Amy Jadesimi is the CEO of LADOL, a $500 million Industrial Free Zone in Lagos. A commissioner for business and sustainable development commission, she has an MBA from Stanford University, an MA (OXON) and BMBCh from Oxford University. A trained medical doctor from Oxford University, Amy moved from medicine and got financial training at Goldman Sachs and Stanford Graduate School of Business. She was voted the Young CEO of the Year earlier this year by the African Leadership Forum, an Archbishop Tutu Fellow working to reduce maternal mortality. She is also a Young Global Leader (WEF), Rising Talent (Women’s Forum for Economy and Society), 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa (Forbes), a Top 25 Africans to Watch (Financial Times) and was named as one of 2018’s Most Influential People of African Descent (Under 40) Worldwide, in support of the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (UN IDPAD). Also named as one of 50 Influential Women in Business by The Africa Report, Jeune Afrique and the Africa CEO Forum, she is a member, Advisory Board of Prince’s Trust International and contributor to Forbes. In this interview, she talks about leaving medicine for finance, how stay-at-home moms need to be financially empowered and how women-led companies are more profitable.
You switched from medicine to finance, two opposite ends- what informed this decision?
As with many things in life, you don’t really know where you are going to end up when you embark on something. I think I’ve always focused on doing things I’m passionate about and I always do them to the best of my abilities. So, when I had a passion for the sciences and that led me into medicine and medical school. However, in my last year in medical school, I got offered a job by GoldmanSachs and I wasn’t really thinking about leaving medicine altogether. I was thinking of doing banking for a year or so and coming back to medicine but once I got into banking, I really loved it and really got into it. There are similarities between both fields, they are both very time-consuming and you need to be a workaholic to thrive in both professions and this suited my personality. I love investment banking and I ended up staying.
Did you have it at the back of your mind that you would come back to Nigeria to settle finally?
One of the things I would love to do over if I could is to have spent more time in Nigeria. Moving back here and working at LADOL made me realise that it is really important for my sense of self to spend as much time as possible in Nigeria. Being here has helped me develop as a person, as a human and woman, gain a sense of self-worth, which you don’t really get outside Nigeria. At the same time, I’m very grateful to my parents for the kind of education I’ve been able to have, being able to come back and use that education to build a business like LADOL, I feel really blessed.
Did you experience any culture shock when you moved back?
(Laughing) What culture shock? I’m still Nigerian, my whole family is Nigerian. My mother is Itsekiri, my father is Yoruba and in our house, we always knew we were Nigerians. We ate Nigerian food, we practiced our culture, however, it is nice to come home and have that “outside of the house as well as inside of the house” experience.
You started a consultancy firm when you came back, would you say that was the right move then?
When I came back, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and the consultancy was really short-lived because the first job I had was working with LADOL to help them with some fund-raising and, once I got involved in that, there was no looking back. Even at that early stage, we didn’t have any money, there was nothing on ground and there was some very difficult times ahead, but I became passionate about LADOL as it was a unique opportunity to build something from scratch, creating tens of thousands of jobs, working with a wonderful team of people and we have been really blessed as most of our staff have been with us for over a decade. Every commitment we have, whether small or big, we do it as a family. There is something about having a passion for what you do and knowing what you are doing is making a big difference to your country that captured me from the beginning.
Speaking of staff, most female CEOs attest that one of their biggest challenges is staffing; has this been a challenge for you?
Staffing is the biggest challenge. When we started, there was bare ground, we were focused on infrastructure development and even at that, staff is critical and is even more critical now that we are fully operational. LADOL is also like an industrial village with a wide range of staff, from boat drivers to top engineers, finance and maintenance people and so on. I believe in teamwork and when I’m bringing new people in, I make sure as many people in that team interview the person as much as possible. We now have ISO 9001 and all our policies are in place so when people are coming in, they know from the start, not just the culture of the place, they know where they fit within the company, they know what is expected of them and how they would be assessed. More importantly, we have a shared vision and you see it all around so everyone knows the type of company you’re building. Someone once told me that the biggest mistake one can make is not hiring the right people and not letting go of people quickly enough and so we try to balance these two things. Nigeria is quite peculiar in the sense that we have to do a lot of staff training and a lot of human capital development. We have a wealth of smart, hard-working people but they lack experience and exposure.
What does LADOL do exactly?
We are an industrial free zone, built from a disused swamp inside Apapa port. We provide offshore logistics support, we also have a shipyard that does fabrication and integration. We are expanding the free zone to cater to a diverse range of talents and we are targeting manufacturers like low-income housing manufacturers, textiles and agriculture. We build infrastructure, facilities, do logistics and ship-building, provide facilities and support for other countries to come in and set up and do their own projects.
You mentioned that you’re passionate about women, what activities have you done specially to improve women’s lot?
In 2015, the United Nations passed its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and goal five has to do with female equality. I participated in a study, which resulted in a report that proves that female equality, and empowerment is actually a necessary component of sustainability. In other words, in order for a country like Nigeria to realize its economic potential, have double-digit GDP growth, create jobs and gain peace and prosperity, we need to empower women. You cannot have 50 percent of your population not able to contribute to the economy and expect to succeed, especially as many countries don’t want Nigeria to succeed because they are benefitting from us being where we are right now. This study also demonstrates that you can reach those goals not only because you unleash the economic capital of women, it’s also because women think of things differently. If you have women on boards, a company would be 40 percent more profitable than one that doesn’t have female representation on its board. A woman sees things differently, tends to focus more on long-term goals and sustainability and these are things that add to a company’s bottom line. Not having a woman in the room simply ensures that you would miss out on some critical ideas and decisions and could be the difference between success and failure.
Why do you think more women are not going full time into entrepreneurship?
No, there are more female entrepreneurs, as women tend to go more into entrepreneurship than formal business, but it is harder for women to raise money even though research shows that female-led companies tend to last longer and are more profitable. So, why is this not happening more? I believe there are culture norms and biases that people have that prevent this. A man gets credit for exceeding expectations whereas it is naturally expected of women to go above and beyond. Investors need to begin investing more in women as data shows doing this means you make more money. Representation of women across major sectors is grossly inadequate and would take at least 20 years before women and men can have equal representation. Women tend to be less educated, are married off earlier, may not have freedom to work and build a career and society usually pressures them to settle down and take care of their children. We need to restructure the way our society and companies are organized to realise the economic benefit of female empowerment and female representation. Women need to be politically and economically empowered. The managing director of the NPA is a young woman who is taking great strides and has completely reorganised it. We have women making great impact and some would even say that women have pushed a lot of great initiatives in this present government. This is important to note so that more women follow in their footsteps. If you choose to stay at home, ensure you’re treated fairly and economically compensated as staying in the home is also work. I don’t like to see a situation where a woman is staying at home and needs money to take care of the kids and is being treated like she is asking for pocket money for herself. You are supposed to be entitled to a salary for doing this work and entitled to the money because you are part of a partnership and the partnership cannot succeed without what you are doing. Not only are they doing free labour but they’re also made to feel like they aren’t contributing to society. These women are also raising the next generation and they need to be educated and empowered so they can raise educated and empowered children as children are primarily influenced by their mothers. We are going to set up a small adult learning centre in the free zone for our staff and their families because we realise a lot of staff could do with that little bit of additional education. So, if the husband is working for us, the wife is learning, which helps the whole family. Women need to realize their essential value to the economy and ensure this value is recognised. It is not a women versus men thing but more of recognizing we are in a system embedded in inequality that disempowers women. We have to work with men to educate them on the value of women and make them realise that if they want to succeed in any field, they need women to work with them or allow to be led by a woman.
If you were granted the power to influence a decision to help Nigerian women, what would you do?
I would focus on universal education and healthcare. All women should be educated to at least, secondary school level and all women should have access to free healthcare, particularly in respect to family planning. They are fully educated and empowered so they can make decisions about their own bodies. When I first moved back here, I got involved with an NGO called Ventures Strategies for Health and Development to help introduce a drug in the country that would reduce the maternal mortality rate. We partnered with Emzor (which is run by a woman) and they helped distribute the drug. The greatest victory for me was that after initially importing and distributing the drug, Emzor started manufacturing the drug. Stella worked with us because she knew the importance of this drug in saving women’s lives and helping to prevent and treat post-partum hemorrhage, which is the number one killer of women in childbirth. She saw the good in it as well as the business opportunity. Let us not leave everything to the government, we can all come in to provide simple, practical solutions to our everyday problems. look at your local clinics and communities and see what you can do.
What would you tell a woman that wants a seat at the table?
First, you must understand that nobody is going to give you a seat. When you get there, most times, you find out that you are the only woman there and I want you to do two things. First, make it count, represent yourself well and be always prepared. Secondly, make room for other women and bring them up with you. This would help you in two ways by adding more success to you and the company. Also, it is only by bringing more women up that we would have more women up. Look for women you can mentor and push up the ladder. As for getting into the room, you need to be brave, practical and realistic; go for that meeting you weren’t invited to, get your point across and make your voice heard; it is not an easy road but you can do it.
What inspires and motivates you?
I love my work and I feel the work we are doing at LADOL is important and we are making a difference. What we’re doing is difficult and hard and all our staff are constantly under scrutiny and pressure. People like to bully us because we’re changing how things are done but when you’re disrupting an industry, it is hard. I get so moved and touched by the passion of the LADOL team, their commitment inspires me too.
Has there been any experience that made you feel like giving up?
I’ve never wanted to turn back but there have been times when people disappointed me and made me feel sad but really, it’s not related to me in particular. I’m sad when I see what the average Nigerian goes through, you see a woman with four kids, struggling on her own. I just want to make a difference and when I see people in privileged positions who don’t care about the sufferings, it bothers me. Not only does this country have untapped potential, I believe that as we start to correct certain failure, we would start to see economic transformation very quickly and women have to be given an equal seat at the table.
How do you relax and unwind?
There hasn’t been much relaxation for me this year but I like to workout a lot and spend time with my family.
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