“I have never worked with a woman supervisor; I worked with male supervisors who did not sexually harass me rather helped me advance my career.”
Mrs Amina Oyagbola, a lawyer, is one of the phenomenal sought after business leaders, who has chalked up over 30 years in legal consulting. Through hard work, dedication and excellence, she grew to become a director in new generation banks, Shell and MTN Nigeria. She is the founder and chairperson of Women in Successful Careers (WISCAR), who is passionate about mentoring others. In this interview, she shares her story with Sunday Sun.
How did you start the beautiful journey that saw you at the top management levels of all the organizations you worked with?
After I graduated with a Law degree from Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria, I came to Lagos to attend the Nigeria Law School. I wrote and passed the exam and was called to the Bar. Then I did the national youth service at the Military Intelligence in Bonny Camp, and after went to do a Master’s Degree in Cambridge and came back to Nigeria. I was fortunate to be employed by Chief Rotimi Williams of Rotimi Williams Chambers which was a leading Law firm in Nigeria at a time. I worked there as a counsel for five years earning little or nothing but was very satisfied and fulfilled. As young lawyers, we all saw it as a privilege to work there; it was almost like apprenticeship, but I was so happy; I was challenged intellectually, it was wonderful and had no intention to leave. I did my job well and someone recommended me for a new generation bank that was looking for a lawyer to manage the legal department. So the bank approached me and I refused. Someone told my father about the job, he called me and I told him that I was not interested because I was very happy where I was. But my father who I respect a lot said that when somebody taps you on the shoulder, explore the opportunity and see how it goes. So I went to the bank, got interviewed and got the job. I saw the package, it was out of this world compared to my very tiny pay in the Law firm. I needed that money but was still interested in the Rotimi Williams Law Firm. Armed with my bank employment letter, I went to meet Baba himself who was like a father to all of us, showed him the letter and he said, ‘Amina, you have been like a daughter to me, I like your work, but if you are my blood daughter who came to show me this offer, I would not say don’t take it. My dear, take the offer, go there, if you do not like the job, know you are still an in-house counsel; a job is waiting for you here anytime.’ With confidence I went to the bank knowing I still have another job waiting for me as well.
That was how my journey into the corporate world started. Most people have forgotten that I am a lawyer. From that bank, and because I came from an organised structure, it enabled me to mature, understand real life, and know my onions. From Corporate Affairs, Personnel to Marketing, my portfolio started expanding and then one day, the managing director of the bank saw that I had marketing ability, he said I should set up the Corporate Branch of the bank and I wondered how to do that. He said that he knew that I could do it, having been watching me and seeing that I know how to consult, do research and package. He then said that the bank would send me for a short course, to equip me for the new assignment. That was how I set up a branch of the bank at Allen Avenue. I found the office space, constructed the branch, built the vaults and hired the staff there. Till date, it remains one of the most exciting projects I handled and we started marketing and began to build the balance sheet of the bank from zero level into millions and it was successful.
Unfortunately, at the board level there was a political fight and I left and ended up in the Legal Department of UBA. In UBA, I was promoted to Assistant General Manager and I realised I wanted to be in the mainstream of the banking sector. I asked myself what I needed to do to become an Executive Director or Managing Director instead of Head of Legal? I knew I didn’t have the required paper qualification, even though I had set up a branch; it meant that I needed to get a Master of Business Administration (MBA) but didn’t have the money to pursue my dream. I started sharing this vision with friends and someone told me about the British Council, saying that they give scholarships. I went and got their entire requirement and was given Chevening Scholarship, all expenses paid. At that time, I had three young children. My first was about to get into secondary school, I panicked about leaving my children for a whole year but my husband said, ‘Don’t worry, I will take care of them, just go. My husband, mother and sisters took care of them in Lagos while I went to Lancaster in United Kingdom for the MBA. I came back with my MBA and there were job offers waiting already. I had promised to come back to UBA first which I did and got posted to the international consulting unit of the bank. I was made the Head, Human Resources and after that I left for Shell. I had put in 12 years in the bank and wanted to be somewhere else. So I went to cool off in the salon one day and met someone who was working in Shell, I didn’t discuss it. The next time I saw her, I told her my intention and she said I should give her my curriculum vitae (CV), that she would help me and submit it even though she didn’t know anybody there. After one week, Shell invited me for interview. They liked the content of my CV and I had a job exactly my dream. They had just created a new unit that fitted into my world. The director called me and was impressed. The employment process was six months because it was rigorous. I got the job which was good and easy for me. The juicy peck was the Shell school bus for children; shopping complex and supermarket were downstairs, with a very near bank branch; running up and down was a bit limited. Life became easier with the Shell offer. I liked my work and was progressing. Unfortunately, when they decided to close the Lagos office, I gave up a fantastic number one offer from Shell in Port Harcourt branch because of my children. I told Shell that I left my family for one year and was not ready to leave them again. I resigned and left. One day, I got a call from MTN Nigeria. That was when I knew that everything you do in life counts. Though I have tried to reach out to them some years ago, we got talking before the Shell opportunity came on board. MTN Nigeria found me worthy and offered me a job. I thought Shell was the Promised Land until I got the MTN offer. I was there as a Director for 12 years until the end of 2016, when I left to start my own consultancy firm called AKMS Consulting. I am the founder and chairperson of WISCAR. I am still a senior partner with Oyagbola Chambers, my husband’s law firm. So you could say that I am back to my Law practice.
