‘We make ethical products and we support advancement of women and girls in the society’
Aishetu Dozie is the former General Manager and Division Head, Investment Banking West Africa, Rand Merchant Bank Nigeria Limited.
Aishetu’s passion for global finance began in the equities division of Goldman Sachs on the international desk in New York. She went on to work for a USAID-funded project with the Nigerian government in its privatization program. She worked closely with President Obasanjo and his economic team of cabinet ministers in crafting the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS), which drove several successful reforms including the $18 billion Paris Club debt write-off.
Her passion for demonstrable development impact and understanding the intersection of the public and private sectors ability to stimulate economic growth led her to the World Bank in Washington DC, where she focused on financing businesses in the manufacturing, infrastructure, and service sectors in regions such as Central and South America, Eastern Europe, and Eastern Africa.
Aishetu has worked for Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, Standard Chartered Bank, and Rand Merchant Bank as a senior Investment Banking executive, having closed $130 billion in M&A, financing, and capital markets transactions. Over the past decade, she’s lived in New York, Johannesburg, London, and Lagos.
She founded a first-of-its-kind children’s play and activity centre in Lagos and authored a children’s picture book entitled Paloo & Friends in Imaginaria. Aishetu loves writing and is a contributing columnist with Business Day Newspaper. She currently lives in Nigeria with her husband and three superhero sons.
Aishetu holds a BA from Cornell University, an MBA from the Harvard Business School, and participated in the Leaders in Development Program at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University. Aishetu is also the Founder and CEO of Bossy Cosmetics Inc, a beauty line that was launched yesterday on International Women’s Day. She takes us through her career trajectory, challenges of a woman at the top and why she decided to roll out her Bossy Lipsticks line.
Congratulations on your product launch yesterday. Where did the rollout of Bossy Lipsticks take place?
It was launched online yesterday on www.bossylipstick.com. We will do a series of pop-ups in different cities this year. Lagos is coming up soon.
You have traversed the world of banking, business and even worked for the government. Tell us how it’s been like working in these sectors.
I fell in love with the world of international finance at a young age. I was fortunate to secure an internship through a programme that supports disadvantaged minority groups on Wall Street called Sponsors for Educational Opportunity.
My first finance job was at Credit Suisse on the equities trading floor. I was overwhelmed and impressed at the same time. Watching the traders execute buy and sell orders, seeing billions of dollars in swings of portfolio valuation was intoxicating.
I was happy to be in the room. I was deeply grateful too. I looked around the trading floor and I knew I was different. There weren’t a lot of women there and there certainly weren’t many black folks either. I felt a strong sense of pride but also this responsibility to represent my intersectionality with care. It wasn’t always easy, but I look back and feel a sense of gratitude for my banking career.
Starting off as an analyst can be another shade of brutal. You are literally the bottom of the food chain and you work like it too! You put your head down and work the long hours because you are learning and developing your own individual toolkit.
You are also relatively well compensated and, for me, this was incredibly important. I financed my own education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I had to work for money. I had to work to pay off my school loans, so I was incredibly focused!
I enjoyed a lot of my career in finance and a lot of it I didn’t. Things have changed considerably since the mid-90s where sexual harassment and inappropriate office conduct wasn’t really something that one could speak of. You tolerated a lot and carefully navigated tricky situations.
I would say that I struggled with this love/hate relationship with banking for my entire career. There is a lot of doing big, international mergers & acquisitions deals that is fascinating.
When you step back and see the deal announcement in the press, you get this amazing feeling of elation that drives you to work even harder. You get this sense that although you don’t have operational input in a particular company, providing critical access to financing and capital markets is instrumental to these businesses’ success.
This feeling drove me for many years. This notion that I was making a difference in a small but significant way.
I’ve worked at a lot of investment banks too – Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, International Finance Corporation of the World Bank, and others. I’ve moved around geographically as well. I’ve done deals in the US, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Central and South America.
I’ve had a great time as an investment banker, but it came at quite a cost. A cost that I was comfortable with for a long time but increasingly began to question whether I had reached the point of diminishing returns.
What made you say so?
A lot of investment banking cultures are unnecessarily difficult. The cultures are brutal and entirely results-driven. I completely understand why, but I stopped wanting to play the corporate political games and they get more arduous as you get more senior.
I don’t want to complain though. I’ve had a relatively good career thus far and I am grateful for all of the opportunities afford to me. Working for government has to be one of the dumbest decisions that I have ever made.
I was definitely naïve and had this notion that I could change the world and I thought that working as a special assistant within Nigeria’s government was how I was going to accomplish these lofty ideas that I had. I worked on a solid team and we did accomplish a lot of great things, but the costs were way too high for me. I have never worked in a more vicious environment.
Nigerian government made Investment Banking look like a cool walk in the park! The only benefit of having wasted two years of my life as a government worker is that I saw Nigeria and Nigerians at their core and at their worst.
