INTERVIEW (Olufunke Fowler, Executive Director, Vivan Fowler)
Key Insights On How to Successfully Scale-Up A Family Business
The Fidelity SME Forum is a weekly radio programme organized by Fidelity Bank Plc to educate, inform, advise and inspire budding entrepreneurs in Nigeria with knowledge and expertise that will enable them build sustainable and successful businesses. The interactive radio programme features subject matter experts and model entrepreneurs as guests on a weekly basis to share their insight and unique success stories. In this interview, Olufunke Fowler, Executive Director, Vivan Fowler gives valuable insights on “Key Insights On How to Successfully Scale-Up A Family Business”.
Q: VIVAN FOWLER HAS BEEN A HOUSEHOLD NAME FOR OVER 30 YEARS, TELL US HOW YOU GOT INTOTHE FAMILY BUSINESS?
Olufunke: It has always been my dream as it was the dream of our founder, Chief Mrs. Leila Fowler to empower the girl child. Her life was empowered right from a young age which was unusual for girls in that era and after losing her daughter, Vivian Fowler, she decided to educate as many “Vivians” as possible. After her graduation as a barrister, she decided to open the school, thus the birth of Vivian Fowler Memorial College for Girls.
Q: YOU HAD A SUCCESSFUL CAREER IN LEADING BANKS, WHAT MADE YOU LEAVE AND LED YOU TO JUMP INTO EDUCATION AS THE POTENTIAL SUCCESSOR APPARENT?
Olufunke: Education has always been close to my heart, and while bringing up my children, I understood the need to be part of a child’s educational journey for that child to actualize their full potential. It was not obvious then that I was the successor apparent and in the beginning, I had found the work very challenging. Luckily an I was fortunate to have an American education which prepares you at the foundational and as fundamental level to work anywhere with acquired managerial skills.
Q: AS AN EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE COLLEGE, WHAT EXACTLY IS YOUR ROLE?
Olufunke: My role is really the captain of the ship, steering us, myself and all the employees, in the right direction; encouraging when we fail and are in doubt; and also making sure we are translating educational trends into reality, so that we can prepare our children for global standards. It’s more of teamwork being the Executive Director, but to be productive, you have to make sure your team has the same passion as you have.
Q: HOW WAS YOUR SUCCESSION TRANSITION?
Olufunke: Succession in our culture is most times perceived as very negative because we associate succession with death and that is very unfortunate. In her own case, it was a bit uncomfortable initially, but I used a different approach. I did not have an office, but sat in front of her for 7 years. So I learnt from her example of what she did everyday which helped me tremendously as she slowly transitioned out of the role, I would have been totally lost, had I not done that. This also helped because when she saw my continued interest, she made sure to empower me to learn the business properly. To make people less wary and intimidated about succession, as it does not always mean death, it is advisable that current CEOs look for leadership qualities in potential successors that will take over form you when you retire or die. The heir successor does not have to be a family member, it may be another individual or a company that will run the business, while the family members will sit on the boards to ensure that the legacy lives on.
Q: WHAT IS UNIQUE ABOUT EDUCATING THE GIRL CHILD AND HOW HAVE YOU SEEN US EVOLVE AS A NATION WHEN IT COMES TO EMPOWERING WOMEN?
Olufunke: One interesting thing I have found is that millennials are very intimidated about their children going to an all girls’ school as they fear these children will not be wholly empowered. However, research has shown that girls in all girls’ school reach their potentials faster than even their counterparts in co-ed schools. It is exciting to see young girls who in the future will be in the corridors of power are now currently excited about learning and new ideas. At Vivian Fowler, we educate the girl child wholesomely. We want them to be professionals and also be the perfect homemakers by encouraging them to find that balance. Some may argue and say it is old fashioned, but we still teach the fundamentals of survival- cooking, sewing, etc. Right now, as at 2 years ago, we balanced the equation by introducing Robotics education. Most of them had never seen a robot or its parts not to even interact with it and we were fortunate enough to go for a robotics competition in Albuquerque, New Mexico and the girls placed first and won a gold medal. Imagine how excited those young girls were, that is why we train and empower them, to give them hope for a better future of their making.
