From a Secretary to a Business Mogul – The Story of Africa’s Richest Woman

You might have heard of her Folorunsho Alakija, the richest Black woman in the world according to Forbes. She is richer than Oprah Winfrey. Below she narrated how she began her career as a secretary before going into Fashion industry, today she is the richest black woman. You may learn one or two lessons from her story.

Brief History

Folorunsho Alakija is a businesswoman from Nigeria. She was born in 1951 to the family of Chief L. A. Ogbara in Ikorodu, Lagos State. She is a business tycoon involved in the fashion, oil and printing industries. She is the group managing director of The Rose of Sharon Group which consists of The Rose of Sharon Prints & Promotions Limited and Digital Reality Prints Limited and the executive vice chairman of Famfa Oil Limited. Alakija is ranked by Forbes as the richest woman in Nigeria with an estimated net worth of $2.7 billion (As of 6/17/2014)

Folorunsho Alakija started her career in 1974 as an executive secretary at Sijuade Enterprises, Lagos, Nigeria. She moved on to the former First National Bank of Chicago, now FinBank, where she worked for some years before establishing a tailoring company called Supreme Stitches. It rose to prominence and fame within a few years, and as Rose of Sharon House of Fashion, became a household name. As national president and lifelong trustee of the Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria (FADAN), she left an indelible mark, promoting Nigerian culture through fashion and style.

In May 1993, Alakija applied for the allocation of an oil prospecting license (OPL). The license to explore for oil on a 617,000-acre block—now referred to as OPL 216—was granted to Alakija’s company, Famfa Limited. The block is located approximately 220 miles south east of Lagos and 70 miles offshore of Nigeria in the Agbami Field of the central Niger Delta. In September 1996, she entered into a joint venture agreement with Star Deep Water Petroleum Limited (a wholly owned subsidiary of Texaco) and appointed the company as a technical adviser for the exploration of the license, transferring 40 percent of her 100 percent stake to Star Deep. Subsequently, Star Deep sold off 8 percent of its stake in OPL 216 to Petrobras, a Brazilian company.

Below is the excerpts of her intervew with City People’s Magazine on Saturday 3rd of May at the WIE (Women Inspiration and Enterprise) Africa Symposium which took place at Intercontinental Hotel, Kofo Abayomi VI, Lagos.

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How did you make it to this level?

It took me a long time to be able to get to this point. I went to school abroad at the age of 7, I came back to Nigeria and went back again as a teenager and I went to study a Secretarial course because my father did not believe in spending too much money on women. Law was what I wanted actually but that wasnt’ meant to be for various reasons known to God. When I came back, I started working as a secretary with a private individual , then I got into banking still as a secretary which I was there for almost 12 years and it prepared me for the administration that I put into running my various businesses today. That 12 years alone was preparations.

What inspired you to go into fashion and why did you leave your bank job?

What inspired me to go into fashion when I left the banking industry; was the fact that I knew that I had creative talents, I knew that I wanted to set-up my own business because I was no longer enjoying my job. Because I didn’t go to the university I noticed that those who had university degrees that were being brought in were given positions above me despite the fact that I had moved into the banking sector proper. So I just decided that was time to move on, I resigned. Then I got into fashion, and I made up my mind that whatsoever is worth doing at all is worth doing well. Then for the 3rd time, I went back to England to study Fashion before setting up my label which was then called “Supreme Stitches”. You know, if your choice is success, then you have to enjoy whatever it is you do to make success out of it. Though it can be intimidating and challenging, but your passion should be able to keep you going. Leaving fashion was not so easy because fashion was my passion. I eventually answered that call and I published a fashion magazine which was to wrap up my fashion career. But fashion is a very rewarding profession.

So from there, what next did you do?

