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Rolake Akinkugbe-Filani, scaling businesses across Africa

Rolake Akinkugbe-Filani is Chief Commercial Officer and leads the Commercial functions consisting of Sales, Business Development, Marketing and Customer Service at Mixta Africa. In addition, Rolake crafts the commercial strategy; identifies new commercial and market opportunities, as well as deepen market penetration, to drive revenue growth and profitability. She drives the recognition of Mixta’s brand and image across the Group’s footprint in all countries of operation as well as other new markets in the real-estate and affordable housing space.

She is a strategic leader with more than 15 years’ experience and track record of helping to finance, invest in and successfully scale businesses in Africa. Prior to joining Mixta Africa, She was Senior Africa Advisor to the IFU Danish Investment Fund, helping to build strong partnerships with the private and public sector and originate portfolio opportunities. She was also Head of Energy at FBN Capital and FBNQuest Merchant Bank from 2014 – 2019, leading origination and client coverage efforts with energy and infrastructure clients across investment banking and corporate banking products, to successfully raise both debt and equity capital. She also covered a portfolio of 33 African countries for Ecobank Group in London as Head of Energy Research and Project Lead on the Group’s Local Knowledge Africa corporate market-entry strategy. From 2017-19 she served in an advisory capacity with Economic Advisory Board in the Office of the VP, working with the Chief Economic Adviser to the President, on a range of policy matters.

Through a diverse career that has spanned consulting, research, finance, public policy, and investments, she is well-versed in leveraging partnerships and market insights, to support corporate-decision makers in fundraising, entering new markets and scaling businesses. A passionate advocate of infrastructure solutions for underserved markets, Rolake is a Fluent French speaker, and holds a BSc and MSc degree from the London School of Economics and a joint MBA from TRIUM; NYU Leonard Stern School of Business, HEC School of Management Paris & the London School of Economics.

Memories of childhood

Number 2 of 4 children, growing up was as normal as could possibly be. I think focus, diligence and hard work were essential ingredients for both my parents, as was discipline. But I think the greatest influence my parents had on me, was the importance of being a balanced and well-rounded person. At a very early stage in life, despite the obvious pursuit of education, I was exposed to music, so it really made the idea of being multifaceted a normal routine part of one’s existence. That ability to harness one’s diverse and unique gifts and skills is something that I have successfully leveraged in almost every area of my life today.

I remember that at almost every stage of my mum’s career from the time I was born, she gave me free access to her life and endeavours. When she lectured in Linguistics at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), I would often accompany her to her office, and observe her interactions, when he had choir rehearsals at MUSON (the Musical Society of Nigeria) or a concert to give, I was also there and was exposed again to her interactions and network. When she ran the Book Terminus on Ogunlana drive in Surulere, Lagos, again, myself and my brother would spend hours there sometimes after school or on a Saturday reading the books on the shelves or playing, or when she would spend hours watching her favourite tennis players on TV, she would give me the low-down on everything that was happening.

My dad’s dreams for me were lofty, and I often got a glimpse of where I was possibly headed when he would reference high-profile figures like Christiane Amanpour, and tell me that would be me someday. I think those comparisons made me feel on top of the world, gave me a sense of validation and affirmation, and gave me the license and power to have ambitious and audacious dreams. I really and truly felt like nothing was out of reach.

I think one of the biggest lessons I learnt growing up was the importance of balance in everything I do. One of my dad’s most regular piece of advice to me is ‘Rolly, pace yourself’, and even though I always thought he was being a little too overbearing, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom in those words.

Read Also: How women in energy sector ‘Choose to Challenge’

Joining Mixta Africa and experience so far

I joined Mixta in August 2020, about 10 months into a career break, after leaving the financial services industry, as Head Of Energy for a local investment and merchant bank. I wanted to position myself to make a big difference in the Nigeria and Africa infrastructure, hoping to make an impactful difference in African infrastructure development, and I really felt that my time at the bank had come to a logical conclusion.

Prior to that short career break, I had spent the previous decade and more working on the energy sector, and I felt I needed a break and a new challenge.

