Women now doing better in business, nation building — Nneka Okekearu

Nneka Okekearu is Deputy Director of the Enterprise Development Centre, Pan Atlantic University, Lagos. She tells GODFREY GEORGE about her career and other issues

I am a multi-dimensional person. I come from a family of entrepreneurs and I am the first daughter of my parents. I grew up in a home where my parents felt that one could be anything one wanted to be as long as one dreamt it and worked towards it. My dad really believed in the principles of hard work, delayed gratification and planning. He used to tell us that if we did not plan, whatever it was that we were hoping for would never materialise. Growing up in that kind of home fuelled what I am doing now.

I had my primary and secondary education in Lagos. I went to St Catherine’s Primary School, Surulere, and Queens’ College. Then, I went to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, for a degree in Banking and Finance. I have an MBA from Edinburgh Business School. I also have a doctorate from the University of Bradford.

I worked with the Nigerian National Petroleum Commission for about three years, and it was interesting. I was in the finance department and later redeployed as an external auditor. At that young age, I had just started travelling across the country, because the firm I was attached to had to audit the sales lodgements and depots across the country. I ended up going with the audit firms to different places. That was very interesting. By the time I got into the banking sector as part of the pioneer staff of Standard Trust Bank, working weekends and late hours, it didn’t look like I was doing anything tedious, given the kind of work I had done at the NNPC.

While in college, I had always told myself that I had to do something that will make strong impact. It was not just a case of moving from one job to the other, and earning a higher salary. I wanted something that had to do with impacting the human race. When I was in the bank as a relationship executive, getting and managing clients for the bank, I found myself constantly advising those that were running their businesses. Some of them were not separating their personal funds from their corporate funds. I talked to them to be careful about the way they handled loans because some of them would take loans and not use them very well. In 2000, we did not have MSME banking as we do now. We also did not have entrepreneurship training as widely spread as we have it now. There was practically nothing to help entrepreneurs. I always wondered, “Why would someone be running a business and not run it properly?”

My parents were civil servants and they had lots of businesses. We have a furniture business, which my siblings are running now. So, I was coming from a home of entrepreneurs. I already understood how to make money and the importance of money. Financial literacy was something that, in my home, one must understand. All of us, as early as 15 and 16 years old, were financially savvy. We already had savings accounts. I found myself constantly giving business owners advice and spending a bit more time with entrepreneurs, advising them on how to run a business. If we fast-forward to what I am doing now, I think everything just sort of works for good, because what I am doing now is more of what I started when I was in the bank. I currently head the gender unit of the Enterprise Development Centre, and I am also a Deputy Director at the same centre which was set up almost 20 years ago as a platform to help entrepreneurs. Our mission is to create the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders on the continent that are committed to improving and running their businesses with integrity, and those who are committed to continuous learning. We do that using different tools, including capacity building. In Lagos, we handle over six different entrepreneurship classes in Lagos. We bring in innovation.

Speaking about innovation in entrepreneurship, do you think the Nigerian environment is one that encourages entrepreneurs?

First, I think the Nigerian environment could be better. Having said that, we know that all over the world, there are countries and economies where the situation might be better. However, despite all that, we have Nigerian entrepreneurs that are still braving the odds and setting up businesses. Really, there is nothing good that comes easy. What I would advise is that anyone who is currently working and is thinking of setting up something, should start small. Make it a prototype. I would give an example. Let us say you want to set up a restaurant. Rather than just going out and getting a place, I will say that sit and plan where you see that business and ask why people should come to your restaurant. What is so special about your food? Would it be a business you see yourself doing? If you can answer those questions, in all honesty, you will definitely chart your way through. Truly, the environment is not encouraging because of some infrastructural challenges. But, guess what? There is nowhere in the world that does not have challenges. We know that in some places, it might be easier to start, but they don’t have the kind of population we have in Nigeria. However, things have got a little better. I remember when we all started; to register a company took forever. But now, it can be done online. There are so many free solutions that are available on the Internet.

The challenge is that most people don’t test their ideas and people dread failing. But, if we go through that process, there are so many things that we can learn from there.

I take the executive class and we teach entrepreneurship at the undergraduate level, though I do more executive classes than undergraduate.

How has it been managing all of these multiple roles with being a mother?

There are two things. The first is the grace of God, which is my faith. The second is that I am married to one of the best humans in the world. My husband is a real estate and security entrepreneur. He encourages and supports me. As women, if we don’t have strong support systems, we might not achieve the things we want to achieve, because we cannot do it alone, especially when we have children.

My work takes me everywhere and he understands. Some men might not even allow their wives to travel at a time like this when there is so much insecurity. I have been to Kano, Sokoto and South Korea. I probably would not be able to do any of that if I was not married to someone as understanding as my husband. I am a mother to two adults. My son is an electrical engineer, while my daughter is in her final year in the university. I think that, together with my faith in God, keeps me grounded. I also have a very strong network of friends who support me and have always been there for me.

Looking back over the years, what would you say has been your greatest achievement?

 My greatest achievement is my family and my faith– the ability to have my family and my faith despite all the craziness in the world. I am glad that I have not forgotten whose wife and child I am. Following closely would be the network of entrepreneurs that I have had to work with. Watching them grow makes me feel like a proud mother. My daughter usually says, “Mummy, there is nowhere that you will go that you wouldn’t see your students.” She knows that whenever I meet them, I would spend some time discussing their business growth and everything about them.

 You seem very passionate about gender equality. How will you assess women’s participation in the polity both in nation-building and in business?

I had a lot of female cousins on both of my parents’ sides. I saw two of my older cousins being there for each other. I saw them and their friends growing as entrepreneurs. I also saw very early that with a lot of support, many women would be able to thrive.

Also, everybody, whether they are presidents, murderers, drug addicts or footballers all have mothers. Mothers have a very important role in determining whether their children derail or succeed. So, it makes commonsense to strengthen and empower women. When that is done, the ripple effect is amazing. Once a woman understands that she needs to be financially literate and be there for her children, the children that come from those homes turn out to be better. There is a misconception that women are their own enemies, and I disagree. Maybe, at some point, one or two incidents happen that make that discussion come up, but there are so many women that support one another. I support a lot of my sisters and friends. Women’s participation in nation-building has increased. We are seeing more women in politics. It was not the way it was 20 years ago. But, it is increasing. If we look at it from the corporate perspective, we are seeing more women going after their careers and getting to the top. We currently have up to eight women as managing directors of banks. At a time, we had up to four women as chairmen of banks. We did not have that before now.

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