In this interview with Abang Mercy on the Conversation series, Chude Jideonwo, the Executive Director of The Future Project talks about his disappointment with the President Goodluck Jonathan led Government, the forthcoming Nigeria Symposium for young and emerging leaders to hold on the April 4th – 7th 2013 at the Ikogosi spring in Ekiti State.
1. Who is Chude Jideonwo?
Who do people say I am? (Laughter). Honestly though, this question always confuses me. I’ll have my Twitter bio answer for me: I am a journalist and a media entrepreneur; I like to tell stories, and I like for those stories to make a difference with people.
2. You began your career as a Television presenter with the Nigerian Television Authority, (NTA), tell us about the early days.
Ah, those were the good old days! My first job was as a presenter with Levi Ajuonuma’s The Sunday Show (May he rest in peace). Soon after I worked, for three years plus with Funmi Iyanda, starting as Researcher and moving up to Associate Producer. Those were very crucial years for me, and form the foundation of my learning, of who I am and who I now work to become. We worked from the NTA Channel 10 studios in Tejuosho, even though New Dawn grew into the network service and how we managed to produce such influential shows taught me a lot. In between, I did work with Lilian Agbaso on Health Forum, Comfort Okoronkwo on Video 10 etc. I learnt how to do much with nothing; how to build high from actually starting at the ground. I was 15 years old when I started working for Dr. Ajuonuma, and I learnt so much in those years – how to manage bureaucracy, how to manage resources, the essence of what drives people, and how to think about the long term. I am very grateful for that foundation.
3. As a public speaker, how much of your work do you think has motivated youth across the country?
They will have to say themselves to be honest. I will ramble a bit now because I am passionate about speaking: I have been ‘public-speaking’ now for about eight years I think, and as someone who is in learning to become a Teacher, speaking to people – youth or not – is one the delights of my existence. I have learnt so much from people who in small meetings and big gatherings have through their words helped me become who I am and set me on the path to what I will become by His grace, and so I believe in words; I believe in words so powerfully, and I take seriously my speaking to people because of that. And when I speak, be it about brands and communication to professionals or sharing life’s lessons with young people, I try as much as possible to ensure that it adds real value to their lives. How many people that has motivated, I really can’t say. I don’t have a personal site that tracks that and I don’t build much activity around my person – focusing them on the brand. I have spoken to crowds of up to five thousand, but it’s the people who walk up to me after the event or tweet at me or write me emails, they give me so much joy. And it confirms that the words are making a difference, no matter the percentage.
4. You founded Nigeria’s foremost civic participation group called Enough is Enough Nigeria and abandoned it.. why so?
(Long laughter). Abandoned it? Are there people who think that? That’s strange, but let me try and answer it. EnoughisEnough is one of my proudest accomplishments. I founded it in anger and frustration – it was completely spontaneous and that is one of its allures for me. Before then I had never been involved in any kind of activism, focused on our work inspiring young people and building media platforms for same. But then the former president Umaru Yar’Adua passed on and there was so much chaos in the country, and I felt so ashamed – I asked, if young people were going to keep quiet and I felt we had to our disdain felt. Before that, that wasn’t really happening. Rallies were driven by the amazing Prof Soyinka, Prof Utomi, Joei Odumakin and that made me ashamed. Now, much of the new activism with young people now started from there. That was the first time young professionals, people not involved in politics or governance or advocacy, came out to speak up, and that seed has grown from #ABSURapeWalk to #OccupyNiigria. I am proud of that. But when we formed it, none of this was my goal or that of my partner Adebola who helped me launch it. We just wanted to do something that made a difference immediately. I called together my friends and formed something of an interim board because I didn’t want this to be about me, but about showing that young people were angry. We just wanted to do these protests, make our voices heard, force some change, and get young people involved. But then they were so successful in public acceptance that everyone and myself began to say, okay so after the protests, what next? Do we just go to sleep – especially since elections were barely two years ago? And that is when we decided this would be a formal coalition. After the protests, the board came to a meeting at Planet One in Ikeja, Lagos and they said ‘Chude you have to keep leading this’, and I said no. I didn’t say no out of laziness or what, fear, but because I knew I didn’t have the time or mental space to build the kind of vision I saw for it. My hands were full with The Future Awards, with Y! Magazine and YNaija which we just launched, with our communication company and all of that, and I said to them, guys if we want to build an institution, it has to be beyond me as the founder. As an aside, it’s actually funny because when I formed EiE, people were convinced it was about my personal aspiration – I began to receive mildly threatening calls and accusatory mails, people couldn’t believe that I didn’t have a hidden motive. They said this was formed for Dele Momodu, who joined the Abuja rally, later they said it was for Pat Utomi, who was chairman of The Future Project board. Later they even said it was for GEJ. Time has disproven all of that of course, but