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Maya Oluwafemi: ‘Women have to make deliberate effort to maximise their personal finances’

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A CHEMICAL engineer by profession, Maya Oluwafemi is the Chief Executive Officer of Solva Global Limited, a consumer goods trading business with hubs across West Africa. Though she started her career in multinational oil and gas firm, Maya has over the years hosted conferences on subjects ranging from personal finance to climate change and the effects of technological advancements on Africans. In this interview with KEHINDE OLATUNJI, the author of a sci-fi book, Letters from 2520AD, spoke on her career journey, life as an entrepreneur and the need for women to maximise their personal finances.

What actually led you into the world of engineering and science?
Logic and critical thinking have always fascinated me, even as a child. You know, science takes abstract concepts and then turns them into proven theorems after a series of logical experiments. These proven theorems become laws, like the law of gravity for instance, which become a permanent foundation for even more new ideas. What a truly fascinating journey! And then, engineering takes these laws and turns them into amazing technology, like the airplanes. As a child growing up, I just wanted to understand how science and engineering worked because they impact our lives significantly. So, I decided to study Chemical Engineering to learn more.

Could you take us through career journey so far and how has it been?
I worked at Mobil Producing Nigeria as an industrial trainee whilst studying for my university degree; it was a great learning experience. I was assigned to the Reservoir Engineering Department and learned the basics of oil well engineering and maintenance. After graduation, I worked at Unilever Nigeria Plc’s newly formed department called West African Popular Foods, researching how to best preserve and package some African foods for mass production.

My time here got me thinking about the vast opportunity in the food industry and I ventured into entrepreneurship. I wondered if canned Egusi soup (melon seed) would be attractive to the Nigerian market? I had the science and engineering to produce this food product and many more, but the market research data showed that it would be better suited for the future when there would be a greater acceptance of indigenous convenience foods. Considering my experience in highly complex supply chain management and retail distribution, this led to my career in Solva Global, a Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) trading company.

What are the factors that influenced your career and business decisions?
The main factor influencing my decisions has been the need to solve problems with science. I’m still fascinated by science, even as an adult. Another factor influencing my career and business decisions is my eagerness to learn and share knowledge. I want to ensure that I bring significant value to any project I work on and thus, my goal is to improve constantly and inspire others in the team to do the same.

Although certain social and economic situations for women have improved, when it comes to personal finances, a lot of women still face hurdles. Given your experience, how do you think women can overcome these challenges?
Education plays an important role in improving women’s personal finances. Sadly, financial education is not taught in schools as a mandatory subject like mathematics or English and so, women especially have to make a deliberate effort to learn more about how to maximise their personal finances. However, the Internet provides some useful free resources as a starting point. However, I do believe that at some point, engaging with a personal finance coach or mentor is necessary to ensure women have access to all the financial tools available.

Women have always donned multiple roles in their lives – from being a daughter to a wife to a mother – with grace and poise, despite the daunting challenges in each phase. In fact, many successful women have given up their careers for the welfare and well being of their families. Thus, it is imperative for women to plan and manage their finances to achieve true financial independence.

However, the journey towards financial freedom, often, does not come as a classical textbook solution. For instance, a single mother may not invest in the same manner in which a single woman would. This is because being in your 20s gives you far more liberty to take risks, which may be a luxury if you are in your 40s. So, is there an age or a milestone in life to start investments or even considering some? No, the simple universal rule is ‘the earlier one starts, the better’. Building wealth is a matter of habit and following uncomplicated rules regarding creating, saving and investing finances.
Though we have more females than men graduating from high school and colleges, but not many of them earn degrees in engineering, computer sciences and other higher-paying fields.

What can be done to encourage women to try their hands in science related courses?
In order to encourage women to study more science related courses, we simply have to tell younger girls that they can. I studied engineering as a woman, and the Head of the Reservoir Engineering Department I worked at in Mobil Producing Nigeria was a woman as far back as 17 years ago; she was the only woman in a team of all men.

The stereotypes that engineers are men and not women are gradually breaking down, slowly but surely. From my experiences and observations, I think the best way to ensure equivalent participation of female and male students in science related degrees is to promote career discovery programmes for young female students that allow them to explore their potential, curiosity and passion for innovation. By creating different and interesting experiences for girls where they can explore technology in an interactive and insightful way – such as workshops in robotics, mechanics and coding – it is possible to give them practical knowledge and understanding of the impact that they can have being part of innovative projects.

