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‘Women thrive when they are empowered to lead’

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Aderinola Mary Ojulari is the Deputy Managing Director at Weststar Associates Limited, sole authorised general distributor for Mercedes-Benz in Nigeria. She also serves as the Vice President of the European Business Organisation in Nigeria. A candidate of the Executive MBA at Warwick Business School, she holds a degree in Accounting and Finance from London South Bank University and is a fellow member of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants since 2008. She also has several Human Resources certifications from Lagos Business School. A focused and result oriented finance executive with over 22 years experience, she has worked in a range of senior and director level roles in the media and service sectors. Starting her career in audit at KPMG UK, before moving to Bass Group PLC as a management accountant in 2003 and thereafter Whitbread PLC UK as a management accountant, Ojulari joined the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) as an analyst in 2006. She relocated to Nigeria in 2012 where she worked with CNBC and Forbes Africa as the finance director for West Africa. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks about relocating back home to make a positive change, how SMEs can find their feet in a post-pandemic recovery, how women owned businesses can better thrive now more than ever and how the AfCFTA agreement can benefit local businesses.

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You have had a long and illustrious career, take us through it briefly?
I started my career in audit at KPMG UK and after three years of training, I moved to Bass Group PLC, one of the largest hospitality companies in the UK. Thereafter, Whitbread PLC UK, which is also one of the largest companies in the hospitality sector in the UK. At both companies, I worked as a management accountant, providing sound business and financial advice and analysis to operation managers.

I joined the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) as an analyst in 2006. There, I was exposed to different divisions and was supporting each one by partnering and sharing best practices across divisions. In 2009, I was promoted to business and corporate planning manager in the corporate finance division. This role exposed me to all eighteen divisions of the BBC at the time and I learnt stakeholder management, negotiation and influencing, leadership and crisis and change management.

I joined CNBC and Forbes Africa in 2012 before relocating back home where I worked as Chief Financial Officer for West Africa. In addition, I was responsible for the administration and human resources division for West Africa for five years before joining Weststar in 2017, where I currently work.

You are also the VP of European Business Organisation (EBO) in Nigeria, what does EBO do and how does it benefit Nigeria and businesses here?
The EuroCham Nigeria was launched in Lagos on October 4, 2018, during the last EU-Nigeria Business Forum as European Business Organisation (EBO) Nigeria. We are a private sector driven organisation founded by 19 major European companies, to represent the European business community interests in Nigeria. Today, we have over 30 members. We are also a member of the EBOWWN, connecting European business associations and Chamber of Commerce from more than 45 countries outside Europe.

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EuroCham Nigeria’s main objectives are: To actively promote trade, investment and exchanges between European and Nigerian business, and to engage central and/or local government, when necessary, to raise awareness or formulate recommendations on particular issues of interest or concern.

To advocate European quality standards, best business practices and corporate social responsibility. To advocate the removal of trade and investment barriers for European companies operating in Nigeria and provide assistance to Nigerian businesses to take advantage of the benefits of entering EU markets. To provide monitoring of trade and investment agreements and identify problems hindering dynamic development of trade between the EU and Nigeria. Report and create awareness about the importance of intellectual property rights and patents. To facilitate business networking for European enterprises and companies through a close exchange on various levels including inter-active working groups.

Some activities of EuroCham Nigeria include High-level events (bi-annually) with distinguished keynote speakers. CEO Roundtable Sessions (bi-monthly) with guests’ speakers to engage in valuable relationship with our main stakeholders. Working Groups meetings, (bi-monthly or on demand) a platform to assess, review and improve our members business operations. Currently we do have three active Committees: sustainability, finance and trading across borders.

Moving back to Nigeria must have been a hard decision to take, why did you decide to move back and what would you say has been the major difference?
I would not say it was a hard decision relocating to Nigeria; I’ve always loved and remain passionate about Nigeria. My husband moved back two years before I did, so it was easy for me to ease in as he had done all the readjusting and settling; house, transport, etc. We decided to move back because we wanted to give back; we know that Nigeria is a country with both significant challenges and immense promises. As business-minded people, we saw the huge potential for profitable innovation, whilst also contributing in a myriad of ways to the country we both hold so close to our hearts.

