The many benevolent worlds of Ini … the daughter of a watch repairer
BY DANIEL ANAZIA
THE aphorism ‘what a man can do, a woman can do better’ best captures the story of Ini-Abasi Laura Onuk, the Lead Consultant/CEO of ThistlePraxis Consulting Limited (TPC), a firm engaged in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and management consultancy with commitment to helping organisations cope with the evolving demands of CSR and other management concerns.
Like a typical chief executive, she, the afternoon we met, was seated on a leather sofa colourful and tastefully furnished office, busy examining letters and other documents that needed her endorsement for further actions.
A 2008 Draper Hills Fellow on Democracy and Development, Stanford University California and alumnus of the Harvard Business School Executive Education Programme, Laura, as she is called by friends, while at Stanford, led a research team that assessed the Silicon Valley’s CSR projects with visits to Google, Hewlett Packard, Facebook and the San Francisco Bay municipality.
Prior to setting up ThistlePraxis Consulting Limited, she served as the Executive Secretary of Women in Management and Business (WIMBIZ), a not-for-profit organisation established in 2001 as a platform for increasing the success rate of female entrepreneurs as well as growing the proportion of women in senior management positions in corporate organisations.
She had earlier served as the Executive Director, Defence for Children International — Nigeria Section — an international independent, non-governmental organisation upon her return to Nigeria and currently sits on its Board as a Trustee.
The proudly Ibibio native and daughter of a watch repairer had conducted training modules on ‘Children and Armed Conflicts’ in West Africa, a collaboration with the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI), Ghana, which has become a major reference material on similar issues across the continent.
ASKED why she is so keen about corporate social responsibility particularly in Nigeria and Africa, the Think Tank member of the African Business Women Network under the aegis of the Vital Voices Global Partnership, says, "around the world, there are CSR Global, CSR Europe and CSR International, where major and emerging trends in CSR are discussed. The world has moved from corporate social responsibility (CSR) to Corporate Social Sustainability (CSS) and green revolution. But in Nigeria, we don’t understand the issue of climate change and this is affecting us as a country. I believe organisations can achieve sustainable growth when they integrate their corporate values with well-rounded policies that consist of good governance, business ethics, human capital management and community engagement.”
Could this be the reason her organisation (ThistlePraxis) convened the Africa Roundtable Corporate Social Responsibility forum tagged AR-CSR 2011?
She says,"we must not wait for the government to provide everything for us; we are also government and we must learn to provide some basic needs of the society. There is this local mantra that states, 'If the right hand washes the left, both hands will be made clean'.”
According to her, "if as business organisations, we join forces with the government, our society will be made better rather than complain about bad roads, poor electricity supply, poor healthcare facilities, dilapidated and unequipped schools and among other issues."
She adds, "as individuals, we should begin to ask ourselves what is our CSR to Nigeria? Yes, we were known to be patriotic but we lost our patriotism, which was our pride, when we began looking unto government to do everything."
“As individuals, we should begin to ask ourselves what is our CSR to Nigeria? Yes, we were known to be patriotic but we lost our patriotism, which was our pride, when we began looking unto government to do everything.”
THE Africa CEO Roundtable & Conference on Corporate Social Responsibility (AR-CSR) with the theme, ‘The Business Case for CSR and its Impact on African Economies’ was a forum that brought international experts from within the continent and beyond for experience sharing as well as methodological discussions.
It is a foremost industry flagship event that attracted the crème of Africa’s leading figures and decision makers who spark-off conversations and discussions about corporate social responsibility practices in Africa.
The conference held at the Eko Hotels & Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos, and was an opportunity for companies doing business in Nigeria to understand what CSR and CSS are and begin to practice it.
The keynote address was delivered by Mary Robinson (First Female President of Ireland & former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights), while Prof. N. Craig Smith (INSEAD Chaired and Professor of Business Ethics and Corporate Responsibility) lead the speakers and experts across the globe. And Laura was at on the driving seat of the forum says: "Business entities and organisations in Nigeria and Africa must and should incorporate CSR and CSS into their business strategy and create a budget for it at the start of every business year."
...A champion for the woman
A STRONG voice for women and youth empowerment, she laments the situation in the country, where women, who make up 60 per cent of the population, are disenfranchised.
Another drive for her is what she explains thus: "when God created man, he created him well but he looked at him and said I could do better. I need a partner in the business of creation, someone who will help bring to reality the vision of making more humans. So, he created the woman so uniquely with passion and even in the physical structure.
"While he made the man hard, the woman he created tender, soft and fragile. With the woman God simply expressed himself and the other side of his being. That is why I often say, in God, there are two parts: in man, we see him as the head, provider, carer and hunter, and in the woman we see him as a passionate being, loving, tender and soft. The woman is God’s partner in business of creation there is no argument about it."
