Jumoke Oduwole is one technocrat making a difference in the public sector. Her work with the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (PEBEC) is lauded for the tangible impact that’s being made in the lives of entrepreneurs across the country, and for foreigners looking to do business in Nigeria. She shares with us how her passion for imparting knowledge and love for service have influenced her career choices.
As a child, I didn’t know I wanted to be in the public sector. I grew up on a university campus. My father was a Professor of Surgery and my mum was the first female registrar at the University of Lagos. I’m a middle child, third of four children, second girl. Non-descript position really. I grew up in that idyllic setting of campus life, with friends everywhere, a microcosm of Nigeria. I have extremely fond memories of growing up on campus.
When I finished my law degree, some of my lecturers wanted me to go on to become a lecturer but I didn’t see myself in that role at all. I thought I would practice law, but ended up in investment banking. I basically wanted to see the world, which is the typical attitude a lot of young people have; a good attitude to have.
Even getting my law degree was never the plan from childhood. You know how some children, at age 5, already know they want to be lawyers? I wasn’t like that. I wanted to be an architect, then an interior designer, and at some point an archaeologist, and then an industrial chemist to make perfumes. I happened upon law because as I was preparing for university I wanted to study economics but when my mother tried to insinuate that I study a professional course like accountancy instead, I quickly re-strategized and selected what I knew would be considered a very “decent” degree choice.
Even back then I knew law would be a good foundation for anything, because as I now tell my students, law is about life and aids your understanding of how society functions. Whether you want to go into the music industry, tech, photography, or even sports, you will be extremely well served by a solid understanding of the law of contract, negotiation strategy, analysing and balancing diverse and sometimes contrary perspectives and the like, which is where law comes to play.
After I graduated from studying Law and completed Law School, I went for my Master’s Degree at Cambridge University, where I was exposed to even more interesting areas of law such as Corporate Finance. Perhaps most importantly, I learnt about the asymmetry that exists between developing and developed countries in International economic law, particularly at the macro level through trade agreements. That course had an indelible effect on me. My lecturer, Daniel Bethlehem, took us on a field trip to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and I came to understand first-hand the unenviable position of many developing countries, particularly African countries, in the world economic order.
When I came back to Nigeria, I chose to become an investment banker having been completely smitten by the fast paced world of Corporate Finance. I joined FCMB Capital Markets and was immediately thrown into the deep end! I had a great time there as the youngest member and only lawyer on the team, and acquired a lot of formative skills and work ethics that have remained with me till this day.
I often tell my mentees that your entry position into the work force is extremely important because it defines at least your first trajectory, so you should always go after skills above all else. I went on to join another high-powered team in Corporate Banking at GTBank , which was another defining position in a bank with a very strong culture.
Again, I learnt a lot, and by this time I knew I wanted to leave the sector for academia because I was drawn towards making an impact. During my years in banking, I began to ask myself if I wanted to set up my own law firm or if was interested in becoming the Managing Director of a bank. At that time, the answer to both questions was no – but I was ambitious. So, the question became – how would I make impact? It took me about two years to figure this out.
I didn’t just happen upon it. In the course of my soul searching, there was a matrix a colleague and I developed and we would interrogate different job and career scenarios for hours. We looked at skills set, work-life balance, remuneration, opportunity to develop skills, and several other factors. So, using those metrics, I selected academia. Truth be told, it was also probably influenced by some nostalgia from my background and the kind of work-life balance I yearned for being the mother of a toddler by this time, but I knew I could have a stellar career imparting knowledge to young people, shaping their minds and influencing society. So that’s how academia emerged on top.
It is unbelievable how difficult it is to get an academic position anywhere in the world because there just aren’t very many openings. So, though I had already started teaching Business Law part time at Lagos Business School, I was really delighted when I finally got a full time offer from my alma mater after about nine months of waiting post applying – but I must confess, my heart did skip a beat when I saw my offer letter and realized I would literally be taking a 90% pay-cut from my banker salary. The reality of the pay-cut was quite daunting to be honest, so I think it was good that the position didn’t come easy.