One of the reasons I decided to exit the financial services corporate environment in October 2019, was that I realised that there were many of my strengths and skills that were being under-utilised. This is not to say the firm I worked for wasn’t providing the right environment, but human beings evolve, and so do our skills and abilities, which may have been suited for a certain time and place, but which may later become misaligned with our environment. At that point, you may have to make a tough decision.

In addition, I was craving some level of autonomy in my daily work schedule and routine, and I had invested thousands of dollars in an amazing executive MBA; and as investment principles go, I expected a return on that investment. I believed that qualification had positioned me for a new type of role that I could not find in my financial services role at the time.

In the years before that, there was also no real clear pattern to the kinds of roles or offers I had been approached for, as I seemed to thrive in many different types of settings; artistic, creative, technical, cerebral, multicultural, strategic, policy and so on. I also felt I had built enough of a profile and track-record as an energy sector guru, to be in with the chance of securing advisory or consulting roles in energy/infrastructure.

During my time off from full time work, I had discovered a new happier equilibrium that I didn’t want to lose by accepting a new 9 to 5 immediately, so any new role had to really combine several skills I had explored more fully during my short career break. I realised it had to be a corporate environment with a strong ‘entrepreneurial drive’, where I had some flexibility to drive the overall corporate agenda, innovate, and pursue a path of intrapreneurship.

Then I thought about how I was still seeking a return on my executive MBA investment. The returns I’m talking about here are not solely financial. These returns were about job satisfaction, i.e. finding an environment that would stretch and challenge me, potentially a new industry, a strong leadership role, and a cross-functional role. I also desired a role where my non-technical skills would play just as important a role in shaping the organisation.

Finally, while I enjoyed working in the energy sector, I also found a new passion for learning about industries I previously had limited knowledge about, and I was aching to break out of the ‘one-trick-pony’ cycle. Let’s be clear, there’s no perfect career, but those 10 months on a break provided the launchpad that allowed me to gain the clarity I needed for the next phase of my career. By the time Mixta came knocking on the door, it was pretty clear this was the path I was to take.

The scale of what Mixta has done and continues to do in delivering world-class infrastructure solutions is quite daunting, and that challenge was a huge draw for me, since I realised I could make ripples of impact with the firm. I also believe that a revolution in other sectors like energy will only make sense in a world where Africa’s more than 1billion people have shelter or have a home to go to, and more importantly, one that is connected or close enough to their source of livelihoods.

Affordable housing is itself a key driver of many of the SDGs; it influences access to basic services and the health and well-being for households, providing a base for realising both food security and energy security, sanitation and access to clean water.

As someone with multiple passions, that are not always related to each other, and sometimes actually quite far apart, choosing to take the career break provided me with the flexibility and variety I needed in my work, allowed me to explore my passions, self-manage my career path, and develop new skills and knowledge. More importantly, it helped me transition and pivot to the Mixta Africa role, and see the links between my work in the energy sector, and infrastructure and housing.

Being Chief Commercial Officer at Mixta Africa

So far, my work has been incredibly satisfying because it has been challenging. Not an easy ride, nor for the faint-hearted I tell you! Overall, having an adaptable leadership style is key in a cross-functional role. Realising that it is not just about being in charge but caring about those in your charge also helped me build relationships.

The work we are trying to do is heavy, so I need to win not just the commercial battles, but the ones involving the hearts and minds of those I work with and those I can inspire to deliver on the company’s vision. Never has the concept of thinking like an entrepreneur in a corporate environment, been truer. This mind-set has helped me see solutions everyday instead of focusing only on problems. Coming into a new role, in a new industry at leadership level, required several ingredients; strong powers of observation, an understanding of organisational politics and culture; the ability to be an effective listener, a quick learner, a team player (especially with the other executives), and just understanding my CEO’s and the board’s priorities.

Mixta Africa is in the business of delivering affordable housing and innovative real estate solutions, with a presence in 5 African countries, and projects in 8 countries, as well as a track-record of having built and delivered more than 13,000 homes across Africa, including 5000+ in Nigeria. Anyone who has observed this industry knows that delivering truly affordable housing, with solid infrastructure, on the continent is one of the most daunting challenges to take on.

