“Everything is achievable if …” | Leading Ladies Africa speaks to Nkiru Olumide-Ojo, founder of Lighthouse Network

by Fransesca Uriri

Nkiru Olumide-Ojo, one of the founders of Lighthouse Network expresses herself with admirable candour. She speaks about what it really means for women to support one another; and how challenges are really opportunities for growth and development. She delivers a good dose of insight, inspiration and direction with her useful, practical advice. Be inspired!

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 You are the founder of the Lighthouse Network; why did you set it up?

I’m a one of the founders and I’d like to describe the lighthouse network as a natural birth.

I started out a column over 2 years ago in Businessday; the column is called PressureCooker- it talks about life as a female juggler if you may- a real column that talks about how some of the juggled bottles break( I was tired of women sounding like no juggled bottle ever dropped!). As readership increased, I would get email messages asking me lots of questions. I could identify with most of the questions but didn’t have all the answers; I did however know a group of great ladies who we could together respond. At the same time, my friends of many decades were feeling that our hangouts should translate into something more meaningful, more impacting. That’s how LHN was birthed. It’s about women supporting women, lighting the community. Forget the myth of women constantly antagonising women, there’s nothing as a powerful as women united in a common objective!

 What’s your take on mentorship? Is it really as important as people say it is?

I do believe mentorship is really important- guidance is key- in the multitude of counsel there is wisdom my great book says, but mostly you get to your destination faster in my view when you have some guidance. It doesn’t have to always be formal- formal and structured is great, but given that this is real life and people are grappling with a lot of things, you must find a way to learn from the ones you identified in that way that profits you…and perhaps them.

What do you think are some of the challenges women face when it comes to professional growth?

I find many are internal…the battles of the mind, attitude, are some of the things that hold us back professionally- I suppose also our emotional side tends to get in the way sometimes- when I review my career journey, I know for a fact that the energy spent in combat, could have been better spent collaborating. I didn’t miss a fight when I was starting out; whether it is a war of words or just over-assertion (we sometimes think/feel we have to doubly assert ourselves). This is not to say there aren’t real external factors such as natural requirements of our physiologies, maternity leaves, children suddenly taking ill etc (these can also take up our time if we do them too frequently. Not forgetting the boys club.

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In her book “Lean in” Sheryl Sandberg encourages women to sit at the table instead of pulling back, do you agree with this?

Oh yes, I couldn’t agree more, her example of the young interns who repeatedly refused to sit at the table despite the invitation is so true.
It’s a combination of so many things that hold us back from taking a sit- I often dislike it when people generalise and say its intelligence. That’s not always true…I heard a woman say recently that she couldn’t count how many meetings where she sat in and her male colleagues responded to questions with the very same answers she had ready to speak out- it is boldness, the way we were brought up, confidence levels, a combination, either ways, it isn’t right and women should deliberately encourage others to take that sit at the table.

Have you ever been called bossy by male or female colleagues? And how do you advise one handles this?

Oh yes I have, a lot more in my earlier days- I was young and to be honest didn’t care for a minute so I managed how I thought best, not given to any leadership theories. Being older I’ve learnt (and still learning) the many wiles that enable you achieve more with less name calling.

What is the most challenging crisis you’ve had to manage as a communications expert?

I’d like to say an air return (when a flight that has taken off returns), but thinking further it was the Virgin Nigeria/MMA2 vs. the FGN saga, it was such a situation! You had to reach out quickly and accurately, understanding that every time you put out a statement or granted a media interview your job was on the line, for despite the many approvals it was such a high wired situation.

Still I was bold enough to embrace it. In retrospect, I think the older bosses at the time must have been enamoured with the ease in which I delivered the message. A high point for me was years later when on introducing myself to one of the ‘opponents’ on the other side’ he said ‘oh it’s you, it was you who was my torment’. That was an endorsement in my view.

You have varied experience that cuts across aviation, telecoms, oil & gas and banking; how has this impacted you professionally?
Lol, I just know what sector I want to play in or not. Aviation is very sexy (excuse the porn) with the thinnest margins. Telco is exhilarating for a marketer. Can I respond about banking in exactly 5 years time?:-) it is still early years yet.

As a professional with over 16 years’ experience, what would you say are the key characteristics of someone who wants to make a career out of corporate communications?

Interest, interest, commitment, creativity, be able to articulate, write, speak well, be bold start off in a communications agency – that gives you such a leverage. When you start off in one, you can touch many brands quicker, get to do tasks from day 3 that you could have done only in year 4 of a big organisation with you in marketing. I remember leaving the interview where I had interviewed for the virgin Atlantic role with such confidence as I knew the brands I had worked on in the agency had blessed me with exposure, hence advertising agencies are recruitment grounds for companies seeking marketing professionals.

