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‘Women are certainly bringing better financial returns to organisations when they get involved at board levels’

By Ijeoma Thomas-Odia
21 March 2020   |   4:22 am
I started my career in accountancy and financial services, which I did for a number of years and did a pivot into healthcare management.

Fola Laoye is the first female to chair the board of FSDH Assets Management, a financial advisory firm. She is also the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Health Markets Africa, also an advisory and investment company. Laoye was previously Director for West Africa Investments at the Investment Fund for Health in Africa (IFHA). A board member of Hygeia Group Nigeria, promoters of Hygeia HMO and Lagoon Hospital where she held various leadership roles for over 18 years, she holds an MBA from Harvard Business School (class of 1999) and a Bachelors Degree in Accounting from the University of Lagos, Nigeria. She is a Chartered Accountant having trained with Ernst & Young, Lagos and Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC), London and is a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria. In 2011, Laoye was nominated as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum (WEF), and in 2013, she was awarded the Harvard Business School Africa Business Club Leadership Excellence Award. She takes IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA through her career journey, her foray into the healthcare sector, as well as holding several leadership positions especially as the current board chairman at FSDH.

Tell us about your work journey?
I started my career in accountancy and financial services, which I did for a number of years and did a pivot into healthcare management. After my MBA, I chose to move into a healthcare company called Hygeia, which was at the time a family company, and which was why I made that career change and ended up spending most of my career in the healthcare space, which is still where I primarily work. Having done a variety of things including setting up health insurance, building clinics and hospitals, healthcare management, financing and investment. This is because the healthcare sector in Nigeria and Africa is still underserved, so I found that wherever I could roll up my sleeves along the way, I pitch for this. But then, side by side my operational experience in healthcare, I have also continued to have not just an interest, but definitely a role to play in the financial sector, largely through board positions including health and life insurance, pensions and of course now assets and wealth management. That has continued the relationship that I have built over the years.

Congratulations on your new role as Chairman of the FSDH board, how does this make you feel?
It’s exciting and interesting. It is another step in my financial services role. It’s like a new area for me, and it brings a lot of opportunities to learn and lead, I am quite excited about that. I also see asset management as a means to touch the lives of individuals because we realise that it is one thing to have financial inclusion and another to apply the right usage, by saving and getting the best out of our returns and savings. We want to ensure that people are able to get the best out of their savings. We are making sure we create financial protection for all.

As the first woman to chair the board, how would you ensure more women are encouraged to take up such positions?
I think that is vital. There is a lot of information and also from experience showing that women joining boards are certainly bringing better financial returns to organisations when they get involved at board levels. And they are bringing to the table the diversity in terms of knowledge and how we relate to our clients, community and what we think about what is being consumed. I think women are particularly bringing strong expertise to boards that are becoming more aware of. I certainly have been in different roles and different organizations where I have worked; I have tried to find roles for women to rise. At the time when I was running Hygiea – the healthcare business, I got to a point where 70 per cent of my executive managers were women because I saw the outcome of what they could bring to the table. I have had roles in organizations on championing diversity and inclusion and that is something I take very seriously.

Do you think more women are given the kind of opportunities needed to rise?
Not always, but of course, I think women still realise they have to make those opportunities happen and certainly other women like us who are already there can help others open doors of opportunities and make them available. I think it is also important that we realise there is work to do and so we have to push ourselves to get there.

Being in a male-dominated field how have you been able to come this far?
I think it’s a combination. I was brought up by a working mum; she worked outside the home from when I was very young, so that was something I was used to. While she worked out of the home, she still made the balance work, even if it means her coming home during her lunch break and check on her kids, she had to make certain decisions that she could combine her family life, her children as well as work. That was what I grew up knowing so I never thought it different. More than that also, I think education (schooling). I went to Queen’s college Yaba, where we were brought up to be queens, which also means we were brought up to be independent thinkers, search and use knowledge, we were ever brought up to think that we could be less than being the best. I think the combination of that has helped me as a woman to enter the workplace, to feel confident enough to seat at the table with other men.

How would you describe your journey to success?
I think it is a combination of things. Just as I have said that my background and attending Queen’s College, in addition to that hard work, being resilient, because sometimes you work hard and still don’t get the result you require and that doesn’t mean you give up, but dust yourself and come back to the table. So I think that combination of hard work and resilience is important. To some extent as well is acquiring knowledge, reading widely, being inquisitive, wanting to know more about what goes on in the world and being able to apply what has been learned along the way. Another thing that is key and helps is your tribe, which includes your father, boss, mentor, and obviously your tribe of women. We have heard so much about leaning in and having a tribe or community that you can depend on, who will support you and you can support when they need help, that too is significant to your growth because I don’t think you can grow alone. I think men do it well; they form their tribes even at the clubs. More so for women, we are more connected in so many other communities. We are the first to be workers in church, first to help in the neighbourhood, first to help families and so on, so if we really just connect the dots with our professional lives, we find out that they get quite a bit done.

How do you balance family and career fronts?
Being a woman also brings certain roles to the table. Apart from being a career a woman, I am a wife and mother and these are all roles that even though I don’t enjoy them, they are in many ways more significant and wanting to make sure that I could do my best at all fronts has always been very important. It also includes learning how to multi-task, because very often you have to think through even when you are at the boardroom what the children would eat and so on. So, you need to play in both fronts simultaneously. In doing so, you have to think about your priority because sometimes you have to make a priority list while other times it can be a hard curve; hopefully you make a right decision at the right time.

You have held several leadership positions over the years, how would you assess your growth?
I have subscribed to what is called life-long learning, irrespective of whether you are at the top or not, there are new innovations even from our history, there are things you can still learn to make you a better leader. Learning is not only from books, but also from people around you. There is a learning opportunity literally every day, one must listen to pick up and learn; that way you improve.

What is your advice to women trying to find the balance in their lives?
It is a balancing act and there are times a woman needs to make some choices, you should be realistic as to what is achievable, sometimes you have to figure out what to do first and what can be combined. So women have to make sure they are making good choices, to do such they need to be in an environment where they can, hence with a lot of advocacy, we are hoping that the environment women are operating will be more women-friendly and therefore help them to make those choices. Once we make those choices, we still have to ensure that they are to some extent structured at how you go forward and so I have always believed in self-planning because if you plan, you can think of the resources you need- whether it is people, skills or assets and how to put it in together to get to your destination. Another significant thing is that we need to think more about our personal wealth as women and that is why assets management is very important to women, because there is real opportunity there.

Tell us a bit about asset management?
It is an emerging area. It has always been around, but it is getting more established and brought to the forefront. With organisations like FSDH, we are a holdings group; we have a merchant bank, pensions fund as well as assets management and securities. It means that we are a full financial service company and asset management seats on that platform. We are able to service either funding or investment needs. With asset management, our savings can now produce the better returns on investment.

What is your advice to women and girls that aspire to be like you?
I have a 15-year-old daughter and so I am in that space too. We should assure them that they are as good as anyone else, and really build in them that level of self-confidence. Yes, they will have some stresses along the way, but with that confidence they will pull through. I hope that as they see more women role models in various sectors, they are motivated to do more. They should also seek mentors, which would help them grow. Every year, I go out of my way to seek mentoring sessions with ladies I don’t know and I help them chart a plan and follow them through.