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The major difference for me since I have been back is I am always learning, unlearning and relearning. I would say that I have really honed my capacity to understand the limitations of cultural differences, but also draw on my extensive experience in the UK to implement hybrid strategies, and this has served me well. All of these have provided me with a sense of purpose and I feel fulfilled.

Would you say all the degrees you have bagged home and abroad adequately prepared you for where you are today?
Yes and No. Yes, because to be a professional accountant, you need training and as such by studying for the degrees I obtained, I have developed a skillset that prepared me to be an accountant anywhere. No, because to be successful, you need more than a degree/degrees. First, you need to have a vision. Vision is the source of discipline. My vision determines what I do with my time; it helps me maintain focus and be intentional about what I do, how I do it and when I do it. What I have achieved to date is driven from my purpose, which comes from my vision. Giving back to society and helping humanity is my purpose for living. This is what wakes me up in the morning; this is where my drive comes from. Hard work, serving, listening, networking and personal development are some of the ingredients that got me to where I am.

It is no secret that many SMEs here are still struggling financially as a result of the pandemic. What would you advise they do to get back on their feet?
Nigeria’s economy has such a lively array of SMEs; they form the backbone of job creation and community development, so this challenge has been serious. SMEs are not as resilient as the big companies when it comes to facing the challenges that the pandemic brought with it, hence the struggle to stay afloat financially.

Smaller cash reserves (liquidity buffer), smaller customer base (market share) and less capacity to expand/grow (capital) have been some of the limitations of SMEs vis-à-vis coping with the new normal. My advice to SMEs struggling is to leverage on tax holidays/incentives (e.g., applying for pioneer status) seeking financial support provided by the state and federal government through grants and development finance (low interest loans). Also, take advantage of technology for better customer segmentation through data analytics (customer demographics) and customer reach/visibility (social media for cheap advertising and marketing of products and services).

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Invest in both personal and business growth opportunities available in your sectors. These are not normal times, as evidenced by the scale of the global response, and many other SMEs are in a similar position, so at this time, proper financial research, efficient processes (speed to market, value for money/cost management, rejig of product strategy) and perseverance will be invaluable.

How can we help more women owned businesses improve in financial management whilst decreasing risks especially now?
It’s so important to support women entrepreneurs because there’s so much evidence that shows that women thrive when they are empowered to lead. We also know that women-led businesses tend to yield high lateral rewards for their communities. Financial management can make or break a business and so it is a very important education for any businessperson. As you may know, the education of the girl child and women in general has been unequal in our society.

So, we must do more to support women and I believe one important step is to continue the advocacy for women in fora that promote financial education.

We should also actively showcase the value of financial education for women wherever there is an opportunity to do so. The more people we can win over for this, the more support we can mobilise for women entrepreneurs. Women entrepreneurs that have been fortunate to receive financial education should also play a leading role in this move, especially as role models who show what can be possible.

Much fanfare greeted the AfCFTA agreement that took off at the start of the year, how best do you think we can maximize it so businesses benefit?
The AfCFTA is potentially an excellent concept designed to stimulate greater trading across the continent. However, it is not automatic that Nigeria or any other country will reap the benefits. The agreement is a call for African countries to organise themselves, build on their competitive advantages and explore the largest trading block by population in the world. Continental and international trade is not something you can will into existence; you have to organise yourself to do it.

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So, this is a call for Nigeria and other countries to seize the exciting prospects available on the continent.

The amazing entrepreneurial spirit in our nation should take us far if we are organised. Sadly, several things need to be fixed; standards need to be established and enforced. There is a discipline that we must imbibe if we are to participate actively in trade across the continent. I think the agreement could present immense opportunities for manufacturing, logistics and service-oriented businesses in Nigeria.

However, our leaders must also appreciate and build the critical infrastructure that is required to ease trading across the continent. Travelling across Africa is sometimes more difficult than it is to travel from Africa to Europe. If we are struggling to move around, it would be tough to move goods around.

Have you experienced any difficult periods in your career and how did you pull through?
My career has been full of ups because I have been blessed to work with great managers and leaders who mentored me well. Wherever I have experienced a down, it is usually to set me up for higher responsibility, tasks and opportunity, which I have always embraced positively. I enjoy getting feedback and I am a product of the benefits of responding to constructive criticism and 360degrees feedback. Expectations for my current role are very high, but I pull through with the support of my dedicated team. I am also fortunate to be surrounded with likeminded professionals and together; we seek to build a work environment and culture that supports individual and collective development.

