Torera Abiola, ambassador on Women’s Entrepreneurship Day (WED)

Torera Abiola, ambassador on Women’s Entrepreneurship Day (WED)

Torera Abiola, the late Chief MKO Abiola’s niece, is an ambassador on Women’s Entrepreneurship Day (WED) organisation, a group supported by the United Nations. WED is a day on which the work of women entrepreneurs is observed and discussed on the 19 November of each year.

The mission of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Organisation is, according to its website, “to celebrate, support, and empower women entrepreneurs world-wide, daily.” WED accomplishes this with its Student and Worldwide Ambassador program, educating both men and women about the importance of supporting women and women-owned businesses and causes.

The organisation was launched last year, through the United Nations and its founder is Wendy Diamond. The head office event is going to take place in New York at the United Nations office and Minister of Women Affairs, Amina Mohammed, is expected to attend. Each country has an ambassador that will represent it. Torera Abiola was the ambassador last year and she is still the ambassador in 2015.

She is not actually a stranger to such events. She has been running the Women of West Africa Entrepreneur Network (designed to motivate and inspire young women entrepreneurs) for the past three and half years, working with Eco bank, Access bank, First Bank and others. She is an entrepreneur herself and she has worked for the Chartered Institute of Accountants in England. She spoke to ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE, FUNSHO BALOGUN and DANIELS EKUGO on this year’s event, how her organisation has been inspiring, mentoring and encouraging women entrepreneurs.

Q: November 19 is Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, what is your organisation doing to mark it?

A: We are running a social media campaign. It is quite a big one. I think one of the major reasons is to get general awareness especially young women and girls and many of them like to be on the Internet, many of them like to use social media. We have so many famous celebrities, business women, politicians, role models, supporting the day. So many of them are giving their face to the women entrepreneurship day.

We have Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages, and we are posting quotes; inspiring quotes. Other things we are doing are, many of the women that have established businesses and that have been running successfully, as the business is growing, they have an issue on how the business will grow, and you know they want to go to the next level. People approach them to say I want to be an investor, here is N1m or here’s N2m, and you find out that just the person putting his money down, they don’t really get anything, they don’t get much value, it is actually not about money but it is actually about expertise.

So we are running a special private equity, private capital scheme which is going to be run by three private equity specialists. Ngozi Edozie who was behind the growth and rebranding of Ikeja Shopping Mall and bringing that mall here, worked with Actis West Africa, one of the leading private equity firms globally. She is going to be dealing with the women and we also have two other female equity specialists that would be advising the women on how to negotiate private capital and to make sure you are getting a good deal as a business woman.

You know sometimes people think that if you just put the money that is all, they leave you, and people ask question on how to value their business, what is my real worth? What is my assets worth? All those questions will be run in the scheme.

We are also doing an inspirational brunch, so we are having a panel section with a keynote, talking about what makes a successful entrepreneur. How do you build the foundation? How do you go about envisioning your ideals, your strategy, how you do you locate your people, your project, your system? How do you collaborate, a lot of businesses are done without partnership and collaboration, how do you do that respectively?

And then we close off on social media and the art of selling. A lot of things will be in the teaching, how do you sell yourself, so the way they are going to mark the day is to get as many Nigeria celebrities as possible to lend their face and their voice to the day on social media and then to run a specialist investment master craft established for women and then a general brunch with a key note section and networking for the women with more established entrepreneurs, that is what we are going to do.

Q: Talking about raising capital for women, are there mechanisms you have put in place, so that people will not run away with money?

A. Let me start by giving you a background of my organisation. The organisation was launched last year, through the United Nations. Our founder is Wendy Diamond when we launched the day. Now the head office event is going to take place in New York at the United Nations office where Honourable Minister Amina Mohammed will also be in attendance. Each country has an ambassador that will represent it which I was last year and I am again this year. And it is my responsibility to harness my network, my resources, make sure they do happen.

I don’t really get any funding from the UN, all I have is a licence agreement to run the day but because I have been running the women of West Africa Entrepreneur Network for the past three and half years working with Eco bank, Access bank, First Bank, a lot of the top women entrepreneurs have spoken in our event. I have been able to build a network and a resource base to make it happen.

The way that we make sure that people don’t run away with our money is another issue for us, because most of the courses we offer are free and then we partner with people, we partner with banks, they usually fund us, we partner with them, they give us a free venue. Why, because they believe in our vision (what we are doing). If you empower a woman entrepreneur, you empower a nation, the statistics has shown that when you invest in a woman, 90 per cent of the money that she receives, she will put it back into the family, into the home, into the society. With all due respect to you gentlemen, when you invest in a man, it goes to other things!

Also we are not just charity. You notice all these banks are now doing women empowerment. Why? If you lend to a woman, she is three times more likely to pay you back, than a man. Three times more likely. So there is an awareness campaign, to say give women entrepreneur a chance. In our country, we are still operating a double digit interest rate. The honourable minister for finance now said, when she was doing her thing, that no really legitimate business can grow in a double digit interest rate and it is true.

As a normal entrepreneur, there is no way I can make a return of 18 – 20 per cent, which is what a lot of these banks are asking for. So part of what we are doing as well is putting pressure as a group to say, we need to look at single digit interest rate, we need to look at special grants for women, not just women actually, all entrepreneurs so that regular business people can actually run their business.

Q: Is your organisation only centred on the urban centres, or do you have plans to go into the interiors?

A: I would have loved to go into the interiors, but it is now a case of skills and access and part of the reason we have to partner so that we can get our voice out to tell them that this opportunity is here, we welcome ambassadors. I am an ambassador, national ambassador but if there are other women that feel impassioned in Port Harcourt, Akure, or Maiduguri and they want to do this, we will be very happy to give them the opportunity to run satellite events and I can give them all the branding, all the headquarters support to make the event happen.

