Kemi Otegbaye is the Head consultant of Heartlink Ventures limited, a human resource as well PR company. A banker turned event manager, call her a busy bee and you will be hitting the nail right on the head. Too restless for a 9-5 job, she knew that her stay at the bank then would be short lived.
In July 1999, she cut out from the bank to set up her own company here in Lagos. Since then, she has not looked back. With a passion for creating employment for Nigerian youths, the Business Administration graduate says, one necessary attribute that has helped her in business is her ability to tolerate. “No matter how bad a person is she says, there is always some good somewhere”.
In this interview, she shares her challenges in business and why she has always had her hair coloured.
How did you get into this line of business?
I am naturally a very restless person. If I’m not busy, I’ll fall sick. It’s just part of my make up as a person. I am a natural public relations person but I started out as a banker. I read business administration but after my NYSC, I got a job in the bank where I worked in various departments. But somehow, I’ve always had it at the back of my mind that I would run my own show someday. In fact, I had planned to work for just five years and then be on my own.
I ended up working for 10 years because I enjoyed my job and because I was very close to my boss at that time. Anyway, for many occasions, I planned events for friends. In school, if we were to do end of year party, it falls on my shoulders. At some point, I realised that this same thing I am doing for free, is a career for some people. And some of my friends used to say that to me too.
So, I guess when the time was right, I just branched into HR and PR and event management. But I must say though that banking opened a lot of doors for me which I am still benefitting from today.
Women are usually afraid to branch out into business for fear of challenges. What were the early challenges you faced?
Fear is a general problem but before I left the bank, I had started test running the business. If you are waiting to leave and start, you may not have the courage to do that. About 4-5 years before I left, I got an office, set up something and put two people there. I started with HR and kind of played supervisory role. When I closed from the bank, I would resume there. We worked at weekends too.
We were brainstorming with ideas and that eventually gave me the courage to leave the bank and join them. A major challenge as you all know, was power supply. Nigerian economy is harsh. I publish a business directory. The current one is the 4th edition. The first edition that we published, we powered it throughout with generator. We had no transformer. That was the era NEPA officials used to carry transformer for months.
We were imputing data for about three months. They didn’t bring the transformer back until we had our finished product on our hands. So, it was difficult for our engineer to install the soft ware w needed to use and all that eventually made it very expensive. Al l that extra costs eats into your profit and it’s like you are not working or making money. The moment you can solve power problem in Nigeria, things will be better but Nigerians are hard working people so we would survive.
What class of clientele appeals to you?
Well, I have different range of clients, why? We have various services. HR, we recruit strictly office staff. We don’t do domestic. So if you require a good marketer, a good reporter, a good copy writer, a good general manager, a chartered accountant within 48 hours we can deliver. So the clientele that will appeal to me are clients who are ready to pay their staff well, who will not pay pea nut and expect them to perform. We have a pay off we use for our HR department, “if you pay peanut, you will have monkeys as staff”.
You should motivate your staff. If they are not happy, they will not contribute. They will be dormant. We recruit for all sectors as long as you can pay we deliver in 48 hours.
Your job no doubt exposes you to a lot of people. What traits would you say puts you off in people?
A lot of people are not strait forward in their dealings. When you think someone is going left, she is going right. People want to use you if you are not smart.
They want to come and steal your contact and ideas and turn it into their own and not acknowledge you. A lot of Nigerians are dishonest. You will be shocked at the level this kind of thing is happening. But there are a few good people in this society. I’ll mention a name, Alhaji Dangote, I have been doing business with that man for about five years now.
He is very straightforward. If he does not agree, he will tell you and even send you a text message so that you don’t waste your time. Others are not like that. They will waste your time, energy and nothing will come out of it. But the longer you are in this business, the wiser you become. You see the signs. I can scan a shady person within an hour. By the second meeting, I would know if I should do business with you or not. It comes with experience.
Were there people who were role models to you?
