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Inya Lawal: ‘Getting that opportunity shouldn’t be determined by gender’

By Maria Diamond
23 July 2022   |   4:20 am
I am the last of nine children. I come from a large family; eight girls and one boy. We grew up mostly in Nigeria, but partly in the United Kingdom (UK).

Dr. Inya Lawal is the Country chair (Nigeria) on Export and Credits for the Women Economic Forum. A recipient of an Honorary Doctorate Award from the ESCAE Benin University, Benin Republic, for her outstanding contribution to Women’s Leadership and Global Trade Development, she holds a Masters in Artistic Performance from Stockholm University in Sweden.

As a lead programme partner to the U.S. Consulate General in Lagos, Nigeria, and programme partner for the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) – a White House/Department of State initiative designed to support women entrepreneurs with knowledge, network and funding to start and grow their businesses, Inya has received a Women’s History Month honorary award by the American Corner Ibadan in recognition of her contribution to the development of women and girls in the Nigerian Society. A two-time nominee of the Tällberg-SNF Eliasson Global Leadership Prize, an awardee of the Royal African Young Leadership Forum (RAYLF) and a recipient of the Kidpreneur Award of Recognition for selfless effort and supports toward the development and empowerment of Nigerian Children, the Ebira, Kogi State native is a social entrepreneur working to be a world-changer through the African Creative Market (ACM), an event that brings major stakeholders in the African and international creative industries together for creative trade and to grow the creative economy in Africa.

In this interview with MARIA DIAMOND, she spoke on the need to empower and mentor women, as well as issues around gender equity and feminism.

Kindly take us through your background?
I am the last of nine children. I come from a large family; eight girls and one boy. We grew up mostly in Nigeria, but partly in the United Kingdom (UK). I did some schooling in Nigeria and in Sweden. I eventually shuttled between Sweden and the UK. I started living in Nigeria fully in 2017, when I shot my movie Potato Potahto.

As the Country Chair for Nigeria on Export and Credits for Women Economic Forum, what exactly is your role?
The G100 club is an army of some of the world’s most powerful women from various sectors who have a common goal of creating an equal, progressive and inclusive environment for women worldwide. Comprising leaders and luminaries from the business, corporate and political domains, each leading a sector of influence and having their companies and institutions in support of gender parity and equality.

My role as a country chair is to advocate for gender equity and balance, mitigate barriers to women’s leadership, commit to women’s greater C-suite representation, and fuel funding for female founders in Nigeria. I have selected and will be working hand in hand with 99 other women across the six geo-political zones in Nigeria to strive for women’s empowerment and opportunity building through the provision of capacity and resources on export and credits.

Do you think that Nigerian women are actually toeing the right path on the crusade for gender equality?
Gender equality simply means equal opportunities for men and women. I noticed that in Nigeria, the word feminist or feminism to many means women who hate men, but the original idea behind the feminist movement is equal opportunities. I believe that as long as a human is qualified for an opportunity, being given that opportunity shouldn’t be determined by their gender. This is not to say that like every movement, there aren’t extremists. At the end of it all, we should all be feminists.

Do you think gender equality is attainable in African society, especially with the culture that naturally puts a woman under a man?
I don’t think it’s just about culture; we have inequality everywhere, even in societies that seem to embrace gender equality. It is a world problem. So, we all have a long way to go and as human beings, we need each other, whether male or female. We need to raise our children better, teaching them to be mindful of others, their rights and their feelings.

There’s a lot of raising that happens with female children in the African communities that doesn’t necessarily happen with boys. So, mothers and fathers need to instill the spirit of equal living in their children. You find that mothers raised many misogynistic men – I am not denying that societal constructs have a role to play here, but we need to be intentional about our children and how they turn out. When we’re training our girls, we should also train our boys.

Have you ever thought you would have had it easier in your career path if you were a man?
I have never put myself in a position to think like that, because I was raised by a powerful mother and amazing sisters. I was raised to go for whatever I wanted without excuses. I learnt early that there would be several closed doors, but several windows waiting to be opened. I learnt that I would get several ‘Nos.’ So, I have always had a fighting spirit.

