Hers is a story of humble beginnings. She started as an usher. Later, she started designing outfits for people and making outfits for ushers. Today, Kehinde Onabanjo-Iyiola is an astute entrepreneur and CEO of Finesse Events Services.
In this interview with Daily Sun, she talked about her journey as a business person and passion for the hospitality industry.
From undergraduate days to setting up your own business, how did you end being an event planner?
While I was at the Lagos State University (LASU), I was a member of the Junior Chambers International (JCI) and I was very active, in terms of being at the forefront of organising things whenever there was an event involving the club.
While growing up, I was passionate about cooking, housekeeping and maintenance. In fact, if anyone wanted to dress up, I was always on hand to decide the combination of colours and attires. Then, my mother was selling beads and I spearheaded the arrangement. I like being creative. I like designing things. I believe it has an influence in the profession I eventually ended up in. Somehow, there was a long strike during my second year in school, and that was when a friend of mine invited me for an ushering job, and I landed an ushering job at Elizabeth R.
You started as an usher before venturing into events management. What is your work experience like?
While I was in college, I worked as an usher and a hostess with some event companies. While I was there, I started making the ushers’ uniforms. From there, I started designing outfits for people. That was never my passion, although I used to do some drawings, but it drew me into fashion. All I wanted to do was event management. So, after school, I registered my company, and ended up in this business.
What do you have to say about the event planning industry?
It is a very lucrative one. I always tell people that once you put passion into whatever you do and give it value, the returns will definitely come. All you need to do is project yourself well, put your best efforts in every job you get, notwithstanding the amount you are paid. The fact that you have collected the job and committed yourself to do the job, it means you must go all out to deliver good service. At the end of the day, it is what people will see, not the amount you were paid. So, you must give it your best and ensure the event is well delivered. If the event is properly handled, you will probably be able to knock down one or two potential clients.
Do you recall your first job and what it was like planning and coordinating it?
The first job I did was my sister’s wedding in 2007. And, till date, she takes pride in telling people that she paid me for my first job. In the first place, she saw the value in what I was going to render to her. Secondly, she knew I was just starting off and I didn’t have the resources or required tools. But she knew I had the ideas and the knowledge to put an event together, and make it a big success. In fact, I put all my efforts into that event. After that, I got two more wedding events from her friends, and that was how the journey began.
Which event led to your breakthrough?
Basically, I go the extra mile for all events, and every event has always been a testimony, but there was a particular event I did that blew my mind away. It made me appreciate the fact that God can make something so small to become so big. We had a Christmas party for one of our clients. We had done that for about two years, and it usually held in their house. The then governor of Bayelsa State came for the event. It was a small gathering of about 100 people and it was hosted by the then attorney-general of the state. The governor’s personal assistant also attended the event, and she was blown away by the beautiful things she saw. As fate would have it, her birthday was to hold two days later. She told the AG that she would want me to handle her event, and the AG told me to see her. I met her, she invited me over to Bayelsa and I accepted. She asked for an estimate of the cost. When I told her I would work on it, she demanded an instant estimated cost. So I did the quotation and she transferred the money on the spot. That was how we started the preparations and moved to Bayelsa for the event. After that event, we did all events for the Bayelsa State government.
How did you feel when the profits began to roll in?
When I just started, I never saw profit; I saw funds that needed to be reinvested into the business. So it took me a long time before I started seeing profit because, for every kobo that I made from any job, I was putting it back into the business.
Of all the jobs you have handled, which would you say was the most challenging?
For me, it’s really not the job, it has to be the client. There are some clients that are difficult to handle, and there are some that see and appreciate the value in what you deliver. I recall one particular event. We had handled the birthday event of Governor Seyi Makinde’s father. Some years later, the old man died and we handled the burial ceremony, which had over 3,000 guests in attendance. Governor Makinde was so impressed with the service we delivered that he sent me a cash gift to express his appreciation. I felt fulfilled because I saw the gesture as an expression of true reward for labour. Meanwhile, there are some clients one would probably have made the same sacrifice for, put in so much effort to satisfy, and they will be unappreciative of the service one delivered. In any case, the truth remains that, once you get a brief, you have to go all out and deliver well because you have a reputation to protect. There are clients who are not patient enough to see the outcome of the service you aim to deliver. They always want to interrupt the process. I always tell people that you cannot appreciate the process until you see the end result. What they see as rubbish becomes something to treasure at the end. Personally, I have not handled difficult projects. But I have come across some difficult clients who ended up adopting me as a member of their families.
What do you aim to achieve by setting up White Stone?
My vision for White Stone is for people to come in and have an experience that is second to none in any other facility, in terms of hospitality, and taking their event stress off them. There are event centres that you go to and you will not have a simple facility like where to plug your accessories and all that. It is not just for event planners, but also for vendors, stage design teams and for whosoever wants to use the facility. It is an all-in-all, one-stop space for anything that has to do with events. My other vision, therefore, is comfort for event owners and satisfaction of vendors and customers.
How do you juggle family and business, since your job is demanding and takes you away from the home most of the time?
When God puts you in a position, he just gives you the grace and ability to manage it. I can’t even explain how I cope, but I know that I do it effortlessly. If I decide to cook the next morning, regardless of how tired I am, I will still strive to do it. It is just God pushing me and giving me the grace to handle the challenges. The truth is, I call myself to order to ensure that I put balance in every area. I am not that good at maintaining good relationships and following up on people. I try not to push anything till later once it comes to my memory.
How well do you engage in empowering and training other young entrepreneurs, as a way of impacting humanity?
I do a lot of empowerment and training. I am also in partnership with an organisation, and we are empowering women. For the event space, I do training for people that desire to learn decorations and event management, which explains why we have a training school and, presently, we have a project on empowering women. I have some people whom God has given me the grace to sponsor their education. I do not need to announce this. However, I try as much as possible to be a blessing to people in terms of having to train them in the area I specialise in. The women empowerment programme we are doing now cuts across skills acquisition.
What is your philosophy of life?
My philosophy of life is that one should not hold on tightly to things, because you will never leave this world with anything. I believe that we are only in this world for a short time. We are what we are and have what we have today just by the grace of God. Things can turn around tomorrow. How you handle what you have today will determine how long it stays with you. Invest in people and your legacy will live on after you are gone.