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‘There is no limit to what we can achieve as women’

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As more women shatter the glass ceiling, excelling in various spheres of life, from entrepreneurship to PR, Finance and Style, Guardian Woman sat down with six trailblazers who are defying stereotypes, redefining the norm and showing others that it is not possible but achievable to excel in any chosen field they desire to go into.

Chinwe Egwim (Economist with FBNQuest Merchant Bank)
Take us through your career journey?
My career started about a decade ago with my first stint as an economist at the Central Bank of Nigeria. I was privileged to work with exceptional colleagues that had my best interest at heart; they contributed largely to setting me on my current path as a professional economist. At the time, I was keen on being a statistician but I gradually grew to love my role in the fiscal division, which exposed me to government revenue and expenditure analysis. I worked briefly as a research support analyst for African Positive Outlook in the United Kingdom before joining the sub-national ratings team at Fitch Ratings Milan. This role was both exciting and frightening at the same time but once I grasped the data flow on relevant material, critical analysis became a walk in the park. I moved back to Nigeria and jumped into the private sector as an economist with specialization in macroeconomics and fixed income analysis at FBN Capital. I particularly enjoyed the constant engagement with the public sector – policymakers and government officials, which enabled me contribute to economic publications, projections and data analysis released into Nigeria’s financial market. In 2017, I became part of FBNQuest Merchant Bank where I deputize for the Chief Economist. I am passionate about economic development and the roles of financial institutions as well as public and private sector in boosting economic growth, and so writing over 400 published economic notes which cut across several themes is something I am glad I have been able to do to boost economic literacy and push investors, policymakers and business owners towards understanding the economy and financial markets better.

What are some of the factors that keep women away from the financial world and what can be done to change this?
The industry is broad and most jobs require long hours, typically not convenient for many women while a few roles require frequent travel. What you would typically find is a large number of female employees in the bottom ranks. The senior women in the financial services industry are in the minority. The aforementioned challenges result in women leaving the industry or reducing their ambition less than 10 years down the line. For most, the cost of growing their career in financial services outweighs the potential benefits. Indeed, efforts should be made towards supporting women by assisting with reducing obstacles women face four to five years into their careers. High performing female employees should have some level of direction towards roles and functions that have a direct path to senior leadership roles. I believe that policies that support female employees balance for better at work will also assist with moving towards desired impact. For example, instituting crèches across financial institutions or ensuring ease of re-integration post-maternity leave. Additionally, promoting initiatives that create a level playing ground for both male and female employees such as integrating a “be seen and be heard” initiative that would boost productivity as well as visibility during meetings. The concept of sponsorship also needs to be adopted. Perhaps a deliberate structure that pairs employees with effective sponsors could result in increased retention of female staff within the industry. As for board level, despite continued efforts to improve boardroom gender diversity, women are still under-represented on corporate boards. For tier 1 banks in Nigeria, the highest representation of women on a board is 33 per cent while the lowest is 8 per cent. Until the industry becomes deliberate about including women while growing its human resource pipeline, the status quo may remain same.

As a woman empowerment advocate, tell us some of the things you’ve done to empower women?
I am active across platforms geared towards uplifting women. I am an Associate of WIMBIZ and currently serve as the Head of Fundraising on the planning committee. I’m also a Big Sister under the WIMBIZ Big Sister Initiative, where I have the privilege of empowering secondary school girls through economic literacy. Additionally, I am a member of the WIMBoard Advocacy Committee where I assist with deploying advocacy tools for driving increased participation of women on boards across Africa. I am also a senior advisor at self-worth organisation/God’s Wives, an NGO that provides support for widows. I am also a Director at 9to5 Chick, a female-centric career hub dedicated to supporting professional women by equipping them with the skills to thrive in the workplace.

What have been the major influences in your life and career?
My parents. My dad taught me that excellence is attainable. He is still a major influence in my life, and is consistently helping me to be the best version of myself. The word ‘poise’ was included into my vocabulary pretty early. I constantly heard that word when others described my mum and I aspired to be like her. My parents taught me to aim high, work hard, be self-confident and value relationships. I consider myself blessed to have awesome trailblazers as mentors that consistently invest in my professional growth and well-being. Finally, a few negative experiences as like most people, I’ve had to jump a few hurdles and some experiences I viewed as failures propelled me towards being more successful, strengthened and assisted with character building.

Bukky Karibi-Whyte (Principal Consultant and Founder, Robert Taylor Media)
What is it about PR that makes you tick?
Telling inspiring and relatable African stories that amplify the activities and contributions of brands that I am privileged to represent is my passion. The African communications industry is one dynamic hub. I am always delighted to strategically position brands in their various industries for sustained and success differentiation.

When you returned to Nigeria to practice PR, there weren’t so many agencies available. How have you managed to stay relevant over time?
I am honoured to have been in my field for 12 years. I would say that we have managed to stay relevant due to our passion for the craft, building and maintaining a great team, excellent media relations, our ability to constantly re-invent ourselves and our affiliations with regulatory agencies.

