Businessman, PAUL ORAJIAKA, born into a family of woodcarvers in the present day Anambra State, was stubborn and adventurous growing up. Though, not born with a silver spoon, he was determined quite early in life to be the very best in all his endeavours. This global entrepreneur’s knack for sound quality education pushed him to acquire numerous degrees from Ivy League schools which include a Master in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy Schools, a Master in Business and Management Research from the University of Reading, United Kingdom and an Executive Master in Business Administration from Lagos Business School of the Pan Atlantic University.
Orajiaka, who has indicated interest in the 2021 governorship election in Anambra, is the founder of Paul Orajiaka Foundation, and Chief Executive Officer of Auldon Limited, a company renowned for high quality educational, re-creative and play toys, with client base spanning major departmental stores across Africa, America, Asia and Europe. He successfully grew a $100 start-up toy business to a preferred global toy company, which has received recognition from the Forbes Magazine. Orajiaka tells Charles Ajunwa about his growing up, family and business
What was your growing up like?
I grew up in Warri, Delta State. My dad was a woodcarver. Growing up, my dad would always ask us to come to his workshop to learn different crafts every weekend. Back then, you would find children running around after school from Monday to Friday but my dad would insist we must be in his craft shop. Even during our long holidays, we must do an internship at his workshop and learnt the craft like the apprentice working with him. My routine then was school, dad’s workshop and practicing my new skills.
My father and all his brothers were all craftsmen. My family is renowned for wood carving. It runs in our genes. Virtually everyone in my family who had grown to become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, first learnt a craft from my father. My brothers and I had our own special section in my dad’s workshop where we produced our own crafts. Every month, my dad would sell the artwork and keep 30 per cent of the money for himself, 30 per cent for my mum who was the salesperson in the showroom and 40 per cent for us. We produced artworks for expatriates in Chevron and customers in faraway Europe and Asia.
You are a very successful businessman, how did you learn your business skills?
I grew up quite entrepreneurially because I was involved in producing and selling artworks even as a young boy. I took this skill into secondary school where I always came first in national art competitions. My team back then in Igbinedion Secondary School, Edo State was always on top at both state and national art contests. We had a lot of awards and recognition based on the art skill I took from my dad’s workshop.
Who did you inherit most of your traits from? Your mother or father?
Interestingly, my dad. This is because of the kind of person he was. He was a disciplinarian who did not want his children to be running around after school. From childhood, my father taught me how to multitask by working in his workshop on weekdays and weekends even while schooling. This kind of nature has helped me even in adult life. When I came to Lagos with the plan to travel to the United State of America, for my first degree, I was denied a visa at the embassy. After that misfortune, I settled in Idumota Market with my brother-in-law where I started my business. For long, I didn’t have any passion to go to school because I was making cool money in the market. At a point, one of my much-respected uncles said to me, ‘Paul, you have to choose between being a quality man and being a wealthy man. Any fool can make money and be wealthy but not any fool can live a quality life. You need to go to school and have the knowledge to enable you to scale up your business.’
I took his advice and eventually gained admission to study accounting at the University of Lagos. I got into school when my mates were graduating. Managing my business and attending classes was not easy but the lifestyle I learnt from childhood and also going to my dad’s craft shop, really helped me.
Who were you closer to between your parents?
I was closer to my mum because my dad was quite a disciplinarian. His hard-line posture on things, his level of discipline and the way he marshaled us into conforming to some basic training never went down well with me. When I became an adult and moved to Lagos, everything he had told me, that advice I took for granted all began to play out. As a young boy, I was never close to my dad but he was doing his job. I thought he was an enemy but today we have the most wonderful relationship.
Did you ever get into trouble as a young boy?
Being adventurous as a little boy got me into trouble several times with my parents. I had always been as adventurous as wanting to leave home as early as possible the moment after secondary school. I was such a stubborn boy. I wanted to go to the US. I told my father that I’m never going to study in Nigeria. I wanted to have my first degree in the United States at the age of 16 but because my dad and I were always having one challenge or the other, it wasn’t easy. We were never the best of friends. It is now I understand he was only playing his roles. Today, as a father of four beautiful girls, I’m replicating that same practice to my kids. Being adventurous was always something I wanted and it was one of the reasons I wanted to leave home for the US, but as God would have it, I didn’t make it to the U.S. I stayed back in Lagos. I didn’t want to go back to Warri because of my dad’s ways of discipline. I felt I was mature and independent enough to go to the United States and take some of my dad’s craftworks to start my own business based on the level of business acumen I had learnt over time. One of the things I would have done in the United States was doing my business while studying.