How and why did you start the mentorship program?
The work I did over the years especially through MTN Foundation spoke for me. There was a leadership programme called ‘The African Leadership Initiative West Africa, which I couldn’t for apply, but was nominated for the two-year programme. I took permission from my organisation and attended. That leadership program requires that at the end of it, I must develop my own project or venture with strict criteria that must address a particular need and a gap. It must also impact positively on the larger society. When I sat down and reflected on it, I realised that I was already mentoring women informally in the course of my career. When I see a young girl not well dressed I would coach her and correct her. If someone had been told off by his male supervisor, I will invite her to my office and put her through. I was already mentoring without a structure. I realised that I myself have not benefited from a structured mentorship and I have never worked with a woman supervisor; I worked with male supervisors who did not sexually harass me rather helped me advance my career, but sometimes there were certain challenges in my career that I couldn’t discuss with them. When I had personal challenges with my kids, I found it difficult to discuss with my male mentors. So I felt there was really a gap and at a certain point in my career, when my kids were very young, I almost resigned and left because the challenge was so much. My son was always sick and I didn’t want to give excuses. Every morning I had to wake up at 4:00am and take my child from Satellite Town to the hospital in Victoria Island, I would be the first to see the doctor and take him back to my mother in Ikoyi and get to the Bank by 7:00am in Victoria Island because I was the secretary to the Management meeting that sits at 7:30am. The men coming to these meeting would not know what has happened, the places I have been to that morning before getting to the office at 7:30am. I would not discuss it because I would not want to reinforce that myth associated with hiring a woman. I would be in the office until about 9:00pm, go back to Ikoyi again, pick my child, breast feed him and get into the car and start heading back to Satellite town to wade through the traffic and get home at 12.00midnight and it was a vicious cycle.
At a time, the strain was getting so much and my husband said he was not sure this was sustainable. He wondered if it was worth all the stress. I almost gave up the job in the bank then. I told my elder sister, and this is where mentorship comes in, she told me that I was just going through a phase which would pass after sometime, that my son would not be sick forever and I would not be live in Satellite town for ever. She advised me to just hang in there and they would support me. That was what persuaded me to keep striving and keep going. But I thank God today that I got that guidance and mentorship, because this is where women normally fall out. I stayed in the bank and my son got better, I became a Group Head and ended up in UBAas the No. 2 person in Legal Department and the rest became history. My children were growing up and it was not so difficult again. I was lucky I had a great support system, my husband, mother and sisters and friends. If I had gotten advice from my mother, probably I would have resigned because she has never worked in a corporate organisation, but my sister had. Any young lady who is working in a bank today who tells me of her challenges, I know what to do because I have been in that situation.
What about your three-legged stool as a woman?
It is very difficult to find true balance if we must be honest. There are always tensions because of family balance and corporate commitments. There are some opportunities of life that would never come back again, like children writing major exams, you are not there. I have not forgotten the day my son was going to have two surgeries and I was not there as his mother; because I would be in the bank holding Management meeting. I was the only one handling sensitive matters for the bank. While in the meeting, I would run out to find out from my husband what situation was, when he was wheeled into the theatre, and when they were out; all that strength came because I had a very supportive husband. The moment I leave the house, my nanny knew that I would not come back till very late in the night and does whatever she likes, it calls for concern. There was a day I left and had to come back unannounced only to discover that my four-month old child was alone. Would I leave management meeting being an only woman to attend? How many PTA meetings or concerts did I attend in my children’s school except I was on leave which would not be more than two weeks at a go? It was a huge sacrifice.
But there was financial comfort?
When people look at successful women, they look at the end result. No one looks at the beginning. My husband and I lived in a rented apartment for many years; we couldn’t afford the school of our choice then for our first child. We didn’t have enough to pay our bill that is why mentorship is important. I feel the pain of the young people because I have been there. I was born with a silver spoon but when we got married, we decided to build our home without any interference in our marriage.
How did you meet your husband?
We met in Law School and became friends. We got married in 1986; our drive is the mutual respect, no matter how successful you are, maintain mutual respect for both.
In all those career years, were you cooking?
I cooked in our earlier years in marriage; but as soon as I could hire a cook, the kitchen did not see my leg there. The food on the table must be finger licking. My husband is such a liberal man; he didn’t bother me with cooking at that time. My mother and sisters like cooking but I am different. Again I am lucky to have married a liberal man who eats what he wants not minding who cooked it. Just understand that we are grown-ups in marriage.
What are the things that you like as a woman?
I am a workaholic, I watch movies when I have the time, chocolates and ice creams. I take care of myself in my own little way and I like to see good things around me.