Ayo Alonge [email protected]
Maria Onyia is the Group Managing Director of OrgLearning Consult, owners of Berkley Science Magnet School, Juilliard Academy, Orglearning Professional Development Institute and Orglearning Foundation. Orglearning Consult trains teachers and entrepreneurs, empower startups, adopts public schools and delve into other relevant services.
Having quit her banking job, many years ago, Onyia, who now holds a PhD in Education, is an entrepreneurship coach for small business owners who would want to watch themselves climb up the ladder in business. She is also proficient in staff training.
In this interview, among other issues, Onyia highlights the myriad of challenges that bedevil startups, while also proffering tips for a successful entrepreneurial endeavour.
Before now, I was working with Diamond Bank, an experience I will treasure forever. That is where I learnt excellence, quality customer service and value for workers. I was in Lagos before being sent to Owerri where I worked with the Administrative Department of the regional office and later on, I was sent to Calabar. My husband went to work in the United States and I relocated with him. I became a teacher in the United States. I am married to a fantastic gentleman, my teacher and best friend, Professor Chidi Onyia, and we have four boys. The eldest is 20 years old and in the university. I have adopted many others. I have a PhD in education. I studied Teacher Leadership and Administration at Walden University. I have a Masters Degree from National University, Costa Mesa. I majored in Special Education. I also have a Californian credential for Single Subject and I have another one for Multiple Subject and another one for Special Education. I have another for Reading and all that. I just kept going to school while in the USA. I still want to study Law next. That’s how I want to close out. I can’t count all the associations I belong to but let me mention the National Society of Leadership and Success, the Honors Society, and the American Management Association.
Starting Orglearning, especially Berkley was very very difficult. As a young lady, I had started three businesses, including a fashion house and I must say from experience that I have grit. It helped me with my current business. I block my mind to failure. I focus on succeeding and sometimes when I look back, I can’t actually believe what I endured. First I rented a building in Ikeja that becomes flooded with all the supplies I brought from the USA. It was a nightmare. Everything was destroyed and getting the money back was near impossible. But the Bible says they that know their God shall do exploits. I got the money back and ran out of Lagos. Well, eventually I came back and rented a three-room servants quarters from an amazing landlord. In fact God helped me. After paying the lease, I was stranded. I became very creative in architectural design, constructing wooden classrooms. Nobody knew the walls were wooden. It was tough but I started.
There were many. I had little funds for the startup. So, I started small and even that was knowledge and skill based. I had to become creative in an unfriendly operational environment. Imagine running generator for six children every day for the week. Getting the right staff was another problem. So, I decided to hire attitude and basic intelligence and turn them to fantastic team members. We are still together, ten years on. They are priceless. Some leave and return. It’s awesome working with the best humans. Again, it was difficult convincing parents to enroll. Some said I was too cheap, some said they don’t want to be guinea pigs, some said they will return later when I am well established. Today, students come to us from the most expensive and supposedly best schools in Lagos. The last one has to do with integrity. I was mostly shocked by the lack of integrity people exhibited. It was painful but I learned to live with it. The challenges were many but here we are. God be glorified.
I will never fail to say God helped us. I simply ask God to give me wisdom, when I need to do something special. I wanted my students to advertise me, so, we pulled up our reading program and launched it. At the closing ceremony, a four year old kindergarten pupil read my speech. That was it. We became the talk of the neighbourhoods and town. We doubled the next term. Secondly, I focused on training my team. They had to be better than me.
Intensive training for years and we established a culture you can’t find anywhere else. So, we had a service advantage in terms of our students’ quality and we had highly qualified master teachers. Then, we made our environment attractive. Once you bring a child for interview, case is closed. They don’t want to go home. With focus on academic and social excellence, teacher quality, good customer service and a unique culture, the unwritten curriculum, we became established.
Empowerment and expansion
We empower both young and not young to venture into becoming successful business leaders. Recently, we launched our latest school. It does not belong to us at all but we started it from start to finished and handed over to the owner. We encourage startups. We train, in-service owners, provide mentoring services and total school solutions. I tell my staff, once you are ready to start, bring us in to help you. They also take ownership of our branches. In our schools, we have introduced full range business programs. It’s amazing what our children are doing. Berkley and Juilliard will spread very soon. We have done a lot. If you look at it, every member on our board is a teacher and we are all American-trained teachers. We came back to Nigeria to train teachers and to ensure that they are paid well. As I speak to you, the teachers that I have in my academies are first class teachers. We do professional development for them every week such that the teachers themselves have become master trainers.
We don’t maximise profit and it doesn’t bother us. It all has to do with what you want. We came up with a vision to guide children to maximise their potential through actions of knowledgeable administrators and highly qualified and caring teachers. It was just passion to help the highly gifted, talented and motivated Nigerian child get to the top anywhere in the world. We did not even calculate profitability into it. We just wanted to teach the Nigerian child and the Nigerian teacher. I said to myself “let me train the teacher and let’s see the kind of children we will bring up in the society”.
What area would you say the government should come in to help private educators? To give us money or what? That is not possible. For me, I see no way the government can help me; rather, I want to help the government. We have adopted public schools and we help them from time to time. They need help. I want to help the government train teachers and I am even willing to do that for free. The situation is terrible. Try employing graduates and you will shed tears.
Advice for startups
My advice would be to learn your business. Have a good knowledge of what you want to do. Not everyone will start with needed capital but if you know your business well and have a percentage of what you need in terms of capital, then you can launch out. Secondly, don’t close shop when things don’t go according to plan. Become creative, change strategy, restructure if possible and wait out the dry season if you are convinced the vision is right.
Thirdly, deal with integrity. Be truthful and give more than you promised, not less. Everyone appreciates excellence and it has a pay day. Make sure you are better than most people, while aiming to be the best. Pay attention to the details. Fourthly, don’t toy with your customers; give them exceptional service. One angry customer can close your business; therefore, do not take them for granted. Maximise marketing opportunities using technology; think creativity and growth. Above all, start your startup and stop procrastinating. Make the move and stay on the part with a determination to succeed and be the best.