they end up leaving college or changing their major or doing something else, because they can't seem to deal with the idea of failure. But the ones that always happen to bounce back from this experience are those that have played sports. Because if you've played sports, you've learned to fail. And then learn to recover.

And of all sports, tennis, no matter how good you are, whether you're Fedorov, Nadal, or you are the 1,000th in the world, you would have met the challenge or challenges on the court. And the ability to fail, to lose a set or a game or a match and shake it off and come back is an important tool, not just in sports, but also in life. And that's the tool that I've learned, unfortunately, very late for me in life. But what I want to do is, Hey, can I teach this to kids at a much younger point in their lives?

IVAN: I love tennis as a metaphor for life. There are so many great programs in the United States and in Minnesota, especially. There's this tennis and life camp that happens at,

TOLU: I think it’s Gustavis Adolphus.

IVAN: It’s Adolphus. And they have this amazing perspective, that how you behave on the tennis court is how you should behave in life, and that it's all about humanity and the game and being able to lose graciously, but also be able to be on a team and to win graciously. They have these camps that happen every summer and families go, and young teenagers go, and young kids go. It’s just such a wonderful metaphor for life.

And I guess I've never really thought about that until my recent years. I was playing tennis when I was 10, and I just thought it was cool to be able to hit a ball hard. But now when I think about it, it's got such a great parallel and such a great way of teaching kids about success and failure. I love that idea.

TOLU: I completely agree with you and to even expand on that idea further, I was listening to a gentleman who coached Sampras and the William sisters and whatnot, and Nick Bollettieri.

IVAN: Bollettieri, yeah. Nick Bollettieri. I remember him.

TOLU: Absolutely. Still going strong. I think he's 86 years old now. But still going really strong. But he talked about how there are over 500 of these tennis programs across the U.S. in a country of about 350 million people. But want to know how many of these programs there are across Africa in a continent of about 1.1 billion people?

IVAN: Two? How many are there?

TOLU: None.

IVAN: None? There are zero? Really?

TOLU: There's an academy, obviously, in South Africa, where Lloyd Harris, I think, spent some time besides that, but that's obviously geared toward people with money.

IVAN: Who can afford to do it? Yeah.

TOLU: But across the rest of it, there isn't much else.

IVAN: Why do you think Africa is ready for tennis?

TOLU: I would say three reasons. Number one, I think with the increase in wealth, not as fast as it should go, you've seen a good steady increase over the last 10 years. And what happens is when people get a bit wealthier, their health becomes what's next. I’m eating all this big food and I’m doing all this, and I need to get healthy and live longer. So, there is general awareness of health consciousness because of some increase in wealth. Number two, because of the global nature, increasingly so because of social media and cable TV, whatnot, there is a strong interest in tennis now. Here’s an example.

When my partners and I started this nonprofit, we weren't really quite sure what to expect, but we thought we'll partner with some local programs in Nigeria and just go out there with some tennis balls, some T-shirts, some rackets and a bunch of things that our good partners have been kind enough to wait for us and see what happens. Ivan, we showed up and there were kids lined up around the corner who just wanted to be part of this.

And over the last four or five years, we've had over 5,000 Kids come through our program. This is with minimal marketing, with minimal broadcasting. They just want to be a part of this. And they're looking, they're yearning to differentiate themselves and become a part of something interesting. So, there's a yearning for that.

And I think, again, the attendance of our program is a testament to that. And then I think number three, I would say is, I think just a general interest in something in the government to find ways to become more relevant globally. So, a chance to put ourselves on the map. Look at the top 100 players, there’s always a flag next to their name and besides South Africa, whether it were Kevin Anderson, or Lloyd Harris, you don't really find any African country there.

These were some of the things I heard about when I was meeting with these officials. How come we can have our name next to one of our people, a flag next to one of the people from our continent. And I said, good question. But it doesn't come easily. You need to invest in it, you need to spend time developing it. And I'm happy to do that, if you will let me and if you give me the infrastructure, I need to make it happen.

IVAN: It's very inspirational. I so admire what you're trying to do for Africa and for all the people who would clearly love to play tennis from the sounds of things. It's a great sport. It's very inspirational for me. Have you had an inspiration in life, a memorable boss or a leader that you worked for, or someone you respected that gave you that drive, that inspiration that you are giving to young people today?

TOLU: Indeed, I have. The person I'm thinking of is a gentleman named Robert Pagano, who was a partner at Deloitte Consulting, where I worked for many years, both before and after business school. I remember when I first met with him, I was this 21 year old kid, and he had just made partner, and I looked up to him so much. But every time we're meeting with a big client, and we were with some of the world's biggest private equity, who were doing some big work, he would look at me and defer to me and say, “Tolu, what do you think? None of the chance to intimate me or to put me on the spot but because it's like this area. You are more familiar with this. I would defer to you.

Which in a world of sort of a battle of egos, these partners and those who are not of stratospheric height, want to hug all the time, especially around clients, but he would always defer to me and ask me to go for a walk. And I'm not sure he intended to do it. But for me, because he deferred to me because he wanted to know what I generally thought, it made me want to work harder. It gave me a lot of confidence, and certainly inspired me quite a lot. So that's what I would say, and I would say Robert Pagano, Bob Pagano’s I call him, is one of the guys that really inspired me a lot.

