Olu Ogunbi, the son of two physicians, enrolled at UAB in 2009 with the goal of becoming a doctor. But after his first semester, he switched to marketing. “I have always been entrepreneurial and looking for ways to develop myself,” Ogunbi said. “At the time, UAB didn’t have an entrepreneurship major like it does now, and marketing seemed like the closest thing.”
Ogunbi found his first mentor in the late Birmingham retail legend Mickey Gee, the executive-in-residence at the Collat School of Business. Ogunbi co-founded his first startup, a clothing company called Art-Felt Appeal, with a fellow UAB student in 2010. He then launched a student group for entrepreneurs and spent two years working with the Wilcox County Chamber of Commerce — in Alabama’s Black Belt — on ideas for economic development as part of a Collat School of Business project.
After a decade working in marketing roles at Alagasco, Lewis Communications and Adidas, Ogunbi was casting about for business opportunities during the pandemic. Talking with his dad at Christmas, he had the idea to introduce staples of his parents’ native Nigeria to the United States. Reminiscing about visits to Nigeria over the years, including a year-long internship at an advertising agency in Lagos after he graduated from UAB, Ogunbi landed on the idea of introducing the Chapman to Alabama.
Developed by a Nigerian bartender for an English expat, the Chapman drink has an orange-flavored base — often the soft drink Fanta — mixed with grenadine syrup and bitters. It is traditionally garnished with a cucumber and fortified with a drinker’s alcohol of choice or enjoyed straight. The Chapman has become popular across West Africa, where it is seen as a “celebratory drink,” Ogunbi said. “I thought, We all have something to celebrate, so why not introduce the spirit of a Nigerian celebration to those in the U.S.?”
Ogunbi says he got serious about the idea in January 2021, and a few months later he approached a friend and fellow Blazer about becoming a partner in the venture. That friend knows a thing or two about starting a successful business. Serial entrepreneur Shegun Otulana came to UAB from Nigeria in 1998 and had just made headlines for selling his software company Therapy Brands for a reported $1.25 billion to global investment firm KKR. (Otulana now runs Harmony Venture Labs, a Birmingham-based venture studio focused on creating and supporting high-growth startups.) Ogunbi and Otulana incorporated their company just after Nigeria’s Independence Day in October 2021.
The company is called Chapman Beverages and its first offering is Las Gidi, a slang term for Lagos, hometown of Otulana and of Ogunbi’s family. Las Gidi is a “craft soda mixer — our take on the traditional Nigerian Chapman,” Ogunbi said, which they sell in original and mango flavors in six Piggly Wiggly stores in Birmingham, on their website (drinklasgidi.com) and through Amazon.
Beyond bringing celebration and refreshment to its drinkers, Las Gidi aims to play a larger role in the world. “We want to be more than a beverage,” Ogunbi said. “What Red Bull is to extreme sports, we would like to be for supporting West African excellence. Our goal is to become the go-to beverage for creatives, artists and cultural influencers who live out the spirit of Nigeria.” To solidify this brand vision, Las Gidi sponsored an event at the Africon conference in Los Angeles in May 2023 and future sponsorships are planned in the coming months.
Ogunbi says he is excited to feel the energy in Birmingham’s startup scene, thanks in part to successes such as Otulana’s and the thriving ecosystem the Collat School of Business is developing around its entrepreneurship program for future business leaders.
Does Ogunbi have any advice for current students interested in starting their own businesses? “The most important thing for an entrepreneur is simply a willingness to go for it,” he said. “There are no guarantees. But being able to ask questions, humble yourself and give it your all — that is what I have found to be a successful approach to life and business.”