I’m sure there were. But I can tell you straight that I don’t like people who give up easily because to me with God, nothing is impossible. If you are tenacious and consistent, you’d get whatever you desire. In the last decade, our women have really changed. We are now going all out.
But I can tell you that I liked May Ellen Ezekiel. She was written off, but she was able to make something out of her life. It’s a pity that she died early. I liked her and I liked what she was doing. When she saw a man that she liked, even though there was noise, she didn’t give a hoot. I like that.
Women have a lot of challenges that men don’t have especially when she is trying to move ahead. How do you manage your work life and create that necessary balance?
It is by proper planning. At times you’ll need to blank out. It was a bit very challenging for me when I just started and I was doing HR. People call you because they have your number. T
hey forget that you don’t work at night. They call you at odd hours. I have a business line, I may not pick a number I don’t know so that I can focus on my kids, look at their home work, cook their meals and probably too, pamper yourself, give yourself a treat by watching a movie or else you would not have a home. If you call, I will not answer but I may send a text if I know the person. So you need to plan, create time for yourself and family and separate it from business.
They say image is everything, as a PR person, how do you like to present yourself?
I like people to perceive me as a serious business person. I don’t suffer fools gladly even though If I notice you are a cheat, I will not allow you. I will also like to be perceived as somebody who knows what she is doing and will get there whether you cooperate or not.
So how do you transmit that message in terms of the way you dress?
I dress the way I feel but I also know that you are addressed the way you are dressed. So I tend to dress very well. I dress formerly and also casually because I also do things in the entertainment industry. When I’m working on a project say for a pageant, I can dress to look like a role model for the beauty queens, radiating beauty. So that they can know you can coordinate a beauty queen.
What advise would you give to a woman trying to set up a business?
Women should never be discouraged. I don’t believe in women not working because their husband is rich. It’s not worth it especially here in Nigeria where we see what relatives do when a husband dies. Working or doing business, empowers you, it gives you joy to earn an income even if it doesn’t pay all your bills at least, you can do something on your own. You can decide that you want to give your child a treat without asking anybody and they should not be discouraged on the basis of gender.
Have you suffered any discrimination on the basis of gender?
I don’t think so. When I go for presentation, people forget that I am a woman. They even ask who is this woman talking like a man? her confidence is too much.
What kind of clothes do you like?
I like skirts. Some years ago, I used to wear crazy mini skirts but not anymore. I like trousers but more of skirts and tops.
What kind of jewellery compliments your clothes?
I like good jewellery especially white gold. I like yellow gold too but white more.
Between clothes and accessory which has greater appeal?
It’s difficult to choose one over the other. So in this order, good clothes, jewellery then bags.
Are you a label person?
No, but if I see a nice item by any known label, I’ll buy. I like Gucci though.
What would you spend good money on?
I think it will be my jewellery.
What beauty routine do you keep?
I don’t go out of my way to do any thing extra. The only thing I do is scrub and use facial mask.
How far would you go to look beautiful?
I can go on a special diet, I can go to the gym but I’m not likely to go under the knife. I don’t have anything to complain about. I don’t have anything I want to reduce so badly that will make me go under the knife. Once in a while, if I think I’m adding weight, I’ll reduce what I eat, change my diet and trek to places I normally would drive to. In two three weeks, I’ll get good result.
Of all the trends that have come and gone which one did you really enjoy?
I like to colour my hair from the first time it was in vogue and I continued after. In those days there was this crazy thing they used to call pinto. It was like colour riot. You mix all kinds of colours. I joined that band wagon then. It was really hot then.
What won’t you do in the name of fashion?
I won’t have multiple piercing in my ears. I will never be tempted. Something tells me when this thing goes out of fashion, what would you tell your children? And some people actually use it to discriminate against one because they actually think you are a wayward person to have multiple piercing.
Who is stylish to you in this country?
The late Maryam Babangida, Grace Egbagbe, Bola Shagaya. Ita Giwa tries but those first three they take the cake.