Ibukun Akinnawo is the Launch Lead for West Africa at pawaPay. She has over 6 years of experience working in the BPO then fintech industry first as the CEO of Independent PA, an agency that provides skilled assistants to C-level executives in Nigeria, the US and the UK. After which she held several senior operations positions at companies like Paystack and Kuda Bank. Ibukun is passionate about making people and processes work better than they already do. Overtime, she has evolved and has built a global brand for herself and in this interview, she shares her business growth journey.
At the beginning of my career, I didn’t quite know exactly what I wanted to do. I just knew that whatever I was working on, I wanted to do it well. I wanted to do work that was impactful, would matter and solve large scale problems for people. I went to a Catholic boarding school, so there was always a specific time and schedule for everything. It was initially difficult for me to adjust to what I thought to be prison but I’ve now realized that having a schedule makes you more organized and efficient as a person.
My career started at the University of Lagos where I was studying for my bachelor’s degree. In my second year, I started writing, editing, and working as a virtual assistant to professionals. So when I completed my degree, I decided to register my company (Independent Personal Assistant) which provided skilled virtual assistance to C-level professionals in Nigeria, US, and the UK. I was basically running my clients’ lives so they could focus on what mattered to them.
I’ve always believed that I would be successful, and I got this quiet self-assuredness from my mom. She’s deceased now but she was a very confident, enterprising woman and that rubbed off on me. So I always thought if my mum could do so and so, I can definitely do it too because I am my mother’s child.
My Driving Force
I’ve always wanted to solve large scale problems and do the best I can no matter the role or position. I have served in different capacities in my career so far, and my personal mantra is to help people and processes work better than they already do. When I make career decisions, small or big, it’s always after I’ve filtered it through my personal mantra. So on the days when I don’t have the zeal to work, I remind myself that my work is important and it will help make someone’s life easier or better.
The first memorable milestone for me was founding my company. At the time, I was getting a bachelor’s degree in music – I was a voice major and played the violin and piano as minor instruments. In my first year I was convinced I was going to be a famous musician and I even recorded a song with a friend of mine. But by my second year, I wanted to try something more “profitable”. I didn’t want to make mainstream music, my sound is more indie/alternative and I didn’t want to change my sound to appeal to more people.
I thought, “What else do I do well?” and I picked up writing for money. I used to write short stories for my own enjoyment during prep in secondary school. I garnered a small readership in my class at the time too. That is how I started writing for money through university. After a while, I expanded my product offerings to include editing, project management, calendar management, and other virtual assisting services. So, founding a business right after university with no prior experience or education in business management was a big milestone for me.
Another milestone I remember was getting local and international clients for my business. As a first time founder, I was able to land clients in Nigeria, the United States and the United Kingdom. That was a huge feat for me. Other milestones are getting to work at reputable organisations like Paystack and Kuda Bank, occupying senior positions and impacting many.
Building, scaling and maintaining a career requires continuous effort. The first lesson I learnt was asking questions. No matter how silly you think the questions are, always ask questions. You shouldn’t be afraid of being the most stupid person in the room. There are different reasons for you to ask questions;
- For clarification.
- To improve knowledge.
- To provoke thinking about solving a problem.
- To get what you want.
No one can read your mind and give you what you want. You have to vocalize and be confident enough to ask for it. The worst answer you’ll get is a ‘no’ and the best answer you’ll get is a ‘yes’.
Another important lesson I’ve learnt is to always improve myself and the quality of my work. There’s always a better and more efficient way to do most things. So, I always seek to improve myself by reading and learning more about my industry. That way, I’m able to hold valuable conversations with people in that industry and also learn new ways to make my work better. That mindset is one of the reasons I am where I am today career-wise.
On Women Empowerment
I believe it’s important to create a level playing field for all women, because women make up about half of the world’s population. It’s only right that we are accorded a seat at the table and have a say in how the world’s systems are run. It just makes sense.
One way I help empower other women is by directly having one-on-one conversations with women who want to get into tech and are unsure about the how. I have conversations with them to get a sense of what their strengths and goals are. That way, when I find opportunities that match, I recommend them for those positions.
If I had the power to, I would definitely hire more women, get more women in positions of power, in politics and across many industries. When I ran my business, women made up 80% of IPA’s workforce. At some point, I want to set up a scholarship scheme for women, so they can learn and gain relevant skills that they need to get into whatever industry they want to. I am now also looking to invest in women-run companies. I am signed up to FirstCheck Africa, which is a fund that invests in women-led early stage businesses.
I am really excited by what the FirstCheck founders are doing. I think that women are over-mentored and are not getting commensurate financial support. I want to make more money, so I can put my money where my mouth is – figuratively speaking.
Furthermore, I advocate for more women to be hired at my current job and other jobs I have had in the past as well. The way I think about it is, if we hire more women into meaningful positions where I work that is a win for the ecosystem. And it also means there are more women in the tech industry.
My Spark is how hard I work and how driven I am in helping tech companies solve big problems. My personal mission statement to help people and processes work better than they already do drives me to take on the projects that I do and the companies I apply to work at.
Take up space and be extremely good at whatever you’re doing. Always record your achievements and speak unapologetically about them. Also, do not shy away from the spotlight, because by being more visible you’re encouraging the next generation of women to also take up space and achieve their aspirations without fear.
Ibukun Akinnawo is the Launch Lead for West Africa at PawaPay. She has over 6 years of experience working in the BPO then fintech industry first as the CEO of Independent PA, an agency that provides skilled assistants to C-level executives in Nigeria, the US and the UK. After which she held several senior operations positions at companies like Paystack and Kuda Bank. Ibukun is passionate about making people and processes work better than they already do.