It made me appreciate it regardless of the pay and embrace the sacrifice. I remember confidently telling my husband that my income level wouldn’t go down because I was going to go after consultancy jobs on the side but I soon realized that good academics are very busy people – they have to read constantly to stay current in their fields, they write articles, conference, teach (which takes preparation) and also have administrative functions at their faculties. Perhaps most strikingly, as an academic, you have a deceptive amount of flexibility over your time and your schedule that can easily lead you astray. You have to self-modulate by setting your own goals and achieving them – or remain mediocre.
There is a level of commitment that good teaching demands, when you know you are responsible for impacting and potentially moulding fresh minds. Coupled with the liberty of thought that academics enjoy, I fit right in. I do believe being part of the ivory tower and that academic lifestyle is truly one of the best jobs in the world; sacrifices and all, teaching is certainly one of the loves of my life.
Literally, in academia one has to “publish (papers) or perish” so I found myself continuously writing for policy-makers, typically with a slant that bordered on issues of development because of my “aha!” moment on international trade at Cambridge. When this public service opportunity presented itself, my husband simply said since I was always writing for a policy-maker audience, I may as well go and actually shape the policies in practice – in short: go and practice what you preach!
But again, I didn’t simply happen upon it. I had known my boss, the Vice President, for quite a few years and had had the privilege of working with him when he served as Chair of the Board of an NGO I ran for a year. I remember exactly where I was the day he was named the running mate to Mr. President in 2014.
I was so excited about the possibilities, because I know him, his work ethic and what he stands for. After having been an avid supporter for change through the campaign, shortly after the elections I took him a short brief detailing what I felt could be done in some areas of economic policy, particularly international trade.
I was out of the country as a visiting professor in the Netherlands for the summer of 2015 when he emailed me soon after his inauguration and gave me an assignment. I was so excited I stayed up two nights researching and distilling a 3-page brief for him, and that was basically the beginning. When I came back to Nigeria, I went to see him again and talked some more and he put me on his economic team.
It has truly been such a privilege and honour to serve Nigeria under him, and I don’t say that lightly. It is most humbling when you can do something you love and you can see the impact your country. It hasn’t been (and still is not) easy – change is not always fast and governance can sometimes be frustrating, but it is extremely gratifying! And when you have a boss that supports you, shields you and believes in you, you give it all you’ve got and you definitely do not want to fail.
I think in all of this, I grew to realise that it is important to have a burden for the society, for making an impact on the country, and on people’s lives. The way I see it, I didn’t really change careers as teaching and working in the government are both public service.
You have to be ready to pour yourself out and be fully committed, and to endure personal sacrifice in order to live your passions. There is no time for apathy because life is very short and I have every intention of dying empty. I’d rather do everything that I can to serve and make an impact, than to wallow in self-pity about things and complain about the state of the nation. I know there is something we all can do to create change, so I’m a firm believer in what Mahatma Gandhi said “be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
Being a Woman in the Public Sector
Working in the Office of the Vice President, where I currently serve is merit-based. I have colleagues with different backgrounds, of different ages and skills sets; at least half of his team were under 40 in 2015, with several women on board in highly technical roles. Although my boss had known my human rights and development inclination as a socio-legal scholar, I was able to persuade him that I had value to add in the economic policy space.
Because he believed in my capabilities from our previous interaction, he did not hesitate to bring me onboard, and I ended up writing my own job description and KPIs because my official role – Senior Special Assistant to the President on Industry, Trade and Investment at the OVP – did not exist prior to this time.
In addition, I am currently also Secretary to the council because of my position on the Vice President’s economic team and I was asked to lead the delivery of Business Climate Reforms for the country and coordinate the activities of the PEBEC’s secretariat by the Honourable Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, the line minister in charge of the intervention.
