‘I have a positive spirit, I see light at the end of the tunnel’
What does it take to stand out as a female mixologist in Nigeria? CEO of Lagos-based cocktails design and consulting company, Eventi Cocktails, Lara Rawa has beaten all the odds to become a key player in the male-dominated cocktail industry. An award winning certified mixologist with a passion for creating cocktails, Lara obtained a law degree from University of Lagos and a Masters Degree in International Business Law from Queen Mary University of London and was called to the Nigerian Bar as a Barrister and Solicitor of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 2007. In a bold career move, transitioning from law to entrepreneurship, her transition into mixology was fueled by her passion for the art of cocktail making and ultimately inspired by a brief period of unemployment. She began building her mixology career when she decided to establish her very own mobile bar company. Eventi Cocktails is the organiser of Lagos Cocktail Week, a first-of-its-kind event in Nigeria. In this interview, Lara talks about how being unemployed led her to entrepreneurship, the upcoming Lagos Cocktail Week and what the government can do to support women entrepreneurs amongst other issues.
What does it take to be a female mixologist in a male dominated industry such as yours?
From my perspective, I think what it takes is hard work, dedication, perseverance and focus. Though it’s a male dominated industry as you rightly said, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t space for female mixologists. There is, but you just need to show that you’re up to the task, no pity party. Just do what needs to be done and do things the right way.
You switched from law to entrepreneurship, what informed this decision?
I would say it was due to the situation at the time. I always saw myself as a career woman; I never would have thought I would be an entrepreneur. However, at a point in time, I was out of a job, and I was trying to get another but it was difficult. I just thought to myself, “you know what? I don’t like being idle, I need to do something.” I was very versatile at my previous job. I did a lot of things, and I worked with a lot of event planners. So this experience came in handy when I decided to get busy while unemployed. First and foremost, I started to organize events, and then after a while, I realised that the event jobs were not coming in regularly. I just thought that there should be another way out. Then it occurred to me that since I love to drink cocktails, I could actually do some research regarding mixology and start mixing cocktails at events. I reasoned that by adding mixology to my workload, I would at least be working every weekend or every other weekend. So, in a nutshell, that’s how it all happened. I was unemployed and had nothing to do. I didn’t want to be idle, and I needed to get busy and that was how I started my business.
You hold degrees from various schools both home and abroad. How would you say they prepared you for entrepreneurship?
My degrees have armed me with critical thinking and research skills. I would also say that my education has helped me to be very results-oriented. In law, there’s something called IRAC, Issue, Rule, Application and Conclusion. I apply IRAC on a daily basis in everything I do, and this has helped me a lot. Most of the time, I do it subconsciously, as it’s become a part of me.
You organise the annual Lagos Cocktail Week (LCW),
how did you come about this?
Eventi Cocktails has been in existence since 2009. In 2014, I became really curious about what was happening in the global cocktail industry, so I did my research and stumbled on the London Cocktail Week, and I thought it would be nice to attend, not as a guest but as a volunteer, to work and see why they do what they’re doing. I sent them an email. I didn’t know anyone there, I just sent an e-mail to the listed contact person I saw on the website. I got a response stating that I was welcome, but I would not be getting paid for my volunteer work. I was like, I don’t mind, I just wanted to come. I bought my ticket, went down to London, took part in the event, and asked a lot of questions. When I came back home, I resolved to do something similar in Nigeria. In a nutshell, LCW was founded based on the premise that we also needed to do something similar to what I had experienced in London. I believed we needed to have an event, an experience in which we could inform people about cocktail trends, international trends, as well as local trends. I saw it as an avenue to educate people and sort of entertain them too. Those are actually the three pillars that LCW stand on, education, information and entertainment.
What will be different about this year’s edition and what can attendees look forward to?
This year is going to be very different. I am working with a couple of bars to create a “Cocktail Village.” We’re going to have a one-day conference that will have an international mixologist attend and facilitate some very interesting discussions and workshops. This year will also be different because we are giving out awards and we’re working with new partners as well. In addition, we’re working with Enterprise Development Center (EDC) to help upcoming entrepreneurs in the industry. We’ve got so much in store and in due time, we will reveal everything.
In your opinion, what are some of the key issues startups face?
I think some of the key issues are financial access and capacity development. When I started, I think funding was one of the issues I faced. But I started from where I was with what I had. I did not let inadequate funds discourage me. I feel that as a business owner/ entrepreneur, you can’t always wait till you have everything before you start out. I would advise aspiring entrepreneurs to start first with what they have, and then in due time, start looking for ways to access funds to expand. I also feel that capacity development is also another issue. This is where different platforms like the EDC would need to come on board to help people put structure into place. Developing an efficient structure in your business can be a huge issue with startups, because you realize that, as an entrepreneur, when you’re first starting up your business, you’re doing everything by yourself. As a result, you’re not sorting out your finances properly and other critical aspects of the business. And this always causes a lot of issues.
You have been a judge on several platforms, how did the experience help you grow?
Bailey’s Bake Fest was actually my first-ever judging platform. It was really fun. I had fun because I was working with chefs, and you know, they had their own terminologies for different things. It was quite fascinating being around them. When I did it the first time around, I was very careful about what I was saying and doing, as I had no prior experience with being a judge. But guess what, by the next one I already learned so much from the previous experience and so I felt very comfortable. I knew what I was looking for, and I knew what was expected of me. I would say being a judge has actually helped my business because in critiquing others, you also get the opportunity to look inward at yourself to see if you’re also doing the same thing or if you could do better. So this has helped me a lot and I look forward to more judging opportunities and speaking engagements.
How important is mentoring for women especially those in business?
