‘You have to put in top player work to be at the top’
Gbemi Olateru-Olagbegi is an on-air personality, actress and entrepreneur. Co-host of podcast Off-Air with Gbemi and Toolz, she has a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Oakland University, Michigan, United States, with a Master’s degree in Media and Communications from Pan-Atlantic. In 2015, she founded Gbemisoke shoes for women with difficulties in shopping for the right shoe size.
After a 16-year stint ruling the airwaves, Gbemi has decided to call it off with radio broadcasting. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her career journey, the joy of hosting programmes and her future plans.
Tell us a bit about your growing up and how it influenced your personality?
I WAS born in Lagos and grew up in Surulere till I was about 16. I attended Pampers Primary School, and then Nigerian Navy School, Ojo, till senior secondary one. Then, my parents insisted I went to Queen’s College (QC). I was made to repeat SS1 because they wouldn’t take in students at SS2; I cried. I woke my dad at 4 am in the morning and told him I didn’t want to change school and he said I would be fine. I went, and I liked it.
The reason I liked QC at the time was the fact that apart for their drive for academic excellence, it was a well-rounded school. There were activities for everyone, whether Rotary Club, Literary and Debating. I was in a boarding house at the time and Cool Fm was really hot; I used to sneak in the radio and listen, we heard all the songs. At that time, there were no cellphones, so we had phonebooks and we queue to make calls on the show. We used to ask the day students to make a shout-out to us and that got us all really excited.
I have always loved music; I used to listen to Keke and D1, Tope Brown on Rhythm FM. I was one of those girls that would sit by a radio with a tape recorder and record all the songs played; I guess that’s where it started. I really liked the extra curriculum activity part, because it made school fun and because it was a Federal Government school, it was a good mix of people; in front of me is the girl whose dad is number three in the country and beside me is the girl whose mum sells pepper at Sabo. So, it was a good mix and you could blend with anyone.
Then I proceeded to Oakland University in Michigan to study Law, which I had no interests in, before switching to Communications.
Share with us your journey into your 16-year broadcasting career?
When I came back from studies for my youth service, I served at the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA 2 Channel 5, where I worked at the news department; my days don’t usually start till about noon. So, when I applied to Cool FM, it was my favorite radio station at the time, they called me in and gave me a job as the news editor. So, I would basically edit the news for the person who would read the news, and that was how I met Dan foster. It was just one conversation, a little chitchat and then he put me on air.
I thought that was it, but the next day, he came to look for me and said that from then on, I would be on the show with him; that’s how I got into radio. I was with Dan Foster for a year and half or thereabout. At the same time, I was given a weekend show. So, that’s how I got into radio broadcasting. It’s been quite an interesting experience. And so, December 24, 2021, was my last day on air, officially; it wasn’t an easy decision to make.
Why did you decide to make that transition?
It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for some years, but it wasn’t easy to do. I felt like I could do so much more. Maybe because I started very young; I was about 20 when I started and today, if they’re to pick the top 10, or top-five on-air personalities in this country, I am there. So, what else is there to do? Except maybe start my own radio station, which I don’t want to, or other things. I just felt like I could do so many other things and I was always someone who did stuff on the side anyway; business, anchoring shows, even acting.
I mean, I’ve done the same thing for the past 16 years, and I ask myself, ‘do I really want to do that again for the rest of my life?’ I don’t.
So what’s the next phase?
While I was still doing radio, in 2015, I started my women’s shoe line called Gbemisoke shoes and it’s been going on. But I also realised that I never gave it my full attention, and with the part-time attention I gave, it is thriving. So, imagine I give it my full attention. As much as I still want to do media, I want it on my own terms, not to be contractually bound to show up at a place, at a particular time, every day. So, I could still host an event, TV shows or take on acting roles, perhaps. I just want to focus on my own thing and really just do things on my own terms.
What does it feel like running a women shoe brand in an economy like Nigeria?
It is scary. I have to say it is scary because you can wake up one day and the exchange rate is something totally different from what it was a day or two days ago and it affects everything. There are times that I’ve thought of selling or just closing the business down altogether. When I first started the business, a dollar was like N180, and I didn’t want it to be expensive; it’s not a luxury brand. I wanted it to be accessible to everyday people and I think the most expensive I wanted my shoes to be would be N12,000. Then it was possible to even make a good profit margin.