However, the question is if I have noticed how men are treated compared to women in Nigeria? Of course, I have noticed, from both sexes actually. Do men get more opportunities in prominent positions? Of course, they do. You go somewhere with a man, you’re treated with respect, but you go by yourself and you’re treated differently. In fact, even amongst some women, there is a treatment for women wearing wedding rings and those without rings. It all boils to education and it shows ignorance. We all have to work on ourselves, both men and women.

Tell us about the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) and your role as the programme partner?
The Academy for Women Entrepreneurs is a United States Government Programme that was created to empower women all over the world. The programme is delivered through an e-learning platform called DreamBuilder, with 13 courses covering all aspects of the business. We also run facilitated sessions with a team of business experts and mentors. The programme was created to help women entrepreneurs understand the necessary structures that aid business growth and scalability.

Research shows that some become entrepreneurs out of necessity and without necessary training – the AWE programme helps fill that gap by giving the necessary training, access to business experts, mentors, resources, funding and networking. I became the programme and implementation partner for AWE in 2019 when it launched in Nigeria, and my role is to implement the programme in partnership with the U.S. Consulate General Lagos.

How do you select the women who participate in this programme?
We do an open call through news and media platforms, newsletters, social media, social groups and entrepreneur groups. Once the application closes, our college of readers goes through all applications to find candidates who best fit our criteria for selection. It is a vigorous process of selection, which ends with interviews. In 2019, we selected and trained 100 entrepreneurs out of 6,000+ applicants, in 2020, 120 entrepreneurs out of 10,000+ applicants, in 2021, 250 entrepreneurs out of 15,000+ applicants and in 2022, 250 entrepreneurs out of 16,000+ applicants.

What is the difference between this year’s edition of AWE from previous ones?
All the years have been wonderful, but of course, it gets better every year. As the programme gets more visibility, it attracts local support. We had many local supporters this year, who offered several training sessions to our participants. Local supporting organisations and partners boost the program’s sustainability.

You are passionate about grooming young female entrepreneurs, what’s the drive?
I think it is only natural to want to solve women’s problems if you’re exposed to them early. Being the last born with seven sisters exposed me to women’s struggles and challenges early. So, I am naturally passionate about women. I also love to solve problems and there are a lot of issues waiting for solutions.

Tell us about the African Creative Market (ACM), how does this impact the creative sector?
The Africa Creative Market is an agile creative market event that brings major stakeholders in the African and international creative industry together to explore and exchange innovative ideas for Africa’s creative economy, provide training for African creatives, share future-proof business models, provide access to trade finance, increase creative export and standards, and promote data-led understanding of creative trade.
The concept and idea of the Africa Creative Market came about after attending several film festivals and markets around the world. I have always said that Africa needs a Creative Market that will give its creative industry a business platform. I am very passionate about the growth of our creative industry as it is a game changer for our economy.

Our focus for 2022 is to empower African creatives to scale. We also aim to support the development of local talent and skills through job creation, co-production, collaboration and co-investment. ACM is partnered with and supported by His Imperial Majesty (H.I.M), Ooni Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, OJAJA II, Ooni of Ife, Swedish Embassy, Paramount Africa, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Women in Film & Television International (WIFTI) 50 WIFTI Chapters (across Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia), Berlin Film Festival through Black European Creative Hub (BECH), The YD Company, Entertainment IP Ventures Liechtenstein, 789 Consulting, Kaffy Inc, Rio2C, The Mark Group Germany; and a host of other companies and organisations

For this inaugural year, we’re focusing on four sectors: Film/TV, Music, Dance and Fashion. Other sectors with sub-focus include Advertising, Games, Cultural Education, Edutainment, VR/AR and Photography.