The Deputy Chief of Staff agreed to release me from majority of my other duties to focus more on the intervention and it was really uncharted territory for me. I saw that I would have to collaborate with civil and public servants, heads of government agencies, Permanent Secretaries, Honourable Ministers (there are about ten of them on the PEBEC alone). Later on, we expanded the project to cover interaction with Governors, Honourables at the National Assembly, Justices, magistrates and private sector players at all levels.
I took on the responsibility with humility, passion and enthusiasm, along with my team, which grew organically. I am privileged to work with about 20 bright, young and passionate Nigerians from diverse backgrounds and together with our colleagues across the board we have been able to make some traction in this area for Nigeria. I have learnt ssssooooo much on this job! Mistakes and all, it has definitely stretched me to my limits and brought out a resourcefulness that I did not know I possessed.
On Being Female
Yes, I have experienced gender and youth bias out of my office, however, I am a strong believer that my gender has only ever been an advantage to me in life and I don’t say this lightly. I have gotten a visiting professorship and global recognition in my academic field, because I was a black Nigerian female working in Nigeria, and the world wants those kinds of good examples. I had a full scholarship to Cambridge for my first Masters degree based on my foundation from the University of Lagos because I applied.
When I got accepted to Stanford for my Doctorate, only 11 of us were accepted from all over the world that year. When such opportunities come, you have to remember that you are an ambassador for your country, and for Africa. When you are female, and you are prepared and ready, just enjoy being female. Don’t focus on the irritating, and frankly hindering, assumptions that other people make because by the time you speak and you completely slay, it becomes their problem, not yours.
I actually enjoyed being underestimated at the start. I could go to a meeting or step out to speak and be looked down on, but when preparation meets opportunity, one cannot help but shine. People do respond to value, and when you shine they end up overcompensating, and being overly deferential to you because they know they misjudged you earlier.
Culturally, I don’t have a problem with my role as an African woman, as defined by me. I cook in my house – I don’t have a cook. I am bringing up my children and taking care of my husband. I can serve my family and in-laws at events as I deem appropriate and it does not in any way diminish me as a career woman because I love them and they love me. I don’t have to choose, and no one can make me choose who I want to be. I am who I am and I define my femininity for myself. I enjoy my life, I enjoy being female, and I have always considered it an advantage. Have the courage to be the best you.
This is probably again influenced by my background. Growing up on a university campus, we grew up freely, without much consideration for ethnicity or gender bias. I have two sisters and one brother and my mum was definitely stricter on my brother than she was on us. We all grew up empowered and strengthened – but that’s another message; the way we bring up our children matters.
I have a daughter and a son; my daughter cooks extremely well, she is now the lead chef of the house and my son is right there with us learning and assisting. He is five years younger, so he is taking over a lot of the chores as she grows older. They are best friends and she is literally in charge of him educationally and socially – I even report him to her, and she has a huge say on important decisions affecting his life. This has created a situation where he already respects women, he respects her authority, and he knows how much he is learning from his sister, mother and grandmother.
So, why should he become a chauvinistic male? Why should he disrespect or look down on women in his life? Why should he be inconsiderate when he is watching his father empower his mother to be all she was born to be, to go anywhere she wants to go in the world?
When I was to apply to schools for my doctorate, my husband agreed to move to the US as a family. He paid for my doctorate degree, this was after supporting me without complaint as I took that drastic pay cut to “follow my dreams” in academia. He subsidized my academic career, paying for me to attend conferences around the world in order to develop. And now, I’m in Abuja from Monday to Friday and in Lagos at weekends, and he is completely undaunted by my working in a male-dominated area. Husband apart, he remains my career and life coach, and angel investor. I tell my students that the choice of the person you marry is probably one of the most important decisions a person can make because it can either hinder you or liberate you to actualize your God-given potential to its fullest.