Were you stubborn or the gentle kid in the family?
I was a very stubborn child. I will say I am one of those people who used that stubbornness on the right side; talk of business, lifestyle, and relationship. For me, it’s a good thing if a child is stubborn. One of my business partners from Hong Kong said, ‘If you have a child that is stubborn, you should be happy.’ For a stubborn child, there are two things involved. Either he uses that stubbornness to make something out of his life or uses it to become a liability to the society. So it is for you the parents to tilt that stubbornness to the positive side.
Have you ever had a near-death experience either as a child or an adult?
While growing up, we were so adventurous in the aspect of being too playful. So we loved acrobatics. We would somersault like 30 times with and without our hands. We were doing it from anywhere. We always had competitions as seen in the Olympics. We also played barefoot. There was a day I wanted to outperform everyone. The way to become the winner is to do a skill that others could not do. So I wanted to spin twice in the air as seen in the Olympics but when I somersaulted, I turned in the air the first time landed.
I took off again, went very high, spun the first time and while in the air I tried to turn the second time but landed with my neck and passed out. All my friends took off. My elder sisters were shouting. I woke up in the hospital on the same day. My forehead was bruised. According to my sister, my neck went inside. They had to administer first aid to resuscitate me.
What would you say have been your most painful experience in life so far?
The most painful experience which turned out to be a blessing was when I went to seek for a visa but was turned down three times. It was so painful that it felt like the world should end. I felt hurt. I went for an interview with nine of my friends. Everybody got the visa except me who was denied. I felt America was my last hope to make my life count. When I look at life today, I would probably say God wanted me to stay back and see what our people lacked and how I could bring a solution to their needs. If I were in the United States, I wouldn’t be so conscious about the plight of my people.
I take it in good faith that one plans the future but the future doesn’t necessarily follow the plan. In the end, it is how God designs what will be for you that will play out. Today, I sit in my home and they bring the visa to me. That same school I wanted to go to, First Valley State College now a university, I ended up attending the best university in the world, Harvard. That same America I wanted to go and felt my life would end if I am not there, I have all my kids as American citizens – all born there. My wife studied in the U.S. My whole family is in the U.S., siblings living in the U.S.
Share a bit of how your success in business began
When you become diligent with yourself and work, people will start seeing you. For us, we were just doing our thing and adding value in terms of our business model. We were promoting ethnic-related toys because we sell toys. The toys promote cultural values, teaching the African child how to be proud of their skin colour and heritage. We were also adding a lot of social element into these products in terms of the doll clothes made by local women, the packaging being done by students of Lagos State college.
I think we are making a lot of impact on the society and our business model is beginning to resonate with these big media houses. We are making a huge success. We are selling all over the world and it has attracted people to see our business to have a social impact, a business that have the love of the people, for example, while making money we were also impacting lives. That for them was a big plus.
Right now, we have other publications coming out in December. We just sit and they call us from all over the world. We are not resting until we reach our goals. We will continue to work and impact our channels across Nigeria, in South Africa and in Ghana and now we will continue by moving to Kenya. You can’t have this level of growth and not have people see you. Even our business partners will call us from the UK, Belarus and tell us about their interest to get into the Nigerian toy business.
We have had fantastic partnership with people we don’t even know. For instance, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with one of the biggest toy manufacturers in Europe. They organised our visa in one hour when we went to their embassy. We travelled the next day, stayed about a week, toured their toy company and signed an MoU. We wouldn’t have had that kind of opportunity if we weren’t there in the limelight. So many of them are like that, inviting us from all over the world, Asia, Holland, Ukraine. I think what we are doing is resonating with people and they are seeing the impact that our toy company is making globally.
Who is your role model?
