Welcome to the first of many Redefining Wonder Woman (RWW) stories from ordinary women who have done extraordinary things. It would be remiss of me to start this series without acknowledging the influence of my mother on my life – just in time for Mother’s Day too. It was an interesting experience interviewing my mum as a woman and not as her daughter. I discovered so many things about her that I never knew and came to understand her a bit better. She has always and will always be my epitome of a strong woman. I hope you are as inspired by her story as I am.
RWW: What did you want to be when you were little?
Mum: As a child I didn’t really think about it. When I left grammar school, I thought I wanted to study dentistry. When my father sent me to England to study, he said I had to study Law. I protested and told him I would rather be an accountant if I couldn’t be a dentist. However, not having the prerequisite grades meant I would have had to complete a preliminary course before University. My father promptly told me he only had enough money for a three-year course and that’s how I ended up studying law.
RWW: Did you like it?
Mum: I enjoyed it even though it was tedious. There was so much case law to get through and you had to constantly read journals and newspapers to keep abreast of current issues. In retrospect, I don’t think I would have enjoyed accountancy as much. For instance when I heard Tony Benn had passed away, I remembered that the renunciation of his peerage was one of the cases we looked at whilst I was at school. Daily occurrences made law a very interesting subject.
RWW: So no regrets about studying law?
Mum: Not at all. I was very thankful to my father for forcing me to do it. Eventually it worked out well.
RWW: How did you get into Insurance?
Mum: After I graduated, I worked for the Board of Trade (now the Department of Trade and Industry) within the insurance division for about four years. Then I moved back to Nigeria in 1970 and attended Law school there. Before I left the Board of Trade, I asked my bosses to give me a recommendation of Insurance firms to work for. As soon as I got back, I contacted the two companies I was given, had interviews and secured a job offer with Royal Exchange before I graduated from Law School. I started work there on the 1st of June, 1971 and worked there till 1995 when I retired; almost twenty-five years.
I started out as the Assistant Legal Officer and within six months I was promoted to Company Secretary, Legal Adviser when the incumbent went back to England due to an illness. I subsequently became the Company secretary and I rose from Assistant General Manager to Deputy General Manager and eventually became an Executive Board member; the first female executive in the history of Royal Exchange, worldwide.
RWW: I find it incredible that you worked at the same organisation for almost twenty-five years. Why didn’t you move elsewhere?
Mum: Should I say it was loyalty? I enjoyed what I was doing and I had everything I wanted in a job. I had a lot of autonomy within my role and I had the privilege of flexible working hours which meant I could do the school run and start work about 9.00 AM. I was also one of the top professionals in the industry with a good rapport with the Heads of Units at the Head Office in England which was very important in terms of longevity at the time. And you’ve got to remember that during this period there was the divorce, and I needed job stability. And to be honest, I didn’t have problems at work and there weren’t many companies at that time that operated flexi-time and that was very important to me.
RWW: What challenges did you face as a woman in the workplace?
Mum: Internally, I found that men didn’t respect women or their opinions. They found it hard to accept a woman was their boss. Externally, when I went to meetings, people (men) looked down at me and I found that I had to put forward my views forcibly in order to be heard. However, since I dealt with trust investments, they soon realised they had to work with me.
RWW: Can you recall an occasion where this was overtly displayed?
Mum: Yes. I remember a meeting with foreign investors and a much older Nigerian gentleman told me to shut up. He brushed my opinions aside and carried on with the meeting. I was livid, but I knew I had to be calm and avoid a slanging match. So I said very calmly that what he said wasn’t nice and he should accord me the respect due to me. I was proud of the way I handled it and at subsequent meetings, he addressed me appropriately. Ironically, eight years later, this same gentleman was embarking on a venture that required my approval to succeed. Suddenly my opinions were valuable to him as I was an instrumental party.
RWW: After you retired, you started a travel agency in your early 50s.
Mum: Yes. I used my severance package to invest in a Travel agency because I loved travelling. I ran that successfully for about ten years and eventually sold the company. I had no regrets when I sold it. It was the right time to do that.
RWW: Speaking of travelling, what countries have you explored?
Mum: Australia, Brazil, Venezuela, Jamaica, Thailand, Japan, Singapore, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Spain and other places in Europe as well as several American states. A few of those trips were done when I travelled round the world in six weeks with one of my best friends.
RWW: Let’s get personal. What was it like raising four girls on your own?
Mum: It was hell on earth!
Mum: Not because you were bad children but primarily because of my own fear of making a mistake. I wanted you all to turn out right. There was the fear of whether you would excel at school, and then university and then life. I spent a lot of time being anxious for each one of you. I was constantly wondering if I would ever get this thing right? There was also the fear that people would say you would have been better off with your father. With a lot of determination and God’s help, it turned out right even when things were tough financially. I have no regrets as far as you children are concerned. It was just the pressure to look after the family that sometimes got to me. Even with all that pressure, I still count myself very lucky to have had the four of you as children. I know people in similar circumstances who did not have the same ending. I count myself very lucky indeed.
RWW: Would you say you were successful?
Mum: LOL. That would be for other people to judge. I think I set out to do what I wanted to do as far as Law is concerned. I have done everything I wanted to accomplish. Even though I didn’t want to do it, I have thoroughly enjoyed being in the Legal profession and have no regrets at all. I met many Nigerians who were much older and pioneers in their professions through Law; older members of the society who acknowledged my success and accorded me my due respect. I’m happy with all I accomplished.
RWW: Although you are retired you are still quite busy for a woman in her 70s.
Mum: Yes, I’m very much involved with a few church committees and several charitable organisations. I’m also a non-executive board member of an investment company and a school governor for a boys secondary school in Lagos.
RWW: What concerns you about young women in Nigeria today?
Mum: I think there is still room for women at the top of corporations. I pray for a time when women will not have to make a choice between being there for their family and work. These days, it is difficult to marry your home and your job. It’s very difficult for women to get professional jobs with flexible working hours. I feel there is going to be a time when things have to change as they have changed in England.
RWW: What is most important to you?
Mum: My name. The fact that I can go out today and hold my head up high without any shame. I didn’t steal or cheat anyone. My name counts for a lot.
RWW: Thank you mummy.