What do banking, fashion and oil have in common? If you guessed Nigeria’s 61-year old billionaire businesswoman Folorunsho Alakija, you are right!
VENTURES AFRICA – Having entered and conquered each industry, Mrs Folorunsho Alakija is a role model and inspiration for any African businesswoman. Her tale is that of hard work, maximised opportunities and passions followed.
Alakija was born into a wealthy, polygamous home; her father had 8 wives and 52 children in his lifetime. Although she knew that somehow, Baba, as Mr Alakija was fondly called, loved all his children and wanted them around, Alakija sometimes felt singled out of the 52 for discipline. Regardless, she fondly remembers her childhood days, particularly her parents’ investment in the education and cultural upbringing that shaped her into the entrepreneur that she is.
Alakija’s business and fashion sense developed at a very young age from days spent with her fabric merchant mother. Young Folorunsho spent many days with her mother learning how to market fabrics to Nigerian women. At just 7 years old, her parents decided to give her and sister, Doyin, an international education, sending them off to a private girls’ boarding school in Northern Wales where they were the only black people. Folorunsho and Doyin eventually adapted to their new life becoming Flo and Doy, monikers given by their English friends. After four years abroad, they returned to Nigeria where she finished her secondary schooling and entered the corporate world as a bank secretary at Nigeria’s International Merchant Bank.
Alakija quickly moved up the corporate ladder; with her creativity and organisational skills, she became the bank’s first Head of Corporate Affairs. She excelled in this position and two years later moved on to a finance role in the bank’s treasury department. Alakija contemplated starting her own business in the fashion industry and after some research, she went back to England for a course in fashion design, fulfilling a lifelong desire to return to that part of her childhood. On returning to Nigeria in 1985, Alakija began what became an award-winning, pioneer fashion institution, Supreme Stitches, from a 3-Bedroom apartment in Lagos. One year later, she emerged as the nation’s best designer and a household name, catering to many society women.
As the 1990s arrived, Alakija decided to branch out and invest in oil, the chief source of Nigeria’s wealth. Once again, she succeeded, creating FAMFA Oil Limited, a family-run oil and gas exploration and production company. FAMFA acquired an oil bloc where oil was struck in commercial quantities, bringing more wealth to Alakija’s business which her husband and four sons are still involved in running.
Alakija has since turned to the next natural step of a successful businesswoman: giving back to her community. She is a popular philanthropist who takes up the cause of the defenceless in Nigerian society, widowed women, young and orphaned children. Alakija recognised that for many women in parts of Nigeria:
“Once they lose their husbands, the society turns their backs on them, their in-laws begin to mistreat them, they become depressed, they don’t know where to turn, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”
She created the Rose of Sharon Foundation in 2008, with the support of 350 illustrious men and women to ease the burdens of this vulnerable group. Three years after starting, Rose of Sharon had empowered 2,760 widows, providing them with workshops to connect with other widows and share their testimonies. These women also received monetary support, scholarships for their children and interest free loans to start up small businesses. In the words of young Uchechi who lost her husband to stroke in 2010, “I cried my eyes sore, asking God where and how I would continue not knowing that there was a ray of hope in Rose of Sharon Foundation which gave my three children scholarship and also empowered me to start a trade”. Folorunsho Alakija believes there is no greater reward for her faith and hard work than to see the smiles and successes of these women who ‘simply need a shoulder to lean on’.
Metaphorically speaking, Mrs Alakija has very broad shoulders. Well done to Folorunsho Alakija’s Rose of Sharon Foundation, where female entrepreneurs are nurtured.