it is interesting to recall and hear that I abandoned it. Anyway, so I nominated the present ED,Yemi Adamolekun. I had only known her for a month or two but she struck me immediately as the kind of person that could build an institution that would last. The nomination was unanimously accepted. The second reason I stepped away from its leadership was because one has to stay focused on his race and my race is the media and I am an entrepreneur – the life of an entrepreneur is not really suited for that of an activist, and my life passion is to build media property that empowers people. I was sure that running EiE (and it was my life; it took the whole of me and all our brands and all of our staff) would make we losesight of that very crucial vision that keeps me going everyday. We all have to identify our destinies and not be distracted by our passions and I decided to do that while still being an active part of it. So EiE has not been abandoned by me, it has only been institutionalized, which is what our country really needs; not people bugging down brilliant ideas with myopia or a heightened sense of self. It has an independent board and coalition members who make decisions, it is run completely independent of me, I only have one vote but I am a key part of its decisions – every press release, every event, every partnership, every rally. And I look at it and I am so proud – for one, EiE has now accessed more donor funding than even The Future Project! That wouldn’t have been impossible if I had been shortsighted and wanted to hold on to it! It is an idea that has grown beyond its founder – and for this I am immensely proud.
5. Will you consider yourself as a privileged Nigerian child? In a nation where people within your age group, are still seeking employment.
I will consider myself a fortunate Nigerian. I come from a family where my father lost his job a few years after I was born, and we couldn’t even afford a car until I was in final year of secondary school I think. But we were also not poor, thankfully so I didn’t have to battle that major problem. My parents were educated, and they were able to provide for my important needs. What I have now done is taking that foundation as a springboard to take advantage of every opportunity I have seen, as well as to build opportunities where there are none. We have neither had an investor in our business, nor a subvention. From zero naira in capital, all we have today in terms of our offices across Nigeria or our investments came from that one business we started in one room that my mentor Efere Ozako gave us in 2004. Nigeria has done me no favours, and I have faced the same or worse challenges than the next man. I came out of university and faced the same unemployment market. I went and did – what’s that thing called – Aptitude Test under the sun in Ikeja and interviewed like any other person for GTBank and then for Virgin Nigeria. Passed all, got offers. Within weeks of finishing NYSC I had three job offers and became a manager at Virgin with barely one year’s post-graduate experience. That is not to brag but to make plain the possibilities that exist. Nigeria is hard, but much is still possible.
6. Are you an activist or a businessman?
First, I see the trend amongst young people to make ‘activist’ a dirty word, but it is not. It is an important assignment and people who dedicate their lives to causes should be proud of that. So when I say I am not an activist, it’s not in that ‘leave me out of it’ way’ I am an entrepreneur – my life’s work is focused on building media property that empowers people, one that is fair and balanced no matter what, and a marketplace for people to share popular and unpopular ideas freely and confidently. I believe the media has limitless power to change, to inspire, to transform and is so important to modern society – that is what drives me to work 20 hours each day. At our group, we are constantly thinking of how to build value-driven platforms that are highly profitable and able to drive the conversation and be sustained for the longest term. That is who I am. Activism is something that became necessary when I see a problem, I immediately think of how to solve it – whether it is a business or a social problem, and in Nigeria we have problems. What kind of person is satisfied with living in a country as decrepit as ours without intervention? I am not judging them – but apathy truly worries me. You cannot not be concerned; too much is wrong. There is so much work to be done. Of course, activism is not strategic for an entrepreneur; wise people tell you you need to be financially strong and politically free and they are right. They are absolutely right. I have had to suffer major business loss because I have chosen to take very public stands, for instance during last year’s fuel subsidy protests. That is one problem. The other risk is people who don’t have perspective who want to attack professionals and entrepreneurs who are doing whey can to help their country – these people seem to suggest that one must choose either business or activism. Or that if you criticize a government, you should no longer provide banking services to that government, don’t let them advertise in your media, don’t sell fuel to them, don’t provide hotels for them if that is your business. Just stand in the road with a bowl in your hand and let your business or profession die and have no value to add. That is nonsense and nonsense like that, disruptive as it is, cannot and should not stop anyone from insisting on a better country, and working towards it. In a new age, companies must both do good business and do good – that is sustainability and that is CEOs across the world now recognize. So it is what it is. This is who I am. I am an entrepreneur who is deeply concerned about my country and cannot stop at concern alone. I didn’t choose my country. But it is my country, I have no choice – and I have to deal with it as I see it.