Mentors and Mentees
I think I’ve been mentored from when I was a teenager, but I have certainly had well defined mentors throughout my adult life. I can’t even begin to explain how catalytic their role has been in my decision-making. I should start from my parents; I did not have to be coerced to do well in school because I was enabled. My parents both worked at the ivory tower all their lives – one in academia and the other in administration.
Growing up on campus, because we had parents doing incredible things, I think we naturally appreciated achievement and hard work. Being around a university campus exposed us to so much concrete success at a young age., We would just know casually that someone’s father was a world-renowned expert in some rare field or someone’s mother was one of the most sought after dermatologist in the world. There was no reason not to love knowledge, achievement, and hard work.
I remember when I decided to switch careers from banking to academia, my father was thrilled and encouraged me 110%. I remember he said to me that one day I could win the Nobel Prize. When I wanted to apply to Cambridge, I knew as middle-income earners my parents wouldn’t be able to afford the fees so in my final year, after enduring several ASUU strikes, I went by myself to the British Council and hand-wrote a request for application forms to the university (I didn’t yet have access to email then).
The forms arrived after weeks and my mother helped me with filling out the application, and a scholarship form. I got a full DFID-Cambridge Commonwealth scholarship with accommodation, allowance, tuition, feeding and everything else provided. All my parents had to do was drop me at the airport and pick me up again when I got back – the only condition attached to the scholarship was that after my course I return home to Nigeria to serve. Both my parents have had a significant impact on my career choices all my life. My elder sister, who is far more streetwise, strategic and connected than I am, who knows everyone and everyone knows, has always been there guiding me and opening doors at pivotal moment of my life. She is a born connector.
From my early twenties, my mentor, Mrs Morin Desalu, a founding WIMBIZ trustee has been a constant in my life. She and some of her friends such as Mrs Bola Adesola, Ms Mairo Bashir and Mrs Ibukun Awosika all supported me when I wanted to go to Stanford for my second Masters Degree, which was a precondition for admission to the doctoral programme, and have watched me grow ever since. My second mummy, Pastor Laolu Adefarasin is a home-maker extraordinaire and a born nurturer.
Women like Dr Myma Belo-Osagie and and Justice Adesuwa Oke-Lawal and a number of other women (I better stop naming names before I get into big trouble) have given me time, attention, advice, money, and extremely wise counsel over the years. I have learnt from their examples how to be a complete woman in every area of my life. There was even a particular mentor of mine whose children were just so well brought up – four boys, and they are all polite, well-behaved morally upright and doing very well in school.
I just knew someone had to be doing something right, and when I asked her, she told me to ‘just get it right with the first born’. I have both female and male mentors for business and investments, and one of my mentors nominated me for a board seat in a leading bank a few years back. I have mentors across all areas of life that are important to me.
To whom much is given, much is expected. I have a large number of mentees, including several of my former students and former church youth fellowship members. It is humbling and unbelievably rewarding to see the impact one can have on a life under your care – I will not make the mistake of listing any of my “star mentees” here because I will DEFINITELY get into trouble with that! They know themselves. But all I will say is that my mentees are perhaps some of the greatest joys of my life. When my time here is spent and the Lord calls me home, I do not need to wonder about those who would attend my funeral. I already know.
The mentor-mentee relationship is one that has to be nurtured. If you have a mentee who breaches trust, who isn’t listening, who sets appointments and does not show up, then that person is disrespecting the time of the mentor. In all, I cannot overemphasise the importance of mentors, role models, and mentees in one’s life journey.
Entrepreneurs in the Nigerian Terrain
Many Nigerians are naturally entrepreneurial. As a people, it’s one of the biggest advantages of our economy at all levels from micro to multinational. We have ENERGY for the hustle! A lot of Nigerians have imbibed traits without even realising, perhaps because one of their parents ran a business or traded. I think, more than ever, the government needs to provide an enabling environment for businesses to thrive. Nigerians don’t ask for too much – just provide power, infrastructure, broadband, and remove legislative and bureaucratic reforms and they are good to go! Especially our young people I remember how many students had one side gig or another while at university.
