‘I fell in love with Lagos’: Tannaz Bahnam speaks to Leading Ladies Africa on being a foreigner in Nigeria

by Francesca Uriri

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Staying back in Nigeria, after an official assignment with the National Geographic, showed Tannaz Bahnam that the city of Lagos had a lot more to offer. As the Leading Lady Africa for the week, she takes us on the journey of how she started the premier listing service – Lost in Lagos.

 It’s very interesting that you’re from Iran, grew up in the UK, married a Lebanese man, and live in Nigeria. How did all of this come about?

Good question! I’m still trying to figure it out! To start with, I was born in Iran, we moved just after the revolution to London, where we lived until I hit high school. Then from there we moved to Washington D.C. for my high school years. I studied in NY for University (in the Bronx actually) and then to Paris for my MA, so I have a tendency to move around a lot. That was my foundation for my future travels.

Throughout university (a semester in Italy and summer studies in France), and even more so after university, I travelled a lot. I loved discovering new cultures, especially to places off the beaten track. After my MA I did a short course in Moscow and from there took the Trans-Siberian train to China (one week on a train with no shower – not pleasant!) Soon after that I got my dream job!

I was doing sales and marketing for a company that represented media houses in doing advertorials. In the 3 years I worked with them I got to travel to Kazakhstan, Mexico, Serbia, Colombia, and Ecuador, to name a few, and my final destination was Lagos with National Geographic Magazine!

That’s where my story really began. I met my husband here, who has lived in Lagos for 13 years, and within 5 months of meeting we were engaged and married the following year! It was love at first kiss. Now we are raising our two year old boy here, and have made Lagos our home.

You’re the founder of Lost in Lagos; a guide with listings on everything from spas to electronic shops. Tell us more about why it was set up?

When I travel, I like to get to know the places I visit intimately. I like to find the secret local spots, and the hidden gems. But when I came to Lagos I couldn’t even find the places that would be considered popular. There were a handful of places that everyone went to and every time I asked I was directed to those same places.

I could not believe that in a city so big those were the only options. So I took matters into my own hands and started discovering what was hidden behind the gated compounds and barbed wire. Slowly I discovered the real Lagos, full of options, full of variety and talent!

I would share my finds with friends and I quickly became the go-to person for things to do and find in Lagos. At first I thought it would just be a helpful guide, but I started really enjoying it and realized that it was helping people so I made it bigger and into a business.

Why Lost-in-Lagos and not Lost-in-Abuja or Lost-in-Nigeria for instance? Why the special focus on Lagos?

Mainly because I got to know Lagos really well, but…watch this space!

Some people think that Lost-in-Lagos is a bit bourgeois and foreign; what’s your take on that?

That is a common misconception, mainly because I’m foreign, but most of the people I meet who use it are Nigerians. The people I target primarily are Lagosians, people who live and work in Lagos, and then of course those who visit it.

The businesses on the site do not thrive on sales to foreigners, they grow because their customers shop from them often, and that would mean they spend a lot of time in Lagos. With regards to bourgeois, I don’t pick the businesses depending on their clientele or on the price tags in their shops, but on what I think our visitors would like to know about.

I like business that are serious and who care about their customers (some are still working on that!) and are making an effort to create awareness, which is very difficult. So not only are we guiding people to businesses that will make their lives better and easier in the chaos of Lagos, but also giving businesses a platform to create more exposure.

Unfortunately, most of these businesses cater to those with disposable income. I hope someday soon we will have a range of professional businesses catering to the middle class too, better known as high-street shops. They too will come, just be patient!

You were on official assignment with National Geographic when you first visited Lagos, what was it about the city that made you stay on?

Definitely my husband; I won’t lie. I really like Lagos, but I never imagined living here long term; that is, until I fell in love with the city. It really captures you.

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Do you ever face any sort of prejudice on account of being a foreign woman in Nigeria?

Sometimes, but I take it in stride. I guess a lot of people find it strange that a foreigner has created a guide for Lagos, but I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I love Lagos so I don’t let it affect me. It’s a super diverse city that will become like other melting pots like NY, London and Jo’burg.

You worked at National Geographic, Ice Watch, Africa Investor and other places before finally setting up Lost in Lagos. Describe your career trajectory?

It certainly didn’t go how I had expected. I studied International Relations and did my MA in Diplomatic Studies, but ended up in marketing, branding, and sales. I love the path I’ve taken and believe that everything happens for a reason, so my studies led to my travels and my travels led me to Nigeria.

I am looking forward to taking Lost in…to a whole other level. Lagos has really inspired me to think outside of the box. I also started my own brand of Chai Latte in 2010 and am now selling to over 15 restaurants and cafes. I would never think of doing that if I lived anywhere else in the world. In Lagos we don’t take things for granted. We look at things we love and enjoy and think of how we can make it happen here.

What is the hardest hurdle you’ve had to face in becoming fully integrated into the Nigerian society?

Networking! It was very difficult to get people to take my business seriously when I first started. I had to learn how to be very very patient (I once waited 7 hours for a meeting!) and persistent.

It has helped a lot and Nigeria has certainly made me a stronger and more confident person. But I learnt very quickly that you go further the more people you know. But I’m still trying to network and become fully integrated, the story is not over!

What are the things you find most interesting about Lagosians and Nigerians as a whole?

Where do I start?? I love their energy, it’s contagious. I love the confidence in people here, also contagious, makes you feel you can do anything. I love the talent, such inspirational people.

Nigerians inspire me to do more and challenge myself. I love the entrepreneurial spirit, truly unique. And mostly, I love how important family is, and the respect people have for families.

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Name 5 women you admire and why?