For Laura, "Africa women are economically strong. There are strong evidence and indices that most successful businesses today, especially within the African continent are managed by women. Men are good managers but women are better."
She continues, "one thing that would make me fight public is when I see a man battering a woman. I hate with passion men who beat their wives; it shows lack of respect for God and values but I would not condone any woman nagging her husband. As a woman you must show respect, love, affection and care to your husband."
And she believes, it is extremely important for everyman to support his wife's vision, dream and ambition. "A woman, who has the support of her partner is easy to recognise because she is all out and ready to conquer the world. Once a man realises that the woman’s success is not in competition with his, life becomes easier for both of them."
For the CSR expert, women need to know that getting to the helm of their careers is determined by the level of their aspirations. "I’m ambitious and would work and walk my way to the top but not necessarily stabbing my friends at the back or stepping on their toes.
Challenges of women in the workplace
DESPITE the equal intake of both genders at the entry level of most organisations, very few women make it to the top. "The glass ceiling is a reality; organisations may not actively discriminate against women, but they do not adequately understand or address the challenges that women face at work. The result is the loss of a critical highly skilled portion of the workforce," she says.
"We also have to deal with a patriarchal society that still sees women more as wives and mothers and small time business owners than as a strong economic and governance force."
Over time and in the past, "I have met with several CEOs and other policy makers to hear directly what they thought to be the critical issues for women in management and business. One key need women have is to be able to work flexi-hours; another is day-care facilities within organisations and the third is additional opportunities for training."
And areas they need training most?
"I’ll say in leadership and corporate governance. For small businesses, finance management, and entrepreneurial skills. Most women-owned businesses are unable to access funds for bigger business opportunities as they grow because the women who started them did not understand the importance of putting proper structures in place from the word go."
She says,"women also need to increase in professionalism. If you are at home, be at home and try not to bring work home. If you are at work ensure that you give your best at it and do away with being overly emotional in the workplace. Men respect intelligent women who know how to be professional and not sentimental."
Breaking the ‘glass ceiling’
ACCORDING to Laura, for a lady to breakthrough, "you must be focused and be self developmental; professional restraint of emotions in the workplace; resilience, learn to dare and take risks, be willing to consider riskier and unconventional positions."
Very few women would be seen as being able to work on an oil rig or to become the head of a shipping council. "We also need more women in construction, real estate and other related industries. I’m of the opinion that more women should take up risky ventures or going into the male dominated business environment. I’m glad that more women are now owners of fishing trawlers. Look at Deiziani Allison-Madueke, she is the first female Minister of Petroleum in Nigeria; she is a plus for the women."
Gender mainstreaming, though loudly talked about, "is still not going to happen if we women don’t get up and make it happen. We have to work twice as hard to get what we want and where we want to go. So, as women, we must clearly define our desires and values, and chart a clear path."
Onuk continues, "if as a woman, you are asked to count the stars on your crown that tell the story of each woman you have helped to come up the ladder, how many stars do you have? Madeline Albright said, ‘There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.’ Strong words to consider!"
“One thing that would make me fight public is when I see a man battering a woman. I hate with passion men who beat their wives; it shows lack of respect for God and values but I would not condone any woman nagging her husband. As a woman you must show respect, love, affection and care to your husband.”
Managing career and the family
THIS is an ever-present question. "We have used it as one of our roundtable discussion topics. We have also addressed this issue of maintaining balance under themes like “Sustaining Success”, “The A-Z of Self Development” and “Empowered or Overpowered”. Personally, I think you can never really balance things 50/50, but women are good at juggling. We can and do juggle responsibilities of work and the home. We must give the best we can wherever we are at any given point in time.
“I must say I’m favoured because my family is not here but I do travel to see them and we spent most of the time on phone. So, they are not with me but they are with me.
"It is because of my passion for Nigeria, Africa that I decided to come home to settle and make my own contribution towards making my country great and better. There is no place like home, though things work perfectly in the Western world and I get what I want at the right time. I can’t be a second class citizen."
Nigeria, Laura says has given her privileges, which no country will offer her or "I may not be able to enjoy as a result of my status. They strive to make their country what it is, so, we must also strive to build our own con country — Nigeria. That is why I say, we must begin to think of what our CSR for Nigeria is individually and as organisations and not constantly waiting for the government to do everything."
WHAT would she change in Nigeria if given opportunity?
"The mind set of Nigerians that government has to do everything for us. I will champion the cause where Nigerians will really take part in the governance of this country. A good example is the last general election held in April. For the first time in our elections, we all knew we had a stake in what happens in this country and did it our own way. Though there may be one or two malaise, overall you could see that we were determined," she says.
"Another major cause I would champion would be the further inclusion of Nigerians in the day-to-day governance and politics of the country; enabling Nigerians to see that they have a say in who becomes the president, governor, senator, house of Rep and Assembly members, chairman of local government and councilor. Except we speak we can never get our way."