As Chief Commercial Officer, I am responsible for driving the development and execution of a commercialisation strategy with oversight responsibility for revenue growth and optimisation within the group. It means I have to take a global perspective on market opportunities, lead in new product development as well as in the assessment and prioritisation of geographic segments across Mixta’s current footprint in Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Tunisia, Senegal and Morocco; and commercialisation of the company’s key hospitality asset – Lakowe Lakes Golf and Country Estate in Nigeria, and its extensive land bank.

Overall, I lead in identifying new market and commercial opportunities to drive growth and increase profitability, market- share growth and market penetration across Africa. My role is both strategic and tactical. The strategy part is the brainwork, trying to think out of the box, innovating, or developing a new idea, product or initiative that will drive this growth. The tactical part really has to do with mobilising my teams and company-wide resources for execution on the strategy. In addition to this, I provide leadership for, and originate enterprise-wide business development opportunities that are consistent with the company’s strategy for revenue growth.

More recently, I have had the scope of my job enhanced by being appointed Overseeing Country Executive and business partner for our business in Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal, supporting the country managers in both markets in achieving their financial and commercial goals.

On a daily basis, it can sometimes feel like the weight of the company is on your shoulders! In a commercial role, you become obsessed with budget targets, growth, and revenue maximisation opportunities. It can be stressful, because your KPIs are essentially the company’s own KPIs. To achieve my mandate as Chief Commercial Officer, across the group (which is a total of 5 African subsidiaries), I need every part of the business, from Design to Procurement, to Sales and Marketing, Operations to Customer Experience, and Project Management, to function well, efficiently and in harmony.

In terms of business challenges, what keeps me awake at night is how to build resilience against prevailing market conditions. Consumers need a way to finance their home purchases, and so trying to solve the demand side challenge is probably the biggest piece of the puzzle, given the slow development of the mortgage industry, high interest rates, and weak credit check systems in Africa that make it hard to determine true eligibility.

This then links to the supply side because early project off take by the market helps generate cash for development and construction activity, and where there are gaps, sourcing alternative financing then becomes the new headache. However, promoting innovation and taking a market-driven approach to how we launch new developments can help manage some of these risks.

Overall, I realise that my success, and Mixta’s success in this business is linked to many other economic variables namely; a system of financial inclusion and mortgages, which will drive resilient economic demand for housing, a strong legal and regulatory framework, access to long-term low cost capital, access to sustainable energy, technology and innovation, collaboration, an integrated infrastructure network across African economies we’re in, the localisation of the construction value-chain, and stability in macro-economic conditions.

We often must work with public sector stakeholders, development finance institutions, mortgage banks, commercial banks, construction companies, other private sector developers, energy providers, for all the above conditions to hold true. Thus, I am constantly seeking out new partnerships and relationships to help achieve this dream.

Building a solid track-record as one of Africa’s leading female voices and thinkers in energy, oil & gas, renewables & infrastructure

Consistency, curiosity, clarity of purpose and self-mastery have been key. Never one to shy away from a new challenge or opportunity. Every door that has opened has been a journey of discovery. I have developed a formula that has helped me quickly embrace new ideas, environments, and opportunities. Put simply, it is the ability to link all my experiences in such a way that they tell a sold consistent story about my skills and the value I bring to the table.

An ability to join the dots between all these areas at every phase of my career has helped me showcase and deliver value. It took me a few years to realise just how impactful I could be in energy and infrastructure. Soon, I decided to be more deliberate and intentional about how I wanted to be seen and portrayed in the sector. And as I often tell my mentees, whether you are trying to have a personal or professional brand or not, you have one. The point at which you take control of your own narrative and tell your own story is the point at which you are truly liberated.

The earlier years were spent positioning as a ‘leading voice and thinker’ in energy. In this regard, my focus was on the ability to distil complex industry concepts, analyse data and communicate ideas in an engaging way to a wide variety of audiences.

So, I was always the woman who was called upon to talk about industry developments on a wide variety of industry and media platforms. Now that positioning has gradually evolved into something more tangible that can help private and public decision-makers.