Your film, Potato Potahto, what is the thematic preoccupation around the title?
Potato Pothato is the story of a divorced couple who decide to live together, but soon realise that this ingenious idea is easier said than done. This was my first major film. I had co-produced other films and TV series as a silent partner, but when Shirley Frimpong Manso shared the script with me, I read it and couldn’t put it down; I knew it was the right one.

The movie cuts across different cultures, addresses important social issues, exposes the sensitivity of men and women, and addresses divorce from a different point of view. The famous saying ‘Potato Potahto’ is about negligible and unimportant differences.

With your knowledge of international films, where would you say is the place of the Nigerian movie industry?
The Nigerian movie industry has a lot of potential and the world is waiting for us to tell our stories and drive the industry to its full potential. In order to do this, we need to address our structural issues; we need training, funding and a lot of support. I believe in the Nigerian film industry and I know that it can be one of the leading movie industries in the world if we fix the cracks.

Ascend Studios Foundation (ASF), what is the focal point?
Ascend Studio Foundation (ASF) is a global movement with the mandate to provide capacity building, mentorship, social education and economic empowerment to women and youths within Africa. Since its founding in 2019, the foundation has trained over 6,000 women and youth through its signature (proprietary) and partner programmes. In 2019, I was one of 19 people around the world selected for the U.S. Exchange Programme – The Fortune U.S Department of State Most Powerful Women’s Mentoring Programme, and I was privileged to be paired with Dina Powell and the leading executives of Goldman Sachs as a mentee.

I had several experiences during my mentorship that encouraged me to formalise the empowerment programmes I ran pre-mentorship and run them under Ascend Studios Foundation. I also had the privilege to sit with Goldman Sach’s 10,000 Women programme team and I got direct insight on programme structure from them. My experience in the Fortune Programme was instrumental to my selection as a programme partner for the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs.

What inspired the zeal to be a problem solver?
My mother’s affirmations; my mother always told me that I was special. She said she knew she was carrying a great child from conception; she would always tell me how difficult my pregnancy was and how we almost died during my birth. She told me so many times that I too believed that I was special.

As a 5-year-old, I believed that I could fly. On an adventure to test my superpowers, I climbed the house roof and jumped. Of course, I broke my arm. After getting a cast on the arm, I thought I perhaps did not try well enough. I jumped again and broke the cast. It was then I realised that being special did not necessarily come with the ability to fly, but my mum’s constant affirmation triggered the search for purpose in me as a child.

I was very hungry and passionate about change as a child. I was aware of the purpose, very inquisitive and started asking questions about life. I became a critical thinker and problem solver, and this grew my confidence. Being a problem solver is very fulfilling.

As an expert in business management, what would you say are the major challenges Nigerian entrepreneurs face?
I would say knowledge and structure, not even funding as many people would argue. You could have access to funds, but if you don‘t have knowledge about the business you’re into or the structure to sustain it, you could lose your investment. I always say Nigerians have an entrepreneurial spirit, but passion alone does not sustain businesses. Business owners need to be intentional about research, growth and training.

Which aspect of your career is most challenging?
Everything is challenging, but as they say, every challenge is an opportunity to grow, a lesson to learn and a part of life.

How do you juggle all of your professional responsibilities with your personal life?
I am very family-oriented and I do at least three holidays with my family in a year. The best way to stay away from work is to log off all social apps and hide my laptop.

If you were to summarise the role and responsibilities of a successful woman what would it be?
Success is subjective; everyone’s definition of success is different. I would say a successful woman is one who has found herself and her path in life.

Is there a woman in Nigeria you look up to as a role model?
Joke Silva; aunty J is my absolute love. I manage Aunty J and I have managed her for years and I have not seen someone who is able to hold her own, live as herself and still be able to empower as many people as she’s empowered. Aunty J’s standing alone will empower you; just looking at her and you will feel empowered. She is so inspiring. Her brand cuts across generations; she knows how to relate with her friends who are her mates, those who are her seniors, those younger than her and even children. Now, that is a powerful woman and everyone who has met her would tell you how much of a remarkable woman she is.