Does the glass ceiling still exist for women? If so, do you think enough is being done to promote women in workplaces?
I think it depends on the culture, but generally the glass ceiling is disappearing for women. There are so many competent women, who have risen to the top of their professions in management, business and politics. However, the more patriarchal the culture of the workplace, the more difficult it is for women to rise; this is a subset of the larger society. But in time, the glass ceiling will disappear because women are now more educated and much more resilient than at any other time in history.

Unfortunately, there are no guaranteed strategies that will help an individual break through the glass ceiling. Although there are certainly exceptions to every rule, by and large, women should expect that their climb to the top would be difficult. You may need to prove yourself twice as much as your male coworkers. Take on extra assignments, particularly those that are high profile. Make a point of bonding with the supervisor a level up from your own. Document all of your achievements and present them succinctly at each review.

How can corporate organisations, professional bodies and governments help improve the balance?
The gender imbalance can be improved by promoting intellectual equality. We know that men are physically stronger than women (usually) and we know women are more emotionally intelligent than men (usually), but over the last century, we have seen women excel as presidents, pilots, doctors and in every other intellectual role. Surely, by now, intellectual equality should be basic knowledge. The new UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) hold real promise to embed advances in women’s rights, and include a specific goal for gender equality. This goal is more broad-based than the last gender goal and includes targets on ending gender-based violence, eliminating child marriage and female genital mutilation, and ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health. It also includes equal access to education, expanding women’s economic opportunities, and reducing the burdens of unpaid care work on women and girls. Now, it is up to all of us to hold governments accountable for their commitments and make sure the goals are met. Involving women – and funding the solutions of grass-roots women’s groups – will be critical to success.

What role do you think women can play in bridging the divide?
Women have to focus on their education and careers to bridge the divide. Women have to ensure that they stay employed and earning an income no matter what. There has been much progress in increasing access to education, but progress has been slow in improving the gender sensitivity of the education system, including ensuring textbooks promote positive stereotypes. This is critically important for girls to come out of schools as citizens, who can shape a more equal society. In some countries, there is a tendency to assume that things are fine as long as there are equal numbers of girls in schools; women need to overcome ingrained gender stereotypes.

Why do you think more women should be involved in the engineering profession?
With the major growth in artificial intelligence and robotics, emotional intelligence, empathy and intuition will be important in designing robots and machines of the future. Women naturally have a lot of emotional intelligence. Therefore, it is, in fact, vital that more women are involved in the engineering profession to enable ethical programming of certain software.

Women engineers bring a much-needed diversity to an industry dominated by men. Whether we’re addressing a particular project, department or the industry as a whole, I believe that diversity makes groups better. Project teams work better when team members have varied backgrounds from which to shape their opinions and fuel their ideas. Having this type of access to differing perspectives moves us beyond the “this is how it’s always done” mindset and into the realm of better decision-making and greater innovation, which also enhances our ability to meet customer needs.

Given your knowledge in technology, can you share with us the effects of technological advancements on the lives of people in Africa?
There is such a wide knowledge gap between Africa and the rest of the world that I sometimes shudder. Technological advancements could lead to millions of African jobs lost as robots and artificial intelligence begin to take over, remote controlled from Silicon Valley. Imagine if Uber sent one million driverless cars to Africa today? This means one million African Uber drivers would be jobless tomorrow. This is a potentially negative effect. However, I am hopeful that Africa will make some positive technological advancement. As startup and innovation culture deepens on the continent, the explosion of tech hubs across Africa has shown no signs of slowing down; the number of tech hubs across Africa grew by nearly 50 per cent over the past year. As these hubs play crucial roles for community, business incubation and ideation, their growth continues to fuel innovation on the continent. There are also growing signs that tech hubs on the continent are starting to specialise and expand beyond individual ecosystems.

How do you relax and what time do you devote to your writing?
I relax by reading and playing the piano; I try to write a few pages daily to maintain momentum. I also enjoy spending time with my husband and daughter. We love to travel and experience new places and cultures.

Your latest sci-fi book, Letters from 2520AD, what informed the decision to write it and how does it relate to the present?
I was inspired to write Letters From 2520AD after many discussions with my teenaged daughter about life in general. I realised that the world is so different from how it was when I was a teenager. So, I wondered about what her future would be, and then wondered 500 years into the future for the fun of it. Writing this book was a thoroughly enjoyable intellectual journey of creative imagination. Using the present as a foundation, especially climate change, the environment changes significantly in 500 years forcing all humanity to live in solar powered air-conditioned domes.


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