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Okeugo: We turned friendship into an enterprise

Tells the story of Chocolate City

Okeugo
Paul Okeugo

By Charles Kumolu

Chairman Executive Officer of CCX Lounge and Chocolate City Group, one of Nigeria’s glamorous and successful entertainment companies, Paul Okeugo, in this interview, narrates how his love for poetry and music got him attracted to his friends, whom they share the same passion and they eventually founded the firm.

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Okeugo also paints an intimate portrait of his life as a businessman and doting father of a child with autism. Talents, passion, intelligence, and focus find full expression in his story.

How was your upbringing?

I was raised in Jos and it gave us a good mix of Christian sort of upbringing. Jos was one of the best places to grow up back then. It also gave us the freedom to express and explore arts, participate in sporting activities and be more creative in the way that we thought. I think Jos was a great place to grow up. In Jos, we had access to school programmes that were more of music and sports-oriented. It wasn’t really a classroom sort of formal education. We learned a lot across a large gamut of influences and interests. And it shaped my outlook on life basically.

What lessons did you draw from growing up in such an environment?

There were so many remarkable events and it is hard to pick up one as the most memorable. I would say that just being able to enjoy poetry, reading, and writing influenced me. I started reading at a very young age. As I said, it was not just one event. There were other influences as well. Some were negative and others were positive. I don’t think I can really talk about all of them.

How did you get deeply involved in music at the time entertainment wasn’t financially rewarding in Nigeria?

I wouldn’t say I was just involved in music alone. I would say that I got involved in the arts early. We started something called the Builders Artists and Poets which was more about poetry and the art of writing and creativity. Music was part of that. I think everything came together when Ahmed Audu, my partner and I, believed it was worthwhile. We were able to motivate each other and began to see that it will be quite fulfilling to do something that we love. It wasn’t really about making money or being commercially successful at the time. It was just about being able to enjoy something that we really thought was the right way to approach things. It was difficult in Nigeria at the time. But the difficulty didn’t matter to us. We just wanted to make good music and make an impact on lives. Being able to make it commercially is a bonus.

Was it your career choice at the time or you were influenced?

Certainly, it was my career choice at the time. I read Political Science and was convinced I was going to be a scholar. That was my plan in the early years at the War College and the law firm. There was a big change moving into sales. I met someone who inspired me to try out sales because he felt I am a good talker. I felt maybe I could easily do it. I would say that some influences made me embrace sales. Marketing is still related to creativity.

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Chocolate City is one of the brands in the entertainment industry that has been around for quite a while. How did you build the brand?

I remember years ago, we were in Kenya, and we had an appointment with the founder of Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson at a conference. It was a speed dating type conference where we heard stories about how he made Virgin and other record braking businesses successful. It was clear that once you build a brand, you begin to attach things to that brand. The Chocolate City brand is a similar story. It involves being consistent with what the brand means, selecting that brand carefully to promote our Africanness. The biggest exporter of culture is music. Being able to have experience from the corporate world where one was able to learn best practices and being able to apply that to our own business are things that I think a lot of Small and Medium Scale Enterprises, SME’s, don’t have access to. A lot of people start businesses without having any formal experience but working with multi-nationals helped us. We applied the expertise we learned to our business and became more stable. Even when there were ups and downs, we were able to remain consistent in terms of the vision of the brand.

There is no doubt that Chocolate City is a commercial success. How did you make it happen?

The point is that we are still working on commercial success. One could say that we still have a long way to go to become a global player and that is our dream. We hope that we would be able to export something lasting from Africa. There is still a lot of work to do. That is why we would not rest on our laurels. I think we are just beginning to scratch the surface about what the talent in Nigeria, the talents in Africa and our collective energies can do. There is still a lot to do in our industry. I am glad today that the government and other interest groups are seeing the potentials in young people. People are now saying that our talents could fetch us something bigger than oil. They now believe that we can be a big support to our economy. I would not say we are there yet in terms of commercial success but we are certainly on our way by trying hard to stay on that part.

What are the things that differentiate Chocolate City from others?

There are so many things that stand us out. First, the people behind this company are different. That is why we are different from other brands. For us, we just like to be consistent and be aware of our mistakes because we make many mistakes. We admit our mistakes and move forward because the industry has a very high turnover. People come and go but we work to be consistent. We look ahead to see how we would grow, expand and keep the brand going. If that differentiates us from another company, I don’t know but I would like to say that we are unique in our way. We are unique in the way we approach partnerships and the way we internalise our processes.

Tell us about your project, Six Years Lagos…

It is a partnership between us and Ajenta Capital. They are a great team of people who understood and invested in our vision. It is hard to find people like that in this market. Six Years Lagos is an attempt to create a physical location for what we have done over the years. Everything about it is music related and event-related. It would provide a place for creative people to converge and be creative. The main focus is to have a place for talents to converge.

When your son, Ziza was diagnosed with autism in 2011, how did you accept the reality at first?

Autism became a very special subject for me after my son was diagnosed with it. The fact that my son was diagnosed with it changed me deeply as a father and as a man. The biggest change for me is being able to grasp and to love differently because it is easier to love someone when the person can respond and give you the same input that you are giving. But sometimes with children with autism like my son, you can show all the love but they would not show the same to you.

There is a bit of difficulty in that aspect but as men and Christians, we should show love without expecting it back. For me, the biggest lesson is to learn a different way to love my son just the way he is and to celebrate him every day. I do my best to ensure he gets all he needs to thrive and be the best he wants to be. It brought about a massive change in our family because I spend a lot of time planning for him and even worrying sometimes about his condition.

As for my wife and I, being open about the issue made us get more information about autism and helped us to take good care of him. Our main goal is to be able to help others with autism with our experience. Next year, we would be able to formalise the project and tell Ziza’s story the way it would help thousands of people in Nigeria.

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When you look back, were there things you did that you would do differently if the opportunity presents itself again?

As with many lives, there are many things one could have done differently if he could go back but I think the point is that one can’t go back. It is not advisable to live a life of regrets because regrets pull people back. It is more important to learn lessons from experiences and move ahead and not repeat the same mistakes. I would say there were things one could have done differently but I try to make sure I don’t repeat the same mistakes. Some mistakes are repeated because of human nature but the important thing is to learn and keep going forward.

What lessons has life taught you?

Learning that there is no right and no right but perspectives. What may be wrong to you may seem right for the other person. I found out that the more balanced one can be, the more the person would be able to live peacefully with the people around him. Even in the entertainment business, I apply it. We found that music was more about social enterprise than business and we entered into it by enjoying it and helping people. We were able to get more balance in the way we approach people we work with. In many places where people misunderstand our intentions, we try to create a balance. Not being perfect is part of human existence and also not judging yourself too harshly and finding that balance is very important.

Now, what do you consider the turning point in your business and personal life?

There have been many turning points and there would be more for me. The turning point for me was meeting Audu and finding him a like mind. Meeting my wife was also a turning point for me. Also, having my children was a turning point because each one of them brought different meaning and joy to my life. I hope to have more happy turning points and less negative ones.

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