Beyond being seen as just a talking head, I am a doer. Today, my professional narrative is summed up in one key sentence ‘Leading energy and infrastructure executive and thought-leader, helping to scale innovative infrastructure and funding solutions for Africa’s economies and the underserved’.

However, remember that substance matters as much as style does. Your brand has to be underpinned by evidence of having delivered value to companies and organisations, and delivered tangible and measurable results.

Building a track-record takes time, but remember to record, acknowledge, highlight, and leverage past wins for future opportunities. Never just assume that the good work you do at every point in time will speak for you. You must be deliberate in showcasing this, and this is what I spent many years doing.

So, in some ways, the energy sector was the technical and hard skill. I spent years, building my knowledge, networking extensively in the sector, seeking our professional advice from other industry excerpts, reading widely around the energy sector, and finding new ways to learn and absorb complex information. The next layer was the strategic skill (most people call it soft skills), to complement that.

Every qualification or knowledge base needs a vehicle to convey it, and my vehicles are effective communication and analytical and critical thinking. This has been one of the most consistent pieces of feedback everyone who has encountered me during my career has said.

Finally, the ability to learn has also helped me anticipate global trends and prepare for the evolution in the global energy sector, and I started deliberately positioning myself at the nexus of the fossil fuel industry and clean energy industry many years before the global energy transition even became a thing, so that I could maintain industry relevance.

Although I have pivoted into a new industry in my full-time work, 2 of my non-executive roles on advisory boards are both energy industry focused, and I anticipate that due to the track-record, credibility and visibility I have built, many more will be.

In addition, I still get called upon often to offer my perspectives on the evolution of the African and global energy sector on a wide variety of local and international platforms.

Career path cutting across consulting, research, investment banking and development finance.

After graduating from the London School of Economics from both my undergraduate and master’s degrees, the world was my oyster. Not many people realise that I started by post-university career working in the non-profit, and international organisation space in London, Brussels and Dakar in Senegal, working with the Centre for Democracy and Development, the Foreign Policy Centre, the European Commission and the International Crisis Group. This was where I learnt and built an understanding of politics, public sector, and governance systems across Africa.

However, even in these roles, I had a specialty focus on energy, natural resources, and infrastructure. This was the same with later roles at Control Risks Group and Eurasia Group working as a political and country risk analysis for sub-Saharan Africa.

Maintaining my energy sector focus, I expanded my scope of engagements to private sector players, banks, and multinationals, taking time to build and nurture those relationships.

It was while working in risk consulting and advising companies and banks on their investments and operations in West and Central Africa that I was headhunted for my first full time role in financial services to work as an energy and oil and gas specialist.

I was recruited not because I had studied finance or accounting in university, but because I had developed deep sector expertise and knowledge (which gave me both credibility and visibility) that the bank wanted to leverage for its own commercial goals. I was the pioneer Head of Energy and Oil and Gas Research at pan-African Ecobank Group, based in London, and I helped to build a formidable African research team that won the top research award from the Africa Investor Index series awards for 3-years running.

Upon this realisation, I became strategic, and started to find other sectors and stakeholder groups that my expertise could attract. This approach helped me embrace and stay open to opportunities across different industries, which made me even more versatile and adaptable as a professional.

I soon took up a role in Nigeria with an investment bank as Head of Energy in the origination and client coverage team, later expanding my deal structuring and financial skills set as the bank later became a merchant bank. It was also during this time that I invested in an executive MBA to help solidify my financial services experience and prepare me for future leadership and C-suite opportunities.

After I left the Nigerian bank in October 2019, I worked with an European development finance institution as a Senior Advisor on Africa, helping to develop new portfolio and investment opportunities.

Looking back now, I marvel at it, and I am incredible grateful for the steep and diverse learning curve I have had throughout my career.

Building an excellent understanding of the pan-African business and investment landscape

In addition to taking the time to study the African political and business context from an academic perspective during my master’s degree in international relations, I have been very fortunate to have held roles earlier on in career that exposed me extensively to the African business landscape. First as Africa Analyst for a risk consultant, and as head of energy research for sub-Saharan Africa for a pan-African bank.

