#ThrowbackThursday- “I am almost fearless.” Leading Ladies Africa speaks to Adaora Mbelu-Danai.

Talented, ambitious and fiercely creative Adaora Mbelu is leading the charge in the new wave of young, female, media entrepreneurs. She talks about having big dreams and being unafraid to make them happen. She’s the Leading Lady Africa for the week. Be inspired!

For someone who has done a lot of great projects, you seem to hover more below the radar. Is this on purpose? This deliberate shunning of the limelight?

It’s interesting that you mention this, because, I have been asked numerous times to do more Self-PR, accept more award nominations, and get infront of the camera rather than stay behind it. As the saying goes ‘It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit’. I have accomplished a lot within my short life time; however, I don’t think I have reached 10% of my life’s goals. I am not afraid of the limelight, and I won’t say I necessarily ‘shun’ it. Simply put, I think there’s time for everything, and my focus the past years has been DOING not SHOWING.

When people google “Adaora Mbelu” a million results come up, but there is again, that sense of intentional aloofness, like we really don’t know you. So, in your own words, who is Adaora, and what’s she all about?

(Insert Big Laugh here) A Million results indeed. Adaora is a very simple person, with big dreams, and a big vision. My educational and professional background is in Economics, and business, however, I like to view myself as a passion driven, Creative Industrialist, and a kingmaker of some sort. Kingmaker because I enjoy helping other people achieve their professional goals, and it gives me joy when I see people grow from not being sure what to do with their lives, to chasing their dreams full on and succeeding, especially when I know I am part of their success story somehow. Adaora is a happy-go-lucky person with many talents, and enough discipline and focus to actualize her dreams. And no, my dreams are not only professional/career focused – infact, the larger part of my dreams are centered around Love, Family, Friends, and Community. But people often confuse my ambition and drive for being ‘solely career focused’.

You’re of mixed parentage (can we please get that fab fro back?), what is it like being a hybrid of two very different cultures?

Ha-ha! The Fro is making a come back soon, give it a few months. I have a Nigerian Father, and a Srilankan mother. Being bi-racial is an absolute roller coaster. It’s all well and good when you’re a kid and everyone thinks you’re super cool because you’re ‘Half caste’, but then you get teased for bringing Samosas, Spicy Curries, and all sorts of ‘weird’ food for lunch, when everyone else is having Indomie or Rice. I love that I have embraced both my parents’ cultures, and I love knowing that I have two homes and very different families. As an adult, I am now exploring business opportunities in Srilanka, something I never really thought about before. Unlike most people who would have lots of barriers to entry trying to do business in that market, it’s much simpler for me, plus I don’t have to worry about too many business expenses, since we have a home there, and I understand the language and culture.

You’re the CEO of Innovation Factory, what does your company do, and what exactly does it mean to be a “creative industrialist?”

The Innovation factory has evolved over the past few years of being in existence, but that’s a story for another day. We are a creative agency established to solve complex communication problems. We basically use methodical ways to identify the problem that needs to be solved, figure out an effective solution, and then execute upon the chosen desription. I know it sounds like we can’t be defined, but I promise that we are not Ghosts, and we produce REAL work. (Laughs again). We are problem solvers. If you’re launching a new idea/brand, and you want to do something unusual but effective, then we are your people. If you’re looking to just put a radio jingle on air, we might not be your people.

A Creative Industrialist, is a person that is engaged in turning creativity into viable/monetizable products. There are tons of creative people working daily, with no clue how to monetize their work. The term was coined by my business partner Emeka, to describe who we are as professionals. In the past, we struggled with giving vague responses to who we are, and what we do, mainly because in this society, the assumption is that if you don’t have a straight forward title for what you do, then you’re ‘all over the place’. We decided that we wouldn’t keep it simple, just because people didn’t understand it immediately. We wouldn’t call ourselves ‘Marketing Strategists’, or ‘Advertisers’, or ‘Brand Managers’, just because it’s easier for others. So, our business cards say ‘Creative Industrialist’ because we want you to look at it, and ask us what it means, and then we can tell you all the wonderful things we do, and have done.

You started out as a Credit Analyst at Citi Group, and then moved to Marketing and Branding, what brought on this transition?

