A group of Nigerians under the auspices of Stanford Seed Transformation Network, Nigeria, is making the country proud with break-taking innovations and creative ideas. Its President, Mrs. Nwamaka Okoye, who also doubles as the chief executive of Housessories Limited, in this interview with Mary Ekah, talks on how the network intends to establish Nigeria as a global economic powerhouse through empowerment and wealth creation

Can you tell us what the Stanford Seed Transformation Network ((SSTN) is all about?
The Stanford Seed Transformation Network (SSTN) is a network of people that have attended the Stanford Feed programme. The Stanford Feed programme is a programme set up by the Stanford Feed Postgraduate School of Business, it was enabled by grant from a couple called Bob and Dottie King, they donated a hundred and fifty million dollars to Stanford University and the purpose was to alleviate poverty. To do that they decided that it was better to find entrepreneurs in developing economies that have set up the skills already and that they know that in five years, they are going to grow ten times bigger; find out what they are planning, take them through a programme, give them an enabling environment and then help them to scale. We started with a six months programme but now we have evolved to a one-year programme – sometime on site while others are not on site.

Sometimes they bring people to your company and work with you. You have coaches that will work with you throughout the period. During the programme, we have professors from Stanford Feed Postgraduate School of Business fly into Ghana, which is where they train and teach unpractical aspects of business. After we are done with that, then they would come up with a transformational plan. You need this transformational plan to graduate from the programme. There is also additional support when you are done with the programme but you can only access the additional support when you become part of the network. And there is this popular African saying that “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” So to be able to grow and scale, we have to come together by joining the network.

The network gives you access to the offerings that Stanford Seed provides. One of them is access to interns. We have interns from Stanford University, both the graduates and undergraduates schools. Over the Summer, they come in and work at your business while Stanford pay them stipends while all you need to do is to provide them accommodation and transportation. In addition to having internes work in your company, you can also get consultants for free, so that if you have a problem with your business, the consultants will come and work on your project. Also we have access to coaches who work with you to enable you to scale and grow big.

More so, there is access to finance, what that means is that they do not give you the money directly but kind of provide an enabling environment for you to access finance. Also as a network member, one of the things you benefit is practical workshop. We do the practical workshop quarterly. We pick a topic that is potent and relevant to us and then get industry expects to come and talk on these topics. CEOs and other members of a company can come in and sometimes we open it up to the public also, when we do this, we make them to pay a token for it. We also have what we call “My Story so Far”, where we get one of us who has gone far ahead to come and talk to us about his entrepreneurial journey – the high and the low and from that candid kind of conversation, we take a cue from what they have gone through so that we learn from them while we also avoid the kind of mistakes they made.

How old is the network in Nigeria?
Although we just clocked one here in Nigeria, the network is really powerful. We were the first one launched in West Africa. Now we have the Nigeria chapter, Ghana chapter, Ivory Coast, Senegal amongst others. It is a global network and by second week of November, we were in Burkina Faso on the invitation of the president, so it is like a trade mission. We were there to look at opportunities available and all that. So being part of the network affords you these sorts of things. And also it becomes easier for you to break into other countries because you have inside information, access and sometimes, you can collaborate or partner with other foreign busnienssmen/women. Also the Stanford Seed office in Ghana too will help if you want to go into other countries; they would help you get information that would make things easier for you. The essence of all these is for us to scale and if we scale, then we are alleviating poverty because we are empowering the people that we affect. The network was launched last year but the programme itself started in 2013. So right now we have eight different cohorts groups.

How many Nigerians are member of this Network?
We have 60 cohorts from Nigeria. The Nigeria chapter has over 60 members right now and we represent a very wide body in terms of industries. Therefore membership cuts across various industries including manufacturing, ICT, financial services, supply chain, retail, agribusiness, real estate and construction companies, pharmaceutical, telecommunications, medical, fashion, and in fact media. So you find people like Dr. Abayomi Ajayi, Managing Director, Nordica Fertility, Lagos; Lanre Adesuyi – CEO/Managing Director, Havilah Procurement and Library Services; Yetunde Oghomienor – Founder and Managing Director, Aframero Limited; Uche Onwudiwe, CEO, Coure Software and System Limited, amongst others.

How do you get into the Stanford Seed network?
The seed programme is specifically intended for founders/leaders of companies who want to grow their already established businesses in the West Africa sub-region, thereby creating more jobs, products and services. So to be part of the Network, first of all your revenue should be between 150,000 dollars to about 15 million dollars, which is about 54 million in naira to about five billion naira.
Now, poverty is alleviated through SMEs and not by government and for business to go beyond the level of SMEs you have to scale but it usually not easy for business to scale from small to medium in Nigeria. Historically in Nigeria, many businesses fall at that point and you find that many companies do not go beyond the first generation because there are no structures in place. So this is a practical move that is able to train businesses that are on thresholds of achieving greatness and then give them the structure and support that they need to be able to scale and then affect many other people in the society.

The risk factors with start-ups are very high and so what we have done at Stanford Feed Transformational Network is to reach out to young businesses owners by giving them training on start-ups. So every month, they come in for free training where we teach them things we have passed through and also things that we have learned from this network, so that it makes it easier for them to start up without grappling about in the dark.