My character strength is from my dad. He was a disciplinarian. Mum would always be very subtle and kind to you but my dad was such a man that I look up to in terms of his level of discipline. I would say I’m a reflection of my dad’s personality. Today, I think when it comes to discipline it has to do with the moderation of lifestyle. My dad doesn’t drink alcohol. I don’t do such. I never saw my dad live an immoral life that is very common with successful men. I also grew up not having that kind of lifestyle. On health grounds, my dad never smoked for once. I decided that it was the best way for me to live. Also, seeing him as someone who was successful showed that he had a lifestyle that was rewarding. For me to be a successful person and be like my dad, I just needed to follow his footsteps. These things didn’t rub off on me alone. I have eight siblings. We are nine kids. I can tell you, everybody is having a wonderful career, a wonderful family. It shows that an apple doesn’t fall far from the source.
How have you managed your success and prominence?
Like I told you, discipline is part of me. I’ve always been a very busy person. Sometimes they say some successful men are very busy persons they still have time for such lifestyle. Funny enough for me, it’s not something I can manage. From early childhood, school and my dad’s craft shop, growing up, my focus was my business and then my studies and then my God. This triangle doesn’t have a space for the women. To date, my wife still tells me that my business is still my first love because of the level of commitment and passion I bring into my business life.
How did you meet your wife?
I was so focused on my business that I never had time for women. When it was time to get married because I had been so far from anything that had to do with relationship, women and stuff like that, I had to tell my sisters- I love and respect them so much. They have known me from childhood to date. They understood the kind of woman that would fit into my nature. I told them, ‘ladies, it’s time to help me look for a wife’. They went all out to look for this woman. Do you know the funny thing? I had a dream once that I got married (traditional). The dream was so real that the name of the girl I got married was Ify. I woke up at midnight and wrote that name. I still have this paper. The date and the time, 2004, are still by my bedside to date. Since I was living with my sister, I told her, “Sister Ngozi, I dreamt that I got married. The girl’s name is Ify.” My sister said, ‘really’? I replied ‘yes that the dream was so real.’ I got married in 2011. My sister was out looking for this Ify. Eventually, other girls were coming – Chioma, Chioma, Chioma. In fact, we were calling them by different names, Chioma UNN, Chioma Covenant, this and that. Just to differentiate them. Until she found Ify and came to me and said ‘Paul I found that Ify.’ That was where all the story started and it was so good that the dream came through, how it played out, what my wife looked like was exactly what I married as a wife. That is why when I look back and see my kids I’m too glad that God showed me who my wife would look like and then we had evidence to back it up that this was truly your wife. I’m so fulfilled and happy.
What attracted you to her?
First of all, I’m an extroverted kind of human being. I’m always excited, outgoing and passionate. With my kind of personality, I wouldn’t want somebody who shared the same extroverted kind of traits too. Her calmness attracted me to her so there would always be that balance in a home. You don’t have to be a firebrand and your wife a firebrand. The house would go in flames. So she was a good contrast. When I saw my wife I saw her calm and gentle demeanour and I said this complements my personality.
I’ll say my wife and my daughters are my immediate constituents. I mean when I see my daughters I’m just always happy. Sometimes when I have a bad day at work, I would close early because once I get home and see my wife and daughters, those tensions ease. I remember one classic example.
The day was going so wrong that I wasn’t happy being in the office. I just packed my bag, closed my laptop and went home. When I arrived, I said hello to my two older daughters and to my wife and went to the twins’ room. Their room was upside down. I don’t know what they were doing and they said they were trying to arrange it. Ordinarily, I would be upset that their rooms were messy but when I saw them I was just so happy. I sat by their bed while watching them arrange their room.
How are you giving back to the society?
As a private individual, I and my organisation have been creating social impact through our social entrepreneurship business model which has won us numerous national and global awards. However, a greater impact at a larger scale can be achieved when people with proven capacity and integrity run for public office so as to be at the helm of things to deliver public good.
My wealth of experience in practical entrepreneurship, are some of those skills I intend to bring from the private sector into the public sector by campaigning for an elective office so that I will be part of the crafting solutions to the numerous problems plaguing us as a country. Stepping out of my comfort zone to the muddy waters of Nigeria politics is a necessary sacrifice I want to make for a better society, because, to live and remain ignorant of the event around you is to live in bondage. To be aware of ills yet desire no change or not being conscious of how to improve the lives of your compatriots are itself sad and failing to do so is living a worthless life.