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‘I’m a firm believer in starting small and dreaming very big’

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Peju Ugboma, Founder/CEO of I Luv Desserts and blogger, The Service Critic

Peju Ugboma is the Founder/CEO of I Luv Desserts and also runs a blog, The Service Critic where she reviews restaurants. A graduate of Microbiology from the University of Lagos, she was the Head of Business Strategy at First Independent Global before resigning and setting up her business. Certified from Gastronimicum, Agde and Le Notre in France and The Taste Lab in the United Kingdom, Peju wants to launch a training school for aspiring chefs, baking enthusiasts and home cooks. In this interview, this ardent Manchester United fan talks about dumping Microbiology for dessert making, turning a huge business mistake into a best seller and three things women-owned businesses must do and avoid to stay successful.

Making desserts is a pretty unique concept, what led you down this path?
I cannot honestly tell you why I chose desserts, but it possibly stemmed from watching chefs on TV do amazing stuff with butter, sugar and flour. I would watch on TV and wish there were places locally to buy them. I still remember the first time I went to a store on Awolowo Road in Ikoyi and saw a white forest gateau, I was in cloud nine.

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When I started out, I knew only a handful of people who were doing desserts commercially for events back then. There were lots of cake makers but proper desserts connoisseurs weren’t available locally. I knew to be able to do it the way I saw it on TV, I would require at least basic knowledge in basic baking techniques, so I enrolled in a baking school locally for one month and the classes were very hands on. I also bought loads of books to help out. By the end of the first month, I knew I wanted more of the real stuff. I searched locally for a proper culinary school but nothing was available so I had to look outside Nigeria.

You switched from microbiology to dessert making, what informed this decision?
To be honest, Microbiology was never my first choice. I come from a home where daddy’s words were the law. My dad initially wanted me to study Medicine but I didn’t score high enough in JAMB to study it.

Secretly, I was quite pleased, but I dared not show it outwardly. I had just about enough points to study microbiology. If I could have chosen my own course, it most likely would have been the arts. I hated Chemistry and other science subjects.

Peju Ugboma, Founder/CEO of I Luv Desserts and blogger, The Service Critic


When I finished from university, I knew I was not going to do anything with the Microbiology, so I tried my hand at different things but I didn’t find any job exciting enough to keep me occupied till I went to work in a customer service training company.

I loved it enough to stay for a few years before I moved in a completely different direction into learning about business strategy. I learnt very quickly and was fully dedicated to it because I needed to grow up. I eventually got restless there after about two years. My husband (then boyfriend) knew how excited I was watching baking shows on TV, so he always encouraged me to try it out. Then I quit my job and went for my first baking course and 12 years later, I am still at it.

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You were once a 9-5 employee for over five years, what would you say is the difference between entrepreneurship and full-time employment?
Entrepreneurship is a full time job, especially when you are a start-up. You eat, drink, sleep and dream your new business.

In my candid opinion, entrepreneurship is way harder because you are responsible for other people’s livelihood. People are dependent on you so you have to strive to make sure things are done properly. If you don’t have a dime for yourself, you must provide for others.

When I started out, I was the baker, cleaner, delivery personnel, phone operator, shopper, everything! When you are in paid employment, you have a job description but with entrepreneurship, you are a one-man army.

In your opinion, what are some of the key issues startups face, especially in Nigeria?
I know you have probably heard funding many times but I disagree. The main issue a lot of startups face is knowledge, the knowledge of how to run and manage a business properly.

You have a business idea, it looks good on paper and we run with it without adequate checks, research and even proper training on know-how. We start, then get stuck and eventually throw in the towel until the next best thing comes along. Access to funds is also another big problem.

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I am very anti-get a loan from a bank to start a business, the interest rate will almost cripple whatever you have gathered. I am a firm believer in starting small and dreaming very big. Electricity is also a big problem. I know this is a third world problem but it’s a huge challenge in my line of work.

A large chunk of our generated income goes on power generation. I would also say human power because in my industry, retaining excellent staff who are dedicated to the job with great work ethics are very few and far between. Artisan turnover is quite high.

Your company pioneered frozen cookie dough in West Africa, tell us about that?
The cookie dough project came about when there was some kind of ban on importation of goods into Nigeria. Before then, when you go to the freezer aisle of most supermarkets, there weren’t any locally manufactured brands of cookie dough stocked there. It got me thinking and research started on producing cookie dough locally.