Q: THE 12-YEAR-OLD WHO DEVELOPED THE MOBILE TRACKING APP, WAS SHE PART OF THE TEAM?
Olufunke: Yes she was. At Vivian Fowler part of our curriculum is to ensure that every child is Microsoft Certified before graduation and make ICT training a core part of our curriculum. The 12-year old you spoke about was part of the team and her app was especially unique that from there she got a scholarship to a school in Germany and unfortunately no longer schools with us, but she will forever be a part of our legacy and our community.
Q: EXCELLENCE IS SYNONYMOUS WITH THE VIVIAN FOWLER NAME, HOW HAVE YOU SUSTAINED IT AS PART OF YOUR ETTHOS?
Olufunke: At Vivian Fowler we noticed a trend that most children and students are not taught to give back neither are they taught to ownership of their environment. Therefore, we have made it a mandate to teach our students the importance of service and the human nature of giving back through our curriculum. For example, at our last fundraiser to help the poor, we asked the students to bring in dry foods and only one student brought a carton of Indomie. We then asked them to wear their casuals and donate 1000 Naira. They all did and everyone was involved; we went to a home for battered women and donated their contributions to the women there. The students were directly involved to see how their monies help those less fortunate than they are and that I can say changed their perception and helped them to understand the necessity of giving back, so that they can appreciate how fortunate they are.
Q: IN THE LAST 30 YEARS VIVIAN FOWLER HAS GROWN ESPECIALLY STRUCTURALLY, WHAT DO YOU THINK STANDS OUT THE MOST AND IS THE EDUCATIONAL SECTOR PROFITABLE?
Olufunke: The sector can be profitable and when you are in the business, it is important to see yourself as an employee. When preparing the budget, make allocation to pay yourself, so that you do not dip into the business’s accounts. For your business to maintain its quality standards, you have to give back to the business; if there are no infrastructural developments, your business will not thrive in the educational system because it will lack the competitive advantage. Most importantly, it is not just about opening up a school, if the entrepreneur is not passionate about children, a school can be the most unpleasant place to work. So have the passion, be concerned about developing young minds, see the children as yours personally and you will love working as an educational entrepreneur. The business can also be a very emotional one especially at graduation time, when the young ones you have personally trained and raised get to leave, you will find yourself becoming teary-eyed.
Q: WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES WITH RUNNING A SCHOOL FROM THE CASH FLOW AND EMPLOYEE MANAGEMENT PERSPECTIVE?
Olufunke: I think one of the most difficult challenges, and I mean this in the humblest of ways, is that the government does not make things easy for school business owners. There are a lot of bills and taxes we have to pay and by the time you sit down to make your budget, you find yourself at a loss. Furthermore, most people assume that we always make money or profit because they just multiply the number of students enrolled in the school by the school fees amount and believe that the entrepreneur has money. However, that’s not the case, so as was advised and we are advising, entrepreneurs should learn to put money away. Luckily we also have some banks who are favorable to school businesses and would give loans at lower interest rates than the norm. In line with developing your business, make sure you hire and employ skilled workers that will promote your business in a positive light.
Q: HOW DO YOU FIND SKILLED TEACHERS IN THE NIGERIAN SECTOR WHERE TEACHING TRAINING IS USUALLY FORFEITED?
Olufunke: Unfortunately like in other countries where the brightest minds go into and are encouraged to go into education, in Nigeria we do not have the same. So when someone comes to work for you, you find yourself having to train and educate them especially to your comfortable standards. Consequently, most entrepreneurs shy away from training their staff because they believe they will be poached by other, which in truth, affects everyone. If constant training happens, we find that the level of competence is higher for these people thereby reducing the strain on the entrepreneurs – reduces the desperation to higher the only available good ones. Unfortunately, most people believe training involves sending your staff abroad and that’s not necessarily the case. At Vivian Fowler, we have the “Lunch & Learn” platform whereby we offer packed lunches and 30 minutes training to our teachers. Even if only half of them are impacted, they in turn impact the other half. It is a slow process, but it is working for us and that’s how we are doing our bit to up the standards of the teachers educating our children.
Q: HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE YOUR TEACHERS ARE ALSO CARRIED ALONG WITH THE CHANGE IN CUTTING-EDGE TECHNOLOGY?