Mentoring for women is really important. When I started, I had no one to mentor me; I just went into it without any real guidance. I think the first mentorship experience I had was with Weruche Majekodunmi, Executive Director Newton & David (we call her aunty Uche). She sort of asked me a few questions and she gave me invaluable advice I hold dear to my heart till today. I think what she said to me is actually one of the things that have brought me this far. She said: “You need to learn the craft. It’s not about the paparazzi or having a fancy bar; you need to know your onions, you need to go and study about it,” and that was the push I needed. The moment she said those words was such an invaluable time for me. I feel like if I had a mentor back then, probably, I would have done things in a different way when I first started out. So with the benefit of hindsight, I will say it is really important to have a mentor.
I’m part of the WimBiz mentoring program and I’m mentoring someone right now and I will say that I enjoy it because when you’re mentoring people you’re also learning. I sit down with her; we have timelines, deliverables and deadlines. So, if she’s doing that, then it means that by the time I see her again, I should also have met my own deadline; I should have followed through with my timelines and my deliverables. Mentorship is really important. You can’t take it away, especially for those who are in business. They need that extra push from a mentor. They can learn from the experiences, weaknesses, and strengths you’ve. So, it’s very important.
Running a business cannot be easy, what are some of the challenges you have faced?
Trust me, running a business in Lagos is not easy, especially when you’re in the service industry. Some of the staff I work with are not full-time but contract staff. So you’re always shouting, you’re trying to sell your vision to these people who really can’t be bothered about your vision really. Manpower is the major issue that I face. Also, when people apply for the job and you look at their CV, it is fantastic, but when they come in to work, you realize they really don’t know much. You have to draft the letters yourself, you have to type yourself, and you have to proofread everything. Yet you’re dealing with a graduate. To be honest, I’ve sat down with other people who are in my industry to discuss it and clearly, we all have the same issues. It’s always the staff. It’s a huge issue we face in this industry.
What do you think the government can do to support and encourage women- owned SMEs?
Things that can be done to encourage women, I think is training programs, capacity development and structure. When you go to school, you go to school to get a degree for a certain course. But nobody goes to school to learn to be an entrepreneur. So I feel like programs centered on entrepreneurship that would help women is key. You go for a lot of master classes and everybody gives you all these nuggets, “if you do it this way, you will be successful” but nobody is ready to hold your hand to make sure you actually put such recommendations in to practice. In addition, I think that the government should help entrepreneurs with low interest loans and, possibly, put up some other structures like agencies that could offer on-going support.
Tell us something that has influenced your life and career positively today?
What has influenced my life and career positively today is actually prayer. There have been times in my business when I just thought things were not going to pick up and I decided to be prayerful, to have faith. Another important driving force in my life is my mom. I’ve always looked up to my mom; she has been a positive role model to me. Growing up, I’ve seen my mom work hard and work smart. She never for once sat around folding her arms. Even till now, she’s always doing something. This has helped me so much in my work ethic, because as a business owner, I don’t wait for my staff to do things. I roll up my sleeves, and work even harder. Sometimes people say I did not attend their event, and they feel bad. And I’m like, yes, I might not have been at the event. But guess what, I was working behind the scenes. I know what goes on at every venue and I know about all the items taken to the venues. Why? Because either I sourced for it, or I was there when they were transporting everything. I’m there to make sure that the checklist has been followed to the letter, and this has helped me tremendously. Because I am very prayerful and dogged, I do not take no for an answer. I remember for Lagos Cocktail, there was a period someone had said to me, “No, you won’t be able to do it this year.” I said to the person, “I am going to do it this year. I am going to be consistent. Yes, the funds might not be there. I might have to use my personal funds. But I will be consistent.” And I did it. And later the person said to me, “Look, Lara, I respect you. You do not take no for an answer.” I have a positive spirit. I see the light at the end of the tunnel. No matter what the challenges are, I believe that I can always go over those obstacles.
As an experienced entrepreneur, briefly tell us three basic things women must do or avoid in business?
Three basic things you must do are always take a break, you don’t want to break down. So a break is highly necessary. Second, you must stay focused. You must always keep your eye on the prize. Don’t look left, don’t look right. Avoid distractions. You know why you’re in business, so maintain your focus. Finally, you must be prayerful. You cannot do anything without prayer. Whether you’re Muslim or Christian, prayer is key. Because when the pressure comes, the only way you can look is up and not down.
If you could influence change, what change would you effect for Nigerian women?
If I could influence change, the change I would effect for Nigerian women would be to make ways to see more women in politics and governance, especially in key positions. They understand better the concerns of women and would be able to advocate as well as make better legislations to improve the conditions of women and children in the country.
What do you do to relax? What is your guilty pleasure?
Honestly, having a lazy day is my form of relaxation, just being at home, watching TV, and sleeping. You know, those days when you’re not under pressure, nobody is calling your phone and you are in chill mode. My guilty pleasure would be a day at the spa.
How do you achieve work-life balance?
Work life balance is not easy, honestly, but I try. I have a daughter, and I try to make time for her. I drop her in school every morning, and that’s our mother-daughter time when we get to talk. Piano classes, I’m there; school activities, I’m there. In fact, I’m her class administrator, so I’m always there. And weekends I try to balance it out. I take her for drama school, maybe we have lunch, and I make sure I’m home. It’s not easy, but I do it.
What last words do you want to say to those that have been inspired by you?
What I’ll say to people who are inspired by me is, if you have any idea, any business idea, there is never a right time to start that business. Now is the time to start that business. Don’t wait till you have all the money. Whatever it is you have, start the business and maintain your focus. You should know why you’re in business. Yes, you’re in business to make profit. But also you should be in business to impact your world, impact your generation, and to impact that industry. So, make sure that whatever it is that you do, you want to actually create an impact, a positive impact. Remain focused. Do not take no for an answer.