Ini Abimbola is the Founder/Group CEO of the Thistle Group, an emerging group of enterprises, made of up business interests in Management Consulting, Gas, Logistics, Research and Media. A Business Leader, Management Consultant, Skills Enhancement Strategist, Business & Life Coach, and a Multi-Entrepreneur, her day job is as Lead Consultant/CEO of ThistlePraxis Consulting Limited (TPC), an Assessments and Strategy firm based in Lagos…
.. A 2008 Draper Hills Fellow on Democracy and Development at Stanford University California and an alumnus of the Harvard Business School Executive Education Program, Ini holds a degree in International Relations & Diplomacy and a Masters degree in Management. Her areas of expertise include but not limited to International Development, with over 15 years working in the international development space; broad consulting experience and expertise on capacity building, corporate governance, strategic policy formulation, visioning, planning and implementation, among others. A member of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) and the Institute of Directors (IOD), Ini sits on the boards of various organizations including BrainCedar, Serendipity Limited, AXL8 Limited, SpeedMeals and SIS Limited. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she reveals how she keeps her hand in several pies successfully, why women are not doing well in business, and other issues.
As the CEO Of the Thistle Group, what does your work entail?
Thistle Group is a group of enterprises with different companies. So, on a day-to-day basis, I oversee the work of all the businesses and how they’re running with ThistlePraxis Consulting being the main organization. Since we evolved into a group, we’ve been able to put a lot of succession planning in place and this gives me a bit of flexibility to take note of what is happening in the other businesses and put structures in place.
How do you juggle all these businesses and keep things running?
The key thing is succession planning. We have senior managers that run most of the businesses and I oversee, looking through what is being done, setting strategies, more of the external relationship work and setting direction. I have capable hands and it makes it easier to juggle.
What are some of the challenges you face doing business?
We are a management-consulting firm and the usual challenge is getting clients to respect the work you do. It’s not a product-based firm; more of service and selling services is always harder because you have to prove the basis. It is not tangible, I can’t show you, and I can only prove to you that there is value in the service I am going to render. Other challenges are the usual ones in this country- financial issues, infrastructure, electricity and human resources. Luckily, we have been blessed to have people that have been with us from the beginning, and that is very good.
Do you think women in positions of power find things harder?
Yes. I was reading a research recently that claims intelligence is more associated with men than women. Naturally, people assume a man is more intelligent, can get things done better; if a man is nasty and tough, people respect him but if it’s a woman, she is called a bitch. I have paid my dues and can sit with any male colleague, I can challenge conversations the same way they do and can do the things they do. Even from the Christian perspective, God took his time in making a woman, making her better and a partner in creation. Besides, we all know the first product of anything is usually a sample.
You have several degrees from top schools and talk at several top institutions as well. Do you think all these prepared you for where you are today?
Education is good and being exposed to the networks that come with these schools. Schooling and living outside Nigeria is good, but I think life prepares us for wherever we find ourselves. Life, education, exposure and networks have prepared me for where I am now. I am the first child of six children and that automatically puts you in a place of authority from the beginning.
Do you think female networking is important in doing business or rising to the top?
It’s important and not necessarily female-to- female but generally. When we talk about networking, it shouldn’t be just women networking alone because by doing this, we are boxing ourselves. Networking shouldn’t be about gender, but opportunities. It’s good for women to come together, help one another but the danger here is that there is a tendency for cliques to form unknowingly and this defeats the networking purpose. We can solidify gender issues and bring in the men to support us. Networking should be across gender, industries, sectors and cliques.
You have authored three books and several publications. What are the books about?
My first book is called Eagles Dance, an autobiography of my life and experiences. The second is Break The Alabaster. I have a strong passion for women and women issues and this book talks of how I see women and the issues women have to deal with regularly. The third one is a potpourri of a lot of things I have learnt over time, in business, life, marriage, love, living, children and so on. Two more books are coming out latest by the middle of the year.
You mentioned your passion for women issues, what are some of the things you have done in this regard?