As I mentioned earlier, my educational background is in Economics, and my father worked in the Banking Industry for 30+ years of his life from Barclays Bank. So, it seemed natural that I would start off in the financial industry. My citigroup story is interesting, because I didn’t actually plan on being hired. I was discouraged from applying to Citigroup due to the fact that I was 19 years old at the time, and there were more experienced people applying for the same roles. I was more mentally mature than most of my peers at the time, and I was tired of working at the University Library, so I decided to try out the application to see how far I’d get. I wrote the entry exams, attended the board interviews (where six people interview you simultaneously), and I was called back for a 6 weeks training program that determines if you’re hired or not.

It was during the training program that my age was highlighted by management, but I had shown so much capacity, and delivery, that they just hired me without overthinking it. At Citigroup, I found that my biggest strength was in negotiation and sales, I was a good listener, and was able to influence customers to buy bank products, without too much of a hassle. I worked at Citigroup for 2 years, and enjoyed every bit of it. And then I graduated college and started applying to the Big Corporate groups, Goldman Sachs, Merril Lynch, and the rest of them. I knew that I would do well in the Finance Industry, however, it wasn’t what I wanted to do. It was more, what I was good at in school. So, I made plans to head back to Nigeria to explore my creative side, the side that I had always loved as a child. And thus the journey I’m on.

You’re female, a media entrepreneur and you do business in Nigeria? What are the challenges between these 3 elements and how do you get past them?

A part of me wants to say that gender should not be viewed as a challenge in doing business. But then I’d be flat out lying – doing injustice to the many women out there that face the challenges of being female in this man’s world. Let’s face it; there is a gender bias in Nigeria. Women are considered equals only when it’s beneficial to the person making the consideration. When we speak up in a business disagreement, we are called ‘loud or obnoxious’, but when a man does the same, he is just attending to business. Also, as a woman, I cannot always attend the late night business meetings with men at the club house, playing tennis, eating suya and drinking beer. It is during these types of meetings that key business decisions are sometimes made, and guess who’s absent?

There are not a lot of women working in the business of media and production in Nigeria. Alot of the women in Media are on-screen personalities, or magazine owners, there are very few behind the camera or on the business side or visual production. This is probably also because media production is not very feminine – I think this is a stereotype that we haven’t yet moved past. It’s not a pretty job, it’s a rugged jeans, and converse shoes type of job. As far as getting past them, I have had to be more logical and less emotional about business. It’s never personal. Also, I turned the challenge into motivation to provide quality work, so that my gender is not the primary focus.

You produced Nigerian Idol and Nigeria’s Got Talent – two international, big-budget projects. What exactly does a “Producer” do, and how was it executing both projects?

I was actually hired as a Project Manager, but I made the extra effort to learn the technical production side of the projects, and I can confidently effectively produce and manage any of those type of shows. I also worked on X Factor, in a different capacity.

My role as project manager included managing the shows budgets to ensure that the production plans were cost effective, marketing and managing sponsorship, monitoring product standard and implementing quality control during the shows in accordance with Freemantle UK’s guidelines, hiring and managing all 3rd party suppliers for the show, hiring internal staff, creating and managing timelines for the shows, developing strategies for sponsorship integration. Basically, managing all stakeholders, and aspects of the shows.

It was a brilliant opportunity that played a significant role in my career exploration. I started working on these shows as a 24 year old, managing and working with people that were much older than me in age and experience. I had worked previously for the company as a corporate communications manager and as an Assistant Project Manager, during which I showed good leadership capacity, expertise, and a strong work ethic, that landed me the project manager role.

Anywhere else in the world, I probably would have needed decades of production experience to manage productions of this scale. But again, the CEO of the company that owns the format license, believed in me enough to give me the opportunity, and that much I appreciate him for. Being the continuous learner that I am, I spent lots of time on the production floor rather than in the office, and I decided that I didn’t just want to be on the business side of Media Production, but I wanted to be on the floor as a Producer as well. Overall, it was a humbling experience, and one that I hold close to heart, because when it comes to international format shows, it doesn’t get bigger than Idols, X Factor, and Got Talent.

When it comes to work and your career, are you ever afraid? Do you at any point feel like “No Adaora, you can’t do this”?

Am I afraid ? No. Do I sometimes hesitate ? Yes.

I am mostly a fearless person, and it hasn’t always been a good thing. I have failed many times, in the past mainly because I am not afraid to take risks. But I have also won many times, due to this same trait. I am one of those people who believes strongly in something, wakes up, and actions it. I don’t spend time talking to too many people about it first, because it is sometimes easy for people to discourage you from doing something that they don’t understand. One thing my husband tells me is ‘Adaora, people are allowed to say whatever they wish about whatever it is that you’re doing. But if it’s in your heart that you should do it, then go ahead and do it anyway. In the end, fulfill it for yourself’. I have adopted this in all aspects of my life, and it works for me.

