Arese… Homegirl on a mission to end poverty in Africa
Without any doubt, Arese Ugwu is one of the most audacious individuals anyone might encounter. The financial expert wrote one of the bestselling books of the decade dubbed, The Smart Money Woman, and without any previous experience in literature writing, while dressed in pyjamas and in her bedroom. She has also recently gone ahead, without any filmmaking experience, to adapt the financial-chick-lit series into what is now one of the most-streamed titles on the Netflix streaming platform.
The 35-year-old entrepreneur has impacted hundreds of people across the continent, with her guidelines on personal finances, which are woven within the humour, intrigues and adventures that underline both the book and its movie adaptation. Across all her exploits, from her Smart Money Africa franchise to her newly-found filmmaking engagements, Arese continues to pump her efforts into helping more Africans overcome debt and improve the management of their personal finances – a combined approach she believes is a panacea for ending poverty in Africa.
Speaking with The Guardian, the Delta State native talks about her inspirations behind TSMW, clinching the Netflix deal, overcoming her challenges with optimism, being mentored by Ibukun Awosika, as well as pursuing her revolutionary impacts via literature and entertainment.
You wrote a book and produced a film adaptation of it, without any experience of any kind in that area. How did that feel for you?
IT was a gruelling experience, but I learnt so much in the process, sometimes it is difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that I wrote a book, went on a pan-African book tour, turned it into a TV series that is now streaming on Netflix and debuted as No 1 on Netflix in Nigeria and Kenya in the first 24hours and even popped up in the top 10 in countries like Jamaica in Trinidad and Tobago.
I’m so grateful for all of it the blessings, the obstacles, but my biggest takeaway from this journey is that you can do anything you set your mind to and there are no small ideas, just big execution.
Did you always believe you could achieve this?
Yes and No. My toxic trait is that I set big audacious goals, but then, I cry and worry myself to the finish line. But one thing about me though is I will always give it my best shot.
What drove you to write the book in the first place?
I have a background in finance, but my smart money journey stemmed from being confronted with my own pain points when it came to my personal finances and the realisation that African women are not taught in any framework how to keep or grow money. So, in my quest to learn, develop and adopt strategies to help me manage my limited resources, I began to write articles and teach others. The book was a natural progression from that.
TSMW is written in a style that is partly a personal finance book and partly a novel. What inspired that style?
When I decided to write the book, I thought of the kind of books I typically read. Chick-lits and business books and the smart money woman is a combination of both. But ultimately, I wanted to write something that African women would get excited about and could have conversations about, like the way they have conversations about the real housewives of Atlanta.
Do you believe that it made any real-life impact on people’s lifestyles?
One thing that has been very humbling for me on this journey is the testimonies from women across the globe on how the books have changed their lives. It is amazing how women I have never met send me messages, emails, sharing the incredible progress they have made in their finances, just from reading the books, even with the series on Netflix. I’ve been tagged in numerous posts with people watching with a pen and paper to take notes or calling their account officers to request their bank statements. It’s wild! So, yes, of course, it has made a real-life impact on people. Real people, real stories.
Do you have stories of people who have told you how the book-shaped their lives?
There are many stories from women all over Africa – women who have gotten out of debt, women who have started their first stock portfolio, women who have invested in property. I think the biggest impact the book has achieved is the mindset change when it comes to personal finances.
Do you have a group of friends like the characters in your book? If yes, how many friends are in the group?
I most certainly do, although I have many friends, my core friends are three women who have been my friends since I was 10 years old; Mariah Lucciano- Gabriel, Nnenna Okoye and Nadine Domingo. I don’t think I could ever write about sisterhood in the way I do if I wasn’t given the gift of true friendship when I was 10 years old. We met in high school, Igbinedion Education Center, and since then, we’ve been through everything together; marriage, divorce, financial woes, childbirth, child loss and it’s truly such a blessing to have a support system like that.
However, it is important to note, because I get asked this question a lot, that none of the characters in the book is based on my friends; each character is a combination of many women’s experiences, including my own.
How did the whole Netflix deal come about, you were not active in the movie industry before it?
I wasn’t active in the movie industry, but I believe in actively finding information and the right partners when you want to do anything. From the onset, I knew I wanted a Netflix deal, but it was almost something we whispered; something we hoped for but wasn’t sure that we would get.