Having come this far, is there anything you wished you had done differently?
Hindsight is a good thing; I wish I had not procrastinated with significant career decisions when I was younger. Taking bold steps earlier would have propelled my career even further.

As a passionate advocate for women’s rights, tell us a few ways you are exemplifying this?
I model my advocacy at multiple scales. I believe first and foremost, it is important to model my principles in my personal conduct. This means vociferously refusing attempts by society to pit women against each other by cultivating communities of high achieving women who support each other.

I am currently involved in mentoring and coaching of young girls. I make myself available to young women around me and within my industry to impart the wisdom I have gathered through my own experience. I also believe in giving back in terms of helping the education curriculum by researching Nigeria’s history. I believe that for true change to occur, our youth must understand their history to be able to carve out the future that they desire. I am currently in the gathering content stage and encapsulating them in ways that millennials would find enjoyable.

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How can we get more women to become successful and rise to the top as you have done? What tips do you have for younger women?
I believe successful women can do much more by coaching and mentoring women. Women need to engage more in collaborating and partnering with one another. Women can also do more in terms of advocacy and sharing of their stories. I started my career with a vision, and I understood exactly what my objectives were in order to bring my vision into reality; I did not spare any cost investing in training and self-development. My aim was always to look forward to the next target and at some point, it felt like I was on autopilot, fully aware of my destination and its path. I sought for employment in places that aligned with my personal and career aspirations too and mentors who were appropriate at each stage of my progression.

My mentors have been excellent guides to ensuring that I stay ahead. When people say think out of the box, I ask what box? There are no limitations or boundaries to what we can accomplish as women. According to Henry Ford, whether you think you can, or you think you cannot you are right. As females, we must change our mind set and work towards bringing out the best possible versions of ourselves. In doing this, we should note strongly that there is no exchange for hard work; it pays always.

You wear so many hats, how do you combine everything and make them work?
Prioritising, planning, and organising my tasks and time have been key ingredients to my success. I also have a strong support system, my family; especially my husband and mother-in-law have been very supportive of my vision.

If you could change something for Nigerian women, what is the first thing you would do?
The first thing I would do is to ensure women empowerment through education – by means of legislating the continuous learning and educating of a female child. I believe that every other thing falls into place once a female child is nurtured rightly and properly educated. It is therefore a very strategic factor in the development of our society today.

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The female child is a potential mother who eventually would be charged with the responsibility of raising the future leaders of tomorrow. They are usually the next line educators after the teachers in school, and they tend to spend the most time with the children. It would only be wise for every society to focus on ways to empower women significantly with the right educational standards so that they too can pass down the right values and knowledge to their children. This is what will eventually improve women’s economic power and wellbeing.

How do you get inspiration and stay motivated when things are not going the way you want them to?
I take a mental break by switching off and doing fun related activities. During summer, I travel and ensure I go somewhere I have not been before. I enjoy travelling; I have been to over 50 countries and counting. I also enjoy networking and meeting new people, so I intentionally try to connect and re-connect with people in trying times to strengthen my support network. I watch movies, play board games with my children, and socialise with family and friends.

Tell us something you did/do that has turned your business around positively for you?
Being a professional accountant and business partner, I would say my key strength is in driving efficiencies and delivering value for money initiatives for all the businesses I work for.

Recently, during the pandemic, through continuous improvement drives and initiatives implemented in Weststar, I saved the company from huge financial losses by restructuring and right sizing. I also supported the managing director in restructuring the business activities and was key to its implementation programme. Through effective change management process, we were able to see profitability move from single digit to significant double digits numbers.

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What last words do you want to leave with women reading this?
I believe both girls and boys should be educated well and equally. To promote and increase the girls’ education, advocacy is key in creating awareness on the advantages and importance of the girl child’s education and to decrease gender bias.

I would like to end with a quote from Vera Nazarian, one of my favourites, which says, ‘A woman is human. She is not better, wiser, stronger, more intelligent, more creative, or more responsible than a man. Likewise, she is never less. Equality is a given. A woman is human.’

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