Many will always remember Biola Alabi as the Managing Director of M-Net Africa. Well, she has moved on. Biola is now a media entrepreneur. She is the founder/managing partner, Biola Alabi Media. The firm produces a food/travel documentary series called Bukas and Joints airing across Africa and in the USA. This entrepreneur, filmmaker, investor, public speaker and television host enjoys engaging young people. She runs a mentorship programme called Grooming for Greatness. In 2012, Biola was named one of the 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa by Forbes Magazine and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. CNBC Africa named her West African Business Woman of the Year in 2013. This energetic television personality takes Ahamefula Ogbu through her background, growing up and career
So much is known about you but not on your growing up. What was your childhood like? Where were you born?
(laughs) Wao! that’s many years ago; I was born in the US and to of course Nigerian parents. My parents eventually moved back to Nigeria, so I spent some time in Nigeria and then eventually moved back to the US. That’s where my parents live now and many years after living in the US, I decided to move back to Nigeria and that was about 10 years ago when I got a job offer at Multichoice. So yea, I grew up mainly in the US and in Nigeria. I think because of the time I spent in Nigeria when I was younger even though I went back to the US, I always thought Nigeria was home and with my parents, we always talked about Nigeria that it was home. So, there was a part of me living in America that felt temporary but at the end of the day, I guess it is now second home. Nigeria and America are my home.
What part of Nigeria are your parents from?
My dad is from Akure, my Mum is from Ilesa, south west.
So your primary education to the university level was in America?
Split, it was basically between the two places. Most of my primary and secondary school were actually between both places. My parents moved around a lot even when we were in Nigeria, so I spent some time in Akure; then I also spent some time in ….I have to be honest, I can’t remember some names of these schools but I remember the cities. I do remember I spent some time in secondary school in Kaba, Kogi State before coming back to finish secondary school.
What exactly inspired you to return despite having what could be better opportunities outside Nigeria?
I think one other thing that people don’t understand is that when you are abroad, sometimes, you will always feel left out. I guess because, yes, many people ask me questions where I am from, people don’t understand, they have very low expectations of Africa. In fact, very low expectations of Nigeria and the Nigeria you know is different from the Nigeria they know. So, when you are trying to explain to people where you are from, then sometimes, you feel defeated because there is so much negative information in the world about Nigeria, about Africa. I think from very young age, I spent time really trying to educate people about Nigeria because at that time, I only knew about Nigeria; I didn’t know Africa which I was later exposed to but at that time I always tried to educate people about Nigeria because people will always have the wrong notion. I remember when I was at a friend’s house and they had served and I wasn’t that hungry and so I didn’t eat that much and the mum was like oh you didn’t finish your food, aren’t people starving in your country? I said wao! I was a kid and I said oh, this is how people see my country, I guess that was why I was always drawn to Nigeria and also to change that story.
Let’s go back to your growing up, what were your parents like? Pampering or driving you hard to attain goals?
They didn’t pamper us, there was no pampering. They were disciplinarians but I don’t think they were hard but one thing I remember was that there were always books everywhere; I remember my sister and I reading a lot, there was a lot of reading, we read a lot, so I do remember there were always books, libraries. I remember reading a lot growing up and my parents were always reading. I remember we didn’t live in big cities; we lived in very quiet places, very quiet life. Even till today, they are not that hard. I know one thing they wanted though they were very clear they wanted me to be either a Doctor or an Engineer because I was good in sciences at that time but I later fell out of love with science. I remember they tried to push me towards the sciences and I would probably say that was the only time I was pressured. They always wanted you to come high in class as in being in the top but I never felt bad if I came second or third but I was always in the top five, I never felt pressured. I don’t even think my siblings felt pressured.
Would you say you were a compliant or stubborn child?
I am the eldest of the four of us so I think as the oldest kid you are a peacemaker; always keeping the peace in the house, trying and making sure your siblings don’t get into trouble. I mean I had to be a good example. So, in a way, I wasn’t a trouble maker. Of course, my mum might say something else, but I really was not a trouble maker. I didn’t give my parents a lot of wahala. So, I was an easy going kid. I will say they probably enjoyed raising me than my brothers because I am sure my brothers were more troublesome than me and my sister.