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 You started out being the Marketing and Public Relations Manager of Virgin Atlantic Airways, before moving up to become the Head Corporate Communications, Virgin Nigeria Airways, how did this growth happen?

I had worked for almost five years at Virgin Atlantic’s when Virgin Nigeria was to be set up, having just returned from maternity leave I was a little antsy, somehow, God worked it out that I’d be sent on secondment to set up the marketing department, launch the brand in Nigeria, it was an experience I still am so grateful for.

When asked about their role models, people often list members of the same sex; do you have any male role models?

Yes I do have males that I admire for different things:
I’d like to be like my husband (really wish I could), very wise and calm, in the face of challenges and otherwise. Never tells the time using some else’s wristwatch and isn’t as talkative as me.

Ephraim Osunde – for being able to translate spiritual principles to help everyday living.

Richard Branson for just ‘going on and plucking it’ right after he dreams it. Very unassuming too.

What advice would you give to young women who want to build successful careers as well as become successful mothers and wives?

Everything is achievable as long as you are willing to pay the price. Keep that mind open. Plan, put up your hand for help, draw on family resources alot, and often too. Better your family first than strangers.

Find a career support person or mentor, work hard and pray hard.

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 What part does your faith play in your life?

A big part- that’s my anchor. My compass and my restraint.

What are the things you’d like to change about yourself?

Hmm, that’s tricky. Personality wise, sometimes I get a bit upset about the ‘quiet person I’ve become, otherwise, I’m in a good place even though requiring improvement in other areas.

Name 4 women you admire and why?

My Mum for her resilience!

Funke Felix-Adejumo for her unabashed love for God and being such a blessing to humanity.

Sola David-Borha-For her professionalism, letting her profession of faith align to her character.

Mo abudu for being more than one thing, reinventing herself often.

A lot of women have challenges transitioning professionally; in your opinion, what is the best way to move from one job to another?

I don’t know that there is a ‘methodology to move’ I personally use a few indices:’ What is working for me or otherwise’? What is my maximum growth path in the company? Is there a system and structure? where am I ultimately headed? What is the best route to get there?

If you could, what would you tell your younger self?

You should have deliberately developed EQ, not grown into it.

You run “Pressure Cooker” a weekly column for women in the corporate place, tell us a little about that.

I had fast paced jobs with a lot of travelling, which meant I was trying to do a zillion things correctly, not miss my friend’s birthday or house warming, make all the PTAs, make all my church meetings (and more). I was sweating under this weight and every other woman seemed tidy and well put together. Every time, there was a gathering of females, I’d often put my hand up to ask how people were managing….the answers I got didn’t assuage me and so I thought if I was honest enough with my struggles, perhaps I’d get honest answers back, that’s how Pressure Cooker came about and it’s been an amazing 2 and half years with many honest responses.

I more than often delve into socially relevant but NOT political stories.

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 Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

I’ve got a long list of ‘To bes’…i need to check. I’m too young to be answering ‘what else will you like to be’? I’d like to start ‘being them’.

 What are your favourite tourist destinations and why?

Istanbul–has the loveliest landscape and isn’t a hectic destination to visit.
Newyork!-Love the lights, love the buzz and of course the shops.

If you weren’t in communications and media, what would you be doing?

I’d be running a development organisation and be a journalist at the same time; I promise you the fulfilment from making social change is matchless.

 Indra Nooyi speaks about women not being able to have it all in their careers and at the home front. Do you agree? How do you manage trade-offs?

Hmmm, do you ever ‘really just manage tradeoffs’? – You feel constantly guilty about them- constantly- even when you are aware of your decision o trade off. I can only be thankful, I haven’t been forced to make the either or choice.

 What is your personal mantra?

1.That God it is what blesses whether with ideas or any other thing; forget the big theories – it is he who causes time and chance to happen to you. We’re 7.1billion in the world Francesca, surely there are people brighter than Bill gates and Steve Jobs.

2. That lighting your candle doesn’t dim mine, it just means the whole place shines brighter.

3. That no two birds have ever had an accident in the air- so there is room enough for you and me.

 What 3 books would you recommend we read?

The Battlefield of the Mind -Joyce Meyer… just reiterates the power of the mind-that’s where we win or lose.

Outliers – Malcolm Glad well- there are really outliers…the book says born and I think ‘can be’

David and Goliath – Malcolm Gladwell….the principles of brand virgin that I love so much- the underdog can be the undertaker.

The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series that focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.

It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa; an initiative that seeks to effectively mentor and inspire women, with particular emphasis on the African continent.

Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to [email protected] and we just might feature her.

Comments (3)

  1. I found the interviewee to be very honest with her responses. It came off empowering. More of this!

  2. This was such an inspiring interview to read. Every woman can relate to how hard it can be to try and juggle it all and still come out on top. Congratulations, Nkiru Olumide-Ojo. I look forward to reading more interviews in this series.

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