Then, I woke up one day and the exchange rate was at over N300. That day, I sat on the floor and wept, because I was so confused. I kept asking myself what I was going to do and how my customers were going to receive their orders. I just had to restrategise; find new partners to work with and just let the people know that we’re living in this country and this is how we make decisions in our lives and businesses. Also because the shoes at that time were not made in Nigeria and I had to convert money to foreign exchange and send it out.
It was easier then, I could just use my laptop and everything would be sorted out. All of a sudden, I woke up one day and I couldn’t pay my factories, because they had limited how much you could send outside the country. So, I had to make calls to my friends, asking to trade Naira for Dollar, it was a really stressful situation; it was scary.
What has kept you going in the business?
First of all, I realised that I could actually do this; that was my main thing. I could put my mind to something and create it. I realised I was going to fight tooth and nail to maintain the integrity of the brand. There have been some cases where you have a bad experience with a customer for instance, but then you find ways to rectify the situation. So, I think for me, it’s also caring for people.
I remember there was this bride who sent us an email saying she has never worn feminine shoes like a woman, because she uses size 46, which is even considered a big size for men. The fact that she was able to find red shoes in her size for her wedding, she prayed for us. Even for the e-commerce businesses, they are beginning to notice the demand for big sizes and they are starting to pay attention to me, being able to provide this for women, is a plus.
How were you able to manage everything you were working on?
Well, having to manage my career and time was something I had to struggle with. I think we just had to find a way to balance everything. We should also know that we’re going to make some sacrifices. You would have to spend time doing this, so you have to put in the effort. I don’t like waking up early, but if I have to, I will. So, you just have to be truthful to yourself, and prioritise.
I think also having a support system definitely is key. If you have children or dependents, you can’t do it all by yourself, you need someone, preferably family who are willing to step in when you need to work. It can be very depressing living in this country, hearing all sorts of things, but you just have to find the joy to keep doing what you’re doing. Also, I try to look at people who have made it, which will help inspire me to do more. That’s why I like to read people’s memoirs, to know that they are not perfect and to know about their struggles and how they overcame their own challenges.
What advice do you have for women who want to juggle career and family?
There’s always this question about whether or not you can do it and have it all. Some people say ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ while others say you can, but not at the same time. I say, you can to a certain degree; you just have to do a lot of juggling. If for instance you want to be super successful and have a lot of money, unless your salary is paying you that, you’re going to have to do things outside work hours. If you want to learn something, you have to sacrifice some important things and hold yourself accountable for things. You need to be almost fearless and just go for it. Be relentless and do your work. At the end of the day, when your name is mentioned, it is mentioned because of what you do, which is your work and what you’ve achieved.
What does motherhood mean to you and how has it shaped your personality?
First of all, I find it very laughable that I’m someone’s mother because I still feel like I’m a child. I’ve always been responsible anyway, but I now realise I’m not just here for myself. I’m here for my daughter as well and I need to make sure that I take care of her and give her the best life possible. So, I’m more intentional about what I do, which makes me very happy too.
What tips do you have for women who want to rise to the top?
Are you ready to do the work? Everybody’s line of work is different, are you ready to sacrifice? First of all, it is annoying that we live in such a patriarchal society. A lot of times, what you do will be undermined. Even if you live outside of this country, you have two things against you – you are black and you are a woman. I have lived in different parts of the world and I understand how it works, so you just need to do your work, what is key is to be relentless. At the end of the day, when they mention your name in your field, what are you known for. What is the work you have put in? What are your goals, what have you achieved? You have to be focused and put in top player work to be at the top even more than your male counterparts.
How do you get inspiration and stay motivated?
Living in Lagos can be very stressful and annoying and if you are not careful, you will spend your days worrying about things that are not working, whether it is the Internet service providers, or from traffic or an irate neighbour. So, you have to find ways to keep yourself sane. As difficult as it is, you just need to rise above it.
I try to watch and read about people who have made it; understanding how they arrived at where they are, the setbacks they faced, personal issues in their lives, helps keep me motivated. These are real-life stories and we realise that they are not perfect.
What is your life mantra?
Live your best life. Work hard, play hard, love the people who matter, make money and be happy, because life is so unpredictable.