Would you say there is a need for Nigerian SMEs to take communications seriously?
It is imperative that SMEs embrace public relations and communications. Public relations help build those relationships that can propel an SME to greater heights. Overtime, coverage and awareness build credibility, trust and brand reputation. Public Relations is also more cost effective than advertising and brand stories are more impressionable and organic than adverts. Effective communications also lays a solid foundation to tackle business crisis, should it ever occur. Excellent PR is a necessity and more SMEs are beginning to realize this.

What are some of the hurdles you’ve had to overcome?
I face the same hurdles any woman in business faces. We work in a male-dominated industry. We have other aspects of our lives that must be considered while we run our business- family, home, children and so on. I enjoy being a woman in my industry. I am passionate about giving my best and impressing my clients, as my male counterparts would do. There is nothing more challenging yet rewarding as being a young female chief executive in the 21st Century.

What does Women’s Month mean to you?
Women’s month means among other things, the celebration and recognition of women and their vital contributions to the society over the years. There has never been a better time to be woman as there is now. There is no limit to what we can achieve as women and it’s great that a month is set aside to celebrate women, even though we should be celebrated daily. Women’s month also means “awareness” to me. It’s a time to speak out against inequality in the work place and low representation of women in government in Africa and other parts of the world.

Chizoba Okpala Atsu (CEO, Elle’s Icebox)
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey?
I started my company 11 years ago in response to a gap in the market. I spotted this opportunity at an event and received immense support from mentors and family, which gave me the confidence and support to get started. As the years have gone by, the industry has grown and so has the business. We have learnt the importance of constantly evolving, identified key customer services strategies that allow us maintain relationships with most of our clientele. We have come to identify the importance of referrals; we have seen the value of building a network of relationships, which has built us from being a start up to being a brand in the industry. It’s been an impactful journey through systemic networking, relationship building, creativity and a continuous willingness to grow and learn how to improve on what we do. From a start-up we have grown to become a cocktail service company, bottles beverage service-company and have produced the first cocktail recipe book in West Africa and a range of bottled cocktails and juices for our clients.

Tell us what the Positive Impact Brunch series entails?
The women’s impact brunch was created as a safe and positive space where women can come and talk about their businesses, difficulties they face as well as anything else. It’s a space in which we discuss key issues and create a shared resolution with everyone drawing from their knowledge and experiences. It is a forum that is dear to my heart just because it’s only about building women up and nothing about it is negative at all, we want to create a reassuring comfortable space for women to discuss their issues and identify solutions.

How are you promoting and helping women looking up to you?
I very recently discovered a platform called Girlhub, which is about building up young women who volunteer in spaces that are relevant to their careers and their future paths. I am a patron for that organization and I support the mentees and the founder, just because I am built to have a positive energy, so being a part of a forum that supports women in building themselves and being better is something that is key for me. I mentor and support a lot of women and I support anybody who is going through a difficulty and do my best to support them through the process. I’m one person who is willing to support another woman in any way possible that she needs to grow. I wrote a cocktail recipe book in 2015 just because I wanted there to be a tool that was available to anyone that wanted to start a business and that tool would give them the basic information to starting a business and having a leg up in the process and it has been an amazing instrument.

Veronica Odeka (Style Curator and Founder, Vanestyle)
There is an influx in the number of stylists available in Nigeria, how do you differentiate your brand?
Yes, there is an influx of stylist in Nigeria. However, my brand, Vanestyle, is different in the offerings we provide through our advisory services. Our focus is understanding the needs of our clients through the relationships we develop with them. We are guided more by their lifestyle and the empowering changes the clothes create for the wearer by ensuring we are curating options that positively assist their needs successfully.

The beauty and fashion industry is mostly known for the glam. In your opinion, what are the attributes necessary to grow and maintain a successful career in the industry?
I can only speak on what has benefitted me as my brand has grown over the years, and that is being highly structured and disciplined with my time as well as communicating effectively always. For me, it is necessary to always make a conscious decision to think about the needs of my clients before they do; learning to position my brand globally through relationship building and maintaining a focus to always deliver as promised has greatly attributed to our success.

Running a business empire as a woman can be especially tough, tell us how you handle challenges?
On any given day, challenges will always emerge and in my business we have faced numerous circumstances whereby our processes have been disrupted. I’ve realized being tactical instead of emotional in how we first assess this concern is key. Applying smart thinking positive possibilities that can foster an apparent win-win for all involved is crucial and one of my methods is asking ‘what are the options that can provide a solution to this challenge?’

What will you tell younger women looking up to you?
I advise you to think globally but take small steps to get there. The goal is to be great at what you do and give everything you can to being present in your daily role of achieving greatness, and this can be done by being incredibly deliberate in your decision-making. There needs to be a conscious decision to trust your process and never ever give up.

