‘Financial institutions should make access to funds easy for women in business’
Ayobami Kareem is the founder and Group Managing Director (GMD) of WhiteRose International Group, a business conglomerate. Ayobami, who is famous for her exploits in the real estate sector, has carved an enviable niche as a high-flying entrepreneur. The success story of WhiteRose Properties, a subsidiary of WhiteRose International Group, has continued to inspire aspiring female entrepreneurs across the country. She is a woman of humble beginning, as she relocated from her comfort zone to the highbrow Lagos Island where things didn’t go according to plan, compelling her to turn her car into a temporary abode when rain destroyed her rented Lekki apartment. She became triumphant as she thrives in the real estate industry. She recently unveiled a real estate project, Camelot Mews by WhiteRose, and will soon launch Fresh Water Garden. In this interview with MARIA DIAMOND she speaks about the real estate industry in Nigeria, the challenges of being an entrepreneur and how her humble beginning impacted on her career path and will to succeed.
Tell us about your childhood and how it influenced your career path
The entrepreneur in me is inbuilt. I remember that when I was in primary three, I started saving in a piggy bank from my school feeding money and cash gifts. I used the money to start a small business in my father’s house. I was the richest amongst my siblings even as a child, such that I was called “Iya olowo” (Rich woman). My elder siblings don’t beat me or send me on errands so that I can lend them money. I got married at the age of 18 years and had my first child from my first marriage. After the broken marriage, I decided to further my education and got my first tertiary school admission to Lagos State Polytechnic. When I realised that my ex- husband had married another wife, I was deeply heartbroken as I depended on the marriage at the time. When things became difficult for me, I travelled back to meet him to sort out issues with him as well as accept the second wife he married, but when I got home, I realised that he had married a third wife. I returned to Lagos with the resolution to never depend on anyone but to work hard to succeed. Thereafter I focused on my business and my education.
What motivated your career choice?
I was propelled by lack of encouragement from my first marriage. The major problem we had was daring to be educated and become self-empowered. This inspired me to work harder all the time to succeed. I subsequently saw a woman contesting for gubernatorial position in my state and that also inspired me to realise that I can achieve relevance as a woman. More so, the environment in which I subsequently found myself greatly helped me to discover opportunities in the real estate sector and I grabbed them with tenacity. I was once told that three things that impact a person’s life are the environment you find yourself in, the book you read and the friends with which you surround yourself. I never thought of real estate until I came to Lekki.
Why did you decide to get into real estate?
Real Estate business gives me the platform to groom and impact on the lives of many young people who desire to break free from mediocrity and poverty. This is the inner joy that keeps me going against all odds. Looking back and seeing some persons who are equally self-reliant by virtue of being trained by me gives me so much joy. Again, I love being my own boss, and real estate gives you the opportunity to be your own boss. I love to be challenged, I love meeting people and I love creating job opportunities. My job gives me all of these luxuries.
How did WhiteRose International Group originate?
As the saying goes, the reward for hard work is more work. I was diligent in my little beginnings and remained dogged against all odds. Hence, I will say that strong determination to succeed, tenacity, consistency, hard work and above all, the grace of Allah brought Whiterose to where we are presently. We do not presume to have arrived yet, but we are replicating success by the day and have made tremendous progress over the years.
As a frontline player in the real estate, is there any change you would like to see in the sector in Nigeria?
Structure. The real estate sector in Nigeria has no defined structure. Any person can wake up today and claim to be a ‘seasoned real estate practitioner’ without passing through a defined, regulated and informed structure that would prepare the person to practice in the real estate sector. One of the results of this is that there are many ubiquitous real estate agents out there taking so much havoc to innocent investors. There is also a need for adequate training and licensing of real estate practitioners to sanitise the system and ensure the safety of investors’ investments in real estate. The Whiterose network was developed with this in mind, to empower, equip and train intending real estate practitioners and to give them our defined structure with which to operate. We call for the collaboration of both public and private sectors to achieve a definite structure and system for the real estate sector in the country.
Are there peculiar challenges you encounter in your field on account of being a woman in what seems a male- dominated field?
Yes. People underestimate my ability a lot because I am a woman in a business sector that is dominated by men. Another major challenge I encountered as a beginner in real estate was access to finance. I had a lot of dreams but there was no adequate fund to establish a strong business model. I was doing a one-man business. The real estate industry is a male-dominated field; it takes a stubborn choleric woman like me to be successful in real estate. When you see a lady doing well in real estate, please respect her. I must commend some women who currently dare the heights in real estate and are breaking bounds. However, more awareness is needed to encourage more women to venture into the real estate sector rather than depending on men for survival.
As an expert in the field, what can be done to educate more women about the opportunities in the sector?
As earlier said, there is a need to create more awareness on the opportunities that abound in the real estate for women. This is because majority of women believe that they can’t survive in real estate because of the fear that it is a male-dominated sector. Again, there is a need to encourage financial institutions to make access to funds easy for women in business, especially in the real estate sector. This will help in boosting the productive capacity of women in the sector.
Adequate training platforms where interested persons can come and learn the tenets of real estate business should also be provided. Some women indeed desire to be in real estate, but most of them venture into it without proper training and preparation and they crash out in no time. This discourages them and other people. On our part, we have built a platform known as Whiterose Network that will help in training and equipping not only women, but also every interested person to excel in the real estate sector. To achieve this, I contacted two of my professors in the University of Lagos and we were able to develop a platform for young and success-driven entrepreneurs who aspire to be in the forefront of Nigeria property market but are limited by inadequate financial resources and networking. The platform is a great opportunity for beginners and a golden opportunity for people who aspire to have multiple streams of income. The network platform will also give you access to networking and all the resources you need to succeed in the business.
Tell us about some of the projects you are currently working on?
We have the Kirah Court I by Whiterose, Oakview Estate Lafiaji, Lekki Lagos (Sold Out). We also have Whiterose Mall on Adewunmi Adebimpe Street, Lekki Phase1 and Camelot Mews by Whiterose, among others. My upcoming projects are Primo bay by Whiterose at Orchid road in Lekki; Fresh Water Garden by Whiterose, Lagoon district, Lekki Phase 1, Lagos and
Fresh Water Pearl by Whiterose, Lagoon district, Lekki Phase 1, Lagos.
Are there women whose success stories influenced you?
Yes. Among them are Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Ibukun Awosika and Kamala Harris. One thing that is common among these three women is their refusal to settle for anything less than the top. Okonjo-Iweala needs no introduction in the world’s economy. The greatest industry and business players all over the world court her attention. Awosika, on her part, sits at the helm of affairs in First Bank, one of the leading banks in the country and beyond, while Harris is the vice president of the United States of America, a powerful country. These women rose through the ranks, continuously beat their own success records and never got satisfied with achieving more even at the top. Hence, they are my biggest inspiration as their lifestyles are akin to my driving force in life.
Where do you see your brand five years from now?
To see Whiterose Group become a household name all over the globe, not only from the giant strides we will accomplish in real estate and other sectors, but also from the many lives we would have touched to become successful by our Whiterose Network.
How would you describe the woman you have become and what is your greatest achievement?
Judging from the many challenges I have surmounted to come to where I am today without external assistance, I do not consider myself an average woman. I started Whiterose with zero capital but I have grown it into a multi-billion naira company. This is undoubtedly a rare achievement for a woman in a male- dominated field. Notwithstanding, my greatest achievement is actually the many lives I have touched by way of empowerment to become great in life. It makes me a better woman.