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Marilyn Akpoebi Oruwari: ‘Today’s women are pushing boundaries, creating opportunities for others’

By Tobi Awodipe
13 August 2022   |   4:20 am
Marilyn Akpoebi Oruwari is the Central Head of Content and Chief Operating Officer at Jumia Group and Jumia Nigeria respectively. Joining the company in 2012, she started working in the fashion department, where she showed exemplary leadership and contributed to the team’s growth.

Marilyn Akpoebi Oruwari is the Central Head of Content and Chief Operating Officer at Jumia Group and Jumia Nigeria respectively. Joining the company in 2012, she started working in the fashion department, where she showed exemplary leadership and contributed to the team’s growth.

With a Bachelors of Arts degree in English Language and Linguistics from Ambrose Ali University, Edo State and a Masters of Arts degree in Critical Thinking, Discourse and Argumentation Studies from the University of Bucharest, Marilyn is highly skilled in Strategic Planning, Content Development, Project Management, Operations and Content Marketing Strategies. She has grown with the company to lead in her current role across countries where Jumia operates and supports operations in Nigeria.

Passionate and curios about anything tech and services that makes life easier, she tells TOBI AWODIPE how she rose to become COO in a decade, what female owned businesses can do to survive and thrive, why she’s always learning and what she would love to change for Nigerian women if given the chance.

Take us through your career journey till date, how has the journey been for you?
I have a Bachelor’s degree in English Language and Linguistics from Ambrose Ali University, two master degrees in Discourse and Argumentation Studies and Critical Thinking from the University of Bucharest, and a mini MBA from IBMI, Berlin. I also have a Risk Management and Digital Design certificate also from IBMI and a senior management program certificate from the Lagos Business School.

I started my career mostly interning as a personal assistant, then taught at Nigerian Navy Logistic School during my National Service year, took a pause, and returned to further my education, where I developed a passion for content writing and development, project management and technology in general. I had started learning and developing these interests in my free time, e.g. HTML, graphics design, editing and copywriting, as I was already studying something else for my masters.

The journey has been very interesting and challenging. I Joined Jumia 10 years ago, right after my MA studies as a content writer for our fashion category. I took on some small projects focused on structuring the content creation process at the time, and in a few months, led the content writers’ team. As a startup, I noticed some gaps we could tighten in our processes to optimise output, so I jumped into restructuring other units in the department, which led to managing the unit in a few more months.

After a while, with expansion and growth of the company, new departments opened up, and the head of my department asked me to take on production under my scope and manage the entire department while she moved on to head another unit. I like to think I added value along the way, because as opportunities within my area opened up, I was recommended to take on the roles. I grew to manage production and content globally across countries in less than five years. In addition, I took on the interim COO role in Nigeria in 2020 for 11 months and again was asked to jump back in and support operations in Nigeria this year in the COO capacity.

Rising to become the COO in less than a decade is certainly no mean feat, how were you able to achieve this in such a short time?
I had a strong passion for what our mission was. More than anything, I showed that I was in it for the long haul and tuned in to what needed to get done, even before we had the structure we have now. I had ambition early on to execute and deliver whatever was expected of me and exceed expectations at the start of my career; I took a handy approach to see things through. I was always present on collective projects and I took on tasks and roles outside my primary function.

I continued to develop myself and gain a deeper understanding of our tools and resources. When you put in much effort and are consistent and dependable, you always come to mind when opportunities open or present themselves for growth.

As COO, what does your day-to-day role entail?
Typically overseeing internal, daily operations. However, duties can change according to the goals and requirements at a particular time in the business. My daily tasks and responsibilities include overseeing the trajectory of day-to-day operations. First, making sure I am aware of the activities in various departments under my purview, which includes customer service/sales, customer and vendor experience, IT, systems, production and content. So, I need to set up daily check-in sessions with each department head to review KPIs trends, strategise and deep dive into topics that need improvement.

Sometimes, I may be more involved with developing operations strategy or focus on ensuring that the plans and strategies developed with the CEO are on track and properly/successfully implemented. The overall key responsibility will always be to ensure that the company’s operations support the brand and CEO’s vision and working closely with department heads, managers and supervisors to support the day-to-day activity is always my priority.

Marilyn Akpoebi OruwariHow would you say your educational background and experience helped stand you out in your industry?
There are no shortcuts when you are building a career; I had to put in the work. More than anything, the dedication, time, and passion I put in has propelled me and made me stand out more than my educational background. However, the first thing that got me through the door was my education. The less educated you are, the slimmer your opportunities.

I have studied courses from various subjects, which opened my mind and broadened my interest and perspective. Then, I continued to informally take online courses, which helped me understand a wide range of topics around those I need to engage with daily and support.

