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Life and career lessons from the top

Achieving Woman
 Life and career lessons from the top with Ojoma Ochai 

Ojoma Ochai is the Managing Director of Co-Creation Hub (CC-Hub), a technology and Innovation Center with technology hubs across the continent, including iHub in Kenya. The company supports entrepreneurs working in technology and the creative industry. Eve caught up with her at the Africa CEO Forum in Kigali

    Always work for the next job you want

I always tell people in employment that I never just do the job that I am doing. I work as though I’m working for the next job I want to do. This means that at every point in time, I am doing extra because I won’t get my next job doing what I did in my last job. For instance, I worked in the British Council for many years. I was there for 14 or 15 years. I worked eight or nine different jobs, and each of them was progressively senior.

When I joined, I was an assistant. When I left, I was a regional director for one of the three programme areas and I was on a global committee for a bunch of stuff, yet I started on the lowest band.

The secret was that if I were a project associate, I would be volunteering for the things that managers are doing so that when the next vacancy for a manager comes up, you are not wondering whether I can be a manager. You already know because you have seen me do it.

When I am moving from manager to assistant director, you are not wondering if I can do it because I have volunteered, I have contributed, and you know that I can do the job. So anybody that’s applying with me is wasting their time because they haven’t done the work I have. I can show where I volunteered and extended myself. So always do some of the jobs that you want to do next so that people who see your work are not wondering about whether you can do it or not. They’ve seen you do it.

It may sound cliche, but there is no alternative to hard work. Yes, some people get lucky and win the lottery or are born rich, but most of us have to work hard for everything we have. And it’s not just in big things. If you work hard on small things, the big things will come.

When I say work hard, I mean both work hard and work smart. Learn as much as you can and apply yourself as much as you can.

Be very jealous of your time

My time is very precious to me. In everything I do, I think about: is this the best use of my time right now? There have been periods in my life where I haven’t socialized because I have a goal and I’m focused.

I started in tech working as a network engineer. When I decided to pivot to arts management and the creative industries, I decided I would specialise, but to do that, I had to do a three-year arts management course. Every summer, for three years, I had to go and do the course. That meant that for three years I did not have a holiday. I am not saying holidays are bad, but I chose to make that investment of my time and sacrifice that time because I knew where I wanted to take my career.

So be sensitive about what you spend your time doing. If what you are spending most of your time doing is not contributing to your goals, then you’re not spending your time wisely. If you say, you want to be a whizz coder or you want to be a whizz hairdresser, if that’s not what you are spending most of your time doing, then you don’t mean it. Be very jealous of your time and what you spend your time doing.

    If in entrepreneurship, be creative and a problem solver

In terms of entrepreneurship, you have to know the problem that you are solving. Again, it sounds like a cliche, but I meet many entrepreneurs who have a general idea - for example, you make clothes and you assume that everybody wants clothes, and has a certain aesthetic you want to make.

You have to understand your customers. If your customer is a working class woman of a certain age for example, what’s their taste? What’s most important to them? Is it durability? Do they want to look flashy? When you understand it deeply, it becomes really easy.

Here is an example. We run a fashion accelerator, funded by the African Development Bank. We support fashion entrepreneurs across 44 countries. Every six months or so, we do a pitch for entrepreneurs to pitch for funding from the African Development Bank.

One of the companies that won the pitch events last year is a fashion brand in Tunisia, They make office clothes for women. Many people make work clothes for women but what makes them stand out is a really simple idea: when women come to buy clothes from the shop, they do a photoshoot and they give the woman a headshot of her wearing the work clothes.

If you are an office worker, you are always looking for headshots because you’re applying for something, or you’re going to speak at an event and they ask you to send the headshots. Many of them are older women, their target demographic, and because they are mid to senior level, they know they will always need headshots  - a new headshot every few years. So the company does professional makeup in their store and takes headshots. They have tapped into something that they know that women of this demographic need and they sell the clothes because if you’ve gotten headshots, you have some loyalty to the brand. It is therefore a successful fashion brand in Tunisia.

Understanding what your customer wants and solving it for them in the way that they want it solved is key to being an entrepreneur.

You also need to be very clear on your business model. Too many entrepreneurs are driven by passion, which is good, but you need to be clear on how you make money. If I am selling something, what does it cost me to buy it, including transport, my time and such? How much do I sell it for? How much profit do I make? Do I track that? What are my sources of revenue? You need to understand your business.

    Be conscientious and a problem-solver

If you give me anything to do, best believe, I will do it well, whether it is sweeping a room or making a pitch to the president. If I think I won’t do it, well, I won’t do it at all. So always do a good job.

I also have something I like to call synthesis. I can pool ideas together to make a concrete conclusion, solving problems for people. Not a lot of people can deal with ambiguity, but I am very good at it. There might have been something I heard 10 years ago and I need to solve a problem tomorrow. I will take that thing I heard 10 years ago and something I saw last week and bring it together. So it is about synthesising different things I’ve heard or different life experiences and saying I can solve the problem.

I run our organisation now, but when I used to work for the British Council, a lot of my colleagues would say, “We know that when we have a problem if we ask you, you will have ideas for how we can solve it.” It’s just about opening your mind to where you actively participate in life. You can bring your memories and experiences together and synthesise them, and be a really useful resource to anybody that you come across.

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