I have been the Executive Secretary of WimBiz for two years and this was one platform I was able to bring a lot of my experience and changes to. I am particular also about how culture, religion and patriarchy have influenced and affected women issues. For instance, the incoming President of France is 39, married to a 64-year-old woman and everyone is making a lot of noise and I don’t understand because the same age difference is between Donald Trump and Melania, his wife. People have issues because it’s the woman that is older. Why would a woman leave an abusive marriage and the church refuses to support her? Even other women abuse her and call her names. Nobody asks what she is going through. Until we begin to deal with the underlying issues in domestic violence, we are not going anywhere. Religion is not helping, neither is culture or patriarchy. Women are also perpetuating female subjugation amongst their children by pampering their sons. There are so many programmes, talks, colloquiums and conferences for women, where are the programmes for the men? Who is teaching the men to be good fathers and husbands? Who are they listening to?
Why is the number of female entrepreneurs still low and their businesses not doing well?
I recently held a programme called “Business Dissect”, aimed at helping businesses and, from my findings, we have romanticized and glamourized entrepreneurship, making it sound so easy. People would tell you that you are foolish because you’re still working a regular 9-5. They will tell you, “O n se omo-odo? Lo da business le ko di oga ara e.” (You’re still a servant? Go and start your business and be your own boss) and they would rush into business, not understanding the dynamics, sacrifice or hard work that goes into running a business. Nobody tells you all these and despite several trainings, most women do not understand this because they are into business for the wrong reasons. They have no idea of basic things they should know like cost, pricing, profit making, turnover, keeping books and so on. Even in our seventh year, we are still finding it tough. We have glamourized entrepreneurship so much that it has lost its value. I know many entrepreneurs that they’re only successful on Instagram. From the first year, we have been doing Annual Reports to show us how we’re progressing and this is because this business has evolved beyond me.
How do you think SMEs and startups can be encouraged to do better?
I always tell people that if the business you’re starting is not filling a gap, you’re simply having a shop you go to everyday. If you’re filling a gap, you would do well, it’s that simple. First, ensure you’re filling a gap. Secondly, make sure that the market needs the product that you’re selling. A lot of people are just copying each other. There are a million and one Ankara designers now, what is different about you? What makes you stand out and would make customers keep coming back? Third, it’s not easy. The turnaround time for SMEs is five years and that is to survive and keep up, not survive then die off.
You sit on the board of several companies, run businesses and generally have your hands in many pies as well as being a wife and mother. How do you cope?
How do men juggle all their responsibilities? I have a husband who is the CEO of a group of companies as well, he is a father and a husband, how does he juggle all of them? The same way a man would manage is the same way a woman would. Women have capacity to handle a lot of things at the same time. I can be talking to you on the phone, have a baby in my hand and stirring the soup at the same time. Men cannot do all these; it’s not a lie. Women are intuitive, we can’t see certain things but we just know with our God-given sixth sense.
How do you relax?
I sleep a lot, I am a couch potato. I don’t like going out, I can be in my house for one month, not stepping out and be fine. I read a lot, I write, I am a real life issues coach, I mentor a lot of businesses. I am also happy when I am giving, giving my time, expertise and so on. I love to relax on the couch in front of the television.
Who are your role models?
I won’t say role models particularly, but people who are inspiring, have inspired me and keep inspiring me because of who they are and what they have done. One of them is Liyel Imoke, former governor of Crossriver state. His capacity to be quiet in the face of abuse and criticism inspires me and I have learnt a lot from him. I have heard so many damaging things about myself in the past and he inspired me on how to handle such. Another person is Mazi Alex Otti, a very intelligent and humble man. The third person is Osayi Alile, she is a woman’s woman, working quietly in the background to help and support other women and I admire her for it. Mercy Makinde the founder of Amazing Amazon is another person. She is my mentee but she inspires me with her capacity to be selfless, to give and not be a ‘celebrity’, I am inspired by her. Mary Akpobome is also one of the people that inspire me. She always holds the door open for others.
What legacies do you want to be remembered for?
As the woman who always did what people thought was impossible, took the bull by the horns, did not care what people say; I want to be remembered as the woman that lived life well, took on life and faced the odds squarely. I want to be remembered as a woman of faith because my faith is very important to me, not church. I want to be remembered as a woman who stood for other women, who is herself and real.
What would you tell women looking up to you?
I usually tell women there is nothing wrong with self-love, you must have a healthy level of self-love, of self-esteem, of self-worth for you to be able to love another. Marriage should be enjoyed not endured and this goes for men as well. A lot of men are in terrible marriages but because of culture and shame, they keep quiet. On the last day, God would ask each of us if we fulfilled the purpose of which we were sent to this Earth. Make sure you are truly happy; don’t live a lie to please other people because you would regret it at the end of the day.