Were you closer to your mum or dad?
I am close to both of them in different ways. I also think that in different phases of your life you become close to two different parents. When I was changing focus and vision about what I wanted to study, I became closer to my dad because I knew my mum was very clear about that Doctor or Engineer career but I knew my dad could be more flexible. I think girls are always closer to their dads in that stage where you need an advocate; and I think fathers are more advocative and protective. But I think as I get older now, my mum and I have a lot in common because we spend more time together; but growing up, my dad because he was a sort of my advocate. Yes.
What indelible experience did you have growing up with your parents?
I have to say one thing that my parents gave me was the ability to see the world. My dad had travelled so widely that whenever he would tell us stories about different countries he had been, I always was like wao! I want to go to those places and my mum was more adventurous; she was a bit artistic, she was into different things, she will do businesses and different things but my dad always wanted to see the world. Though you don’t think about them every day in your life, but I think if you combine those two, those have been marks of how I navigated my life.
Can you describe yourself as a career woman?
What does career woman mean?
People that career comes first in their considerations, they put it first…to some, family comes first and to others career.
In the light of that definition, no, I have more of balanced life, family is important, friends are important, work is important and also seeing the world is important. It doesn’t mean I don’t like my work but I wouldn’t like you to misinterpret that because the word career woman is very confusing; but in the light of your definition, I am more of a balanced person.
What are the regrets in your life?
I don’t really do regret. I really do a lot of reflections, I look at things and say okay, did I make mistakes here, what did I learn? Not that there is anything wrong in regrets, just that it doesn’t work for me. I guess sometimes maybe regret not doing something, maybe when people invite me for trips or travels and maybe the regret I have is not taking advantage of the opportunities. I really don’t spend so much time looking at the past because there is so much to be done in the future, so much ahead of us to dwell in the past.
You grew up in a closely knit family, what’s your idea about family?
Yes we grew up in a closely knit family; family is one of the most important things and means a lot because it is the number one thing that sustains you. My own definition of family is that it doesn’t have to be the traditional family I grew up with; it has to include friends and family members, To me, family are those who are always there for you.
How did you meet your husband?
We met at an event and also through a friend. We were at an event and we were introduced to each other.
Was it love at first sight? What did you see in him that made you choose him out of the lot?
I don’t think it was love at first sight. I think it is very hard to do, maybe when you were much younger. I think when we got talking, there were things that were very special for connection right away that I thought I could stay a lot of time with him and that we can get married and spend our lives together.
Have you ever felt threatened by other women being around your husband?
No but I don’t like answering this question because I hate when questions are posed about women and other women. I feel it doesn’t move the conversation forward about how women really want to be working and empowering each other rather than threatening each other. For me I feel like it is such a weird and negative question for a young woman especially newly wedded woman and women that are trying to navigate marriage and at the end of the day marriage is between two people and if you are going to depend on other people, the problem is going to come back to the two people.
When did you lose interest in MNET that you pulled out?
I don’t want to say I lost interest, I didn’t lose interest, I was interested in something else, but I didn’t lose interest in MNET. I carried out my job there till the last day and I enjoyed my job. I think I wanted to do something different, that’s what I did. I love what the brand is and what the brand is turning out to be. I also love Sesame Street and I worked there for seven years, longer than I worked with MNET and till today, I still love Sesame Street and I have done consulting work for Sesame Street since then. So, I don’t think it was like losing interest in the job, but just as a person grows, and your future and what you want to do, it is okay to change job.
You’ve made your footprints in different areas, are we expecting you in politics?
The answer is no. But I also know that the moment you say you are not contesting, people will believe you are, so really the answer is no I am not. I believe there are so much work still to be done in my field and other things I am doing. Number one is that what we have to do to change the narrative about Africa, about Nigeria. There is so much work about telling and communicating our stories, also telling our diverse stories where we are and what we do and where we live. For me there is still so much work ahead. I am interested in how we have conversation on women in leadership, how women can get funding for their businesses, how we empower women, how women are engaged in the economic ecosystem in Nigeria and across Africa, these are issues we need to speak about. Nigeria’s progress depends on activating the 50 per cent of her population which is women as a nation. I don’t have to be on the inside to do that, so for now, I am staying on the outside.