IVAN: And what inspires you today to do the work that you do?

TOLU: By way of context, and this is not to give myself any pat in the back, one of my passions is traveling. I love to pick up and go. And the farther, the more remote, the better. I've touched down in over 142 countries around the globe. And my goal is to potentially touch every one of them, I think there are 193 recognized by the United Nations.

And one thing I've found is the sameness, the passion, the love of family, whatever it is that you think makes us unique as Americans or as Nigerian, or South African, you find in every part of the world. And then you ask yourself, why are they either well above the poverty line or below the poverty line? What makes them different from me?

And then you start to realize it's almost I'm sure those who are more religious and those who believe in destination or higher planning, might have their own theories, but I would just say it's a randomness of life. And what inspires me is if I can bend the arc of destiny to borrow the words of MLK, slightly for one, or two, or three, or 100, or 1000 people, to help change the course of their life, it would be worth every effort.

And in a lot of the parts of this world, it doesn't take a whole lot. Sometimes it's money but I think sometimes money tends to be the cheap and the quickest thing to do, but not always the longer way to help out. But if you can help with that opportunity. If you can help inspire. If you can help them dream bigger, better, then you can help them change their course of destiny. And that's me. We're all the same.

I just happen to be born in a place that allows me a blue passport. And with that some benefit in life. It doesn't make me any smarter. It doesn't make me any more hardworking. It doesn't make me any wiser. I just happen to be opportune, and can I extend that opportunity to somebody else? That’s what this is all about.

IVAN: I love how you described our humanity, as having common sameness. As having the thing that inspires you is the fact that we're all the same. We all have a story. We're all One of 8 Billion on this huge planet. And the fact that you can say you've only hit 142 countries, you have to get to that 193, that's inspiring for me. It sounds like you've been all over the world, and that you have good data and evidence to see that we're all the same. And that makes me feel connected. It makes me feel like we're on the right track. When you think of that number of 8 billion people on the planet and you, and I are one of each of them and we each have a story. How does that make you feel?

TOLU: Both daunted and inspired. There is this picture that sort of goes around, you’ve probably seen it, I can't remember which satellite or rocket that was launched 20 years ago that took a picture, I think just past Jupiter. And you think of this page of darkness, right? And into this little, tiny dot and there's an arrow that says you are here. It puts all of our problems, all that we worry about, into context. It’s almost like an afterthought; you are nothing in the vastness of emptiness.

But then if you are indeed nothing, maybe there isn't some big plan, but it also says, "Hey, you know what, since it's all nothing anyway, why not give your best to help the next person so that they can have some level of pleasure, some level of attainment, some level of achievement in their life."

So that by the time whenever our time is done here, tomorrow, tonight, next year, 10 years from now, 100 years from now, it is where I have fought the good fight to leverage passage from the great Apostle Paul and I am done. Or another passage that says, Be ashamed to die until you won some victory for humanity. And for me, it's about what fight am I fighting because victory connotes some kind of fight. And that's what it's all about.

And then by the time we're done, and when we evaporate into that nothingness others might believe in the afterlife, I think we all have critical claims whatever we believe in, it is, I am done. I have fought the good fight. I have tried to win my victory and I am done. I’m both inspired by it because whatever it is, we're all going to evaporate into something else.

IVAN: Eventually.

TOLU: And then also times it's daunting to say because it doesn’t really matter after all. [laughing]

IVAN: [laughing] Right? You mentioned your brain injury, what has been your greatest struggle in life?

TOLU: Ivan, I would say this has been the hardest. And I'll tell you why. All my life, primary school, boarding school, college or whatnot. I live by schedule. I remember in boarding school the rising bell goes off at 5:30, and I'm sorry if my voice is cracking, because this is getting me to a different place. Well, 5:30 was the rising bell, 6:30 was breakfast and then our lives were scheduled from there on through, differently. We had eight different subjects every day from 8:10 until 1:50. And then afternoon naptime, evening study time, all the way to 10:30 at night, every day for six years, through middle and high school. And then through college into through working.

And then after this brain injury, this essentially being the pause on life. It is just basically just having to just live every day with who knows how much pain I'm going to have to go through today. What can I deal with today to help me through the pain? And it's going through rehab and medication and doctor's visits and injections and hoping that I could get a little relief to help me live one more day without pain.

So going through this process, not quite knowing what's next has been tough. It's been the toughest day in having to fight through a lot of emotions and a lot that comes with the uncertainty. But in spite of that, knowing that I'm still fortunate, I live in a country that I know there is a safety net that when things go really bad, they can take care of me. I can still fortunately play some tennis even though it’s with some level of pain. I have family and friends that love me and take care of me.

So not ideal, but I still consider myself very lucky. And maybe this is some of the universe's way of helping me focus more on this Tennis Academy because if I were working full time, it would probably be on the back burner. But now it's always my forethought and ability. How can I do better? How can I be more productive with this timeIs the question always behind every day?