My list is pretty detailed! Hardly a woman, Malala Yousafzai is stronger and more determined than most women. She has confronted and fought against the most frightening and intimidating group of terrorists and has prevailed.

She is an inspiration for all young girls and women, the ultimate freedom fighter, and at such a young age. Her resilience has brought attention to the importance of the basic right to education.

I have a great deal of admiration for Christiane Amanpour, not only because she has travelled to all corners of the world, but also because of the way she challenges the most powerful men with controversial questions with such ease and confidence.

She is the perfect example of a woman who is as powerful and influential as a man. I love her fearless attitude, while still being diplomatic. And of course, she is Iranian, so I love that too.

Another woman who has really inspired me is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I first read her books just before coming to Nigeria and fell in love. Needless to say she is a very talented writer. But she is an even more talented story teller. Her words transform you to another place. I enjoy writing and have even attempted writing a book, and when I read her stories I realize that writing and storytelling are very different.

Her TEDx talk captured me, and helped me formulate my own TEDx talk. Through her talk she articulated beautifully about a topic that is very important to me, “The Danger of a Single Story,” putting into words exactly what I believe. Her words will be taught in schools and studied in universities for years to come. To have that kind of impact takes some powerful words.

Don’t kill me, but Kim Kardashian. No, I am not obsessed with her, nor do I watch their shows, but I admire that she has built a brand solely on her name! It is an impressive feat to have the whole world at your feet, millions in your account and a growing empire from…nothing really!

Yes, she has a clothing shop, but that is powerful branding and I admire people who can build a brand that people all over the world know, recognize and loyally follow. You may hate her, but at least, you know who she is!

Last, but not least, yes, my mother. Becoming a mother myself makes me appreciate my own mother so much more. I am so lucky to have help here, allowing me to have a career, but my mother raised three girls practically by herself, while moving to three different countries.

I’d like to think that I and my sisters turned into independent, strong and successful women because of her. I hope to be able to raise my children in the same way, and hope they will look up to me the way I look up and cherish her.

What are some of the challenges you face with running Lost in Lagos as a business?

I am always facing challenges. My biggest challenge is how to grow the business without losing that personal touch and maintaining the brand.

Would you say that enjoying your job is an important element of your career?

It is an essential part of your career. I never knew I could love (and sometimes, just sometimes hate) working on my own and growing my own business. I love when people tell me how they love the site, it makes me want to work harder.

I love thinking of new experiences that we can create for people to enjoy through our events. Enjoying your career is the secret to a successful business, because that is the only time your heart is in it, and it will show.

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Are there moments when you doubt yourself and the efficacy of what you do?

All the time, but I don’t let it consume me. At least once a week I question my sanity, but then something amazing happens and I completely forget my lapse of doubt.

How do you centre and balance yourself?

I’m a Libra so I am constantly trying to balance myself! But I make sure I make time for my family and my workouts. Spending time with my son and husband are very important. When I don’t do that, I can’t concentrate. It’s the same with my workouts. When I don’t work out I feel down. It’s a constant struggle to maintain that balance.

You started the “We Love Lagos Campaign” a few years ago; tell us more about that?

I have always considered Lost in Lagos as a promotional tool for Lagos. Even though I am primarily targeting those living in Lagos, the site is also showing off all the great places in Lagos. So those looking at Lagos will see a different side to what they are accustomed to in the mass media. But I thought it wasn’t enough.

The only way someone will be convinced as to how great a city is by believing it yourself. So the campaign is meant to create a movement within Lagos of people talking about how much they love their city. When you see a city full of people that love it wouldn’t you want to know more?

I find that we get distracted by the issues and challenges we face in Lagos and don’t always notice the great things happening. I’m not trying to ignore those issues, we all know they exist, but we can also take some time to appreciate the developments, the changes, and the good of this city. I want to bring that to the forefront with We Love Lagos.

Name 3 of your favourite spots in Lagos and why?

That’s difficult! I’m going to get calls from everyone asking me why I didn’t pick their business. Hahaha! But here goes: Art Café: I’m a big coffee drinker and they have amazing coffee and a cool atmosphere where I can read.

Body Temple Spa (no need to go into details, the name says it all) and Banana Island, because it is the only place I can take my son to play outdoors and bring our 20kg dog along too!

How do you juggle the roles of wife, mother and entrepreneur without burning out?

It’s about that balance. For me it is important I don’t hand over the role of mother to my son’s nanny. I try to spend as much time with him as I can. I always make sure I’m home before bed time to play and to read to him. As a wife, I make sure that I am never disconnected from our relationship. We always make time for each other, trying never to put work first (but I do slip up sometimes!)

But I’m very lucky, I have a very supportive husband, I would never have started Lost in Lagos without his push and support. Also finding that time for myself, whether it’s catching up on some reading, spending time with my friends or working out. If I focus on my work and nothing else I will stop enjoying it and see it as a job rather than a passion.

 What are the lessons you’ve learned in running your own business?

The biggest is to be patient. I am constantly challenged but I have to keep reminding myself that “this too shall pass.” Nothing comes to you on a silver platter, and no one is going to come and throw opportunities at you, you have to really work hard for them, but as they say, good things come to those who wait.

What sort of advice would you give upcoming female entrepreneurs?

I would say embrace challenges, obstacles, and anything that will try to slow you down, because you learn something from them. But never give up on your dream. This world is full of opportunities and there is enough space for all of us to succeed if your heart is in it. So, never lose your passion; let it drive you.

What are your future plans for Lost in Lagos?

I plan on getting Lost all over Africa! Maybe ambitious, but you have to have big dreams. So watch out for the next Lost in…

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