But even in the uncertainty, we focused on producing quality as much as possible. The game-changer was teaming up with Moses Babatope, one of the co-founders of Film One and our distributor. He believed in the content and pushed for the Netflix deal.
As the producer of the movie, what informed your choice of the cast and crew?
I had a specific vision for who I wanted to play each part, especially with the main characters, but for the selection of the crew and secondary cast members, I had the help of my producers, Lala Akindoju, Akin Marinho and my sister Isoken. They gave some really great recommendations and pulled from their various skillsets.
Getting First Bank on board as a sponsor was a major win for you. How did it happen?
The first person to help me bring this idea to life and put her resources behind it was Mrs Ibukun Awosika. I’ll always be grateful to this woman because she believed in me when others didn’t. She was the first female chairman of First Bank, one of the oldest Nigerian banks and I knew she had an agenda to push financial literacy for women; it was going to be a part of her legacy. It was something she was very passionate about and she had given me many opportunities to promote my work on several platforms.
But she was also the chairman of a board I serve on as a non-executive director, House of Tara, so I had some access; I knew if I was going to pitch, I probably had 5 minutes to pique her interest. So, I had to be concise and strategic. One day after a board meeting, I walked her to her car and told her what I was trying to do. She seemed indifferent but told me to set up a meeting with her assistant and come and talk to her about it in her office. I pitched it then, she sent me to the team in charge, because she’s very big on corporate governance. She gave me a leg in the door, but it would take another 9/10 months of meetings and going through the corporate structure to get approval.
What other major challenges did you have in creating the TSMW series?
Film financing, finding the appropriate kind of capital was challenging because we were not sure what the ROI was going to be and bootstrapping a project of this scale was hard. It was funded largely by selling product placement and advertising; a lot of the money came in tranches, so it made it difficult to get through each stage. Cash flow was definitely very tricky to manage.
What’s your mantra in life with regards to finance?
There are going to be people who have more money than you and there are going to be people who have less money than you. Don’t let anyone shame you for living within your means. It’s okay to make short-term sacrifices to win the long term. Bottom-line, ‘no go do pass yourself.’ I believe in focusing on doing the things that your income can support.
Both the book and the series discuss money scripts that we learn from our families. Were there any money scripts that you had to unlearn or that informed your personal finance message?
As Africans, because of our culture and a sense of responsibility, there is a tendency to be generous to the detriment of our own financial health. Watching my parents set themselves on fire to keep other people warm at different seasons of their lives, was definitely a script I had to unlearn, but overall we were taught very early that money is a tool and not the be-all and end-all, and should be used accordingly. It is something that has carried me through different stages of my life and has allowed me to maintain a healthy relationship with money.
Black Tax has been a prevalent issue in Nigeria and most black communities. Why did you explore it the way you did?
During my pan-Africa book tour, after my first book The Smart Money Woman, I discovered that a lot of our pain points with money as African women were similar; whether you are Karabo from South Africa, Esohe from Nigeria, Waceke from Kenya… black tax was a recurring theme. So, even though I had hinted at it with Lara in the first book, I thought it was important to reinforce it in my second book the smart money tribe and the TV series.
Can you share a bit about how you grew up and how that influenced your career path?
My parents were bankers. My father started talking to me about the capital market from a very early age; he would make me read the business column in newspapers and we would discuss it. Both my parents insisted that I did internships at banks from when I was 16 years old; they made me work in a bank every summer until I graduated from university. So, when all my friends came home on holidays and would go out to do fun things, I was made to wake up early every morning to go to work and I can firmly say that formed my interest in finance.
Apart from TV and books, do you also have plans to share your messages in other formats? If yes, how far along are they?
Right now, I am focusing on developing season 2 of the TV series, along sides some other TV shows, so I am very excited about that.
What are your core hobbies?
Travelling, reading, boxing
What’s your fashion style?
Chic and comfortable
Who are your biggest mentors? And why?
Tara Fela Durotoye, Osayi Alile, Bolanle Austen – Peters. These women have been in my life for over a decade and have contributed greatly to my success; from promoting my brand to granting me access to opportunities. I am very grateful for them.
Tell us three things about you that people don’t know?
I cry when I watch sappy movies and commercials. One of my favorite things in the world is hour-long phone conversations with my friends.