You head content across countries where Jumia operates, including Nigeria, how is this experience like for you?
Leading production and content operations across countries involves a lot of details. It can be challenging as every country has its unique differences. But over time, I have been able to develop and understand the intricacies. It takes a lot of organisational skills to ensure you can check in and be as supportive as possible to all departments across all countries.

The role is also very much focused on supporting all user experience initiatives, and I get involved in a huge array of projects that help us improve our systems constantly. There is never a slow day; every day comes with new tasks and something interesting to jump on.

As someone skilled in customer and vendor experience, what would you say are the major issues vendors and young founders grapple with the most?
The cost of any engagement to raise customer awareness is high, and a lack of data to support the decisions you need to make can be challenging. Sometimes, finding a skilled workforce to help your business can be a challenge.

Finally, it is a regulatory minefield in this part of the world; navigating this can be very tough for vendors.

How accommodating is this industry for women, especially those looking to make a career here?
I can’t speak for other organisations in this industry, but I can say at Jumia, there is no bias toward gender, and the environment encourages diversity and is supportive. There hasn’t been any blocker as far as my career growth is concerned.

Once you put in the work, you climb up the ladder. I encourage women to take on roles in start-ups, emerging industries and tech environments; the possibilities are endless.

For a female owned business looking to break into distribution, what are some steps she can take to help her?
Know your customers
Understand how to promote and market your product
Don’t be afraid to start small and grow, focus on fast-moving products, or find a niche.
Learn to leverage social media, it is one of the best and most affordable means of reaching/advertising to your targeted audience.
Speak to people in the field
Customer experience is key, this covers customer service.

How important is mentorship for career women?
I think it is important for every young career professional to have a mentor. Experience has value, and you can always benefit from a lead career expert who will help broaden your vision and perspective on the subject. There is so much to learn from seasoned leaders that you cannot in a classroom. Hands-on experience always gives you more insight.

What is something you did/do that you would say helps your life and career-wise?
Discipline, knowing how to structure my time and priorities, focusing on the end goal, and not losing focus on my vision for my future. Secondly, and this is very important, you must love what you do.

How would you rate female entrepreneurship in Nigeria and generally, in Africa, do we have enough women going into it?
In general, the culture in the past put some limitations on women establishing businesses of their own across Africa, more prevalent in some countries than others, but this is fast changing. We see more women pushing boundaries today, opening huge establishments, and having thriving businesses, with great success creating even more work opportunities for others. Today, women are leading small businesses on social media, selling everything from home to beauty to fashion.

From an economic standpoint, women do not have a choice but to also take up breadwinning in most homes; joint income is a necessity. So, we have so many creative and innovative businesses springing up daily.

If you were speaking with an upcoming entrepreneur right now, tell her five basic things she must do/avoid being successful in this field?
Do not be afraid to ask questions. When you do not know something, are unsure, or do not have enough knowledge on the subject, ask.

Do not be afraid to make mistakes and do not dwell on those made.
Educate yourself on as many subjects as possible and always be open to seeing things from the user’s perspective

Simplifying things – execution and consistency are everything, so always pick and keep the right team around you.
Find time to recharge, it is very easy to burn out in this field, so you need to find ways to recharge your batteries

Has there been any personal experience that made you want to throw in the towel?
Not as far as wanting to throw in the towel, I tuned in to the vision at Jumia early. It was a very conscious decision to see every part of that vision actualised, no matter how long it took.

There have been times I got extremely overwhelmed, and I had to step back, reevaluate my capabilities, reprioritize and ensure I was focusing on the right things, delegating appropriately and making time for my personal needs.

What is your passion, what drives you?
I have always had a passion for content production and aimed to become a specialist and point of reference in the field. Operations, in general, enhanced that goal and broadened my perspective, hence taking on the role in Nigeria. In this role, I learn new things and experience new challenges daily as there are always problems to solve.

I am very passionate about learning new things, no matter the subject. You will find me listening to podcasts or picking up books/magazines ranging from the medical field to interior design, fashion, business to new tech innovations.

Finally, I love helping people and simplifying life. I am in the right field for that, as we strive to build convenience every day. I am most motivated being surrounded by like minds, passionate people who don’t need hand holding but always ask questions.

If you had the power to change something for Nigerian women, what would that be?
I think the mindset is already changing, and it’s amazing to see how much has evolved on some blockers that existed for the female child in general. If I could change anything, I would love for all Nigerian women from every part of the country to see how much potential they have from a very young age and dream big, be passionate about having a career and strive to educate themselves. Knowledge is power!

Life at this level can be very stressful, how do you relax?
My life outside work is very simple and peaceful; anything to keep my head space and mood positive and motivated. First, I try to catch up on sleep and then try out new recipes or menus.

I really enjoy cooking and eating out. I go swimming and do yoga a few times a week. I also spend time with loved ones playing board games, video games, watching movies and listening to music.