‘As an entrepreneur, bulk of what your journey will look like, lies in your actions, inactions’
Dr. Yinka Opeke is a development economist and the founder of Smart Gas with a mission to generate jobs towards the development of Nigeria’s economy. She graduated from University of Ibadan (UI), Nigeria with a B.Sc. in Geography, and M.Sc. in Geographical and Information Systems (GIS). She later obtained M.Sc. in Project Management from Queen Mary University of London. In 2018, Opeke bagged a doctorate degree from Walden University, Minnesota, USA, where she specialised in Entrepreneurship and Organisational Leadership.
She is also PRojects IN Controlled Environments(PRINCE2) Certified, and has been privileged to attend several local and international training and workshops. An alumna of Lagos Business School and Enterprise Development Centre, both arms of the Pan African University, she is also a Managing Partner at Texas Property Group, a US registered, and Houston based company focused on empowering individuals through real estate investments in Texas.
Presently, she holds an executive board position at the Texas West Africa Chamber of Commerce (TWACC) as their Treasurer, Head of Strategy and Corporate Governance. She promotes trade alliances between businesses in Texas and West Africa. In this interview with MARIA DIAMOND, Opeke spoke about the importance of entrepreneurship and why young people need to be industrious at this time.
Share with us your journey as an entrepreneur?
MY journey as an entrepreneur started during my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) days in Port Harcourt (PH). Upon completion of my undergrad from the University of Ibadan in 2004, I was posted to Rivers State and served in Panalpina Logistics. Due to the cordial relationship I had with my co-workers at the time, I would seldom get free or highly discounted tickets to Lagos on some of our partner airlines; go to Balogun market and buy children’s clothes to resell at work.
My flat mate at that time was also a corps member and she made lovely sandwiches. She would sell them to me at N80, and I would go to work and resell at N120. During my entire year in PH, I never had to touch my NYSC allowance, because my other side hustles were paying the bills. After NYSC, I had saved enough to buy a Nissan Primera. I returned to Ibadan to commence my Masters degree in GIS in 2005.
Upon completion of my degree, I moved to Lagos. Due to my prior knowledge of Balogun market, I started selling London wax materials and saved enough to start selling gold. In 2006, Zenith Bank employed me and my co-workers became my main clients. They loved my pieces and would give me post-dated cheques against the next payday.
A few months after, I started traveling to London to shop for corporate outfits from Zara, Primark, H&M, Next, and I sold them all within the bank. In 2007, I traveled to the United Kingdom for my second masters degree in Project Management from Queen Mary, University of London, and upon completion, I obtained my PRINCE2 Certification. In 2008, I returned to Nigeria, and started working with Stanbic IBTC in Maitama, Abuja. At that time, I had figured out I wasn’t cut out for a 9-5 job, so I resigned in 2010 to officially start my journey as an entrepreneur.
Photography was my first attempt. I attended London School of Photography and PhotoFusion to hone my skills. In the last quarter of 2010, I moved to Lagos and my experiences in photography birthed D’Acero Ltd, a brand consulting firm. I was opportune to have partnered with UNICEF, Zenith Bank, Stanbic IBTC, AXA Mansard, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Infinity Trust Mortgage Bank Plc, amongst others.
In 2014, I explored the possibility of establishing another income stream since I had pretty much stabilised my brand consulting business, and my team members were competent enough to run daily operations.
After much research, I established Drape Kings, an events decor company. I attended the Event Décor Academy, Miami and sourced my décor items from different countries. However, upon executing my first contract, which ended up being my last, I decided to start selling decor items since I already had a huge inventory anyway. This plan seemed perfect until the dollar increase hit the Nigerian economy. My business was badly impacted by increased freight charges, customs issues, and all the hiccups associated with importation. As a result of this, I sold off the décor business completely. Based on these new realities, I decided to look within for more local content where I could source at least 70 per cent of my raw materials locally.
In 2015, I pioneered Opeke easy-to-tie gele, which happens to be my maiden name and it means fine girl or omoge in Yoruba. The name seemed apt since my focus was to promote the African beauty, our rich culture and heritage using aso oke to make ready-to-tie, already pleated geles. Opeke was a huge success. We exported our geles to so many states in the US, UK, Canada, Ghana, and different states in Nigeria. In 2016, I moved to the US, continued with the gele, but soon had to re-strategise because I was in a different country, with different types of opportunities and peculiarities.
