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Cover Story- Financially Free With Arese Ugwu

Arese Ugwu is the founder of Smart Money Africa which is a personal finance platform tailored to the African millennial. She is also the author of a book called The Smart Money Woman: An African Girl’s Journey to Financial Freedom. When she is not dealing with her finance platform she serves as an independent director on the boards of House of Tara, the Nigeria Higher Education Foundation, and Partnership Investment Plc. She is an associate member of WIMBIZ (Women in Management Business and Public Service) and has served on the planning committee since 2015.

With an MSc in Economic Development graduate from University College London and a BSc in Business and Management from Aston Business School in the UK, Ugwu is a phenomenal woman with a drive that has put her in a dominating position in the financial scene in Nigeria and Africa at large.

As GL sits with the host to The Guardian TV’s personal finance show “Your Life Your Money”, and a co-host for “Analyse This” on Ndani TV, we enter the world of Smart Money, Africa, talk challenges faced by young adults and the responsibilities that come with being a role model of the African youth for financial independence.


How did you start your Smart Money journey?

Well, I had worked in financial services for eight years and then I decided that I wanted to do something that had more impact and I started thinking about personal finance for the African millennial and talking about financial literacy in a way that somebody like me could understand. My first foray into personal finance was writing an article for BellaNaija in 2014 titled ‘A Chanel Bag Versus Stock Portfolio’, at first I thought that nobody would care because young people don’t really care about money because it can be a very preachy topic. But I found out by using language and stories that young African people could relate to, it helped me to grow an audience. From my articles on BellaNaija, I built a following, then I started my own platform and through speaking engagements and social media I have been able to grow a really engaged audience.


You have been active in the media from hosting your show on Ndani TV to contributing and hosting a show with The Guardian, how do you manage all this?

I guess I am just very driven. I try to take advantage of every opportunity that comes to me. Opportunities I feel will help me reach the goals that I have set for myself. I am also lucky to have a good support system, my family, my close friends who can help me balance it all.


How has the reception been for your debut book The Smart Money Woman: An African Girl’s Journey to Financial Freedom?

The response has been phenomenal! Even in my dreams, I didn’t expect the response to be this big. We have been on a book tour, we have been to states across Nigeria and hosted several events in Lagos. We also had a financial literacy programme for a hundred market women to break down the personal finance concepts to them and I think that was probably the most challenging thing I did throughout the tour. The tour also gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of my audience and listen to their own experiences and journeys as well as how they relate to the characters in the book.


Your book addresses the issues of financial freedom for the African millennial, how do you think your organisation has aided in resolving this?

By writing the book (laughs). The book tackles a lot of pinpoints. So, while I was writing the book, one of the things I did to test my theories was to do a 30-day-smart-money challenge.  It was one financial task everyday into the inbox of the participant that helped them go through different financial issues like debt, setting up emergency fund, creating budgets etc. Over three thousand people participated but they didn’t realise they were my guinea pigs and I was using it to figure out whether I had covered all the pinpoints that affected the audience I was trying to target. It helped them and it helped me figure out where I was lacking and the areas I hadn’t covered enough. Every week we would have a live teleseminar and I would answer the frequently asked questions from the tasks of that week. I found that finding creative ways to tackle financial literacy in Africa is what we have been doing with the book, with social media, digitally and through speaking engagements.  


If you were to do anything differently in your own smart money journey, what would it be?

If I were to do anything differently, it would be to stop second guessing myself and trust that everything would work out in the end. Even though I have realised that fear is a part of my process, I have also realised that I don’t give myself enough credit and I just have to trust that my creativity and the ideas that you have to solve problems will translate eventually.


What has been the high point of your career?

Writing a book! [laughs], I didn’t grow up thinking I would be an author neither, was it a goal I had set for myself. But as soon as I had the idea in my head during my smart money journey, it became a goal. It was a tough thing to do; it took a year plus to write the book and self-publish, to think about creative ways to distribute and to get people excited about the book because it is about money. That whole journey was very daunting but I feel grateful and accomplished that it was something I could get done regardless of all the obstacles and how hard it actually was.


What can we expect from you in the next five years?

In the next five years, I see the smart money woman being a series of books that goes through different stages in Zuri’s [the lead character in the book] life and the personal finance struggles that her and her friend go through. I see a series and a movie. I see an international book tour. I see the Smart Money movement being stronger across Africa in promoting the financial literacy message.


Your social media feed is populated by your daughter Zikora, what are your hopes for the African girl child through the eyes of your daughter?

I want us to raise girls to be financially fearless. I want them to know that it is okay to be financially independent. I want Zikora to grow up understanding that she can be fearless in the pursuit of her dreams and that if she works hard enough at anything that she can attain great success.


What words do you live by?

Feed your focus and starve your distractions.

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