Q: What exactly is your target audience?
A: I think we go across the spectrum because our responsibility is on entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship goes to a mature entrepreneur like Dangote to those in the university working with laptops, developing apps. So we go right across the board, that’s why we established mastercraft investment for people that have been doing business for a while and then we do the inspirational brunch which is more for people that are thinking of having ideas, moving on. What we want to do is to give them a taste that we know that a lot of people out there that can help them.

Q: Appraise the past one year. How do you monitor the women? Have you seen some that are really exceptional?

A: A lot of women that we worked with last year, we had about 200 women that attended the brunch last year. A lot of them have been giving us feedbacks that they found the brunch helpful but we have to know that entrepreneurs are kind of like mavericks. They are not like nurses, or accountants and so people you can put in association and they start telling you what they are doing, they will not tell you that. They speak with their feet and action, they send us notes and they keep registering for the programmes that we are doing throughout the year, so we know we are doing something well. I am an entrepreneur myself, I work for the chartered institute of accountants in England and I understand profession. I don’t want to report to anybody. I just want you to give me the information, give me the network and let me fly with my programmes, so that’s all we do. We give them the information, we give them the right people to talk to and they have the onus to drive what they want to do, and if they have questions, they are welcomed to come back to us.

Q: How do you get your feedbacks?

A: Yes. We keep in touch and they do that. I am sure you know entrepreneurs in your life, they are usually quiet and independent minded, they usually know what they want, what to do, you don’t really need to pester them too much.

Q: We want you to seize this opportunity to enlighten the public on your six pillars of growth…

A: It is just really through the network that we run at the moment, you know that part of what we do is mentoring and role modelling on social media so we make sure that we are engaged with role models that are positive for the women. Another thing is that we give them opportunities to learn work and meet other entrepreneurs so that they can develop. The other thing is that we can connect them with banks, law firms; professional services that can help them build capacity. The other thing is that we link them with technology partners, accounting software, and such, but in terms of that programme specifically we work within our programme in Nigeria to develop a network that we have through the event that we run.

Q: Does religion or culture impede your attempts to support women entrepreneurs. What I mean is that in some societies, men are the ones who go out to work.

A: Some of our role models are wearing hijabs. When we do our role modelling we have a number of northern women that are part of the campaign, we are a secular organisation, and so we don’t really talk about religion or culture, we just talk about entrepreneurship, we talk about economic independence, poverty alleviation and role model for women. I think the religion side is not something we really get involved in.

Q: But when you eventually link these people to the bank for instance…

A: I don’t really link them to the banks, what I actually do is last year I worked with Access bank, so Access bank was on hand to meet with the women and talk with the women. I have a network which is why the UN approached me. I have a relationship with all the 24 banks in Nigeria to tell them about my programmes with women, so if women are talking to me and they say they are interested in them, I can very easily link them to the head of retail banking to make sure they are aware of what is going on.

For example we recently met with Skye bank and they told us they have a special grant of N1 million for women entrepreneurship programme. They believe that your business is a viable one, so they give you N1 million, not partially on hand but meet your business plan, they will pay the supplier on your behalf and they have that grant available, that is what I have been able to do, to help women entrepreneurs.

The other thing I have been able to do is put pressure on the bank to lower the interest rate because we have a collective voice.

Q: Talking about mentoring, do you have any plans in targeting school girls, inspiring them, not only adults…

A: Why we really pushed the social media is that we have a lot of young people who use Instagram. We put a lot of graphics, punchy quotes that we can now be sharing; we are doing a sharing culture where people can now be sharing quotes. So that is what we have been doing for the young people in the medium time, this is just our second year. I hope that this year, we will move to get university ambassadors, next year I hope we will go to secondary school ambassadors. You see, I am an ambassador for Nigeria, but my role is not an exclusive role, my hope is that in three, five years, that maybe we will have 20 or 30 ambassadors within Nigeria that are promoting the Day. You see what I mean, both from the secondary school level to the university level to the industry level. I am just a pioneer because the thing has just started, my job is to spread the word and get multiple results.

Q: And what are the challenges?

A: I don’t get paid for the role, so there are some challenges with the current economic environment, the fallen oil prices and also the slowness of the administration to register the executives and what is going on has a negative effect on some of our key partners and in the industry in general. So the financial pressure of doing something like this when people are still trying to look after themselves, you know they are like oh that’s very nice but am still trying to pay my staff, am going to lay off 20 people, who cares about doing some events for women entrepreneurs?

So to make it as an urgent priority item when the economic environment is not the best is sometimes difficult but what I am trying to say to people is that entrepreneurship, creative industry, publishing, all these are the new oil for Nigeria. Over a hundred and eighty million people, some of the brightest people in the world. We know that because when Nigerians leave Nigeria, they always end up in the best position, among the talented people in the world. This oil thing I think is a curse to us. Now that prices have fallen, we have to face our own talents and use them.

We believe too much in the primary commodity, what entrepreneurship does is to add value to your commodity and it actually increases the value of the economy. So in my opinion, this is the best time to push entrepreneurship right through to school, university to professional level, because we have entrepreneurs in our economy. The US economy, over 90 per cent of the economy is driven by small businesses. That’s the situation we are supposed to have in Nigeria. And that’s why we need the government; we need everybody to put pressure on the banks instead of just putting money on deposit. People should teach us entrepreneurship; we know we have the Lagos Business School.

Such schools should teach the principles of entrepreneurship, instead of people looking at entrepreneurship as you are just a hustler, you are just doing something on the side, it should be seen as a very serious endeavour that should be encouraged. Your choice is not to become a doctor or engineer, you should encourage them to be an entrepreneur, so these are the kind of things that we want to encourage in the country and through the campaign.