However, when I look at the inventions and reinventions that have taken place in the easy-to-tie gele industry, I couldn’t be more proud to pioneer such a great idea.
In Houston, I joined a few chambers of commerce and before long, I started learning their culture, business terrain, areas of opportunities etc. of the place. In 2017, I established Trade Expo Africa (TEXA), a US registered, Houston based company focused on promoting bilateral trade relations, investment opportunities, educational advancements, international collaborations and information exchange between businesses in the US and Africa. With my strong SME focused business networks, public and private organisations in Nigeria, I am able to help businesses penetrate international markets through exhibitions, study trips, B2B Meetings and trade missions.
You also set up Smart Gas, what informed that move?
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I suspended all exhibitions, but continued with my international business consulting and real estate. During this period, Smart Gas was established. Smart Gas is a tech company established to leverage technologies to solve challenges faced by consumers when purchasing cooking gas, and the dangers associated with it.
We are a technology driven app-based platform, designed from the ground up for clients to experience a more convenient way to purchase cooking gas, increase transaction efficiency and optimise user experience. Our focus areas are retailing, wholesaling to corporations, LPG logistics, bobtail leasing, and LPG storage tank lease.
Smart Gas came onboard during the pandemic when a number of establishments were struggling, how did you manage to stay afloat?
First is the sufficient grace of God. Then the ‘me’ factor, and how I chose to utilise the lockdown. I lost my dad at the onset of the pandemic; I was grieving and the idea was birthed amidst my pain. I poured my energy into developing a business plan, mobilising a team, developing our mobile app, started manufacturing our cylinders, procuring equipment, and the rest is history.
What differentiates Smart Gas from competitors?
A lot, starting from our heavy reliance on technology, to our creativity and innovation, our young and dynamic team, and everything in between. We are the only technology driven app based platform in the market designed from the ground up, for clients to experience a more convenient way to purchase cooking gas, increase transaction efficiency, and optimise user experience.
Our model empowers the public in different ways, job creation for our drivers, business ownership for our distributors, extra income for our referral marketers amongst other inclusive initiatives.
Where do you see Smart Gas in the next 5 years?
A leading brand with presence in key states in Nigeria, intra Africa collaborations, technological advancements in service delivery, increased value for clients and other exciting projections.
Was there any doubt in your mind when you were establishing the business?
No, I am always excited to learn from my mistakes. However, due to my experiences over the years, I make better business decisions, and take more calculated risks.
What are the major challenges in your ventures?
Time and money, as you’re bound to lose money sometimes. Then time, 24-hours sometimes is not enough to do the things I want to do. However, I try to rise past these challenges and let go of negative vibes all the time. More importantly, I try not to have regrets especially because I am intentional in my choices. So, I look for areas to make up for any loss, once time and resources permit me.
What is your advice to Nigerian youth who strive on a daily basis to flee the country rather than stay back and build a successful venture?
Well, I am not in their shoes to speak to their choices. The bulk of what your journey will look like lies in your actions and inactions, which also ties to your character and revolve. It’s advisable to have a plan, some level of financial independence and good support systems. Don’t overstay your welcome; join chambers of commerce in your locality, and strive to be on the right side of the law. Most importantly, those they associate with or take advice from while in foreign land will determine how far they will go.
How have you managed to strike a balance from your personal life, academics and business ventures?
I am intentional about work-life balance, so I hardly sit around hoping luck falls on my lap. What I can’t change, I figure a way to thrive around it. More recently, I have learnt to be more expressive about my displeasures as opposed to keeping it all in. I ensure to balance things and enjoy every moment. What makes me sleep well at night is the understanding that God’s grace is sufficient through it all. Also, I don’t procrastinate or wait for a vacation before I can enjoy the simple things of life.
For academics and work life, it all stems from the mindset of believing you can; identifying and isolating distractions, aligning with really smart people, leveraging my network, and taking each day at a time. I also prioritise my tasks, delegate when I have to, try not to solve problems I don’t have, and I ensure to find a way to de-stress when the pressure is too much.
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