The idea behind the frozen cookie dough was to create convenience and save time for the average home baker whilst still enjoying freshly baked cookies in the convenience of your home. All you need to do is place dough balls on trays and bake for 15 minutes.

The whole process took about 24 months from inception to product testing, sourcing packaging and licensing from NAFDAC. We rolled out and gradually started retailing in stores. We were stocked in about 22 stores in Lagos and Abuja then we hit a brick wall. I think it was largely because we had lapses in our marketing strategy and supply change management.

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I am no longer ashamed to say that it failed the first time it launched, it was quite humbling and I refused to talk about it for a while but I have learnt a whole lot from this experience, because this kind of experience, as humbling as it is, helps you build resilience. We are back to drawing board trying to retrace our steps to understand why it didn’t work in the first instance. Hopefully, it will work out better and stay in the market for as long as we have projected it to stay.

How important is mentoring for women especially those in business?
I have often heard women say it was a waste of their time, but in my own case, it was one of the wisest decisions I took. If you are in business, whether man or woman, you need mentoring. It is hard enough running your business solo, with you being the all in one CEO and ‘Jackie’ that does even the most menial of jobs.

Personally, I have benefitted from having a mentor who not only guides me as regards my business but spiritually and even issues regarding the home-front.

When I am asked how I chose a mentor, happenstance, I came across her by accident and I prayed that I was choosing the right person. The first question she asked was “what are you bringing to the table.” I was stunned. When I asked her why she said that, she wanted to know how serious I was about our relationship. I have since nicknamed her iya-aje because of how tough she gets when she needs me to do something.

Tell us something that has influenced your life and career positively today?
It took me a while to figure this out, but life became much easier when I got an understanding of Proverbs 3:5-6. It says trust God with your heart, lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will straighten all crooked path before you. As hard it may be, I have chosen to trust Him.

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As a member of BTS Welfare Hub, what do you do specifically for women?
BTS Welfare Hub is a faith-based group, it doesn’t cater to just women, but to the needs of the downtrodden. The hub takes care of a range of things like visiting old people’s homes, orphanages, cerebral palsy centers, poor communities and visiting the streets to encourage someone. An average visit to a poor community will include sharing the word, praying with the people in these communities, encouraging and then giving out presents and food.

As a former business strategist, briefly tell us three basic things women must do/avoid when running a business?
First, separate purses; your business account is not your personal account; you should not draw funds from the business account just because you can. I believe you should pay yourself a realistic salary. If the business is unable to pay you a salary, create an IOU, which can possibly go towards your equity in the company, there must be some sort of reimbursement for the work you do.

Second, whilst I believe you shouldn’t hire too soon, I also believe that it is important to delegate so that you don’t burn yourself out. Micromanaging when you delegate is a killer of creativity. You need to prioritize what is important, what can be delegated and what you can afford to put on the back-burner.

Finally, don’t be afraid to make a mistake or be too cautious to take a risk. I know it is not always easy to accept when we assume we have failed at something but it shouldn’t define who we are.

One of my biggest sellers at the moment, the cheesecake popsicle came about as a mistake I made when mixing one of our products. Now I am grateful that it happened, I acknowledge that it’s not all mistakes that have a somewhat happy ending but use whatever mistake as a stepping- stone to better yourself.

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If you could influence change, what would you want to do for Nigerian women?
If I could influence change, I would like to start with reorientation, reorientation of the mind, that being a woman is not a limiting factor. I can be anything I want to be if my mind is aligned to it and I am willing to put in the work.

A lot of our parents did some form of damage in us with a limiting mindset, that no matter what we do or achieve, the kitchen is where we will end up as women. I would also love for women to truly support one another, not just using it as a buzzword but also actually bearing one and other up. These are little things we can be deliberate about it.

What do you do to relax? What is your guilty pleasure?
Relaxing is relative nowadays, as an entrepreneur, shutting down, mind body and soul is hard. So the easiest thing for me nowadays is reading and eating out. I also love watching football but nowadays the team I support isn’t doing well so it is a bit of a drag. My absolute guilty pleasure is travelling to new places, learning new cultures and experiencing new culinary adventures.

What should we expect from you in the next five years?
Whenever I am asked this question, I get a bit overwhelmed. Whilst I understand the need to plan for the future, I have learnt to take it one day at a time, planning five years in advance in my books is a wrong pressure trigger.

So I will change from the next five years to tomorrow or in the near future; I want to co-own a properly run internationally certified culinary academy in Nigeria and an online culinary school because that’s where the business world is gearing up to. I pray for sustenance, God’s grace and grit to carry forth.


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