One of the biggest women-centred movements in Nigeria today, SheCan Nigeria, is identifying and celebrating today’s woman, her strengths and achievements. Giving a voice and empowering the next generation of women and girls to achieve their dreams, the yearly conference does this by sharing the voices of trailblazing women in the corporate and business world by sharing their life stories and mentoring other women. Now in its fourth edition, this movement founded by Ezinne Ezeani is spotlighting exceptional women doing more in their respective careers.
In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, Ezeani, Adeboye, Ikazoboh, Henshaw, Edim and Adeniyi talk about what ‘doing more’ means to them, navigating career challenges, opportunities at this year’s conference and what they are doing to impact the lives of women and girls.
Ezinne Ezeani (Founder, SheCan Nigeria)
‘We Believe In Living The Shecandomore Mandate By Raising The Bar Every Year’
The conference is now in its fourth edition, how would you describe the journey up to this point?
I AM grateful to God for the strength to do this, my husband who has been the best support system and my number one fan, my team who has worked tenaciously with me through it all, and lastly our partners who have always believed in us. The last four years has been interesting; we have seen the movement grow and the huge impact on the lives of women from all works of life particularly in underprivileged communities.
It has not been easy, but it has been emotionally rewarding. We believe in living the mandate, SheCanDoMore, this we express annually by raising the bar as each year surpasses the preceding year and the SheCan Nigeria Conference is now an event people look forward to annually.
You said this movement has changed lives and influenced young women/girls; tell us some of the ways it is doing this?
The yearly conference is the birth of the new accounting year, which in turn births a series of post-event programs. We have been able to impact thousands of women in several communities pan Nigeria through our various programs such as SheCan Skill Acquisition Program, Career Fair, Charity Fair, SheCan Code boot camps and training.
Through the SheCan platform, several businesses have been birthed, jobs have been secured, clearer directions for capacity building have emerged and many more. Thanks to our partners NNPC/SNEPCO, Wema Bank, and Mbr Signature who have made this possible through the years and many thanks to the newly added partners Middlechase and Malta Guinness.
Innovation can be tough, what are you doing differently to raise the standard more?
We have grown in numbers with diverse interests, hence the incorporation of new programmes such as SheCan roundtable, which caters for career and business women who would require a structured mentoring process that can allow them grow. Also, we have the birth of a new enterprise movement that will nurture idea creation challenges to help birth scalable businesses for women.
Oyeyimika Adeboye (M.D, Mondelez West Africa)
‘I Am Looking Forward To Seeing More Female CEOs Across All Sectors’
Being the First Female MD of your orgainsation, how did you attain this and what makes your story unique?
I WORK for an organisation that has a robust career development programme, recognises performance and has a strong focus on diversity and inclusion. Although I have a finance background and joined the company as finance director, I have always aspired to be a general manager and made sure that I did not restrict my exposure to finance. My role as Finance Director gave me the opportunity to work across multiple functions and exposed me to different aspects of the business.
I was very deliberate in my career conversations and was willing to take on roles outside of finance as I knew this would support my ultimate career goal, even when it meant learning from and reporting to people who were technically levels below me in the organisation structure. I know people often focus on the fact that I am the first female MD of our company, particularly as multinational manufacturing companies in our market are typically managed by male CEOs. Reality for me is that I know I was not appointed as CEO because I am a woman, but because I demonstrated in my performance, the ability to do this job. Nevertheless, I am the first female MD of our company, and our company was established over 50 years, so this is worth celebrating. I am looking forward to seeing more female CEOs across all sectors.
We at Cadbury have joined the Nigeria2Equal gender program created by the Nigerian Exchange (NGX) and the IFC. The programme aims to reduce gender gaps across leadership, employment and entrepreneurship in the private sector. We recognise that gender equality is good for economies, good for business and good for communities and I hope we can create more awareness while also encouraging more women to pursue their career goals.
As someone passionate about youth education, what more can be done to improve Nigeria’s poor educational statistics?
According to UNICEF, one in every five out-of-school children in the world is in Nigeria and current estimates put the figure at 18.5 million children. This is almost one-tenth of our population. It is an appalling place to be, and we run the risk of creating a bleak future for Nigeria if we do not address this. Every child must be given basic education irrespective of gender or class.
While we must also recognise that not everyone will get beyond secondary education, we must also provide basic vocational training as we build up the productivity level of our country. Investing in education is probably the most important thing any government can do for its country. I come from a family that places education as key and my late father invested in providing this for his community when he founded Adeola Odutola Elementary School and Adeola Odutola College. The Odutola family has also set up a foundation that focuses primarily on vocational training.
At Cadbury, we are passionate about youth education and development. We also had a partnership with Helen Keller International that sought to increase the nutrition knowledge of children, who are the target beneficiaries, inspire them to exercise more, and grow nutrient-rich crops. The project started in 2018 and ended last year. I believe other companies have similar programmes. Together, we can change the narrative, as Government alone cannot handle this.
