By Chris Onuoha
At first, you may assume a date with her will involve rigorous protocol but the unassuming personae of the pretty but down to earth Biola Alabi, the Chief Executive Officer of Biola Alabi Media and Entertainment, will dazzle you at first meet. Her Force Road, Onikan office possesses an ambience of luxury; then ascending to the 3rd floor of the building, you are welcomed by a courteous young lady that doubles as secretary/receptionist.
Most interesting is her time keeping culture, perhaps inherited from her western orientation. I didn’t wait beyond 4 minutes before she sauntered in. She affirms: “it’s my usual way. I take every appointment serious.”
This is an impression of the Nigeria based business woman listed as one of the global 100 top female executives by the Financial Times of London for their unmatched feats in driving the cause of women both locally and globally.
Who is Biola? Is there anything or part of you that people have not heard of or seen?
Biola is someone that has been in the public eye a little over ten years now. And before I moved to Nigeria I was already doing something. I have to say that I am and have been very open with my life- even my principles, because it is really important to let people know that you flow as a human being and that you have aspirations that cause you to strive and lastly, that you are just like everyone else because I think sometimes, when you are looking at a role model especially for your career, sometimes it feels like these people are super natural or super human; but they are just like everyone else. I have been very honest about my life. There is not much that people don’t know that I haven’t talked about. But if anything comes up anew, I will say it.
From your introduction, I can see you are strong willed and flow like a natural river. What are those values that have shaped these principles?
One of the things for me has always been about hard work. Of course, every one works hard. And I mean I never take that for granted. But it is really about looking at forcing me to try to do more than I did yesterday. The other thing to me is being kind to people always. American author, Maya Angelou, always says that “People never forget how you always make them feel. They might forget what you say, but they are not gonna forget how you make them feel.” It is important to make sure that when you come in contact with people, you don’t weary them with those feelings, that you are not the person that brings down their day. And then the other thing is really try living an authentic life. I mean these are really important to me and I have been honest in my own life and my personal journey.
Did this come naturally to you from foundation or is it something you picked along your career growth?
Both impacted at their own time. I mean, my parents will always encourage us to have our goals but I think to be honest with you when your parents ask you for your goal, those things really never mean much to you. There is a straight line from tutelage- if you are in primary school, you are going to finish primary school but when you grow older, you try to understand the impact you can make in the world. When you see your worth, either being on screen or TV or you see people inviting you to speak or engaging with people in various motivational seminars, or even when people say that working with you changed their life, these are the areas you have to start having bigger goals that will shape and form how you can do things better and bigger.
When your parents say, go to school or do this or that, you know that’s the beginning of the practice. The practice is that you have to plan, have a goal and achieve it. The more you achieve things, the better you get planning and learning how to do things. I think those are really the things my parents taught me. But coming into a career perspective, I think I learned that along the way. I learned with the positive role models. I have been extremely fortunate to have amazing people that helped me along my career.
Having come this far, you were sincerely watched and then rewarded by being listed among 100 top ranking global female executives. What is this listing all about and how did you arrive at this?
Yes, I also had to ask myself the same question. What happened was that a couple of months ago, the FT selection team reached me and asked me to send them my curriculum vitae (CV) and some information about me. I actually still didn’t understand what they were looking for and they responded to me that someone had nominated me for this award. For this listing you get nominated. You don’t know who nominates you. The Financial Times selection team will do their background check to see if you have been a champion of women as a leading executive. It is a global listing. That’s what the list is all about, done by FT and it is the best in UK for female executives championing other women.
After my background check, I got an email that I have been listed, congratulating me. I think the philosophy behind it is that it is really to showcase women that are doing well as global executives but also making sure that they pull other women up and take other women along in that journey. At the heart of this, that’s what it is, to encourage more women and to inspire more women at the stage of expanding their career. It is not a one takes it all. It is about all of us women rising together.
Behind the philosophy, does it mean that female top executives do it better than men in the workplace?
No! I don’t think the philosophy behind the listing is about women doing better than men or women can do it better than men. There’s also another listing by them that has men in it that also support women and helping women advance. People like the CEO of Unilever global were there. I was once on the board of Unilever. It is also about promoting and supporting women. For me it is not about men or women. It is all about supporting women and making sure that we all rise together. Women success is not a one person story. It has to be a collection of us making a difference and also giving back to the community. It is when we all rise, when we are all successful and all, being contributing members of our society.