The networks developed across both roles and subsequent business engagements have been invaluable. Networking and relationship building have been key to my professional journey and success thus far. Between 2005 and 2014 in various roles, I have visited approximately 25 African countries working on consulting projects for clients with operations in sub-Saharan Africa or gathering crucial local knowledge in my various roles. Through this process, the intention with all connections and engagements is to offer value and build genuine lasting friendships and relationships built on openness and trust. I make a point of actively following-up my contacts and engagements and proposing collaboration, even when there may be no obvious or immediate benefits.

Taking time to understand local cultural nuances and business culture has also been important for making in-roads into key policy and business circles across Africa. As a fluent French speaker, my language ability has also helped with cross-border connections especially in Francophone markets and goes a long way in helping to building lasting rapport. It was Nelson Mandela that said, “If you speak to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head, but if you speak to him in his own language, it goes to his heart”. Language is a major barrier-break and rapport builder. Take the time to learn one.

Serving in advisory capacity (2017-19) with Economic Advisory Board in the Office of the VP, working with the Chief Economic Adviser to the President on national development priorities.

In April 2017, about 3 years after moving to Nigeria to work in investment banking, I received a letter from Abuja, inviting me to join the Board of Economists established under the auspices of Dr Adeyemi Dipeolu, then-Special Adviser to the President on Economic Matters (Office of the Vice President) in recognition of my work on energy and infrastructure in the private sector.

It’s one of those moments in your life, you find incredibly humbling and validating to be called upon to work at such a strategic national level. I spent the next 18 months or so, shuttling between Lagos and Abuja once a month to support the work of the OVP.

Alongside other professionals, I served as a sounding board on economic policies geared towards achieving national developmental agenda. We also worked in focused groups that evaluated the impact of government policies and programmes, and made recommendations on policy responses as may be deemed using relevant data and information on the economy. This exposure showed me just how important but challenging the work of government is. Trying to make a difference in the lives of people and the economic trajectory of a nation as complex and as big as Nigeria, requires several actors, institutions and policies working in constant sync and alignment.

I also saw that it is possible to make even a small difference in an advisory capacity, but that the real work can only be done by plunging oneself right in the middle of the day-to-day politics of governance and national development. This would require a great deal of sacrifice, and I’m incredibly grateful for the men and women who are doing this every day to make our country better.

Being a member of the Advisory Board at Aruwa Capital Management

Aruwa Capital Management is a Lagos-based, female founded and led, growth equity impact fund that invests in rapidly growing and profitable companies that either provide essential goods and services to women, or employ women through their workforce or value chain.

Led by their incredible founder and managing partner, Adesuwa Okunbo-Rhodes, the team at Aruwa have identified an untapped investment opportunity currently overlooked by other funds. Aruwa has recognised that women represent an untapped investment case, and this is a principle that resonates with me.

Women will control $15 trillion in global spending by 2028 and will be responsible for about two thirds of all consumer spending worldwide, so it makes business sense to look at investments in sectors where women’s purchasing power will be particularly strong.

This is how Aruwa is positioned. One such portfolio company that has underpinned this principle is an investment that is delivering robust returns, which Aruwa closed in October 2019, Wemy Industries, a company that provides daily disposable and affordable personal hygiene products for women.

My role as advisory board member has focused on assisting Aruwa with investor engagement, particularly for prospective limited partners or DFIs within my network, who can contribute to their on-going or future funding rounds. Occasionally, I also help introduce Aruwa to new portfolio investment opportunities.

Heading Energy at FBN Capital and FBNQuest Merchant Bank

This role was the first I took upon returning to Nigeria after 19 years of living and working abroad, mostly in the UK. It provided somewhat of a great landing after my relocation given the well-established brand, and its position as a subsidiary of Nigeria’s old financial services group FBN Holdings Plc.

I think the experience really helped me build a professional network in the Nigerian market, the opportunity to head the energy sector of such an important financial institution in a country where the main export commodity was and is still oil, was incredible.

