There is still huge gap in using technology to solve actual societal needs in Africa – Grey
Sharon Grey studied Psychology at the University and worked at BlackHouseMedia (BHM) managing the portfolios of some of the leading brands in Nigeria. She spoke with SEYI JOHN SALAU on her new role as the Advisor-at-Large, Brand Management at Tuyo Ventures, an accelerator firm that is based in San Francisco, California and was founded in 2015. The firm invests in firms operating in the media, virtual reality, logistics, alternative energy mass transit systems, fintech, health informatics, artificial intelligence and business guidance systems. Excerpts:
Can you tell us a bit about your person?
My name is Sharon Grey and I grew up on a dirt road in the remotest part of Ikorodu. I cannot remember much of my childhood because most of it is all a blur, but I grew up on a healthy diet of novels, magazines and movies. This taught me about communicating, design and life respectively. Up until I got into the Federal University of Oye-Ekiti to study Psychology, a lot of my work and life lessons were gotten from books and movies. I was a hyperactive kid that grew up in a one-room apartment with my mother and sister, and every day we had to be indoors by 6pm – what did I do when I couldn’t run around and bounce off the walls? I read a lot of John Grishams and Condé Nast Magazines.
Psychology opened my world up to a life that has always been familiar to me, and it was able to put it in a structure that would make sense if I decided to go through the academic or professional route. It was what took me to the communications industry – apart from my natural fascination with people; I discovered I had an instinct for verbal and non-verbal communication. What should be said? By who? How should the person look? How will the message be received? – But because of my background in Psychology, I understood that oftentimes, lips are moving, but what speaks the loudest is the non-verbal side of communication. Outside of all the work that I have done for various brands in 6 years, I have spent a lot of my personal time studying the real life manifestations of non-verbal communications and how it is interpreted by people in society.
Let’s look at your career trajectory in the last five years. Were you always a Communications Specialist?
Well, my work life really started from when I was 16, fresh out of secondary school not sure if I was going to attend the University because my Mother could not afford the fees. I have always had a fascination with computers, in fact I was almost made the Computer Prefect in secondary school but nepotism stepped in. Anyway, I started working at a neighbourhood Cyber Cafe as an Office Assistant – typing documents for people and managing the business. Unfortunately, I stopped working when the business owner refused to pay my two month salary of N14,000. My mother eventually had to get him arrested before he coughed it out.
Shortly after that, I worked at a commercial modeling agency as a Business Development Manager on and off for over 4 years while in Uni. I’d come home during the holidays, make some money and go back to school. It was a really interesting period for me because I was onboarding models to the agency and managing their affairs while also working with advertising agencies to achieve client needs. I met a lot of interesting people in this era and it’s a period I will never forget. I recall a time when one of my advertising clients said to a colleague “Ah Sharon will bring you a truckload of models” – another time a model I was trying to scout at Ikeja City Mall told me I was very persuasive and I should think about more ways to utilise the skill. I was 21 at the time.
To supplement my income while working at the modeling agency, I also worked briefly as a salesperson for an energy drink. Every evening, I’d work at a bar around Ogba, trying to convince people to get packs of the drink so I could meet my daily target. I worked for two months and I was paid N40,000. I also had a brief stint as a photographer and my outfit was called PixelsByGrey. During that period, I went around Lagos taking artistic photos until I realized I also had to make money to survive because the bills must be paid. I proceeded to pitch my skills to some of my advertising clients and one asked “Can you shoot activations?” I said yes, and he paid me N30, 000 per job. I think I shot a couple of events at bars in remote places across Lagos for about a year. It was a rough time in my life, but it was also such a great learning process.
It was in my photography era that I met Gbenga Adeyinka, the renowned comedian who offered me an opportunity to shoot his Laff Mattaz event in Ogun State sometime in 2016. Surprisingly, he included my name – Pixels by Grey on the event backdrop. I met with him one day and told him I wanted to shoot a photography project about Lagos and needed a tripod. To my surprise, he counted N11, 000 in crisp notes for me to purchase one. I was and still am grateful for the support.
Eventually, I started internships at BHM Group while I was also still in the University, and it’s where I can say was the melting pot for my unofficial work experiences. I later graduated from the University and started working as a full time employee, and then I went for NYSC and came back again, a total of 5 solid years working on some of Nigeria’s favourite brands, managing iconic campaigns alongside very talented and hardworking people. BHM honed me as a professional and took me into rooms I’d never have stumbled into by myself, and I am grateful to the CEO, Ayeni Adekunle for the opportunity.