7. What happened to your parent company RedSTRAT it?
It has evolved. One of the partners went to follow a particular vision, and the rest of us decided to let that company rest, and we built a new one, Red Media Group. RED has three visible arms – Red Media, which is the communication company that boasts of clients in Government, Entertainment, Oil&Gas, Finance, Telecoms, Advocacy and others. Y! is the content company that owns Y! Magazine, YNaija.com, Y! TV, Teen Y! and others, and The Future Project is the development firm focused on youth as well as media for development. There are other companies that the group is invested in, but these are our public-facing companies.
8. When did you birth the idea to start The Future Awards for young Nigerians and why?
I have told this story so many times – I yaff tire (laughter). Simply it was us looking at the landscape of young people in 2004/2005 (no Twitter, and no Facebook at the time remember) and seeing that it appeared the future of young Nigerians was, to put it mildly, bleak. All you heard in the mainstream media was news of young women going to Italy, young men doing fee fraud, young people leaving the country etc. And that was not so untrue. But it was half the story. The other story was how much productivity and positivity young people were producing despite the difficulty of the Nigerian environment and we thought someone has to tell these stories through the media – one, to change the narrative for a generation; and two, to inspire more activity of the sort. And that has happened over that period of time. When we started, save for LEAP Africa and the inspiring Ndidi Nwuneli, there were no national youth organisations who were driving the conversation; and we took charge of that imperative. Look at the stories we have profiled, and the young people that have come out of The Future Awards process – Mosunmola Umoru, Tolu Sangosanya, Toyosi Akerele, MI, Wizkid, Ify Aniebo; people who have inspired a generation. Inspiration is so important in a country like ours where it is easy and understandable that people lose hope. We stand as a conduit to testify that much is possible by Nigerians, in Nigeria, in spite of Nigeria. That is why we birthed it in 2005, and held the first edition in 2006.
9. Considering your age and number of media outlest, Do you see yourself as a media mogul?
(Laughter). I see myself as a media entrepreneur and a journalist, even though of course the more business you are involved in, the less of journalism you can actually do. Media mogul, I am not sure if mogul is the word for now, but that is the eventual destination – to own a high-impact portfolio of high-value premium media property that is influential and that empowers citizens with knowledge, with information, with perspective. Your question mentions age and yes I am incredibly grateful for the grace to achieve what we have in this time – I turned 28 this month (March) and I look at what we have done with RUbbin’ Minds, or Y! magazine, which secured the first magazine interview with a sitting president in our recent history, and YNaija.com which is one of Nigeria’s top 50 sites, the revamped Y! TV drives the conversation every edition, our high-impact events from the annual Y! ball to the awards and the conferences and I am both proud of us, excited and grateful. I have the most amazing team in the world – and I must take time to thank them. People who are SO committed to the vision that they refuse jobs with more money, more time, some even postpone their Masters programmes to help us drive this vision. They are responsible for where we are now not just me. We are about 35 people in our businesses, engaged fully and they were sent to this vision by God. I pray for them everyday and I love them from my soul. And we keep moving because we have not even started!
