Words are not enough to describe how much of a leader Ibukun Awosika is, not just in her industry, but across board. A vanguard of change, not only for young ladies and women around the world but for men alike. In her radiance and grace, she continues to shine the light for many who look up to her.
She currently serves as Chairman of First Bank of Nigeria Limited, and with a lot on her plate already, but whenever she finds the time, she passionately speaks on social issues that affect women and the country at large. She’s all these and more wrapped in a modest package. We are glad to bring you Ibukun Awosika in this riveting interview.
…on mentors and mentees
Getting individuals to consciously guide you through life comes easy now, but for Mrs. Awosika and her generation, mentoring wasn’t always this available. She recalls that guidance for her was gotten from reading the stories of other women, observing women of influence who were doing outstanding things in other climes and in Nigeria. Also, at certain moments when guidance was needed on various issues, there were women and men who were there to offer her help and advice; great advice has no gender. She puts it like this:
“My position on mentoring is that because you are a woman, you don’t need to get stuck on getting mentored by a woman. The right kind of guidance, support and knowledge can come from anybody, both older or younger than yourself.”
Mrs. Awosika had previously planned to study Medicine and Surgery in the University, then she heard that in medical school, they worked with actual dead bodies, that spooked her and she turned to Architecture for solace only to eventually end up studying Chemistry. She, at some point, thought she would make a great lawyer and everybody believed so, seeing that she could debate on national issues seamlessly throughout her time at Methodist Girls High School, Yaba.
Then, she had a vision of becoming a Chartered accountant and working in a bank. So, as she pursued the Chemistry degree, she took a lot of free electives in the Faculty of Administration and Accounting. Visions come with implementation, our torchbearer shows us.
On graduating from the university, she took the first job she could find to keep busy which was in a furniture company. It was barely three and a half months into working for that company that she discovered that she really liked the creative process of furniture making. She desired to build a company that could do what they were doing but with a different set of values. Mrs. Awosika then decided to build her own furniture company- Quebees Limited. That furniture company, now The Chair Centre Group, turned 30 this January.
“I think what we generally do is have a sense of who we are and where we want to go as we are growing up. It is important we have a sense of ownership of what our life is about because it is that sense of ownership that guides the actions and decisions that we make along the way. Certain factors should exist, a value system, commitment to personal integrity, commitment to doing things right or wrong, and the commitment to dealing with people around decently and respectfully. Some things are constant, even though evolving but some are part of our discovery of self and our journey of life, which means we only know as much as we know. We really can’t tell what tomorrow holds but our foundational belief systems and vision, we know.”
Many people think this is a clueless generation, but our very savvy Mrs. Awosika thinks differently. She believes that the system doesn’t prepare young people for times ahead. In her words:
“You cannot ask a man for what you haven’t given him. The quality of education is not the same; the skill level of some teachers that are teaching them are low and the infrastructure of education needs serious upgrading. I do not think there is anything wrong with the young people; people are a product of the society they grow in.
“Our focus on certification rather than skill has destroyed the fabric of our human capital. This is because we are not building a workforce in line with our national plan. If you talk to a lot of young people, you will find that they want to do well. Of course, there are those who don’t fall into this category – you will always have those, every society has them. But a large number want to do well. They are looking for opportunities and to be empowered the right way with skills and knowledge that would enable them achieve something.”
…on what an entrepreneur needs to grow business
Placing emphasis on the fact that small businesses are the engine for economic growth has changed everything from government policies and programmes to how private firms perceive the market. There is so muchdrive for entrepreneurship, but the business and socio-economic environment seems to be a hindrance for these risk takers. Mrs. Awosika believes that entrepreneurs can grow regardless of the economic downturn if they continue to seek after knowledge, show financial discipline at all times, become more and more teachable and have a sense of delayed gratification. They must also be innovative and responsive to changes in their market or business environment. She puts it like this:
“First and foremost, I don’t think there is one entrepreneur that would have all the skills they need. That tells you about learning to work with other people, collaborating and drawing resources from others.
“Secondly, openness of mind is pertinent. You can start out with what seems like a really great idea but very quickly find that changes in the market or around you can make what once seemed like a good idea not good anymore. And you must have the openness of mind to respond to that.
“You have to learn delayed gratification because one of the best ways a young company can grow is that the resources are retained within it to help it grow. I am firm believer in small beginnings for enterprise because it is important to prove a concept and prove it at different scale level. It is important to grow in stages and not seek overnight or rapid growth.”
…on raising visionary leaders
The optimism with which Mrs. Awosika speaks on this topic is heart-warming, she says without a doubt that there are many who are capable of visionary leadership in Nigeria. For her, the worry is whether we have the proper political process and machinery that would make it possible for them to emerge. She touches on the topic like this:
“It is a question that we all must ask ourselves. It must start from asking what we really want. Do we want the same thing? How committed are we to the goal of building a great Nigeria as opposed to building our tribe, family or friends? Those are the questions we all must ask because we are all responsible for Nigeria, no matter what we say. Ultimately, the kind of leadership we have affects every single one of us. Until we get to a point where we set a different kind of standard for ourselves and educate ourselves on it.
“For me, I personally believe that an unenlightened electorate is a major risk for democracy. It is absolutely important that we educate our people because when people are well-educated, they will think differently, even though there are people who are well-educated but when they speak about the political system, you will bury your head in shame. So sometimes even education itself does not guarantee enlightenment but we can’t give up because this is our country. We just need toget to a place where we are committed to a more equitable society and then we will push and fight for a process that will permit the right kind of leadership to emerge.”
…on guiding principles
As a Christian, Mrs. Awosika seeks in all she does to live by the values of her faith. Fairness and equity are her watchwords. She believes that there’s a lot in life more important than money. She says:
“Again, money is nothing; that is the truth. If you do what you do well, you will get paid for it. But it is also a temporary thing; it is useful but it cannot be the ultimate, because there are too many things in life that money cannot buy. When you look at it from that perspective, it demystifies money and makes it easier for you to make the right decision when you are at a point of conflict in your life’s journey.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Spark Magazine. Find the magazine here to read other articles.