What does this listing mean to you and what is the advantage?
I have no idea yet, they just released the list. I guess a part of it is you talking to me. But at this point, I won’t call it an advantage but what it means is that I am humbled and honoured to be recognised with so many amazing women around the world- some of them are role models that I look up to and really admire. The other thing about it is that the listing is becoming much more diverse, having someone like me from Nigeria in that list. Growing up abroad, I didn’t see much of African names being recognised and now young women get to see them and say, this is a name I recognise. I think the representation means more than anything. I am the only Nigerian woman based in Nigeria that was listed. Two other Nigerians, British Nigerians also are on the list but they are based in London.
For me, it is about, continue to do what you are doing and doing well. When you do your best, you never know who is watching. I have no idea who nominated me for this award. I wasn’t sitting here waiting to be listed someday. The most important thing is to be honest with your work and continue to motivate people as much as you can. More importantly, strive to make impact and good contributions in the world.
With the listing, exclusively for top female executives, does this come to bear in the breaking of the glass ceiling by women and gender parity in the workplace?
No! I don’t think the listing is meant to get more women into power or change things in decision making or into board seats, but I think this is to encourage more women to speak out for other women and encourage them to take that lead. It is a decoration that there is more work to be done. I think this is the beginning of another conversation that should be how we continue to advocate for other women, for parity. We are looking at how to advocate for other women on board seats and decision making process and how do we even begin conversation on policies around women’s rights, voices being heard and women’s freedom. There are quite a number of freedoms that women don’t enjoy. It can also be women’s health. Women need much voice, speaking and making them well engaged. It’s sort of for us, another opportunity, another avenue to starts having conversation.
What do you think are the major challenges hindering women’s voices in the workplace?
The workplace is not really built for women. They are to work like any other because we know that there still exists this picture that women are doing about 80% of work at home which is taking care of children, food and other domestic needs. In essence, women are working two jobs at a time. There’s a lot of conflict women have to face, in their career and home front. Another conversation we need to have is, how do we continue to keep women longer in the workplace even when they are not physically there? How do we make sure that their skills never go unnoticed even when they step out of job to take care of children and come back to office?
These are the conversations we need to look into. We still need to know that the maternity leave we have for women are actually what the women are having. Sometimes, it is not only about maternity but for women stepping out to care for others like old parents. How do we accommodate all those things? These are the conversations we are not having with the labour unions and it needs to be heard. There are some jobs in Nigeria that women are not allowed to do. Like the head in manufacturing jobs. We are asking our young girls to embrace them. Some of those jobs in manufacturing are not as hard as you think. Nigeria is one of the most dangerous places with child mortality rate. It is one of the highest in the world. When women are having children, they die. There is an outcry about that. We can’t be free in a workplace if you can’t go and have your baby and come back. There are so many issues about women that still need to be discussed and we can’t sleep on it.
Is there a way the men in the workplace can earnestly recognize and acknowledge these challenges and come to terms by accommodating and giving women the needed opportunities to rise above the challenges especially in the workplace?
This is not a man or woman issue. This is a human issue. I mean, any issue that is woman is equally a man’s issue. When we try to put these issues in a box, that’s when we get into trouble. Men are on the frontline of these issues. We need to understand that some of these challenges take dialogue, communication and legislation and some other things that we need to get done right. I want men to say, look, this is actually happening to my daughter, my mother or my wife and I want to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. It is also the same thing with equity. One of the issues you hear from women all the time is that when they go for a job with a male colleague, sometimes they don’t get paid same with the male counterpart at the same level. They are told, ‘you are married, so you don’t need so much money.’ You can’t be doing the same job at the same level and get less pay because you are married. We need men to be on the frontline with us.
I also reiterate that men have to share things in common with women, give them opportunity to participate in some work responsibilities because we are all human beings. Also take for example, most women take care of children and attend to domestic chores alone. We all are working; women take time out to attend to most of these things while men relax in the office. Even when a child is sick at school, the first person to put on call is the mother who would still leave office to attend to such a child and still come back to office.
Women for Greatness is one of our development initiatives and mentorship programmes. I am also involved with a lot of initiatives that have to do with women empowerment and development because that means a lot to me.