She explains, "the paradigm shift in our system — politics, economy, social and otherwise — is a crucial turn for us. Some of the countries that are doing well economically today experienced similar things. Take China for instance, when they turned 50, there was a turn in their economy and other aspects of their lives. Look at Ghana; they can comfortably say they are competing with us in terms of being the giant of Africa. This is because when they turned 50 so many things (their economy inclusive) turned around.
"Nigeria is 51, and with the way the elections were conducted, people, especially the women and youths are becoming more aware of the happenings in the system. Women are no longer shy or timid to talk about politics in their homes and in the public. I’m one person that admires the first lady, Dame Patience Jonathan; while people are busy checking her grammar, she was busy pushing her husband’s agenda. It is not about the English you speak, the company or class you keep, rather it should about your nation.
"We are happy travelling to other countries for holiday but we can’t do same in our country. I often ask my friends how many times they have taken time to travel round Nigeria for their 'wannabe' and see God’s given gifts that he had blessed us with. There is Obudu Cattle Ranch, Ikogosi Warm Spring, Idanre Hill, Nike Resort and other attractive places. We need to come to the realisation that it is not about the countries we travel to. I have travelled around, particularly Africa and I discovered there is no country like Nigeria. We are unique, diverse, intelligent and aggressive, and believe in ourselves but we are not maximising what we have to better our lives."
For Laura Onuk, government should bring into governance credible women that know what they are doing, women that will push the agenda of this country to the next level; it is not just filling the numbers.
"I think everyone is or should be politically inclined. I don’t know if what you mean is whether I’m seeking a political office; I wouldn’t say so but if given the opportunity to serve my country I would gladly do to the best of my ability."
On her book, The Eagle’s Dance
EAGLES differ from many other birds of prey, mainly by their larger size, powerful build, and heavier head and beak.
"Writing a book has always been on my mind but starting it was a dilemma. I used my personal experiences in the book; it is not to flaunt my experiences but to show that if you are determined you will make it."
Laura continues, "while Eagles are known for their strength, size, swiftness, powers of flight and keenness of vision; chickens are, however, known for being cowardly, timid and scared. Eagles turn images into reality. They do not need to prove any point rather points prove them. To test baby eagle, the mother eagle will take it from the height it was born to floor and allow it test its strength and sight. They don’t allow their backgrounds to determine their future heights. Eagles do not just exist; their life is full of glory especially it blossoms."
GROWING up was, "for want of a better word, painful and almost intolerable but I always knew that this wasn’t the life I wanted. I knew I had to take charge of my future because only eagles take charge of their future. My father is a watch repairer and not a horologist."
Like the Bible puts it 'some obtained what was promised, others did not receive their promise'. “Those who obtained paid a heavy price to receive the prize. I can tell you that I have paid heavy prices to gain my freedom.
“Eagles struggle and persevere through all odds. I can’t remember how many times we were sent back from school because of non-payment of school fees. I cannot recount how many times we cried ourselves to sleep as children, out of hunger. We were thrown out of our apartments several times because of non-payment of rents. I remember once, I was about 15 years old, when we were thrown out of our apartment and we didn’t have anywhere to go to, so my father had to go live in his small shop in Alaba market in Lagos, while my mother, my siblings and I (six of us) had to go stay with my mother’s elder sister at the Central Bank Staff quarters in Alakija, Lagos. We stayed with that family for seven months, until it became very obvious that we had to leave.
"One day, my father decided we all move into the small shop in the market where he was staying. And one night, fire engulfed a part of the market and we woke up to the sounds of people screaming and running and trying to save as much property as they could muster. We carried our possessions on our heads, trying to run far away from the fire as fast and far as we could. It was a sight to behold.
"Whenever I remember that day in my mind’s eye and instead of bringing tears to my eyes, it serves as a bolster for me when my human strength fails me. I use it as an encouragement to say to others that where you are right now does not determine your final destination."
Re-stereotyping the mind set about my people
I’M from Akwa Ibom State, and a very proud Ibibio woman. Anywhere I’m, I fly the flag of my state and of my people very high; reasons being that, more often than not, people have stereotype about Efik and Ibibio people. The general notion about us that is that as women, we are only good in bed and not better than being house helps or house-keepers (both male and female). Even in the movies, we are stereotype with such roles as Ekaette, Uduak, Okon or Imabong -- being the house boy or house girl.
"I’m one person that has flown the flag of my state, though a lot of my people are domestic assistants, that doesn’t mean we all are into such menial jobs. There are some Efik and Ibibios who are at the peak of their career and they are doing well for themselves and I’m one of such persons. I don’t talk about schools I attended and I normally don’t like to say much about what I have achieved academically."