10. As a communications professional, do you think the Nigerian media is viable enough?
This question is confusing. Viable in terms of what I would ask? If financially – then yes. Spend isn’t actually reducing despite the heat over a global recession. More media property are getting in, our media owners are stepping up – and with each step it attracts more money over all for those who work here. For instance, ore sponsorship for shows and events, means more advertising not just by Big Money but also by SMES and even creatives. I always tell people, to know how much advertising spend there is, go look at the left and right walls on Linda Ikeji’s blog. #DazAll
11. Tell us about the relationship Adebola Williams, building a brand together and remaining partners?
Partnerships are beautiful things, even though they can be extremely difficult, and I amgrateful because this partnership has helped us achieve together what would be impossible alone. My partnership with Adebola Williams is both personal as well as official – and it is one for which I am grateful. We are two completely different people, who express our personalities very differently, but the beauty is that we are committed to the same goals, and ultimately the same vision. The only issue of course is with partnerships is human nature and the fact that you cannot predict what even you as a person will think or do the next minute. But three things keep one – one, an insistence on absolute transparency and trust no matter how difficult; two, a like of arrogance or disrespect for the other person. And then finally, the one person who never changes – God. We pray like no man’s business! And we look forward to many more productive, successful, fulfilling decades together.
12. What is your assessment of the President Goodluck Jonathan led government?
Hmm. I am disappointed in this government, I can’t even hide it. I didn’t have very high hopes for it, as my writings in NEXT just before, during and after the elections showed, but I allowed myself to hope and the President had such a positive vibe. Here is the thing – this is not a reflex ‘government criticism’ mode. I actually wish desperately that the Jonathan government impresses me because I have never been afraid to go against my peers or my constituency in what I believe even its unpopular; and if it impressed me I would stand up and say so and anyone who wants to second-guess that decision could do soBut the Jonathan government has given me nothing to hold on to. Beyond competence, is the matter of a failure of moral courage. I wrote last year that there are many Nigerians who desperately want to believe this government, who want to give it the benefit of the doubt, who want to trust it. But it makes it hard. It makes it really hard. It makes it really hard. That’s the constituency that the President should worry about in fact – those who are fair-minded and ready to be patient, but who are now pissed off. When, last year, the president said ‘I don’t give a damn’, even though he was talking about his assets, still, oh goodness – it made my heart sink. He lost me there, finally. I was so disappointed. But, because this is our country, I still hold out hope – I still pray, wish, hope, that there is some goodness ahead, and even if it’s a morsel, one will encourage.
13. You are very critical of the Nigerian Government, don’t you feel a sense of under-performing your social contract as a citizen?
I am? There are those who will tell you I am in cahoots with the same government! Here is the thing: there is no reflex criticism of the government to be found with me – I say exactly what I think about any organ: opposition, government, politicians. It is one of the inherent values being non-partisan (and of course we need many people partisan as well) and also being in independent media and I treasure the capacity to speak my mind and my convictions above anything else, no matter how unpopular it is. Now, I am deeply concerned about the state of our governance, and like I wrote recently ‘what sane person will not be enraged at what we have’? Look at the still-subsisting murkiness in the oil sector for instance, or the confusion with Boko Haram. How can one not be critical of this government? How? (Sigh). I desperately want to live in a country where I don’t have to be seen as critical of the government to be seen as principled and constructive and where burn-it-down types don’t drive the conversation because there is much to criticise. But until that time, criticism is necessary to help it get better – now, where I am different, and deliberately so, is the tone, the nature, the purpose of that criticism of my criticism. In Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom, he spoke about the nature of criticism that can actually make a difference if you stick with the issues, and if you calibrate your criticism for effectiveness – and in my language, my posture, my tone that is obvious. While my criticism of government is unmistakable – both in my writing and in my actions – the language is stubbornly non-abusive, non-dismissive, and always holding out for course-correction. Re the social contract part of the question – I am not sure I understand. There are no medals given for active citizenship, but between EnoughisEnough Nigeria, The Future Project and others, there are some who will say I have done beyond and above what is required for a youngperson with limited resources in this environment. The contributions one has made have tasked one mentally, financially and otherwise, but this is who we are and our hands are still on the till.
14. Do you think the Nigerian social media space should be regulated?
(Laughter). I always laugh at the question. Is that really a legitimate question? I refuse to countenance it. I refuse to take it seriously. Regulate social media? How do you regulate people’s right to speak every day? Regulate what I send via BlackBerry for instance?That’s so ridiculous. I won’t even answer it.
15. The Future Awards is reputed as Nigeria’s biggest youth event, why and when did you decide the awards for young people was necessary?
It’s just like I said above, at the point where we thought – how do we avert the dangers of this single story of doom and how do we take charge of the media and re-purpose the narrative so that it inspires a generation of young people to change their country? That’s when we decided to do it, and we are grateful that it is rightly seen as the nation’s biggest youth event. Not because of the title, but because impact begets impact. And what we have done with The Future Awards – with comparatively non-existent funding is nothing short of a miracle. We are proud of what we have done.