The learning curve was just as dynamic, having to quickly understand and learn the full spectrum of financial products and funding structures available to companies in the Nigerian market. This role helped me understand the realities of the Nigerian business environment, and how both government policy and monetary policy almost entirely defined the operating environment for companies.

When the FBN Capital’s operations pivoted from exclusively advisory and investment banking into the direct lending and corporate credit space, I was fortunate enough to acquire new skills set and gain more direct exposure to work with regulators and other banking functions, such as audit and risk management. A key takeaway for me here is that, transitions are actually an opportunity to learn and up skill, and change is always to be embraced.

Why the passion for the energy sector?

We know the numbers. Almost 600 million Africans are without access to energy. 2030, the year the UN SDGs are to have been attained is just under a decade away, but we are still not close to the ideal of SDG7, universal access to energy. There should be a sense of urgency. This is something that has affected all our lives and businesses here in Nigeria.

My very first inkling that I would build expertise in the energy sector occurred during my study of governance and development in Africa as a young undergraduate. Central to the economies of many of the countries that I studied were their natural resources, and fossil fuels were my first introduction to the energy sector.

Soon, I became obsessed with understanding how this singular commodity, oil, had shaped the economic destiny of so many countries, and held their elites ransom to the spoils of office, while simultaneously failing to improve these same countries’ development and growth prospects.

The interest in oil soon morphed into a broader understanding of the entire energy sector value chain, the resource endowment across different countries on the continent, the intriguing and complex web of private and political actors, and policies that governed the entire sector. From oil to gas, to power, renewables and the infrastructure that binds and delivers them all, I have made it my life’s mission to understand the energy sector, and become a transformational, impactful future leader in this space whether in the public or private domain.

Today, I spend the majority of my non-executive endeavours advising on or supporting the work of energy sector players and stakeholders. First, as Advisory Board Member, I sit on the energy transition and investment committees of the African Energy Chamber, with headquarters in Johannesburg. I recently represented the Chamber at High-Level Dialogues on Sustainable Development of the Energy Sector with OPEC and the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

I also serve as an advisory board member of Persistent, Africa’s climate venture builder that invests in high-growth companies in the climate and renewable energy space.

I am also an active member of the Women in Energy Network (WIEN) and the African Women in Energy Development Initiative (AWEDI). In my own little way, I built a small non-profit social enterprise called InaTidé, to provide off-grid renewable energy entrepreneurs with market insights and data to help them scale and attract funding.

Covering a portfolio of 33 African countries for Ecobank Group in London as Head of Energy Research, and Project Lead on the Group’s Local Knowledge Africa corporate market-entry strategy.

Working from the Ecobank Group office in London was the first experience I had to truly pioneer an initiative in my career. I was part of the inaugural pan-African research team, which then CEO Arnold Ekpe, had tasked with building a world-class research platform that would leverage the bank’s footprints in 33 African markets, and serve the needs of a diverse range of internal and external stakeholders. We got off to a flying start, and as pioneer Head of Energy Research, I led a formidable team to successfully deliver the goods. We became a highly-sought after team of experts, analysts and industry strategists wining numerous awards

Many parts of the Ecobank Group also began to depend on us for first-hand market insights and analyses across a range of sectors. In addition to winning the Africa Investor Index Series award for 3-years straight from the year of inception in 2011, my impact in this role, also led to expanded job responsibilities within 18 months, when I also led the Ecobank-Nedbank Alliance initiative called LocalKnowledgeAfirca, as UK Project Lead helping companies set up shop across markets in East, West, Southern and Central Africa.

In addition to fanning in me that pioneer spirit, I think the network and relationships I have built across the continent in that role, have been tremendous. One of my most important career mentors today who has been a fantastic role model, and helped open some important doors of opportunity for me, remains someone who I had met in the course of work at Ecobank Group.

Passion for women development

I think, the combination of my career and personal experiences, both good and bad, have made me particularly conscious of the role I play in helping other young career women fulfil their fullest life’s potential. In addition to the work I do in supporting the empowerment of women across Africa’s energy sector, I am also an executive Council member of WIMBIZ, Nigeria’s leading Women’s empowerment network, where I chair the private sector advocacy committee, and where I am helping to pioneer WIMBIZs first private sector gender equality and equity scorecard to be launched at the 20th Annual Conference in November. It will provide a standardised best practice benchmark for assessing, through a set of best-practice KPIs, how well the Nigerian private sector is doing on gender equality and equity.

