“Know the rules – understand how things work in your organisation, the politics, the cliques, the key power brokers….” – Ojoma Ochai, #CareerConversations with LLA.

 Ojoma Ochai is the Director of Programmes at British Council, Nigeria with over 10 years experience directing programmes in arts and education management and creative economy policy. She chairs the Nigerian Economic Summit Group Thematic Group on Creative and entertainment Industries and have at various points in the past  advised various institutions like the World Bank (Growth and Employment Programme) on strategies for developing the creative and entertainment industries. Today on #CareerConversations with LLA, Ojoma gives witty, exciting and succinct answers to our career questions stressing emphatically how she has managed a personal life,whilst smashing her corporate goals. Enjoy!

Can you briefly describe yourself and what you do?

My name is Ojoma Ochai and I do quite a few things actually! Most people will know me as being a long-time staff of British Council where I’ve worked for the last 10+ years in quite a few roles all in the arts, until my most recent role which I started last month as Director Programmes. In this role, I look after our programmes across portfolios – arts, education and what we call society – through which we deliver social justice type programmes.

Additionally, I sit on a global expert panel of experts on the UNESCO 2005 Convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions. Essentially a group of about 30 people or so globally that advise state parties and civil society (through UNESCO) on how to protect and promote their creative industries.

I also chair the Nigerian Economic Summit Group Thematic Group on Creative and entertainment Industries and have various points in the past have advised various institutions like World Bank (Growth and Employment Programme) on strategies for developing the creative and entertainment industries. As you may have guessed, my background is really in arts management, creative economy policy and so on and I have my finger in quite a few pies in this area.

Great! How did you start out in your career, and how long have you been in the ‘corporate world?’

Hmm how did I start? I had quite a few false starts actually. I started out in the sciences – Chemistry, Network Engineering and then worked in the IT sector for a few years from 2013 thereabouts in IT, project management and technical sales. I switched to project management in arts to join British Council (and move to Lagos for love, but that’s another story haha). I started out in a very junior role in 2006, got promoted quite rapidly and undertook quite a lot of arts management and creative economy training in the states, and quite a few other places, online, etc. because I found that I quite came to enjoy that line of work very much – which in hindsight is not that surprising as I grew around quite a lot of artist types; my father being a theatre arts Phd and working in broadcasting.

What are some of the things you love the most about being a career woman?

Having my own money haha. Seriously – the independence, knowing that I am a role model for my boys – to teach them that women are not just for ‘the other room’, the opportunity to meets lots of different people and travel the world. Quite a few things actually.

And the downsides – what are some of the challenges you’ve faced, and how did you overcome them?

I’ve missed too many school activities / activities with my kids and family to count as I do have to work long hours and travel quite a bit.

When I am home though, I make sure my presence counts and try to be as involved as possible in the boys’ activities and with the husband and family. The other day my four-year old asked me – ‘mum, are you sure you have a boss?’ and I’m like – yes, I do – why? He says, because you don’t work when you are at home like daddy. And daddy says his boss always gives him work to do at home.  Me – #Winning 😀

Other downsides, sometimes when I have to wake up at 1am or 2a.m, 4am to catch a flight, I do have to remind myself why I do the work I do.

Of course, we’re going to talk about mentorship – what’s your view on it? Important or nah?

I’ve never really had a formal mentor, but I have had loads of people that have taught me so much and many that I look up to.

I think it is important that people (whether they recognise it as mentorship or not) have people that teach them and make them aspire to be better and challenge them when they can do better.

I won’t name names cos I’ll invariably leave someone out and vex them 😉

Two things – what have been your best and worst career decision – and what did you learn from each respectively?

Best – oh gosh – I guess moving from the IT sector to the arts gave me more meaning in my life and has also given me so many wonderful opportunities.

Worst – you know, that’s a hard question – I can’t think of any one thing that stands out – of course, as I reflect on my career, there are instances where I’ve thought, hmmm… maybe you could have been kinder there or more assertive there , you know, or done something differently.

Do you have a “side-hustle” and what’s your view on having other interests outside of work?

I guess my side hustle is what I do with UNSECO technically. I am really interested in the creative industries and so do research, find ways to engage and so get asked to speak quite a bit locally and internationally on related subjects. I’ve also advised various organistions on their creative industries strategies. All my hustles are linked, and I think it is important that you are known for something and so after a period of experimentation you can tell what you like and are great at. Focus, and let your side hustle be in an area you can build expertise in. It is tricky as you have to negotiate these outside interests with your employer, but if you are lucky to have an employer that supports your growth like mine does, the sky is your limit.

In what specific ways would you advise women to “lean in” more at work?

You have to do the time.

Get a nanny that you trust. Two if you can afford it. And a maid to clean the house and cook. And if you want to marry, marry you a husband that has sense.

I think one of the biggest draw backs is that women are not able to put in the time and effort to get ahead at work because of conflicting priorities – self-imposed or imposed by families – husbands, relatives etc. My priorities are my family (the people, not the chores) and my career. Therefore, I refuse to let cooking a nice pot of soup prevent me from putting in the extra hour at work.

Time is a finite resource and you have to choose what to invest your time in – both your career and home care are valid aspirations both are demanding task masters so you often have to choose.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Retired. Haha. At least from employment. I’ll be 46. Almost 47.

I hope I’ll be retired from employment or close to… and travelling the world – giving speeches and getting paid a ton of money for it 😀

Or president. Who knows.

 What in your opinion are key success principles for upcoming career women, or those just starting out their careers?

The world is unfair, and nobody owes you anything. You need to recognise this and develop your own strategies to face this head on, sidestep or somehow get over this.

You have to know ‘the work’! I can’t stress how important it is to be excellent in your knowledge, expertise, delivery of whatever you do. There is no substitute for this.

Networks – invest in meeting and knowing people and developing capital with them by making yourself useful – by sharing information, your expertise, time etc. the net yield vs input in your network, is always positive.

Know the rules – understand how things work in your organisation, the politics, the cliques, the key power brokers etc.. and then decide if you want to play by the rules or not. Don’t pick a side or position out of ignorance.

The Leading Ladies Africa #CareerConversations Series is a weekly interview series which focuses on Leading women of African descent in the corporate world. It 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, a non-profit that promotes women empowerment and gender inclusion for women of African descent. 

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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