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OLA BROWN: Even without privileges, I’ve successful story to tell

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You can’t have an insight into her story and don’t find it irresistible. Consider these: Dr. Ola Brown established the first air ambulance service in West Africa, Flying Doctors Nigeria Limited. She was inspired to start the company after her younger sister died while traveling in Nigeria. At 21, she qualified as a medical doctor from the University of York, UK. Her company which has more than 20 aircraft has airlifted around 500 patients, using a fleet of planes and helicopters. With a presence in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt, she employs many people in different capacities. This inspirational Nigerian, who was born in the UK was recognised by the World Economic Forum as one of the prestigious Young Leaders. With these achievements of global repute, it could be assumed that a very privileged background made her success story possible. However, anyone with such assumption would be proven wrong after reading this interview which was conducted at the Headquarters of Flying Doctors in Lagos.


My upbringing was great. I had very disciplined hard working parents. But I think people place much emphasis on their upbringing. When one becomes an adult the person should be able to make his decisions. Many people who are from a very poor background become more successful than those from a rich background.  That is the product of independence.  I tend to think more about what one makes out of herself. I focus on the future and I don’t dwell on things that happened in the past. I find myself mostly living in the future by getting excited about what can be built from what is happening.

Dr. Ola Brown

My early mentorships

I have a very different definition of mentorship. To me, it means 99 percent of giving to a person. Obviously, I was not born in the kind of home where I had access to people I would like to mentor me. I have a picture of Dangote on my wall for the past 15 years but I have still not had the privilege to physically have him mentor me. But he has also mentored me through some decisions I have seen him take, through some of the things I have heard him say on the television, through some of the things I have read about him and through some of the things those  I know that know him said he did.  Most of my early mentorships actually came through some of the books I have read because I didn’t have access to meet those mentors.  I got my early mentorship from reading published works, listening to people on radio, and podcast. I think that gave me a lot of information that I used in making my own business decisions. I find my relationship with a few people that I have to call my mentors more about giving than taking. It is a lot more about trying to understand what they need, what they want, what matters to them and trying my best in whatever capacity to give even if it will cost me money.

Problem with rich people

But the problem with rich people is that they can’t really appreciate things that much. What do you give to a person that has everything? But it is a contentious investment of time, energy and money. One is expected to keep trying to see that the mentorship relationship lasts. Mentorship to me is to continuously figure out how I can add value to the lives of my mentors so that those relationships will remain sustainable.

Flying in the air

I don’t have a typical day. But many people think I spend all my day flying in the air. But there are very many aspects of running a business. They include leadership, coaching, human development, financial management. These are the main things any business person does. Sometimes people get carried away by the technical aspects of what they do and neglect other areas that can be impactful.

Most memorable experience

The most interesting moment in recent memory was when we were able to make a real difference in somebody’s story. It was when we had to evacuate a young man who was diagnosed with sickle cell and he had a broken leg. We had to evacuate him from Sokoto free because he could not afford the bill. We were able to evacuate him within an hour and it was a journey that would have taken him 18 hours by road. Because of that, he had his surgery and was able to start walking again. That is probably one of the memorable experiences because it showed that a simple act of charity we did, made a real difference in someone’s life. I am really proud of what the people I am privileged to work with have been able to achieve. It inspires me every day to do more.

Things I would have done differently

When I first started my business, I saw myself more as the boss. I have grown and I have learned more about leadership.  Being a leader is more about serving one’s team members by making sure that they work in the best environment. It also involves trying to align the vision of the company with their vision. I am now a servant leader, not an ‘Oga’. I wish that evolution happened earlier.

At the top of my game

Our business (Flying Doctors) is a business of saving lives because many people die not necessarily because the help they need is not available anywhere, but because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. And this happens not only in Nigeria but the whole of Africa. People don’t have the right kind of medical specialist that they need to see in a given time frame. That is why we offer the right kind of efficient medical transport for patients. What has kept me going is the impact that we have able to make and the mission to ensure that people don’t die because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Advantages and privileges

Sometimes I read stories about entrepreneurship that are told by people in Nigeria, who grew up with a lot of advantages and privileges.  It is a good thing if someone who grew up in certain circumstances decides to give back to the society. It is not a bad thing at all.  But the rest of us who didn’t have those privileges, also have good stories that are important to tell. I wrote a blog post called ‘How to start a business if your father is not Femi Otedola’. It talked about resilience and perseverance.

Help people become successful

Access to information and access to a network can help people become successful. But I believe a great deal of the information that excluded people from entrepreneurship before no longer exists. Information is now available for people to train themselves so that they will succeed in life. Information is easier to come about than it was 30 years ago. It is also a lot easier to network now as a result of the social media which is the most powerful tool available now. It created a more level playing field for rich kids and poor kids. There are a number of entrepreneurs from various backgrounds building their careers/networks on facebook, twitter, youtube, and Instagram.

I have a collection of youtube videos on my twitter feed called ‘Your youtube MBA’. I curated all the educational youtube videos that I have watched. They have been recommended over the past few years. With a cheap smartphone and night data, people can learn things and have access to information.  Information is power.

To do more with less

Without any doubt one of the most influential factors affecting healthcare delivery in Nigeria and across Africa is funding.

Most African countries have smaller economies and thus make less money than developed countries.

For example, Nigeria’s budget to take care of the health needs of 180 million people is $1bn currently, compared to the National Health Insurance, NHS, budget of over $200bn for about 60 million citizens.

Nigerians must think of new and innovative ways to solve our healthcare problems. Our air ambulance services do that by providing transportation over long distances often /impassable by road. This enables patients to reach the correct medical facility in the correct time frame.  But also saves the government money, as with a sophisticated logistics system there is no need to build large, specialist hospitals in every single town. Imagine if Dangote had to build a cement factory in every single state for people to get cement? I believe that novel, innovative, cost-effective solutions like this are key to the development of healthcare in Nigeria. The current healthcare market consistently fails the world’s poorest people. It is ripe for the kind of disruption that allows us all to do more with less, and critically to do better with less.

Unique things about my story

The unique thing I want to concentrate on is what every Nigerian thinks when he wants to start a business which is funding. People must learn to save a small proportion of their income every month if they want to start a business. They must also earn to invest in low-risk instruments like bills, shares and fixed deposits. In entrepreneurship books, people are told that they can raise money from friends and family. But in Nigeria, those, who graduate that would have looked up to friends and family for money are the people friends and family actually look up. That is why anyone that has the dream of making it big making it big faces the challenge, especially if the person is from a poorer background with no friends and family that can fund his business.   It becomes difficult for such an individual to pursue his dreams. Since raising money from that source is difficult, people actually do it themselves from personal savings. I would not have a business today if I had not learned to save. But our culture makes this difficult. Nigeria has lower rates of savings that even countries far poorer than us in Africa.

Also important is building a real commercial business for customers as opposed to building a business that relies solely on government actors.  It is gladdening that the kind of business that our generation is building is customer-focused, mission-driven, and impact-driven.



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