A Lagos Native Finds her Calling: Meet Quona Vice President Kofoworola Agbaje
Drawn to impact investing by her deep personal connection to Africa, Kofo took an atypical path to venture through coding.
For Kofoworola Agbaje (who goes by “Kofo”), a vice president at Quona focused on Africa and MENA investments, it was a few key people in her life who dramatically shaped her career path, taking her from engineering to venture. “I’ve always been influenced a lot by people,” she says. “I do better taking advice and learning from others and have had specific people in my life who have been very influential.”
The first of those people, as they are for many, were her parents. Born in Lagos, Kofo lived with her dad, who worked in banking and financial services and her mom, an entrepreneur, until age 15, when she moved to the UK for boarding school. “A lot of people at Quona look at the importance of education in emerging markets and that resonates with me,” she says. “When I moved away, it was for this quest of education.”
While she grew up thinking she wanted to be a medical doctor, she found herself gravitating toward math and analytics in school. As an undergraduate, she studied engineering, eager to find a practical application for her skills. During her third year in college, Kofo got an internship with the technology team at the Royal Bank of Scotland, where she met another person who had an important impact on her career path. “I knew nothing about engineering in banking or financial services,” she admits. “But I had a line manager I got to really know and admire. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for my profession, but he left a strong impression.”
In 2010, when RBS offered her a full-time job writing code after she graduated, she took her mentor’s advice and accepted it. At the time, RBS was on the heels of the financial crisis, having recently been bailed out by the UK government. The bank was struggling, rebranding itself and coming under new leadership several times over during her seven-year tenure there. “I matured a lot in those seven years,” she says. “I had to roll with the punches and manage all the adjustments that came with it.”
But while her time at RBS was packed with formative experiences and challenges, working as a full-stack engineer nonetheless limited her exposure. “In financial services, if you are in tech, you are back-office,” she says. “I found that I wanted to understand the business side, lead a team, be involved in strategy, and think about the broader picture.”
To make that leap, Kofo decided to leave RBS in 2017 and get her MBA at Wharton. There she spent much of her first year exploring finance and entrepreneurship, but soon learned it wasn’t the thrill of working for a new startup or tackling a big new idea that most excited her, but rather the bigger picture. “I was drawn to the ability to look at different business models and understand them from a diligence perspective,” she says. “I wanted to get into conversations with the biggest minds talking about the biggest problems.”
At Wharton, she met another of the individuals who would play an important role in shifting her career path: a classmate who suggested her experience might lend itself well to working in venture — an option that had not previously been on her radar.
As soon as the seed for venture work had been planted, Kofo was drawn deeper and deeper into that track. She took every venture-related business course available to her and connected with anyone she could who had an atypical path into venture. “I started seeking any form of experience in venture capital,” she says. “It was important for me to not just find a job, but to understand where venture fits into my professional experience and make sure that if I did get an opportunity, I was ready for it.”
At the same time, it was clear to Kofo that she wanted to remain connected to Nigeria and Africa somehow through her work. “I always wanted to do something to give back in some way shape or form,” she says. But Kofo had always envisioned she’d do this kind of work through non-profit endeavors, and never expected it could have a place in her day-to-day job. “In business school was when it clicked that I could do this as a job,” she says.
Again, there was another individual who came into her life who had an important influence: Monica Brand Engel, who had been recommended to her as someone in the space she needed to meet. At the time, Kofo learned about Quona’s work in impact investing through an internship opportunity. It was during this internship with Quona, on calls with African entrepreneurs talking about their business ideas and challenges, that she had the feeling for the first time: “I am where I’m meant to be.” She hadn’t lived in Africa since she was fifteen, but the pull to get back was undeniable. And while the Quona internship was only temporary, once she started it, she felt she’d found her career path.
In her second year at Wharton, Kofo began reaching out to VC funds in Africa, searching for a full-time role after graduation that would bring her back to the continent. She was in conversations with a VC firm in Lagos about a potential job when she reached out to Monica Brand Engel at Quona to catch up. At the time, Quona was looking for an investment associate with Quona’s Africa team. Brand Engel wanted to know if Kofo was interested in the job. The firm was willing to support her desire to relocate to Lagos, and in 2019, Kofo took on the full-time role and moved back to her hometown.
It has been more than four years since Kofo first joined Quona. Being able to get involved in problem solving with businesses has been one of the most rewarding parts of the work for her. “There are aspects of venture that are about hype, but as an engineer, I am all about the details,” she notes. “I used to build financial services products and can tell if someone who is speaking to us, especially in the early stages, knows what they are building.”
Kofo’s experience in analytics and building software give her a unique line of sight into product viability. Her ability to break down a complex problem into simple terms — both quantitatively and qualitatively have been especially valuable in her work in venture. “Kofo has an incredible ability to focus on the detail when she needs to, and switch to big picture thinking when needed,” says Johan Bosini, a partner at Quona who is based in South Africa. “I really respect her intuition and technical capabilities together in this world of investing in emerging markets.”
In her latest new role as vice president, Kofo is is able to contribute to more of Quona’s global goals and external strategic position. She also has the opportunity to become more involved with junior members of the team and hopes to provide the same kind of guidance she got early-on in her career. “I cannot stress enough the power of the team at Quona — not just the leadership team, but the day-to-day team,” she says. “I know everyone I work with brings 110 percent to the job and that absolutely makes a difference. It makes the fight worth the fight.”