I began to release myself to the Lord for His works, I began to evangelise. Then I went into printing, something I won’t be there on daily basis to monitor like my fashion business. I started mass production of T.shirts and then my clients began to ask for monograms, picture transfers, heat transfers and all that metamorphosised into also providing gift items. I started going to China twice a year to bring in container load of corporate gifts as well. So I had like 4 to 5 departments all within the same company. From that point, I went into large format printing, that was very new in Nigeria then and I saw it as an opportunity and I believe that up till now in Nigeria, am still the only female in that industry. Then at one point, the government clamped down on it and I was beginning to ask the Lord, what is it that I can do because I wanted to get into something else. Then the Lord asked me to get into Offset Printing.

(Cuts in): How do you hear from God, I am sure a lot of people will be wondering how you do it?

It is important to always read your bible. I find that when am not doing that properly or am a little far away from the Lord, then I will not hear from the Lord as much as I should. But when am very diligent with reading my bible and praying longer, I find that I can hear Him better. A lot of times God speaks to me in dreams or visions. The vision of getting into offset printing was given to me in the dream, but unfortunately I went into the large format instead of the offset printing. The Lord revealed to me that where He wants me is the Offset Printing because 2 and half years ago, Digital Reality became the biggest printing company in the South of the Sahara Africa. I have been disobedient and learnt my lessons the hard way. It is better to always ask God 1st rather than asking friends. If a friend is doing well in a particular industry, that doesn’t mean you will also do well in that industry. So try to find out where God is leading you, we need to know His will for our life.

Have you ever been in any position where you had to go the extra mile at achieving things?

I work extremely hard, I go the extra mile. It is easy for the men to do something effortlessly but for women to be able to get recognized, they have to put in triple efforts just because there are so many odds against women, just because the world believes that the woman is supposed to be in the kitchen or just to be rearing children. Forgetting that men and women are created equally in so many different ways. Most women are the ones who make their men successful, the women are the ones that give their husbands the support they need, and otherwise God would not have created women after he created the men. That is why you hear people saying that “beside every successful man, there is a woman”.

How did you get into the oil industry, knowing it is a field threaded majorly by men?

It was not a planned thing at all. A friend actually contacted me that some people wanted to buy crude-oil and she was wondering if I will be able to get them to make the purchase. I got an appointment with the minister of petroleum and he told me that it’s not the way to go because there wasn’t much profit in selling it and because it’s a foreign company, that, Nigeria is indisposed at selling its crude to international market. That it will be better to look at other things. I went back to my friend and told her what the minister had said. Then it seemed as if that door was shut but something else came up, I chose not to walk away so I went back to offer another service which was catering services. And yet again I was shut down. I did not give up, I just knew that something had to come out of it. I spoke again to some friends in the oil industry and I was told to ask to be able to supply transportation services for those who are purchasing crude within the country but I was shut down again by the minister.

Then the last time I went to see the minister, he told me that the government wants Nigerians to be involved in Nigeria’s exportation and production. That it has been multinationals that have been taking advantage of the oil industry in Nigeria. So I was like ok…probably this is not for the likes of me. I felt there was no pint coming back but really am not the type to take no for an answer. So I began to ask questions, I began to knock on doors, I began to seek for information, and in the end after a long time, I was able to apply for an oil block. But all through that time, the ministers have been changed 3 times so each time they are changed, it takes me back to the bottom of the ladder and I will have to start all over again but I still did not give up. The whole thing started in January 1991 till the end of 1993. I kept going, kept praying, in-between I became a born again Christian. That was when I knew the Lord, when I was 40. I decided to enter into a covenant with God, that if He will bless me, that I will serve him for the rest of my life and then I got the Oil license. It eventually came after 3years but I did not get the one I wanted.

In all this, what was the position of your husband?

My husband was solidly behind me, there were many times that I will go back home crying and he would tell me to stop crying that after all, we are not starving, we are very comfortable. I had his support financially, morally because I had a settled home, I had a balanced relationship with my husband and my children. All that helped me to dare to dare to make a difference.

About Andy

Andy is the co-Founder of Ngcareers, Nigeria's Top Job Search and Career site. You can follow him on twitter via @andychukse

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