I am delighted to be here and to participate in this unique conference put together by Gidigba Social Networking Services. Permit me to express my deep appreciation to the leadership of Gidigba Social Network Services for this step in the right direction and also congratulations, in anticipation of a hopefully successful 1st outing of the quarterly Gidigba Business Clinic series. I also need to applaud the commendable work being done by the Abuja Enterprises Agency (AEA) under the able leadership of Hajiya Aisha Abubakar. I am impressed by the focus and efforts of the AEA especially in guiding and supporting entrepreneurs, as well as for hosting this much-needed event.
It is true that start-ups that have met with success have only one founder. But because establishing a company is hard work, it often takes more than a single individual to launch a business, although the others may not necessarily be partners in the business. As in everything in life, there are always high points and low points, not to mention some tasks that only a few can undertake alone. Crushing blows and setbacks sometimes make it hard to continue on without another person’s encouragement. Then there’s a need to market the plan and build the product or service. Seed money has to be available for the start-up and in most situations; it’s incredibly daunting to tackle all of this alone.
Every entrepreneur whether you are a start-up, or a small, medium enterprise regardless of the industry, seeks to have the right information on market opportunities, achieve critical mass or economies of scale and have a sizeable network of fellow entrepreneurs to share ideas with. Gidigba intends to enable business owners and entrepreneurs in Nigeria integrate with an organized local community platform, creating direct access to market, skills, opportunities, resources, partnerships, influencers, mentorships, outsourcing etc. which will help them not only stay in business, but also thrive in business.
Running a business can be hard, lonely work. Gidigba offers the unique opportunity to step away from the isolation that comes with pursuing a dream that may appear rather daunting. Engaging in this opportunity will certainly boost your visibility. You can meet others who have been able to overcome some of the very challenges you are concerned about. The platform enables and facilitates support, resources, referrals and advice with people who have confronted similar challenges and surmounted them, thereby affording you the chance to leapfrog and enhance your efficiency.
I must applaud you for the theme ‘Networking in High Heels’, which particularly tickled my interest (obviously being a woman myself). I understand the peculiar nature of women going solo in business, usually unaware of the pitfalls out there, and the benefits of networking. I am delighted that such a platform has come into being, that would help business women harness and channel their efforts in the right direction, for sustainable business and business partnerships.
How I wish Gidigba had existed when I began my own small start-up in 1998! Having worked in the public service (Kano State Ministry of Justice, Nigerian Law Reform Commission and the Central Bank of Nigeria) for about 17 years before daring to venture into private business, I assumed it would be relatively easy. I soon found that my assumptions were absolutely off target, for it was a difficult terrain, to put it mildly. And if it was difficult, it was even more so, as a woman, with the strong cultural pervasive beliefs in our environment, of where women belong and what they should be seen to be doing.
In the public sector, the clerks, the secretaries, the deadlines and the pay are taken for granted; no worries, your documents will get typed, referenced and filed away, and your salary will come (work or not), whatever the situation, at the end of the month. In those days, we even got offered car loans and two/three bedroom flats or bungalows, as a matter of course. We went on courses to improve ourselves regularly and had superiors who could guide you on matters unknown. We got promoted as and when due and attended both national and international conferences and workshops, based on your output. We were motivated. Life was fairly predictable and secure, so long as you performed, behaved yourself and played by the rules. It did not matter that I was a female. At least I did not notice any discrimination in the workplace. Then I decided to take the plunge, basically because I started having babies and began feeling embarrassed at the number of times I needed to stay at home to care for them. I needed my own time and hated feeling guilty, or having to make yet another excuse…women with children in this audience would know how it is; how the children can somehow decide to fall ill one after the other, rather then concurrently.
So I started off alone, with big dreams and the notion that I could handle private business relatively easier than most as I did have the experience and the requisite knowledge necessary for legal practice. Even though I had the comfort of a home, the support of a husband (with strict rules about no-go areas, because of his own job at the time) and the fact that I had been working for 17 years in various places, I found myself totally unprepared for starting my own private business. For one, I needed a few people who were experts in their own spheres of endeavour, even if it was for referencing, filing, dispatch, a receptionist and an accountant. I needed to find credible, competent and dependable staff that I could rely on, who would be consistent, efficient and yet not cost me too much, as my seed money was really just a seed! Retaining employees was an uphill task too. It was almost as if as soon as you thought business had stabilised, you would get a resignation from someone you had thought would never leave you. Then you need to start all over again…and this is if your support staff at home has not left you as well!