Who are some of your biggest clients, and what has been your most challenging project till date?

I won’t mention my biggest clients, for two simple reasons. The first one being that a lot of my work involves intellectual property, and 3rd party commissioning. As I said at the beginning of this interview, ‘it is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit’. I cannot count how many big agencies/brands take credit for the work that we produce. But it’s all part of being a growing business. Our time will come. But we do have some of our clients on our website and portfolio. The second reason I won’t mention my clients is because I don’t believe that the size of your client, means that you produce quality work. I understand the need to call names in this market, but I prefer to show case studies of work we have done, than to mention names. Big does not always equal Good.

I have two ‘most challenging’ projects to share actually. The first one was my role as Content and Stage Manager for the 2014 International Conference on Peace and Security, which had 28 World Presidents and Prime Ministers in attendance. The event was broadcast live globally, and thus gave room for little error. The content manager and stage manager are two different roles, but, I had to manage both at the same time. So, besides pulling all the content for the event, and writing scripts, music and video transitions, etc. I also had to throw on a Production communications system, to manage the communication between, the production team and the backstage. It was hours of adrenalin. I literally was on my feet for 2 days in a row, getting 2 hours of sleep max. t was a pretty surreal experience.

The second challenging project was The Amalgamation Project Drive, a social innovation project that was born in The Innovation Factory. My business partner Emeka and I, discussed the idea to leverage youth culture to promote social causes that are often neglected by our peers. Hence, we created The AMG project as a platform to inspire and promote social innovation through collaboration. This year, we decided to leverage football, and the world cup, as a platform to raise awareness and funds to promote our two causes – Supplying Prosthetic Limbs, and Building Self Sufficient Toilets in Schools in Rural Areas.

We started off by designing and producing a Nigerian Jersey which we tagged ‘The Amalgamation Jersey’, and pushing out the Jersey to our network of people. We also organized a football drive, to raise awareness, and funds for the project’s execution. When we started off, the AMG Project was simply an idea and a piece of paper, and within 2 months, we were able to raise enough funds to execute the first phase of our project. Our biggest supporters right off the bat are Indomie, The Tolaram Foundation, Peter Okocha Foundation, Kainetix One, and Sweet Sensation. These people believed in the causes, and have supported us without blinking. The football drive was held in August this year, and was very successful, and our project continues to grow. It’s amazing how ideas become reallity, when you’re not afraid to go out and execute them.

Now, let’s talk women. We met at the Social Place, during an event that was largely for women. Would you say it’s important for women to collaborate and talk with each other more?

Absolutely, Yes. I think there are many women with quality skills, and talent, who do not know how to maximize their potential. People often believe that you’re either creative, or you’re business minded. And I think that limits a lot of women in our Nigerian society. But I believe that you can have both – maybe not equally, but a sufficient balance of both sides. And even if you don’t have both, you can collaborate and learn from other women. I understand that not everyone is willing to share knowledge, for fear of competition, but I have learned that sharing knowledge does not diminish who I am, and it opens up many more doors of opportunity, than a selfish mouth does. Uh oh! Did I just open a can of worms? Lol!

In your opinion, what is the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?

Hmmm! The hardest thing for me is knowing that it’s not just about me. I work with people who believe in my dreams and vision, and have invested their time, effort, and lives into building with me. I cannot wake up and decide that I want to start a new job, or go somewhere else, or do something else, without considering these people. Life is probably much easier when it’s just about you. But my colleagues are like my family, and I always consider them in all my plans and decision making. It’s a very tough thing to do, especially for the Free Spirit that I am.

Name 3 women you admire and why?

I absolutely adore and admire my mother. She left her life in England, and moved to Nigeria with my dad about 36 years ago, to live in Anambra state with my father, where she taught Mathematics at Dennis Memorial Grammer School. After a while, they moved to Lagos, and she worked as a computer analyst, as one of the few people that had skills in software development, and coding. She was a woman in what was considered a man’s job. She helped computerize a lot of companies back in the days, while simultaneously baking and selling cakes from our home, and sewing clothes as well.