You were outside the country and you are back, but you still see Nigerians struggling to leave our shores; some even taking life threatening risks, what words do you have for such people?
I have words for leadership; the reason that is happening is because of failure of leadership, which should create more opportunities for the young ones. We need to empower women; we need women to feel that they can be active contributors to the economy. We need to increase the stake which everybody has in Nigeria. People who have nothing to lose also have nothing to get. So for me, the number one thing is how we are empowering the young girls from day one; how we empower people to create more jobs that can sustain them.
On the other side of the people making these treacherous journeys, these are extremely unfavourable environment. People are being trafficked for a promise of better life. It is happening all over the world, not only Nigerian girls and sometimes Nigerian young men. The best way is to let us find a way of engaging the economic process. All these things come down to money. We need to find ways of getting more people engaged in the economic process; until we can provide jobs for our people we will continue to see them leave. That is why I am determined to be in Nigeria to try and create jobs for young people. If not that people have gone on holidays for sallah, you would have found out that the average age of people in this office is 21, 22; everyone here is young and vibrant with good ideas. This is part of the reason I set up Grooming for Greatness as leadership training organisation to cater people between the ages of 25 and 35. It makes the younger ones know they have a role to play in making Nigeria better as leaders, This is also to make the young people see very good role models . For me every concept we create, we are concerned with how we make them role models not only on screen but everywhere.
Assuming you were to be banished to an island what three items would you take along with you?
I will probably just take some books with me.
Are there current works you are doing to liberate and empower young minds?
Grooming for Greatness is that which I use for mentorship programmes. I also have Lagos Inter-network, which mentors and grooms people that have new businesses, entrepreneurs managing their own companies and everything I do engage young people.
How do you relax?
I do take time out. I travel and l love to travel just to discover, to relax , just walk around and be inspired. I love being inspired by new environment and new people and traveling is the easiest way to relax and I also read. Traveling and reading are my relaxation techniques.
If we were to hack into your bank account, how many digits are we going to findß, are you rich, maybe as rich as Dangote and Otedola?
(laughs) I am rich in many ways. I am rich in amazing families, friends and in God’s blessings. I am very fortunate to have the life I have. I do practice gratefulness. When I wake up, instead of asking God for something, I thank Him for what He has given me. If I am as rich as Dangote, you will know, even Alhaji will know. I really work hard and I am trying to build a new business, but I don’t think your bank balance defines who you are. I’ve never thought that way and I never will. How you are building others, turning peoples’ lives around, lifting lives up and not the money in your bank account define who you are.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
I don’t know, but some of the most important things that I see myself doing in the future is to continue building my company. I believe in the power of energy, I believe in the power of the word, I believe in the power of audio visual media, I don’t believe you are limited by platform. This is a very important way to shape our world. When you listen to the western world describe their government, they never use the word regime and I thought that was very interesting but in Africa we say regimes; so I am always looking out for simple ways to describe and tell our stories. When I was talking to some young minds on how America talks about 9/11, they do so from the angle of heroism. (9/11 was one of the worst security breaches in history. Americans don’t talk about the security breaches but how they reacted to it and that is the story of heroism that is what makes a people proud of their country, what makes them proud to be Americans, not the fact that there were many places that there were failures. Until we start to tell our stories, who we are to celebrate us, it will not happen especially when our stories are mainly of failures. I want to be more involved in education and health which have scary indicators. Five years from now I hope to be doing much more than I am doing now.
What do you like most about yourself?
I am persistent in pursuing things I think are important, I enjoy that. I am not easily discouraged and I don’t take failure as tragedy. Disappointment is gonna happen but we have to bounce back. I don’t spend time dwelling on failure and if I make mistake, I will own up and apologise; that is what I have to thank my parents for. If you make a mistake, apologise; if you do something wrong, apologise and take responsibility. When people don’t take responsibility, it becomes very difficult for me to work with them.