As a top executive residing here in Nigeria and more conversant with the Nigerian workplace…if I may ask, does sexism play here?
I got put on the list not because of only my experience in the workplace but because of my global experience, I have worked in Asia, America, UK, South Africa and Nigeria. With my vast experience, it is not easy to have success working in that class as a woman. I lived in Asia for three years. In Asia, there is a lot of sexism, even in America. When you talk about sexism, it is everywhere in the world. As a woman, you have to have ways to navigate that. In Nigeria, yes, there’s a lot of sexism. But how do we combat sexism? We do it by education. Also some of the women that have been victims of sexism do not realise it because the society is so patriotically built and people don’t realize what’s happening to them. We need to educate other men and women and especially the young people so that they don’t make the same mistakes done in the past.
What more can women do to rise against odds in the workplace?
I think the best women can do is to refuse to be intimidated, having confidence and working on it. Confidence comes from the skills. If you know what you are doing you do it well and do not hesitate to ask questions over what you don’t understand. Also don’t be intimidated about being ambitious. A lot of times people see ambitious women in the negative perspective, but I never see it that way.
If anybody says Abiola, you are too ambitious, I will say ‘thank you’ and take it as compliment. Women should learn to take or convert such gestures as compliments and continue to do their work and move on. One thing I really want to work on women is building their confidence. Women need to rise above complex and develop skills, speak in public with confidence and learn how to work with people that will boost confidence. These are things that helped me in the course of my career. I have amazing role models that boosted my confidence. Some are women and some are men. These people pushed me and they never let me go to my old self. That is important for women. Network with people that will give you the tools you need to rise up in the workplace.
How challenging is it to the only woman in a board of all men?
It is always challenging. At one time, I have been the only black woman in an American company or the only African in an organisation but I take all those challenges to my advantage and use it to bring my uniqueness to the table- the value that I add. Rather than be in an organisation, sort of monolithic, I would rather be bringing my side of thinking to the table. Confidence is the cornerstone. Sometimes, I have been intimidated and I ask myself, why is it that I am intimidated on this table, is it because I am a woman or what are the things I need to do to make impact. It is really a period of reflection of who I am and to be able to contribute much, in a way. I usually take my difference as a way to add value.
We work with men and women but mostly with women for grooming for success. We have worked with over 30 people and most of these people are women.
Having attained this height and already in the forefront of making things happen for women, if you would want to change a thing about the system, what would that be?
I sit on a board where issues are discussed concerning women’s welfare at Unilever and I am very excited about that. Here I am working to bring to limelight the activities of women. I participated on so many boards including the entertainment sector to speak on issues bordering women in Africa and also in the world. I really feel I am fully activated. I think the area that I would like to get involved and see thing move is around policy but for advocacy perspective, I am already doing that and developing more enabling environment for women opportunities.
More so, there’s no comparison between women voices in Africa and the rest of the world. All women everywhere have the same go getting drive, charisma and high spirits to make things happen regardless where they come from. The DNA of women is the same everywhere, but we different types of opportunities to be successful. I am talking about access to opportunity, healthcare and others. These and more are things women need to become successful especially in Africa where it is lacking.
Efforts are made in letting the voice of women heard in this part of the world. How much is the response?
Yes, women are now responding to clarion calls for such but there has been many years of women’s voices not being heard. There is a little bit of information for these women but still not enough. There are a lot of women that have so many issues in their lives that are not heard or addressed, not empowered or elevated. So many others are not educated while many others depend on petty trading for life.
Even in education we don’t have enough space and awareness for these women to succeed. Despite all these challenges, I can still say women’s response is overwhelming. There is a friend of mine who started a facebook awareness drive where women issues are tabled and discussed, and to my surprise, she has garnered over 8000 followers who have logged in and shown much interest.
This is good for women because over time, women, perhaps out of culture, have not had a peculiar social forum where their issues are discussed unlike men who from time always sit around their palm wine and talk more about themselves. It is tradition for men to do that while it is not for women. These days, women are working harder to navigate that ladder to get to the top in the workplace. Men already have natural avenues to share information which women don’t have.
Take for example, men who have career crises go to club, share their experience and sometimes, get help. But now, women are waking up to reality, with lots of these platforms you hear women are rising above traditional hindrances to share their voices, experiences and expertise to help each other.