Olufunke: I will give an example, 8 years ago we made it compulsory for all staff to have and start using laptops. Obviously it was met with different reaction, and one particular teacher was so against it then, but now she has become so obsessed with her laptop. Many educators believe that their schools have to be laden with all sorts of technological gadgets before they are seen to be technology compatible, but that’s not true. Start and have the basics and the good thing about technology is that you engage the students across all spectrums – the brightest and those who may be struggling, some even with technology themselves. We do a lot of trainings – we cannot go wrong with that; from when we formed our robotics team, we saw the value of our training.
Q: IS THERE ANYTHING UNIQUE TO WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS VERSUS THEIR MALE COUNTERPARTS, IS THERE ANY SWITCH THAT OCCURS WHEN A WOMAN BECOMES AN ENTREPRENEUR?
Olufunke: As women we are more likely givers and nurturers, so there are certain things that must be present for us to be successful. As entrepreneurs, you have to make sure you lack self-doubt, even though you may occasionally wonder if your business will thrive, do not give up and have a sense of perseverance. Also, there are other things that are very key to entrepreneurs, for example, our mental health. The WHO has made mental health a part of wellness and in this part of the world where mental health is usually classified as the institution, many entrepreneurs do not take their mental health seriously and learn to manage it carefully. This are the necessary switches an entrepreneur needs to make, and also you need to learn how to unplug from technology if not you will find yourself glued to your phones for longer periods of time and you will become burnt out. You also need to learn how to value your time and stay away from time wasters.
Q: WHY DO WE HAVE SO MUCH SELF- DOUBT AS WOMEN COMPPARED TO WHEN WE ARE YOUNGER AND SO FULL OF CONFIDENCE?
Olufunke: It boils down to what I said earlier, we are built to be nurturers and givers and if you do not know your limit, you will burnout easily. Also as we grow older, women are given more domesticated roles even in professional settings and it is up to you to know your worth and fight for it. It’s a matter of self-confidence and when in doubt, it is good to go back to the drawing board of your tasks and goals to remind yourself, then you don’t feel intimated.
Q: WHERE ARE THE UNTAPPED OPPORTUNITES IN THE EDUCATION SECTOR FOR ASPIRING ENTREPRENEURS?
Olufunke: First you don’t see birds colliding in the air which is the same for this space. Once you identify your brand, you will find out that there are still a lot of unidentified arenas in the education sector. But what we have noticed is that these young generations like the microwave approach, which is the fast, get it quick scheme. So you have to start small, and then build it up. Many of us in this culture, then to copy and if you copy you cannot identify your brand, that is, why it is said that the educational sector is too saturated because we have imitations of everything. I belong to the Association of Private Educators in Nigeria (APEN) and each time we have meetings in the different schools, novel things are observed. Part of being a young entrepreneur is being humble enough to learn from others, taking positive advice, and working out through the process.
Q: WHAT IS IT ABOUT YOU OR YOUR BRAND THAT ENCOURAGES COOPERATION AND NOT COMPETITION AS IS OBSERVED IN MOST ENTREPRENEURS?
Olufunke: I think it goes back to leadership, the chairman of our association, Dr. Femi Ogunsaya has the gift of celebrating everybody and through our conferences and meetings, we have observed that we speak better as one loud voice to change the educational sector in Nigeria than when we speak individually. Everybody has a uniqueness to their business which no one can take, so we focus on enhancing our similarities to make sure we achieve our collective goal.
Q: HOW HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO JUGGLE ALL YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES EFFORTLESSLY?
Olufunke: It goes back to balance – try and find a balance in all you do. For me I consider it more important because I have boys, so I made it a duty to instill the fundamentals in them during their developing years. It is very hard to rear children when they are older, so find time to start from when they are young.
Q: WHAT FINAL ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE ENTREPRENEUR RAISING CHILDREN?
Olufunke: Be part of your children’s lives, make out time for them and invest in them. Listen to them as a lot of parents, although wonderful, do not listen to their children. Most parental styles these days do not support or allow these parents to listen to their children, but we as parents need to create that avenue for our children to want to come and talk to us and to listen to them. A lot of children are crying out for their parents’ attention, so we as parent should adjust our parental styles to enable them want to talk to us freely.