Going to secondary school in Lagos, Nigeria at the storied Queen’s College is completely different from living in Abuja and working in the underbelly of the government. I lost every bit of naïveté that I possessed so in that regard; it wasn’t a total waste.
All in all, I’m pretty proud of myself. I have worked hard and done the best that I could do. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve also wanted to make money, good money. I knew what it was like not to have a lot of it. I knew that it made life harder when you were poor.
I wasn’t poor but I have a large network of relatives on both sides of my family who were and it wasn’t easy to live with that guilt of having been in the group of relatives that was born in America and as a result, could do a number of things to substantially change my birth circumstances.
You’re like a world citizen, having traversed and lived in different continents, @ what point did you decide to return to Nigeria?
I’m not sure that I would characterize my situation as currently living in Nigeria. I maintain a home in Lagos and one in California. I moved to Palo Alto end of 2017 to participate in a fellowship at Stanford University called the Distinguished Careers Institute.
I’ve just finished my fellowship and I’m now launching a beauty business -Bossy Cosmetics – that is based in California. I did move back to Lagos in 2008 when my husband and I got engaged. It was a pretty easy decision for me to leave New York City and go back home. I missed Lagos and I missed my friends. It felt like there were myriad opportunities in finance at the time and I was keen to explore them.
I had just left Lehman Brothers (about a month before its bankruptcy) and taken a job at Morgan Stanley to build their Nigeria business. It seemed like the stars were aligned in my favour. The job was right and life was too. I knew that I would want to start having a family soon and my husband had moved to Lagos to start a business, so it was a no-brainer. Off to Lagos, I moved.
What is it like being a woman at the top in the banking world? Has it been easy climbing the career ladder?
I’ve been fortunate. I have had the benefit of mainly working for really great bosses and dealing with strong and supportive boards. I don’t want to characterize my experience as the norm because every journey is unique. I haven’t really experienced overt issues with being a senior woman in banking.
At least nothing too troubling. My last boss would often refer to me as “Girl” which really upset me, but I never said anything to him because I didn’t want to be that woman who makes everything about being a woman. You know what I mean? On one occasion we were having a very heated disagreement on a strategy issue and he began yelling at me and wagging his finger in my face. It was an out-of-body experience for me.
I started thinking about whether he would speak to me in that way if I were male. It was very upsetting to be spoken to in such a disrespectful manner. I always thought that once you got to be pretty senior you were free from this sort of nuisance behaviour. What I learned is that woman face this type of misogyny at every level of corporate life.
It definitely hasn’t been an easy walk. Not at all. But I can’t say that it has been so because I’m a woman. All of my male colleagues have also gone through challenges too. Many times, things that happen are so insidious that it’s really difficult to establish if gender played a role. What I will say is that having to manage all of these other stakeholders adds a real and unique level of complexity to being a female executive.
Managing yourself, your children, your husband, your extended family, your in-laws, your friends, your community, your office politics, etc. can be quite draining and tough. Very, very tough. This is more of an exogenous issue rather than endogenous one though.
What has been hardest is my decision to have a family and live a full life outside of work. That’s what makes the walk up the ladder H-A-R-D.
Tell us about family life and growing up
I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the United States. I was an only child for many years and my parents separated when I was about a year old. My father lived in Nigeria but wasn’t a part of my life for the first 11 years or so. My mom, my aunt, and I were my entire world. I definitely had a great childhood. It was simple but happy.
I learned to be inward being an only child. I would spend hours behind our sofa playing with my dolls and toys. It was a great childhood actually. It wasn’t like what my kids have now though. There was no such thing as play dates! My mom was a working single mother and my aunt was a full-time student. You ate what was served and you did what you were told. There was no one to even debate any issues and/or concerns with you. You were grateful for food, clothing, and shelter.
My mom decided we should move to Nigeria and so I enrolled at Queen’s College in Yaba. Great school. Imagine the amazing legion of women that I call my OGQC sisters now? Such a blessed community to be a part of.
Soon after we moved to Nigeria, my mom remarried and had my sister. I enjoyed both my youth in Cambridge and in Lagos. I have wonderful memories of both places. Once we moved back to Lagos, I got to spend a lot of time with my cousins in Benin City, where my maternal grandmother is from. So, while my friends were going to London and Atlanta, I was headed to Benin or Abuja every holiday and it was great.
Who’s Aishetu Dozie?
Great question. I think you’ll have to tell for yourself from everything that I have answered in this interview. I was born Aishetu Kolo. I can say that for the first five years of becoming Aishetu Dozie, I lost track of Aishetu Kolo. She was brilliant and full of life and ambition.
When I first became Aishetu Dozie, I think I was inadvertently trying to kill Miss Kolo. It took another two years to unpack how I lost my way and then another two to three years to unlearn, relearn, and rebuild. I quite like Aishetu Dozie now and that’s what matters most to me.