Are members of the network really generous with the information they share and are they really sharing their business secrets with these young entrepreneurs?
You would be surprised at how much people want to help. Nigeria is very big – we are like a hundred and fifty million people, so the market is big enough. And the truth is that if our predecessors did not share what we have learned so far in the network, we may not have been where we are today. There is no way you would say that you have achieved all you have got by your own efforts. Somebody has to help you somewhere and somehow. Somebody has to make a phone call for you, someone has to connect you with another person and so on, so in same manner, the people at the Stanford Seed Transformational Network Nigeria are generously minded because I could remember when the idea came we got 23 volunteers on that day.

And that means for those two years we were trainers and all it takes is one day in a month for them to train these young businesses owners. So you can imagine the value of the impact. Even when we talk about “My Story so Far”, the kind of stories that the speakers share are usually very insightful and inspiring and you glean so much from these stories. And many times in sharing, you find out that you gain. And the training is absolutely free because all we intend to do is to give back to the society and also make impact. And one of the things that we want to do as a network is that we would like to serve as a network of advocacy and to do that, we have to have impact and we also have to be very successful so that it becomes easy for us to influence governance and policies in a way that makes it easier for the entrepreneur to operate.

Apart from training,what other ways do you give back or impact on these young business owners?
We just launched what we call the Start-up Impact Training for Entrepreneurs (SUITE) programme, a Stanford Seed Transformation Network (SSTN) Nigeria initiative with a vision to equip and empower young business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs in Nigeria for success in business through high value training carried out by expects from a wide range of industries. The trainers are all alumni of the Stanford Seed Transformation programme with years of experience in successfully running profitable businesses both within and outside Nigeria.

We came up with this initiative when we thought about how to give back. We also realise that we are busy running our various organisations, and so we decided to meet once in a month to teach upcoming entrepreneurs, leveraging on our strength, and the impacts have been tremendous. So far we have trained over a hundred entrepreneurs and we do about 25 per section and we would like to increase the attendance because the content is so rich and valuable. The programme is once in a month on Saturdays from 9a.m. to about 2p.m. We take just one topic and we treat it in-depth. It holds at the premises of the Housessories Limited in Isolo, Lagos, for now. We have a calendar for the year and the one for this month was held on November 25th.

What does it take to be part of the training?
You just have to be a business person or you could just have a business idea and you are welcome to be part of the training. You don’t actually need to have a business but you can make it happen and this is what this network believes in. In fact, it is not just what we believe in but that has been our experiences. I know of people that started selling cloths in the boot of their cars and so today they are so massive and intimidating with over 10 branches of chains stores. The thing is just believe in you and work really hard. So SUITE is our way of giving back and also following up on these people so that at some point, they would also be able to apply for the Stanford Feed programme and hence, they would be able to gain the same knowledge that we have gained and also become part of the network.

From your experiences with the young people in business, what would you say has been the most challenging aspect?
Well, the challenges are not just for them because we also face the same challenges. But I think the most challenging for them is accessing funds. Another thing is lack of adequate credit information and lack of trust as well as getting useful information for developing businesses. So if you can access funds and also have a network like ours that would be supplying up-to-date information for developing your business, you would grow faster. So as a business person, if you don’t have good will and a network that can help you, yes, you will make it but not faster like when you have all these. So I think we should leverage on our strengths not minding the challenges surrounding us. So being a part of a network like this gives a lot of leverages and opportunity to become big.

For you to be a member of Stanford Seed Transformation Network, you must be a very successful businesswoman. Can you tell us how you started out?
I run a furniture business. I am the Chief Executive Officer/Managing Director, Housessories Limited. We are into manufacturing furniture and we are also an interior lifestyle organisation. Somehow from that age of 11, I actually knew this what I wanted to do. My father runs a similar business called Ricco Furniture in Lagos. So I remember when I was still in the university, one day he came home and I asked my father for pocket money. So he said get ready and let’s go out. I got ready and then my daddy took me to his furniture showroom and introduced me to his manager, saying, he has brought a new staff. And he said further that when I get my salary that would be my pocket money. And that was how I stated working on vacations. From this gesture, my father trained me not to have a sense of entitlement. So, whatever plans you had for life, he would encourage you. So I decided I wanted to be an interior designer and also a furniture manufacturer but there was no school in Nigeria where I could study that. So I went to University of Nigeria, Nsukka to study Architecture after which I went abroad to study interior décor. That was when the dotcom era started.

So later, I said let me find something that I can do that meets my desire and also gives me some money. So I went back to school and studied Illustration and Multimedia and then became a graphic designer. I did that for a couple of years and later returned to my interior design and architecture job. My husband is also into architecture and so we started our own business called Design Genre. So in 2007, I came back to Nigeria and got a project, did the project and then went back. When I went back, I got a call from someone who saw the job asking when I was coming back again.

Another call came again and so I decided to return to Nigeria and started setting up basically and then a year later, my family joined me in Nigeria. As soon as we retuned, we entered a competition which was to design a 12 storey building and won the competition and that was a big deal. Then two years later, we decided to separate the interior design from the furniture, which we had always done together, so one would be consulting while the other would be manufacturing and that was how Housessories was born in 2010 and interestingly, the business has grown over and over again over the years till we were able to join Stanford Seed Transformation Network.