You are joining Tuyo Ventures as Advisor-at-Large, Brand Management; can you break that down in simple language?
Of course. My role at Tuyo Ventures will be to manage the brand and product development of the product portfolio globally. What that basically means is that I advise the founder, Mr. Abraham Tuyo on what the brand personalities for the companies should be, what they should be saying, and who they should be interacting and associating with. It is a role that is a dream come true for me, because it is a combination of my life’s pursuits and interests. Anyone that knows me will tell you that I am obsessed with design, culture, technology, communications, and psychology – I write a lot about these on my website sharongrey.com. Working alongside all the other rockstars at Tuyo Ventures is like being in Disneyland for me – I am walking on sunshine!
I understand you are currently taking up that role as the youngest Advisor-at-Large on the board; how does it feel like?
It feels incredibly surreal to me, like how am I here? Up until I got into the University to study Psychology, I grew up thinking I was dumb, not in a social sense, but in an academic sense. I was always failing, or came up bottom of the class. The only subjects I excelled at were computer, literature and government studies. I remember my mom once asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said I didn’t know. My life had no real trajectory until Psychology, which I will have you know I came out top of my class (laughs).
Coming off the excellence high of University, I got thrown into the real world, and all the anxieties from growing up came rushing back – the imposter syndrome was real. But then I started approaching 30, and I was forced to go through the process of self-awareness. I became very intentional about surrounding myself with the right people and the right information. It took over two challenging years, but I came out of that period knowing exactly who I was and what I wanted to do in life.
I am grateful for the opportunity to work alongside the titans and geniuses of Tuyo Ventures, and although I am the youngest on the board, I know what it took to get me here. I am sure that same drive and focus will take me beyond the stars.
Many of us really don’t know Tuyo Ventures; can you bring us up to speed with their product portfolios?
Tuyo Ventures is a San Francisco based early-stage idea incubator. It was founded by Abraham O. Tuyo, a Nigerian who moved to the States as a child. The organization specializes in raising equity funding and promoting ideas that solve societal issues through technological solutions. The ultimate goal is to help people in underserved areas of the world have access to resources that will allow them the economic mobility to lift their families out of poverty.
Currently, we have four active concepts in the product portfolio. There is ‘BodyByTechnology’ which was founded on the idea that wearable monitoring technologies can improve health outcomes, save lives, increase access to health care and reduce costs. There is ‘WAKAnRIDE’, which envisions roadless mass transit for Africa. The solutions are designed to take advantage of renewable energy, inform rural and urban planning, specifically transportation and its infrastructure. There is ‘iQx10’ which is a publisher of multiplayer job skills games and addresses the problem of job security. The games are designed to support the business needs of job seekers, employers, public agencies, and financial stakeholders. Finally, we have Voices of the African Continent (VOTAC), which is an integrated media platform focused on delivering the African economy and culture to the world.
You have worked with different brands over the years; how will that experience help in your new role?
Within and outside the various job titles I have had, I have worn a lot of hats and met all kinds of people. I have managed a media database of over 100 people, and I have successfully managed content, digital and PR campaign budgets of over N300 million. Finally, I have worked on high-impact campaigns across Sustainability, FMCG, Technology, Entertainment, Health, Fintech and Telecommunications sectors.
In a way, it feels like I was being prepared for this role, and although my scope of work now is deeper and grander, I know that I have been able to intentionally build the necessary skills, relationships, mental and social acuity, and professional equity necessary to take on the task of preaching the Tuyo Ventures gospel to the world.
With your experience of the local market (Nigeria); what is the acceptance rate for Tuyo Ventures’ products?
I believe there is still a huge gap in using technology to solve actual societal needs in Africa and across the globe. Although foreign direct investments have increased and founders have been building, I believe the concept acceptance rate for Tuyo Ventures’ products will be high. You just need to take a look around to see that Nigeria is clearly still a very underserved nation and the demand for these solutions are high. It is an honor and a pleasure for me to be given this opportunity to serve in this capacity by Mr. Abraham Tuyo, and I cannot wait for the world to be able to interact with everything Tuyo Ventures has to offer.