IVAN: What makes you smile?

TOLU: When I watch a beautiful tennis match. And I am an addict, I watch tennis all day, now that I have more time. I watch all the tournaments and watching these people just do their best, people being at their best, is a beautiful thing, and it makes me smile. What makes me smile. It's the connection with humans every day. With a little bit of time, fortunately, even though I can work full time and I still deal with some pain, I'm able to travel here and there. And those moments when I'm able to connect with another human who speaks a very different language from me, who has a different experience for me, to whom, to borrow your words, a different story from me. But somehow, we're able to find that connection, whether it's over tennis on the tennis court, whether it's over travel, or whether it's over food, that's a reason to smile.

IVAN: It is. It definitely is. You talked a little bit about your brain injury and the struggle that you have. How has it changed your perspective on life, and maybe the meaning of life?

TOLU: I think I would start by saying I'm still learning because every day if I ask myself that question. And I'm still hoping for that profound answer that shakes my foundation. I'm still waiting for that moment. But I think what it has is, it's helped me better understand the fragility, the frailty and the fleetingness of life.

This happened in an instant. It was on a Friday night, I'd worked full time, worked all day, I'd gotten up at 5:00 AM, gone to the gym, worked all day, met up with some friends and I was heading home. It was a typical day, a full day of activity around midnight, when a car ran a red light and hit the Uber in which I was. In an instant about four years ago, my life changed. It helped me, again, it's made the fragility and the fleetingness of life more real to me. And that every day is the day to be grateful for it and to make the best of it. I wish I could tell you something more profound. But I think the script is still being written.

IVAN: I think the simplicity of what you said is what's profound. You hear people talk about, Oh, I'm trying to seize the day. I'm trying to make sure I'm happy with what's going on now. But until something happens, and until you have that own self-realization that all you really have is now, that's the profound part of what I think you're describing. Thank you. I'm sorry that you had that accident. That's absolutely awful and I wish you only the best in your recovery.

TOLU: Thank you. Like I said, it's a day at a time. I'm making progress, not as fast or as quickly as I would like it to be because of course we all want it to be done yesterday, but every day without intense pain is a day for which to be grateful.

IVAN: One final question. What do you hope you'll see in your lifetime that you haven't seen yet?

TOLU: I'll go back to tennis. This is what drives me, I told you I watch all these tournaments. Miami's going on right now and watching these beautiful people play the beautiful sport of tennis. I watched Indian Wells.

IVAN: Indian Wells. Yeah. Wasn't that incredible?

TOLU: It was amazing. Unfortunately, my guy, Nadal, didn't win. I've been to some of his tournaments, whether it's in Estonia or in Abuja, Nigeria, or in Roland Garros, or at the Billie Jean King Center in New York. What I would love to see is a facility like that in Nigeria or Rwanda, whichever country we end up partnering with, where these kids come in, shy and with self-facing and almost hiding behind their own shell.

And watching tennis helps them become more exposed, more confident, and more curious about the world in which they live. And it’s happening every day. They sort of become part of this global community and have bigger dreams, high aspirations and deeper inspirations. That is what I hope to see.

IVAN: That would be amazing. I am so grateful for the time you've spent with me today. It's precious, and it's important. I'm so happy that you were able to spend the time talking to me about your life and about tennis, and about being One of 8 Billion.

TOLU: Thank you so much for giving me this time. You guys are amazing. You guys are doing great work. I love this idea. It immediately connected with me, because for me the purpose of travel is to continually find that sameness that connects us all. It's almost like the question that Einstein was trying to ask you, What is it that connects everything in the universe? I’ll leave that to Einstein because he's obviously much smarter than I would ever be. The question I ask is: What is it that connects us all? And that is, for me, an interesting quest, in my travels, in my meetings, and in my connections with people.

IVAN: We are after all the same, aren’t we? It doesn't matter where we're from.

TOLU: Exactly. Exactly.

Preview

IVAN: I hope you’ll join us in the next episode of ONE OF 8 BILLION… when we hear from Ernesto Tagwerker, the founder of a software boutique called OmbuLabs:

ERNESTO TAGWERKER: My mom is a different story. She studied to be an attorney. She became an attorney even being pregnant, and I think she took probably like the last final exam while being pregnant with me. 

But she's actually been the entrepreneur of the family all along, and I've learned so much from her.

And I've learned a lot from my dad too,  I've definitely learned a lot from them and just making sure that I am getting as much value for my time as I possibly can is a big lesson that I have from my parents.

Outro

This has been ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us... online at 1of8b.com. Join us again next time as we listen to one of eight billion other stories!

ONE OF 8 BILLION is supported by TEN7, a technology studio whose mission is to Make Things That Matter. Find out more at ten7.com. I’m Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.

Credits

This is Episode 133 of ONE OF 8 BILLION. It was recorded on March 29, 2022 and first published on May 11, 2022. Audio length is 32 minutes. Transcription by Roxanne Chumacas. Summary, highlights and editing by Brian Lucas. Music by Lexfunk. Produced by Jonathan Freed.

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