As a lawyer, I quickly discovered that to survive, I need to source for briefs, in an economy where news of most of the business openings are shared at late night meetings, at venues where most ‘respectable’ women would not ordinarily be seen. After a hard day’s work, a woman needs to go home, do the homework with the kids, ensure the family is taken care of and the home front did not suffer on account of your absence during the day, and to prepare the routine for the next day. As is often said of lives like mine, it is a triple workload, as wife, mother and professional. I then combined these full time jobs with activism, and in no time, I found that I too needed a ‘wife’, to efficiently coordinate my various roles without dropping the ball! For men, they just focus on the work, but for us, we have to combine looking after the husband and the children, with whatever work needs to be done, competing in the same market, despite having other responsibilities. So the husband’s socks must always be clean, his food hot, the store stocked, household chores done, with children kept healthy, engaged and focused. You just learn to multi- task in a manner you never thought you were able.
In no time, I found myself doing things I had never done before, and that I had even less time for my family, than I had had when I was in the public sector. In addition to the physical stress, I needed to pay bills and all kinds of taxes and levies, partner with others in fresh bids, consult with others more experienced in the field and continuously source for business! The hardest part for me, I must admit, was in sourcing for fresh cases, and then thereafter billing my clients appropriately, if I could find them! There are so many professionals out there and apparently no hard and fast rule as to how to go about certain aspects that are not regulated. The more I asked for guidance, the more confused I became. One SAN even suggested that I take a quick look at the shoes of my client and decide, based on how they look!
Thankfully, after over 33 years at the Bar, with 25 years in private practice, my business has stabilized (somewhat), so I am able to pace myself better. Still, finding a good brief in the market nowadays is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Combining business with ethics in our environment is an even more ambitious goal, with corruption having permeated everywhere. You discover that in both public and private organisations, staff attempt to negotiate for a ‘cut’ from your hard-earned fee, while others (in agencies that you need to engage as part of your practice) blatantly dare to request that they be placed on your staff payroll, to hasten the process of your documentation whenever the need arises. Taxation, sundry fees and the requirements for certified approvals from so many government agencies are killing small businesses so people just have to devise ingenious means of survival in the market today.
For me as a woman, I have found that continuous education, sharing knowledge, networking and collaborating with those with more experience than I, do enhance ones chances of sustaining my business, especially in emerging markets. Bigger is better and knowing where to go, when and how, is key. Private business does come with a valuable education. Apart from a pretty thick skin, you just need to continuously develop your self, thereby garnering expertise in related and diverse fields. Regularly anticipate the pros and cons in respect of all future projections of your business; strategise and be proactive. Gidigba is designed to assist you on how best to negotiate all of these challenges (and more), especially in relation to marketing, mentoring, sharing and directing you to where to go for your particular needs.
Whatever you decide to do, however, you need to believe in yourself. In working with a team, the welfare of staff should remain priority. Only if they feel cared for and a part of the business will you be able to have a smooth ride in achieving your goals. Do not attempt to cut corners and do not be afraid to engage others through the Gidigba platform. Allow Gidigba to hold your hand through your planning and operations; this is the purpose for this Clinic. Let your passion drive your business, with your values serving as a check. Remember nothing good comes easy and life can be unfair sometimes. Remain optimistic, approachable and focused on your objectives, even where your chances appear bleak. Create a distinct niche (and brand) for your business, as the opportunities in our economy abound. Make continuous learning a habit. All the social media, networking, and advertising are a waste if you don’t have the tools to deliver.
Open your mind to new opportunities and bring your best to the table every single time. Very importantly, strive to keep your family happy, as your business will suffer if your home remains unsettled. Finally, keep faith with your Creator, however you conceive Him to be. Pray, in bad times and in good times. Ultimately, only He will sustain you through life’s daily struggles.
Mrs. Maryam Uwais MFR
27th January 2015
She would be in charge of the coordination of social protection schemes and would also manage the N60billion micro credit scheme for artisans and market women.
Mrs. Maryam Uwais, MFR, is a trained lawyer who served as a Principal Partner of Wali Uwais & Co, an Abuja-based law firm. Mrs. Uwais has over 20 years cognate law practice experience.
In 2009, she founded the Isa Wali Empowerment Initiative, which targets the conditions of women and children in education, healthcare and empowerment.
Uwais has also worked as a consultant to the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, UNICEF, the World Bank, and the British Department for International Development (DfID).
Mrs Maryam Uwais is the wife of a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais.