In the article Sexism, Diapers and Making it Work in Lagos, iROKOtv’s Adibeli Nduka-Agwu made quite an impact with her insightful take on life as a female executive in Lagos, Nigeria. Simply inspired by her story, we caught up with Nduka-Agwu to find out more about who she is, her life on the continent and of course, her life as the awesome vice president at IROKO Partners Limited and marketing guru at iROKOtv, one of Africa’s first mainstream online movie steaming websites.
What was your childhood like? What are some of your favorite memories?
I grew up in a small town in Northern Germany with my family and an ever changing mix of guests from all around the globe. All of us were very independent but everyone would be home for dinner that we kids prepared, and we’d all sit and chat for hours while my dad cut up pieces of fruit for dessert.
What was life like growing up as German of Nigerian descent? How have your experiences shaped your worldview?
Germany wasn’t all that diverse – growing up we knew every African person in town. Racism, subtle and not-so-subtle, was part of every day life: ignorant stereotypes about “Africa”, school books perpetuating colonialist ideas, students calling the ‘n’-word and teachers failing to intervene. So I learned to fend for myself very early on. My parents did an excellent job of making sure we knew who we were. We made frequent trips to Nigeria (I’ve spent more time in my village in Anambra state than many of my friends who were born and raised in Nigeria in theirs), my (German) mother learned to braid cornrows so I’d love my hair. We were proud of our Nigerian heritage. With that emotional armor, I had no problem setting anyone, including my teachers, straight when they wanted to reduce Africa to ignorant images in their head. It definitely made me a bit of a fighter.
Describe your educational background and other extra-curricular activities that have led to your position today
Academically I was always very ambitious. With so many racist and sexist stereotypes trying to limit what I could accomplish, wanting to prove the world wrong has been a core driver. I felt I had to attend the best schools, get the best grades and ultimately be a success. My extracurricular activities were the opposite and very relaxed. I played the trumpet for 13 years as a kid and I’ve always done it quite ambition-free. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who ever enjoyed hearing myself play.
You are duly recognized as a leader. Have you always recognized this trait, and if so, would you say that it is innate or one that was developed over time?
I’ve always been seen as strong-willed and assertive, right from kindergarten. Now, learning proper leadership – the type that’s less about making demands, but requires asking questions or keeping one’s mouth shut strategically, I learned much later in life. And I’ll probably be working on this style of leadership for the rest of my life.
What is the one thing that energizes you or inspires you the most?
Curiosity with a sprinkle of ambition. I find it unbearable when I don’t understand something. And nothing is better than people who are hungry for knowledge and who are interested in broadening their horizons. The best marker for whether someone will fit in well into my team is if they are full of questions and drive to learn and grow.
What inspired you to move from Germany to the continent?
I left Germany at the age of sixteen to continue my education in the United Kingdom. Since then I have lived in over a dozen cities, from Caracas to Kabul. Originally, I just thought it would be good to check the ‘living-in-Lagos’-box – but then I fell in love the madness and hustle of Lagos.
One word you would use to describe Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg
Lagos: Energy | Nairobi: Green | Joburg: Vibe
Best coffee or drinks in any African city you have been to?
Addis wins for coffee, hands down.
Favorite lunch or brunch spot?
I’m a huge fan of Orchid Bistro in Ikeja, Lagos. You can sit outdoors, enjoy good food and smoothies, and a chill green respite just in the middle of a super busy area.
Favorite place to go in the city when you’re looking for inspiration?
I do most of my thinking staring out of the car window in traffic.
Favorite hobbies or activities?
Playing with my daughter, yoga, people watching.
Describe your role at iROKOtv.com and what attracted you to the company
I joined iROKOtv back in 2012. I was looking for a fast-paced, action-packed job in Lagos when I met CEO Jason Njoku at the Harvard Africa Business Conference. I loved the idea of a business centered around African content that is being made available to the world (rather than importing something Western to Africa).
Today I head the growth department at iROKOtv. We’re a team of around 40 and cover a range of activities that help iROKOtv grow our subscriber base. This includes a combination of marketing, communication, customer service, community management. At the core it’s understanding what the customer needs and finding a way to bring it to them: if people feel we are offering them a great experience, they are willing to pay for it and subscribe.
You are a female leader in a corporate role; was there a culture shock that came with your transition to life on the continent as a working mother and as a female in a senior leadership role?
The first three months were pure shock. Living in Lagos is tough as a newbie. Lessons included: planning life around traffic, taking a male colleague to all sales meetings, and never ever accept the first price on anything. But I experienced many pleasant surprises as well. Certain problems I had faced in the West were not an issue in Lagos. For instance in the West, I had noticed that very often, male colleagues would simply not ‘hear’ what I was saying in male dominated businesses meetings. In the Lagos tech scene that wasn’t an issue. If someone (woman or man) has something smart to say I find that people listen up. And of course being able to afford domestic help has allowed me to focus more energy on my career. So initial shock yes, but then many pleasant surprises.
How has life on the continent made an impact on your personal and professional growth?
It was definitely a boost both professionally and personally. Things move at a much faster pace, so my career moved at a much faster pace. The challenges are great, so you just have to up your game very quickly and constantly. Since the infrastructure for almost everything is poor, you learn to improvise and make things happen with very little. Setting up a sales distribution system or doing bathroom plumbing, Lagos has taught me both. It’s been very empowering.
You are clearly making a difference in the lives of women around you; how would you encourage men in today’s world to support women around them?
I’ve been lucky that the men in my life supported women from the start. My father has always supported my mother’s (and his daughters’) careers 100%, and so has my partner. So my experience with encouraging men is limited. I’d rather encourage women not to be held back if there’s a lack of male encouragement. I recall situations where gender stereotypes meant people felt I was best suited for taking notes, buying food, or magically know how to get a baby to stop crying. It’s important to call that out — half of the time, people (men and women alike) are not even aware that they are engaging in gender-stereotyping. The first step in breaking these stereotypes is pointing them out.
There are certain unique challenges that come with living and working on the continent. What are five positive highlights of moving back to Nigeria?
Everyone is an entrepreneur | So much energy, so much hustle. | Mango season | Optimism | Lagos Swag
In your opinion, what role can African media platforms play in addressing ongoing stereotypes about Africa and Africans?
I think what all African media platforms need to do is create content that people love. The fact that today, Nollywood is the second largest movie industry in terms of output and third largest in terms of revenue says it all. I’ve had people belittle Nollywood when I started working at iROKOtv back in 2012. They were all silenced when they saw the deals we signed this year. Showcasing great quality content that people consume (and pay to consume) is the best way forward.
How would you address some of the challenges facing women in the corporate world, and are there any challenges you have faced in building and growing your personal brand?
I think it’s extremely important that women receive and take credit for their work. No one will build a career on modesty. Women are great at encouraging and praising others and it’s important that they do the same for themselves.
I’ve never worried much about being perceived as too loud, too opinionated or bossy. Especially as a woman, one cannot think too much about other people’s negative perceptions. I’d rather focus on results and outcomes. Focus on producing great work above all else. It’s not about being polite, well liked or humble. It’s about producing results – what better brand could there be?
What advice would you give individuals in the Diaspora who are interested in moving to Africa?
Just get on a plane and do it.
Olusheyi Lawoyin is the Founder & Creative Director of The Voix.