With regards to women in leadership, we are seeing change take place across key sectors such as banking and financial services where we currently have up to 8 female CEOs of banks, and greater diversity in board representation in that sector. However, the problem remains that the management funnel that acts as the talent pool for these leadership positions is still constricted.

We need to find ways to retain more women in the workforce at middle management to keep that pool large and ever-expanding. This will require intentionally supportive policies by companies and institutions that create the right work conditions for women to thrive and build prosperous careers. It will also mean the re-shaping of cultural mind-sets that enable women to receive support on the home front.

Hobbies outside of work

I have been playing classical piano since the age of 5, and music has been a central feature of my life for many decades. So much so that I sat and took graded piano exams right through to grade 8, played in many chamber groups and orchestras while at school in Nigeria and overseas. I got the musical spark from my mum, who sang classical soprano for many years.

In my early teens, having also discovered that I could play by ear, I started learning jazz and contemporary piano and have since featured in performing groups including here in Nigeria, where I held my first jazz piano concert in December 2014 with a band at Miliki in VI, shortly after moving to Nigeria from the UK.

Between 2002 and 2014, when I was living in London, I spent almost 10 years as music director and lead keyboardist at my local London church, including at one point briefly touring with a UK gospel group around the country as a keyboardist, and even composing a song that featured on an album that is available on amazon. I have also performed with an all-female jazz band at Lifehouse’s Woman Rising Concert Series, and continue to put my musical talents to use when I can. It serves as a form of escape and relaxation for me, and I often say to people that I enjoy music and piano so much because I don’t do it full time, otherwise it would become a chore! Plus, it really helps me unleash my creative side, and the discipline and focus required for classical music has probably been the biggest contributor to the way I think today, and the way I approach problem solving and reasoning.

What are you looking forward to professionally and personally?

I’m looking forward to making a true lasting difference in my current role delivering affordable housing and infrastructure, and to contributing to Nigeria’s current and future economic transformation especially in energy and infrastructure. A stab at a future policy or technocratic role is not off the table for me. I think I want to make ripples of impact, and multiple streams of impact has become my daily mantra and guiding philosophy. Whether it’s impacting the lives of other women, transforming industry and national development, I want to be the woman that didn’t just talk, but walked, as well.

Advice to every young lady out there who wants to get to the peak of their career

Be true to who you really are. It goes without saying that clarity of purpose will only start when you acknowledge what you know and what you need to know, and then take steps to bridge the gap between the two. By all means, get qualified, build yourself, gain the skills, bag those certificates, because after all, you have to earn your place and seat at the table. But remember that so many other people are doing the same, so gaining a competitive edge will mean going the extra mile, learning how to join the dots between all your experiences, to create a unique narrative about who you are, and what you bring to the table. If in doubt, find a mentor, but remember that a mentor is only as good as your ability to be a self-starter. At some point as you rise higher, your technical skills start to take second place to your strategic skills i.e. your ability to lead with empathy, building lasting relationships, communicative effectively, think and reason critically and motivate, influence and inspire people to action. Don’t take these skills for granted. Leadership is about influence not position. The position will come with hard work, and with you being intentional about standing out. But influence is ultimately what will deliver results.

Balancing work and family

Can one ever truly balance? For me, it’s one step, one day at a time. I try not to overthink things too much. Having a big, blended family comes with all types of dynamics. But I have to take time to learn every day and avoid getting overwhelmed. Lately, I have found open and unbridled communication with my spouse to be key to getting the support I need when I need it.

I am also not afraid to put structures around the home that can run when I’m not there or when I’m on a business trip. Having a sister-tribe of friends committed to your success and upliftment has been key, and I have to give special kudos to the 9 ladies who are part of the 360 executive cohort I was fortunate enough to be part of, under the mentorship of Mrs Ibukun Awosika, they have put a whole new meaning to the word ‘support system’. We all need one.

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