I think what many Nigerian SMEs need to learn is the value of time and patience. That 5-year mark at which a lot of businesses go under has to do with delayed gratification, planning and preparation. The academic in me would say we need to do a lot of thinking – think through the when, the how and the why. What makes your product different? What would make it pass the 5-year mark? If you are rushing, working with another’s idea, or a half-baked idea (even if it is a good idea), it may fizzle out. That patience to undertake proper preparation is essential to success.
We are naturally impatient, and it sometimes hampers the longevity, sustainability and scalability of our ideas. I find, sometimes, that non-Nigerians running businesses here are more prepared to work with where we are at because they can see the potential, while we that are home underestimate the opportunity that is around. We are very good at venting and complaining as a people (and I wouldn’t say without cause!) but what do you choose to focus on? The glass half-full or half-empty?
That spirit of waiting it out and thinking deeply is very important. I think that people who delay gratification and invest their capital back into the business, do better in the long term. If you watch 2 or 3 businesses over a period of time, you can almost tell the one that will be there in 5 or 10 years’ time just by meeting the visionary. If the visionary is already living large because revenue is flowing, that is a problem. But if the visionary is acting like there is no profit at all, then you know the person is thinking further. We don’t lack creativity or energy, but deep thinking and continuous learning is an area we can definitely improve on.
Living Life Fully
I don’t compartmentalise a lot. My life is my life and I love all parts of it, but I have learnt to understand there are times when one part may take some priority over the others. For instance, when I was in academia, I could do school runs with my kids every day; all I had to do was plan my lecture periods around it and write my papers at 4am instead of 4pm. I have a good support network – a supportive spouse, my parents, one of my sisters and my sister-in-law, who all live close by, my amazing nanny that has been with us for 7 years now, and a driver that has been with us for 9 years, my friends and mentees close by. I really am truly blessed.
I still run my home from wherever I am in the world. I shop virtually and have used Easy Shop, Easy Cook for almost a decade now. I just email my shopping list, send a picture of the list, call or go on their website, whatever works for me, and the food is delivered to my kitchen. So, I could be in The Hague, my daughter can tell me we have run out of gari, and I can still fix it just like that. My kids do not know what its like for me to go to the market on a Saturday because I prefer to spend that time doing other quality things that I enjoy.
I also plan my work schedules. For example, if it’s my son’s birthday or he has a school play, I don’t need to hide it from my immediate boss or my team, I let everyone know that I will be working from Lagos on that day because it is my son’s birthday. Of course, if I have an important meeting in Abuja or Kano that day, or if I am called at 11pm to do an assignment before 8am the next day, my colleagues know that I will deliver. It’s a matter of trust and credibility that you build over time with your commitment. Having that flexibility with work helps women in particular.
So I try to live by example, and I tell even my male colleagues to go home if one of their kids is celebrating something and there’s nothing urgent on ground. But when I need them to deliver for our team and for the country, I expect 200% commitment from everyone around me. I know I am pretty intense about pretty much everything, which can sometimes be tough for those around me.
All in all, it is really about learning, maturity, commitment and making the right judgment calls. Having structure, being detailed, planning ahead, and being a disciplined spender all help make life easier because you will be under less pressure. Balanced. I love God and my family. I try to make time for my friends and mentees, I try to stay healthy and joyful, I try to have compassion on others and to spend my time wisely.
I want to impact the world for good. Its not really about fame or fortune, those are sometimes by-products in life but should never be the focus. Getting to know yourself and what inspires or agitates you most on this earth is likely the key to the solution that you were born to deliver. Take the leap!
- Have a burden to make a difference, and the passion and courage to live the life that you want to live without apologies to anyone.
- Be the change you want to see in the world.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Spark Magazine. Find the magazine here to read other articles.