Ikeora, ex-beauty queen, takes on human trafficking
In what seems like a perfect way to wrap her Ph.D programme, which has set the tone for the actualization of her dream of becoming a Professor, Ex-Beauty Queen, Dr. May Ikeora, recently launched her latest book, Bilateral Cooperation and Human Trafficking: Eradicating Modern Slavery between the United Kingdom and Nigeria.
The formal launch, which was hosted by the British Deputy High Commission, through a reception to foster UK/Nigeria Cooperation to tackle Human Trafficking, the launch of the book, which has the support of agencies such as Nigerian Maritime Administration & Safety Agency (NIMASA), Keystone Bank, Heritage Bank, First Bank, Fidelity Bank, Edie Lawani Associates, Eduplat and the Edo State Government, was attended by dignitaries, including Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki, Guy Murray Bruce, MD Heritage Bank, Ifie Sekibo, Chukwuka Monye of CiUCi, NAPTIP officials and others.
In this interview with CHUKS NWANNE, Ikeora, who owns L’Avyanna Skin Naturals, spoke on life after the crown, the new book and her commitment to fight against human trafficking.
Some people have this thinking that being a Beauty Queen is all about the fine face, but you seem to have change that narrative with your exploits, especially in the academia and business. Was that a deliberate move?
I Am a very ambitious person; I would say God has kept that ambition in me.
As an ambitious person, you just keep running; at times, you don’t even remember there’s some higher force that guides you.
I’ve always had that mindset as a kid to keep busy; I never savour any of my success for too long.
Once I get one done, I just move on to another. Most of all, I had a goal in life.
When I was a kid, I said, ‘if I was going to be educated, I wanted to be the most educated.
If I’m going to have a business, I was going to be a billionaire.
If I’m going to be an educator, I must get to the highest point of that.’
I want to be a professor at some point, so, hopefully, in few years when you meet me, you should be able to address me as a Prof.
So, it means you had your game plan from the onset?
Well, some of them came by luck, but the goal was there; the ambition was there, the intension was there.
Most of my actions were intentional, though sometimes, they were not always successful.
Right now, we are talking about the success; it was never rosy for me all through.
Was there a time you had doubts along the way, especially when the challenges started coming?
I was a Beauty Queen between 2003 and 2004; I was first Miss Nigeria in December 2003, then I was Miss West Africa in 2004.
I even tried to set up a Foundation at that time; I tried to raise money to get my projects done.
There were so many temptations around; people didn’t even understand what I wanted to do.
When I look back at some of the things that I tried to do then…I didn’t even have any experience.
Now, looking back, I realised that there was no way I could have done that. I was just 20; I didn’t have any work experience; I didn’t even know how to run an NGO.
In fact, that was even why I went back to work for the Miss Nigeria few years ago because, I saw my challenge as Beauty Queen.
Any time a girl wins a beauty pageant, you ask her, ‘what’s your pet project?’ Really, what does an 18-year-old girl know about pet project?
What does a 20-year-old girl know about running a sustainable pet project?
That’s why I offered my services to work with Miss Nigeria a few years ago so that they have something that is sustainable; so that these girls will come and pass through the pageant and not the pageant passing through them because, that’s what happened to me.
I came back and tried to give back to Miss Nigeria and they ran with it with the Green Project, which they continued.
How were you able to navigate some of the challenges you had along the way?
One thing that was very important to me is that there were also people around me every step of the way that guided me.
Some of them might not stay for very long, but they can take you through a journey and then somebody else continues.
So, I’m not where I am today because of just myself; it’s also because of several people I met along the way that sowed a seed or two in my life.
Done with the razzmatazz that comes with winning the crown, you took the decision to return to school and completed your programme.
What informed that resolve?
I had always wanted to go back to school when I contested for Miss Nigeria.
At that time, a lot of beauty queens don’t really go back to school; some stay for too long.
My motivation to go for the pageant was because I wanted to get money to complete my school fees, so, how can the very reason why I went to the pageant be over taken by whatever?