16. What is your dream and expectations from young Nigerians?
That we understand the magnitude of the problems that face us, and begin to focus on building the solutions to those problems. The reason why we developed the online jobs app TFESS.com in January this year for instance which is now partnering with Microsoft is to engage an oncoming problem – the fact that Africa’s demographic bonus now will be a demographic burden in 50 years when there people get old, with no jobs and no safety nets. We have a major governance and economic ongoing crisis. The times don’t call for those who can only destroy; the times call for serious minded people with serious minded solutions to build a society that works. As young people – this is a challenge we urgently need to begin to equip ourselves to confront.
17. As a young person, what has been your regret what is that thing you wished you had a second chance to do again? or better still what is it you will do differently?
Hmm. I have to think about that. Because everything I have done has brought me where I am today, and where I am is good, and where I am going is even better by His grace. I have made some business decisions I wish I didn’t have to make – but it is the nature of entrepreneurship in a developing country. One just has to make sure one reaches the highest possible standards of ethical conduct. I just wish it were a better country where we don’t face some of the challenges and pressures we do. Perhaps the only thing I would really change is how much time I have spent crouched over a computer. It’s affected my back quite roughly. No one warned me!
18. Where do you see Ynaija, in the next 10 years, 15 years as a brand, whats your vision for the company?
Y!/YNaija is focused on youth culture – and using that as a vehicle to drive the issues and ideas that are important for young people. We are platform-agnostic, we just love the nature of the media; which is why we are spread across media – television, radio, print, events, mobile, online. Wherever our audience can be reached, we develop content to reach out. And as the voice of the youth gains even more primacy over the next half decade, our job as a compass to what the youth are thinking and talking about becomes even more important. We don’t like to talk about things before they launch – like the brand new platform we are launching this weekend at the Nigeria Symposium for Young & Emerging Leaders, which we have been working on for the last year. But in 15 years, Y! will be leading in all its markets and then across the continent – that is for sure by His grace. We have not even scratched the surface of our vision.
19. In February of 2013, you were listed in Forbes ’30 Under 30′ Africa’s Best Young Entrepreneurs.. what is the impact of this on your person and career?
Impact I cannot say as it’s just here. What lists like the Forbes one do is give independent validation that confirm quality and the value you are adding. We work incredibly hard, we have achieved impressive milestones – we have built a sustainable structure. What people even see is the surface of a multi-million naira structure that runs very deep. The work that Red Media and Red Marketing do for instance for blur chips and multinationals from the Nigeria Google to Nigerian Idol, Etisalat to the British Council; people don’t even know at all, which is as it should be since they are B2B businesses. In fact, it is those companies that give us the resources and funding to invest in Y! and The Future Project, and the Forbes list and other such recognitions we have had are a validation of that process of investment, re-investment, expansion. It also puts pressure on you not to fail – and pressure is always a good thing.
20. Tell us about The Nigeria Symposium for Young and Emerging Leaders to hold on the April 4th – 7th 2013 at the Ikogosi Spring in Ekiti State
For us it is the next stage in deepening our engagement of the next generation of leaders. To re-direct our country, we need capacity. Capacity doesn’t come in a vacuum – it comes from understanding the failings and successes of previous leaders and learning how to do better, and this event is focused on that knowledge exchange process, as well as one of networking and agenda-setting. We have the most influential and experienced leaders in the present, speaking with some of the most influential and experienced young and emerging leaders and in that atmosphere, we want to a frank, constructive conversation just we had last year. This time, we are preparing this generation for 2015: it is a shame no one else is doing that on this scale, two years to the polls! But we are glad to start of that conversation. Participation is inevitable – whether as politicians or as citizens, but what should be the character of participation by young people? What should be the issues that we focus on and guide us? Should more people join the parties? Should more people join civil society? Those are the kinds of conversations and debates we look forward to. At the end of the day, the country is as much mine as it is yours. We all have one vote. And we are all inexorably tied to it. We must take responsibility for it. We have no choice.
Abang Mercy-Asu is a Journalist, a Public Relations Personnel and can be reached for interviews at [email protected], follow her on twitter @abangmercy