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Itoro Ugorji

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Itoro Ugorji, a seasoned early years practitioner, with several years of experience in childcare is the CEO and team lead at The Baby Lounge, a leading provider of innovative and practical childcare solutions designed to support and address the pain points of mothers of infants, toddlers and young children. Itoro worked for two of Nigeria’s leading banking institutions for over six years before leaving to pursue her passion in childcare. Her hands-on experience as an early years practitioner includes international exposure and she has under-taken several skills and competency-based trainings in the field of childcare. Holding a diploma in Children’s Studies, an M.Sc in Early Childhood Education with a specialisation in administration, management and leadership and several certifications in key areas of childcare, she also holds a Bachelor degree in English and Literary Studies and a Certificate in Project Leadership from Cornell University. Member of the U.S. National Association for Educating the Young Child (N.A.E.Y.C) and the World Forum Foundation, Itoro has worked with big names such as TOTAL E & P (Nigeria), Unilever (Nig.), Access Bank Plc., GTBank Plc., MTN Nigeria, Chevron Employees Cooperative, HIS and N.B.C. An alumni of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, a Cherie Blair Foundation mentee and a recipient of the Women X World Bank scholarship for the EDC/Lagos Business School (Certificate in Entrepreneurial Management) program, Itoro talks about dumping banking for childcare, the need for professionalism in the space, key issues startups face and what the government can do to sanitise the childcare space.

You transited from banking to childcare in a 360 move. What inspired this decision?
It was from a personal experience. We waited for seven years before our first child came along and when he was born, I was not prepared to leave paid employment at the time. So we embarked on a search for a crèche, a childcare facility that we could leave our precious little angel in and have the peace-of-mind to focus at work. The search turned out to be more difficult than we had bargained for. At first, we thought we were being finicky but alas, we realised that our expectations were really the minimum standards, a childcare facility in close proximity to work, a well-lit, safe, stimulating and warm environment, with equally warm and kind adults who genuinely cared for the children entrusted to their care. Then I realised there may be a gap to fill. That was when the budding idea of childcare designed to support working mums started to bloom and as they say, the rest is history.

Seeing as childcare is a delicate thing, what are those things that you think qualify you to do this?
A heart for children backed by professional trainings and years of hands-on work experience in the area of childcare.

What sets your outfit apart from your competitors in this field?
Our processes and standards set us apart. Our focus is on our area of core competence, childcare designed to support working mums of infants and toddlers. Reason we have practical and innovative childcare solutions (available all year round, no term breaks) such as office crèches (set-up and management), event pop-up crèches (a mobile play and care set-up at all kinds of events), in-home child minding, weekend care, crèche-in-the-mall, pre-school and after-school care, holiday camps, crèche advisory and consultancy.

Daycares/crèches have come under even more scrutiny recently with videos circulating of a caregiver viciously abusing a child. What is your opinion on this?
Recent trends like these underscore the fact that regulation and monitoring of daycare centres and their activities need to be more stringent. The recruitment, hiring and screening processes of the entire team that run and manage these facilities need to be vetted against standards set-up by competent regulatory authorities and inspectors, especially in a clime such as ours where there is no real social security system. Criminal records and background screening are a farce sadly. For a service such as childcare, I always strongly recommend that in putting a team together, hire for attitude and values and then train for skills. The people who deliver the service are the critical success factor; they have to have a heart for nurturing these precious little ones.

Allegations are rife that many daycares give children sedatives and other drugs to keep them quiet. How common is this and what can be done to stem this?
I have no specific statistics to corroborate how common this sad and almost evil practice is, but from hearsay, it appears to be fairly common, albeit within certain categories of daycare centres. The operators of daycare centres must undergo some rigorous screening and licensing process before they are approved to run a daycare centre, and periodic scheduled inspections and visits (without prior notice) must be made by regulatory bodies to track compliance of set standards.

What measures did you put in place to ensure the security and wellbeing of the children in your care?
Properly screened, trained and trusted personnel, CCTV surveillance systems and biometrics systems are in place all day, everyday.

What do you think should be the government’s role in monitoring daycares?
Government must regulate and enforce compliance. They must implement sanctions on defaulting operators without fear or favour.

 

Regulation And Monitoring Of Daycare Centres And Their Activities Need To Be More Stringent

 

As an alumnus of TEF, a CBF mentee and recipient of the Women X World Bank scholarship, how have all these prepared you for business?
What runs common across all these platforms is the value of mentoring from experienced and seasoned professionals and business education, the kind you get from top business schools.

Tell us something that has influenced your career positively today?
A strong support system and at the centre of it, an incredibly supportive spouse. My career has blossomed as a result of this. It’s interesting to note that my job is largely about providing strong support systems for working mums of young children and I’m able to do that effectively because I have a solid support system myself.

Why do you think more women aren’t thriving in the entrepreneurship world?
I would say it is largely because they have placed limitations on themselves and have been conditioned over the years to believe they can only be and do so much and not more. To break through those limiting beliefs is to thrive in the entrepreneurship world, it is as simple as that.

You were once a startup, what are some of the key issues startups face and how can they overcome them?
Start-ups are faced with a myriad of issues. Our peculiar business terrain is a tough one to navigate. As a start-up, you are constantly swimming against the tide. One key issue start-ups face is a lack of resilience, no funding, unfriendly government policies, inaccessible mentors, no form of support and so on. The list gets longer from start-up to start-up. Right in the middle of all of these issues that threaten to snuff life out of your start-up, sometimes even while you are still taxiing, rearing to lift your enterprise off the ground, is your ability to be resilient. As an entrepreneur, you need to activate your resilience mode and keep it on as you hit the rough patches on this long, winding road of entrepreneurship.

What are some of the challenges you have faced in this field and how did you navigate them?
Funding is a major issue. Daycare set-ups are capital-intensive and this very common challenge causes you to come up with creative ways to manufacture a product or design a service in the most cost-effective way. Because you have limited (available) funds, you are compelled to be innovative. Again this field is rife with quality issues, so maintaining high health and safety standards is key. Retaining a team that is knowledgeable, professional and recurrently trained in this field is also critical as the service we provide is much more than nanny care.

Who do you look up to and what keeps you going?
Entrepreneurs who have built a sustainable brand and business and are running profitable, impactful businesses, against all odds inspire me. Also, the fact that our range of childcare service solutions address real needs, keeps me going, gets me out of bed each day, and drives me to be more and do more.

Where do you see yourself personally and professionally in the next five years?
A subject-matter expert, a franchise and global brand.

What would be your advice to women especially those that have been inspired by you?
Push against those odds. Keep pushing, that one more push may be the one that opens that door. Pick up that towel; I know it’s dripping wet with sweat. Squeeze it dry and wipe your face. Keep moving, sooner than later, it will pay off, I promise you.


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Itoro Ugorji
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