It was difficult because people expected you to be rich; they expected you to have everything, from what? How much is your salary?
For Miss Nigeria for instance, they give them N3million for a year.
So, if you are a girl that is living in Ajegunle for instance, you need to move.
If somebody gives you N300,000, it will be big in your eyes, but to a beauty queen, it can’t even buy you a good shoe.
So, how do you want to manage? These are things people forget; the pressure that these girls go through.
If you are not strong enough, you are going to get into trouble.
Could that be the reason some beauty queens end up losing focus?
Partly yes, the pressure is high. When I went back to school, the pressure was sooo bad that some people threatened to rape me and rob me; it was that bad.
In fact, someone had to give me hotel room to stay in as part of the sponsorship.
Even at that, we had to be doing security tactics to ensure people don’t find me; and I’ve heard other beauty queens, who went back to school complain about the same thing.
It wasn’t easy, but I thank God I was in final year then; I had just one more year to do before I left school.
Could you share some of your experiences as a Beauty Queen, especially around your pet project?
During my reign, I was made ambassador for ECOWAS on Peace.
So, I went to countries like Guinea Bissau, Liberia and other conflict-ridden countries to work as an observer and doing work around peace keeping; that exposed me to a whole lot of things.
I met different people and I felt this is really what I want to be doing. Someone told me, ‘if you want to do this, you should be able to get a Master Degree in Peace Studies.’
So, I went to Bradford University in the United Kingdom and did my Master.
It took some time before you returned home after studies, what happened?
In fact, as soon as I got there for my Masters, I got a job with the Bradford Council, working as a mediator.
From there, I started working for another NGO on women’s right and trafficking.
Then I go a job for another NGO, then moved to work for Amnesty International.
Each time I wanted to come back to Nigeria, I had a job offer.
So, along the line, I kept coming across a lot of cases of trafficking, especially of Nigerian victims and each time we try to resolve the case, it keeps going pending because, there’s no validated data to explain to us why the case was the way it was.
So, when I had the opportunity to apply for a scholarship, I did and I wanted to research in that particular problem that I was encountering doing my job.
That’s how I got the scholarship to do my Ph.D. in Law at the University of Hull; I passed with no corrections.
My external examiner recommended my thesis for a book and said I should consider writing a bout; I was still too tired from the Ph.D then.
But a year later, I decided to explore it; I wasn’t easy because, it was like doing the Ph.D all over again, especially because laws in human trafficking tend to change constantly.
So, I did and today, I have this book; it’s all over the world at the moment.
Now that the book is out, what’s next?
I’m not supposed to sell the book actually; I don’t have access to the book because it’s an academic book.
I don’t print it; I’m just an author. They just sell it all over the world, I just get a remittance; that’s the way it’s done.
In fact, the copies I have here, I bought them; I had to buy them so that at the event here, I should be able to show people.
Let’s talk about your life as an entrepreneur, why did you choose to be your own boss?
I’ve always wanted to won my own business.
In fact, I nurtured it for a long time, but I just never had time; I was just a workaholic with my jobs and never really had time to think business.
But towards the last year of my Ph.D, I actually quit my job and everything I was doing and just focused on my Ph.D; I didn’t want to add extra year to it.
When I finished, it was like I had nothing else to do, so, I went and brought my files and my research and said, ‘let me explore this.’
I was running this thing called Raising Girls Project; I went to secondary schools talking to girls about human right and other stuff.
I used to seek for sponsorship, but along the line, I was tired of seeking for sponsorship.
I said, ‘why don’t I do this business and use proceeds from it for my project.”
I started L’Avyanna Skin Naturals and from there, it started growing. We started in the United Kingdom, but today, we have two offices in Lagos.
We are still selling in the United Kingdom, but we want to build our presence here in Nigeria very well and then take to the UK and US.
I still do the raising girls project; I still help from the business as well.
But now, I’m focused at making it a multi-million million-dollar business.