Belinda Ikazoboh (GM, Business Transformation, Shell Nigeria)
‘Element Of Confidence And Self-Awareness Is At The Core Of Growth’
How are you using your role as General Manager to drive and inspire change?
I APPRECIATE the role I play as a General Manager for such a big and diverse organisation. A few of the things that I focus on are one, helping our people in the organisation understand the business strategy and purpose in a way that resonates on a personal level. Another area I love to play in is helping the business understand our gaps when compared to the best out there playing in the same industry. We always want to be better, powering progress and lives in Nigeria. Keeping an eye on the innovations out there gives us something to strive for.
My third ‘How’ is through Disciplined Delivery. I work with a great team and we hand-hold, coach, train the different parts of the business empowering them to convert their challenges into opportunities and this is what drives change and transformation. Finally, it is about the culture and behaviours. I spend time speaking with teams, going to see where the work is done, listening actively and learning how people approach work. What are the challenges they face and how can I help them surface these issues and resolve them? This has led to a step change in performance in several areas of the business. More importantly, we have been able to sustain these gains.
Some people still think engineering is a man’s job and you have been an engineer for over two decades. Tell us how Nigeria can attract more women to this field?
There is a misconception that engineering is hard and that women should be in more ‘traditional’ roles. It is important to change that narrative and we can do this by changing what we put out there. Women want to see representation so; we need more examples of women excelling in engineering. Programmes, social media, even movies that show more women excelling in these roles often help as well.
It is also important to show the flexibility that engineering brings. For instance, I studied Mechanical Engineering, because I didn’t know what kind of job I wanted to take on afterwards. But I knew it would give me a lot of options into other areas like investment banking, core engineering, accounting etc. Engineering is such a great course that helps one develop a wide range of skills applicable in many other sectors so gives choice. Kudos to SHECan and similar networks that are doing a great job driving home this message.
One key thing we also need to do more is early engagement of the young women right from when they are in primary and secondary schools, exposing them early to STEM. Finally, organisations in Nigeria need to keep doing what they can to support women through their careers in this field. We see many women who drop off mid-career due to lack of support, the need to stay home etc., and all this contributes to a lack of representation at the top.
As a seasoned coach, what would you tell younger women who are looking to grow in their careers?
There is so much to say in this space! I don’t know if there are enough pages to cover all I would love to say here, but let me distill it all down to three key points. The first is, believe in yourself. The element of confidence and self-awareness is at the core of growth. Secondly, take risks. Finally, make sure you have a support squad. People you trust to give you honest feedback, but are also there to remind you of how brilliant you are when you are feeling the pressure. You also need coaches and mentors, both male and female, who have been where you are now and can help you navigate the challenges that come up and help you see your way to taking hold of he opportunities that come your way.
What changes would you like to see for women engineers in the nearest future?
More of us please! Seriously, I would like us to get to a point where the number of women in engineering is no longer a topic because there are many of us. I would like to see women engineers claim their space; they need exposure early to the ‘meaty’ technical roles to develop core competencies and be competitive in the marketplace versus having to justify why they deserve it.
Kate Henshaw (Actor)
‘The Reward For Hard Work, Preparedness Is Success’
As an actor and humanitarian, how have you used these parts of you to influence and help Nigerian women?
I HAVE worked with several NGOs like Project Alert on Violence against Women (15years); WARIF, advocating for zero tolerance on gender based Violence and Mirabel Centre by helping to raise funds for the work they do; Optimal Cancer Care Foundation and Cece Yara Foundation for children to raise awareness on child abuse as well as a few others.
As someone passionate about women’s empowerment and health, tell us a few ways you are working to achieve this?
God has been kind and favored me. I am a professional when it comes to my work and that makes me a joy to work with. I also have incorporated fitness into my lifestyle and I encourage everyone to live healthy. This has added to my portfolio and I have worked with different brands based on this.
How can Nigerian women do more politically to better their lot and actively contribute their quota?
I will advise them to be about the work, to be disciplined and professional in their approach to their craft. They should find also ways to improve themselves. Be consistent and never give up as the reward for hard work, preparedness is success.
Junadia Edim (GMD, Arkbridge)
‘I’d Like To See More Nigerian Women At The Forefront As Major Decision Makers’
You started your career as an accountant and have now risen to become the group’s CEO, how did you achieve this?
My story is one of consistency, determination, passion, pure stubbornness and God. I’m a very passionate and strong willed person. I started out as an accountant about eight years ago. I naturally have a flair for administration and organizing things, so automatically, I picked up the role of administration. I was the accounts and admin officer for a while and got promoted to lead the team within a year of my employment.
At this time, real estate in Nigeria was not as broad as it is now; I took time to study the ecosystem and strategised on how to do things better. I became the CEO after seven years of working as an administrator/operations head. As I progressed, I honed my skills to include leadership, people management, crisis management, client satisfaction, business process, engineering, change management, system building and implementation to mention a few. I basically looked for any vacuum in the organisation, identified where we have needs and stepped in to proffer solutions.
What advice would you give younger women looking to build their career and get to where you are?
We can never take out the God factor, but beyond that, know your craft. Hone all your skills, learn even what isn’t necessarily your concern, knowledge is never lost. Remember that your purpose is never far from what you love; it’s hardly ever about what you studied in school. For everything, there’s a time and a season, I believe that as young people, we need to dedicate our energy to working and setting our career on the right path, as it determines the rest of our life. Work-life balance will come eventually; so do not use that as an excuse for laziness.
Lastly, always strive to be the best at whatever you do. I have a habit of setting targets for myself and when I beat them, I reward myself with something nice. Then, I set another. Everything will fall in place eventually, just focus and work hard.
Over the years, land/property ownership has been a challenge for women. How are you breaking this stereotype, especially with today’s women?
It’s no news that some communities in Nigeria frown at the idea of property ownership for women. You’d also be surprised at the mindset and behaviour of a lot of supposedly informed people on this subject and get uncomfortable with their stand on the subject. I have seen and heard quite a lot.
Middlechase is positioned as the leading rental income developer in Nigeria, and our developments are built as such. It’s a myth that home ownership and real estate investments are for the rich only. We’re creating products that have encouraged working class ladies, low and middle income earners own assets without breaking the bank. And interestingly, we believe that it’s not enough to own assets, but to own assets that earn you income.
What changes would you like to see for Nigerian women in this next decade?
I would like to see more Nigerian women at the forefront as major decision makers in the country, especially as it concerns the economy. Most businesses and the industries we operate in suffer from inadequate policies and laws set. A carpenter would hardly be able to set rules that would effectively cover a farmer.
In the next decade, I hope to see more women seat at the table and perform beyond expectations. I would love to see a country where everything works, and I believe women are key to achieving this.
Segun Adeniyi (Chief Digital Officer, Wema Bank)
‘When Digitizing Operations, We Must Consider The Impact On Women’
Looking at your background and the growth of IT in Nigeria as an ecosystem, what’s your projection for Nigerian women?
IN over two decades of active participation in the technology space, especially with various disruptions, the projection is limitless, and more so, for today’s Nigerian woman. In more recent times, we have seen an increase in women’s participation across all ecosystems in technology, however, there is still a long way to go.
It is pleasant to see women involved in what was once classified as men’s jobs, and then, even more pleasant to see them excel significantly. I look forward to the divide closing further, so that issues around diversity can be further downplayed, and we get to more equitable basis in our choices, regardless of gender or ethnicity.
Tech is gaining ground in Nigeria, but it seems women are still sidelined. How can we get more women into this space?
I would be looking at this from a 2-pronged approach – women going into tech and women’s access to affordable technology. First, we need to demystify technology. For instance, a woman in far eastern Nigeria using USSD channel for payment is leveraging tech. The crux of the matter is to ensure that we are accelerating digitization without amplifying gender gap.
It is already obvious across the world that COVID-19 forced the need for digitisation much faster than before. However, when adopting this technology, entities must do so with a gender lens and watch out for unintentional exclusion. The GSMA Connected Women Mobile Gender gap (2019) report show that women are 17 per cent less likely to use the internet than men, and this rises to 23 per cent in emerging markets such as Nigeria. Similar gaps apply across technologies: women are about 20 percent less likely to have access to a mobile phone, tablet, or computer.
Thus, when digitising operations, we must consider the impact on women employees, agents, and customers, and strive to increase women’s capacity to use digital technology. There is also the need to create more awareness from formative ages of girls, more specially to STEM. Young girls should be given opportunities to explore tech and this can be achieved through early introduction via teaching, mentoring and coaching. From the point view of getting more women into tech as a profession, it is not only about bringing more women into the tech space, but how to ensure women are kept happy and progressive within the space.
A recent study from Accenture and Girls Who Code found that half of young women who get into tech jobs leave by age 35. It is important that we build women-centric training and mentoring programs, and we are all still learning. For us, we’ve carefully curated our annual flagship Tech programme called Hackaholics, targeted at young Nigerians who want to solve problems using techn. This year, we ensure that women are deliberately included from the initial Call for Entries stage to the Selection and Training stage.
Our goal is to use the programme to promote innovation to address issues facing women financial inclusion. Beyond training and mentoring, it is also important to be deliberate about balancing the need to fund women tech start-ups, based on value and potential, and not because it’s owned or managed by women.
Wema Bank has been a partner for SheCan Nigeria through the years, what innovation are you adding this year?
Our partnership stems from our passion to support women as we see the impact that the gender diversity has made across various lines, in building role models, nation building, and fostering a more balanced workplace. This year, our focus is the formal launch of our Sara community, an online platform that allows women have access to information, network and education needed to grow, either as individuals or businesses. Members of the community have access to business and finance opportunities, family planning, health and wellbeing learning materials, trainings, and other capacity building programs and interested women can subscribe through the website.