Foluso Gbadamosi (Director, Business Process & Technology, Prime Atlantic Group)
As a prominent figure in tech, how do we encourage more women into STEM?
Different strategies are applicable at different levels. For young girls, we must raise them to be limitless. My parents did an excellent job raising me to believe there were no limits to what I could achieve. Additionally, sharing stories of successful women in STEM will inspire and encourage young women on the rise, letting them know the possibilities available. I also believe we need to debunk the nerd/geek stereotype often associated with women in STEM to increase the industry’s attractiveness to women. Lastly, we must highlight the diverse opportunities emerging in STEM beyond the more obvious and popular fields. For instance, there is not a single industry immune to technology, presenting an array of career options across multiple industries to technology professionals.

What are some things you’ve contributed towards the growth of (female owned) tech startups and companies?
I actively seek out and grasp opportunities to mentor younger women, especially as I’m a product of the wisdom, experiences and guidance of older women. As an extrovert with a broad and diverse network of professionals and experts, I am ever willing and ready to connect female founders to relevant support. Through my diverse board engagements, I am also able to provide unique perspectives to female founders at various stages of the startup life cycle.

Tell us some of the challenges women face in tech?
It is not rare for women to experience Imposter syndrome, a situation where an individual doubts their accomplishments and feels undeserving of their job and/or position. This sometimes has huge implications on confidence levels on-the-job. There has to be a deliberate effort to accept that you are in the position you are in because you deserve it. Secondly, the dearth of senior women in technology leaves younger women in tech with few role models to emulate and limited options for mentorship. This is not just a problem in technology but in all professions. You will likely find a lot more women in entry level positions, by the time they start getting to the mid and senior level positions, most have dropped off due to lack of support and external obligations. I’ve also come across women in technology facing discouragement and opposition from friends and family who do not believe in their capabilities or understand the demanding nature of certain roles in technology. Not having enough cheerleaders is a major challenge faced by women trying to build a career in any profession.

What does balance for better mean to you and how do you intend to put it into practice?
“Balance for Better” does not uplift one gender at the expense of the other. It involves recognizing the unique strengths and gifts of each gender and individual, with a deliberate effort to highlight and encourage them in all settings whether at work or at home. Each gender brings a unique set of strengths that the world can benefit immensely from. Putting that into practice for me means encouraging both genders to be the best they can be in whatever place and space they find themselves in. It also means not playing to stereotypes about different genders and supporting everyone to be the best they can be.

Tosin Durotoye (Founder/Principal Consultant for the Red Kite Group, The Bloom Africa)
You have your hand in several pies, how do you make them all work?
I believe life is about trying to find a balance while not losing oneself in the process. For me, this means pausing in between projects, travel and other engagements to recalibrate so I’m later able to efficiently execute on deliverables. As humans, we need to remember that we’re not built to function like machines but rather as people who need care and rest so we can better juggle all that life requires us to. In addition to always pausing to take care of myself, I also utilize my project management skills regularly. In order to keep everything I juggle in the air, I make sure that I create weekly, monthly and overall project plans. I get calendar alerts daily so I can stay on top of my work.

As a successful woman in tech and business for over a decade, tell us how we can guide more women into these fields?
For me, my journey into the tech world began when I started taking on technology-driven projects at a company I worked at for eight years. From working long hours with our developers to build Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platforms to data management systems to program websites, I leapt into the tech space and found it not only challenging but fulfilling as I worked to develop innovative solutions to our most pressing issues. I believe women are sometimes intimidated by the word “tech” and may think of it as a complex field to step into. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. I never received any formal training specific to tech, but rather started to seek opportunities that allowed me try my hands at and learn from technology-focused projects. In my case, simply having an intrapreneurial spirit and the drive to solve problems for my company led me down the tech path. I believe that if women approach challenges within their businesses or career roles with an innovative spirit, they can start to explore and execute technology solutions and before they know it, they’ll start to build relevant skills in that area. Having said this, I’d also like to encourage all young girls and their parents to explore technology-related fields of study so they can be equipped (should they choose to be) with the most sought-after skills and knowledge and access to one of the fastest growing and well-paying industries in the world.

How are you creating opportunities for women coming behind you in your field?
My ultimate goal is to create opportunities for Nigerian women beyond even the tech space. I want women to be empowered to explore any field they want but to be able to do so with the expertise, confidence and support needed to thrive. This is why I founded The Bloom Africa. It’s a platform that curates small-scale events that connect ambitious women to one another. I believe that women connect on a deeper level at smaller gatherings where they can share their dreams, goals, fears, challenges and strengths. It is my hope that these gatherings will nurture relationships that will lead to friendships, business partnerships and personal and career support. A part of the platform that I’m most excited about is a mentorship program for young girls between the ages of 15-18 that I’ll be launching soon.

How can Nigerian women balance for better this year and beyond?
I believe that more women need to put themselves first in order to have a greater impact on the world around them. I’ve personally found that women can be very selfless and, as a result, will attempt to balance all the demands made on them until they burn out. If we, as women, continue to push ourselves further and further down the priority list, we’ll find that we don’t have what we need to be the best versions of ourselves.


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