How have you been able to play the balancing act between raising your kids and your busy schedule?
I have rubber balls and glass balls and I’m always juggling them. I always drop the rubber balls, when push comes to shove, and pick them back up again when I have capacity.
The glass balls can never be dropped. I’m very careful at categorizing what is rubber and what is glass. I make no apologies about those distinctions either. I am glass. I need to take care of myself first or I collapse and all balls shatter. My husband, my family and my support staff. They support me so that I can show up every day and do my best.
You’ve just launched a beauty line Bossy Lipsticks. Kindly feed us in on this.Yes, it’s a very exciting time for me both personally and professionally. I left banking two years ago with no idea of what would come next. I just knew that my days of reviewing loan documentation and M&A pitchbooks was dead and dusted. Spending the year at Stanford as a fellow was truly a blessing. I got the opportunity to learn a new way of learning.
I now say that “curiosity never killed the cat, it just gave her wings and she flew away.” I’m incredibly uncomfortable with being comfortable and I’m also very curious. I spent the better part of 2018 as a student of design thinking at the d.school. Such an amazing privilege.
I realized that I wanted to figure out a way to truly blend my purpose and my passion, but I needed to put in the work to finely distil both. I did the work and the soul searching and it was awesome and painful. I knew that I wanted to do something that focused on women’s empowerment and I’ve always been personally obsessed with lipsticks. For me, wearing a strong lip colour makes me feel strong. It’s part of my armour.
So, I thought that I would explore the possibility of changing the way women view and shop for beauty products, starting with lipsticks, lip glosses, and lip liners. That’s how Bossy Cosmetics Inc was born.
Why do lipsticks only? Is it your best beauty product?
One thing I’d like to do is build a business that is really customer-centric. I wanted to start with lip products because as I conducted market research, I realized that it was the one item that women had several of (from a variety of brands) and had the most emotional attachment to.
When I started asking questions in focus groups and live customer interviews, I realized that women’s association with lipstick colours was largely emotionally driven over say eyeliner, blush, or other colour cosmetic categories.
We definitely plan to expand to other colour cosmetics categories in time but I’m excited to start with women’s lips! Seems like a good enough place to start too.
What’s in a lipstick for a woman?
What I’m learning from our research is that no two women are the same. We are so multi-layered, multi-faceted and unique, so it’s impossible to answer the question in a definitive way.
What we are learning though is that women are aspirational and constantly seeking inspiration. They rely on recommendations from friends and love shopping for beauty products. We learned that they have a particular affinity for a particular colour based on a variety of factors.
There is a lot of emotion that goes into how women “feel” when they decide on the colour of the lipstick to wear. It’s a truly special process and it’s one that I respect and admire.
I’m hoping that Bossy Cosmetics can carefully insert itself into the everyday working woman’s psyche and help her think through scenarios in which she would wear different colours and the impression she’d like to convey about herself, her skills, her style, and her value-add all at the same time.
There myriads of brands out there, what makes your brand stand out?
We are beauty with purpose. We make ethical products and we support the advancement of women and girls in society. We are a mission-driven brand.
I’d rather not sell a single product if it means that we aren’t representing the values that support, elevate, amplify, and support women. I partner with nonprofits that fight for women’s rights using the courts, advocacy for victims of sexual violence, and the like.
As a brand, we care about the most vulnerable members of our community and we are trying to show that you can look, feel, and do good, at the same time.
What category of women do you cater to? Is it a luxury line?
We cater to working women that are attracted to our affordable prices, socially-conscious mission, and the convenience of e-commerce.
Any female role models?
I’m hugely impressed by Beyoncé, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Oprah Winfrey, and Michelle Obama. They all seem to be exceptionally talented and human at the same time. I don’t know if they pursue perfection, but they exude a certain level of dialed up humanity and bravery.
I think they live their lives with grace, elegance, and fearlessness. They aren’t afraid to speak their minds whether what comes out shocks other people or not. I think they are blessings to my generation.
Have you ever experienced gender discrimination at work?
I can only tell you one clear example of overt gender discrimination – when I worked for the Nigerian government. I was treated very poorly by a number of people because I was a young woman.
I endured all sorts of ridiculous allegations and innuendo, purely based on my gender. I worked alongside a man who shared my role and he never had to endure the insults and gossip that I did. It was relentless and purely driven by my gender.
Why did you decide to partner with WARIF Nigeria and what criteria do you use for selecting your charity partners?
WARIF isn’t the only organization that we’ve partnered with. We’ve also just announced our partnership with Girls Inc. of St. Louis.
We have more partnerships that are also in the works that we hope to announce in the coming weeks. The more amazing organizations that we can support, the better. It’s really up to our customers though. We can’t give unless we get. With respect to our selection criteria, it’s very simple.
If you are a nonprofit that works to alleviate hardship and/or improve the economic condition and access for women and/or girls, you’re someone that I want to support in any way possible.
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