How a crisis creates so many billionaires

Friday April 16 2021

Just as it happened 100 years ago during the Spanish flu pandemic, many innovations were birthed in 2020. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


Forbes recently released its annual list and analysis of billionaires around the world. This year’s list was much anticipated because it was going to reveal what happened to the wealthy in 2020, when the pandemic hit.

The results revealed something totally different from what many expected. It was a record breaking year for new billionaires. Nearly 500 new entrants joined the billionaires club globally. This was the highest number in history, and it came down to a new billionaire emerging every 17 hours in 2020.

A while back, I wrote about the innovations that came with the Spanish flu between 1918 and 1920. About 500 million people were infected globally, with 50 million losing their lives. However, the pandemic ushered in the roaring ‘20s, which was a decade of partying, fun and innovation. Some of the innovations of the 1920s are the television, the blender, the bulldozer, water skiing, the cheeseburger, and penicillin.

The 1930s ushered in the Great Depression, but just as had happened during the pandemic, many innovations were birthed. It was during this period that Walt Disney, KFC, Hewlett Packard, Sheraton, Duracell batteries and many others were started.

Why is it that during downturns a lot of innovations are birthed?

Thinking ahead


The United Arab Emirates built their economies on crude oil, and they have enjoyed a seemingly never ending boom. However, with the consciousness that it would one day run out, or that the rise of electric cars could render the oil irrelevant, they went on an aggressive campaign to turn their land into a tourist haven.

The result is that Dubai has become the top city for international visitors. In one year, the city earned $30.82 billion in revenue from tourism.

Let us also consider Israel. Set in the midst of not-so-friendly nations, they had to go into survival mode from the very beginning. The military was Israel's first industry, and every other sector got its life from this.

Second, they had to protect themselves against the threat of food supplies being cut off and so they developed one of the world’s best agricultural systems. Dan Senor and Saul Singer in their book The Start Up Nation write that Israel did not thrive in spite of the neighbouring hostility, but because of it.

The threat of irrelevance is a real motivator for innovation. But then what about those who have never been relevant? Does it mean that they lack the motivation required, and by extension the mindset for innovation?

Is there a thin line where the balance of innovation resides? What is the difference between those who have never been relevant but who thirst for relevance, and those who have been relevant and want to preserve their relevance at all costs?

In his 2016 book Deep Work, Cal Newport says that our brains construct our world view based on what we pay attention to. Who you are, what you think, feel and do, what you love — is the sum total of what you focus on.

Downturns bring out two types of reactions. First, it creates a time when the mind can be trained to focus on one thing. Alternatively, the pressure can force the mind to wander. Those who have a well-defined singular focus seem to be the ones that come out winning.

Those who are driven by fear and panic try to do so many things because they are not sure which one will work, and invariably they are not able to give their full attention to one thing.

It is important to define the singular purpose that you want to focus on. For some of us, our purpose is to transform the way Africans think.

My place is to research, dig out knowledge and transform my mind and my thinking.

As I do this, hopefully those that I engage with directly or indirectly will also experience the same —a transformation in their thinking that will lead to transformed families, organisations and societies.

Wale Akinyemi is the convenor of the Street University ( and chief transformation officer, PowerTalks. [email protected]