She has worked for a construction company for the past 15 years. I remember how my friends in school thought it was awkward that my mom carried a Brief Case and a Hand Radio shouting ‘Base for 5, Base for 5, do you read me’, communicating with her staff, while the other mothers had cute bags and shoes. While doing all of this, my mother (of course with the help of her super loving and understanding husband – my father), never once ignored her family. She woke up each day to make breakfast for us, pack our lunch, drop us off at school, before heading to work. She has balanced her work, and family life, amazingly. If I can do, half as much as her, I would be fulfilled

Oprah Winfrey. I think it takes a lot of patience and resilience to build a media brand that has remained solid through multiple generations. Oprah grew with her staff, as family, and was able to successfully incorporate a company culture of togetherness and team responsibility which is not the easiest thing to do. I’d definitely love 60 minutes with her someday.

The third woman would be Michelle Obama. She endured the process of her husband’s journey to becoming president. The trials, the intrusion into their personal lives, lack of privacy and the security threats to their lives. She stood with him through it all, and continues to be there for her family. I don’t think she gets enough credit for her strength, beyond her style and her position as first lady. She is a strong woman.

Let’s talk family, love and all that great stuff lol. What is the best thing about being a married woman?

Hashtag ‘#VeryNiceMoveFrancesca’. Lol! You can hardly get me to talk about myself, and you want me to talk about marriage. I’m not sure about the best thing about being married in general. But I can tell you about the best thing about being Married to Mr. D. The best thing is having my best friend, number one supporter, private consultant, focus group, product tester, motivator, and source of inspiration, all in one person – My Husband.

Luckily, I have an honest and understanding husband, who is also super hardworking, confident, and intelligent, and so we can rub minds, plan things together, influence and support each others work. My friends often say I tend to be too logical and less emotional when it comes to work. I think I am totally emotional in comparison to my husband. He is the king of logic. And he is so good at playing Devils Advocate with regards to my work, and is a good critic in a good way. This is probably why I have so much confidence, when I put something out there – it has usually gone through his grilling process – gruesome days of Q & A, as though I am presenting an entire business plan. Sometimes it’s annoying, But I secretly love it, and he knows this.

The other best thing about being married to Mr. D, is that I am very extroverted to the outside world, and quite introverted in reality, and he knows how to manage that. Plus, when I am stressed with everything that’s going on out there, I get back home, sit with him to watch a movie, and forget it all, until, well… the next morning. (Laughs Out Loud)

If you could, what one thing would you change about yourself?

Hmmn… I’d probably want my analyticlal mind to be less intense. Because I analyze all the time. I think about outcomes, I create scenarios, I think about what people are going to say or do before they actually say or do and I’m usually very correct. But it takes a lot of brain activity, which is sometimes exhausting. So yeah, it would be nice not to see so much of what’s about to happen. Lol. Hopefully, I didn’t just creep you out.

Hahaha! As a matter of fact, you did. Where are your favourite tourist destinations?

I’m not one who travels only for shopping, I like to see things, take long walks, and enjoy good food. Srilanka is one of my destinations. It is home, but it always feels brand new in a good way. So much beauty, and life, and the most beautiful scenery. The other place I’m learning to love now is England, it is somewhat my home after Nigeria, because my husband grew up there, and he’s very English in his lifestyle and ways. I’ve always known the UK to be ‘London’, but in the past few years he has shown me that there’s life beyond just London as a city.

Even though you don’t talk about it often, we know that you’re a writer; do you have plans to publish a book anytime soon?

I have published a few essays, here and there on blogs and in news journals, but I still have various genres of written work, which I plan to put together, and publish as a memoir in the near future. There’s just so much to do, and I cannot find enough time to do everything, so I have to prioritize. But I promise it will happen.

Words of advice for young women trying to build businesses?

I think Judy Garland said it best “Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else”. The world tells us to be specific and define who we are professionally. I’m sure it works for most people, but don’t force yourself to fit into what the world tells you, don’t be afraid to evolve as you go along. You might start out as a Lawyer, dabble into photography, and make a successful career out of Fashion Designing, don’t worry when people say you’re all over the place. Just be consistent and persistent, keeping in mind that in the end, it’s not how long, but how well. No matter how small you think your business is, make sure you put structures in place to build a sustainable business, especially if you’re not looking to be a one-man business forever. Build something that will allow you have a life outside of work, a business which in your absence, can be run by other people.

Follow Adaora on Instagram @adaora_m

This interview was originally published in 2014 on Ynaija blog

The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series that focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.

It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa; an initiative that seeks to effectively mentor and inspire women, with particular emphasis on the African continent.

Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to lead@leadingladiesafrica.org and we just might feature her.

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