Ada Osakwe

Our WCW for the week is one who has worked in three continents and travelled to over 30 countries in the course of her career before finally moving back home to Nigeria. With a track record of embracing opportunities and tackling challenges head on, Ada Osakwe is one woman to watch.

Ada Osakwe is currently the founder and CEO of Agrolay Ventures, an investment firm dedicated to growing the agricultural and food sector in Africa. Agrolay Ventures is an investor in early-stage agribusiness and food-related businesses including The Nuli Juice Company (www.nulijuice.com), Agroblend Foods (www.agroblends.com), Nature’s Bounty (www.reelfruit.com) and Africa Courier Express (www.ace.ng).

From November 2012 to May 2015, Ada served as the Senior Investment Adviser to Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. In this role, she was responsible for advising the Minister on all agriculture investment-related activities involving private sector investors, and led investment policy and financing initiatives. Amongst various initiatives, Ada led the development and launch of the $100 million Fund for Agricultural Financing in Nigeria (FAFIN), an innovative private equity fund dedicated to investing in small and medium agribusiness companies in Nigeria.

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Prior to her role at the Ministry, Ada was a Vice President at Kuramo Capital Management, a New York-based private equity firm that manages the $110 million Kuramo Africa Opportunity Fund. Ada also worked briefly with Actis, a multi-billion dollar Private Equity fund focused on emerging markets investing. For four years, Ada was a Senior Investment Officer at the African Development Bank Group (AfDB), based in Tunisia, where she led multi-disciplinary teams through the evaluation of debt financing and equity investments worth over $1billion across the energy and transport sectors in Africa. Prior to this role, she was a Portfolio Manager and Investment Officer in the AfDB Treasury team and a pioneering member of the group that led AfDB’s drive to develop local debt capital markets in Africa. Before the AfDB, Ada was an Analyst in the Debt Capital Markets team of BNP Paribas investment bank, London.

Ada received her MBA from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, where she was awarded a Merit-based Scholarship and the Kellogg Leadership Award, the highest student honour given for distinguished leadership.  She holds an MSc in Economics and Finance from the University of Warwick, U.K. and a BSc in Economics (First Class Honours) from the University of Hull, U.K.

6 Practical Lessons we can learn from Ada Osakwe

Be part of something Big Make something big out of anything you’re part of.

Ada served as the Senior Investment Adviser to the minister of Agriculture Dr Akinwunmi Adesina, advising him on his policies regarding private sector investments into the food and agriculture sector.  She was the point person for the minister on matters involving investment in the Agriculture sector in Nigeria. She dealt with global companies such as Unilever, SABMiller, Nestle, or other types of investors looking to gain exposure to Agriculture in Nigeria.

During her time in government, Nigeria’s agricultural sector attracted more than $4 billion in private sector investment commitments and she is an integral reason why.

There are have been and will continue to be numerous senior advisers that serve their time without yielding any tangible results but the work this particular adviser in the person of Ada Osakwe did attracted the attention of Forbes Magazine and other international platforms. She made something BIG out of her engagement. Are you making something big out of whatever it is you’re currently involved in? Think about it.

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Go out for meetings/conferences/seminars and network!

According to Ada “After about a year working at BNP Paribas, I attended a meeting with the African Development Bank (ADB) during their Road-show in London, and met a member of the management team, a Nigerian, who thought I should be working for an African bank. She told me about opportunities on the Program for senior analysts (PSA) at ADB, now known as the Young Professionals Program (YPP), and asked me to apply. I did not know about the ADB at the time, but I was intrigued because I had always been passionate about Africa and business on the continent. So I did my research on the program, and was impressed by it as it was similar to the YPP at the World Bank and IFC, but focused solely on Africa. I applied, went through the rigorous recruitment process, which involved going out to Tunisia (where the ADB is based) for a series of tests and interviews. I eventually got the job.”

Some of us when offered opportunities to attend events, seminars and the likes shy away from it. Sometimes when we manage to attend we sit at the corner of the room minding our business. What is that about? Those are golden opportunities to network! Practice conversational skills and spot or be spotted for golden opportunities just like Ada was. Don’t play yourself.

Don’t do things “just because”

According to Ada “Before I left for my MBA, I took a 2 year leave of absence from ADB(African Development Bank), just as a hedge, to at least be guaranteed of a job after the MBA. I was excited about Kellogg because they are strong in finance, strategy, marketing and leadership, all the skills I wanted to gain to be a more ‘rounded’ professional.

I had an amazing time at Kellogg. We worked hard and we played hard. There was a strong culture about getting things done, and Kellogg helped me become what I am today particularly due to the strong focus on case-based learning and delivering excellent work on time. I learned to be more confident, focused, and to priorities and meet deadlines.

There were a lot of social activities at school, and as part of the Kellogg Worldwide Experience and Service Program (KWEST) and the Global Immersion in Management (GIM) we got to go on trips to study countries around the world. I was extremely interested in Latin America, particularly Brazil, as the country has overcome a lot of similar development issues we face in Nigeria and offered opportunities to learn. I studied Brazil for an entire quarter that cumulated in a 2-week in-country visit to Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Recife. I also visited the Dominican Republic and Peru during my time at Kellogg, which were fabulous experiences as I got to do things like white water rafting, cascading off 50-feet high waterfalls, zip-lining, bungee jumping, and a lot of other fun student-led activities, which helped me build strong relationships with my classmates.

Back at school, I also got involved with extracurricular activities to build my leadership skills. I was on the 8-member Student Government team, elected as the Global Affairs Vice President. I also introduced “The Kellogg Debates”, an interactive panel discussion with faculty and students about pertinent global issues and the program has been such a success, the debate still goes on in Kellogg up till this day.

I also got involved with the African Business Club at Kellogg, and co-chaired the 2011 Kellogg Africa Business Conference, where we attracted President Thabo Mbeki (former President of South Africa) as the keynote speaker.

For my internship, I joined ACTIS, a Private Equity firm based in Lagos, which was my first real experience working in Nigeria. I knew I wanted to move back to Nigeria after business school so this was a targeted strategy, to get a feel for being on-the-ground, without having to do it permanently yet.

I graduated from Kellogg in 2011, winning the Dean’s distinguished Service award and the Kellogg Four Pillars Award, which was truly gratifying and humbling, the icing on the cake following an amazing experience at Kellogg”.

As I read this I said to myself why wouldn’t she have graduated with awards when her going there in the first place was a very well informed strategic move. For most people, choosing a 1st degree course was a “just because” step; it was the next thing to do and you were possibly good at the subject requirements so you went for it, But please when it comes to a post graduate degree and any other step after a BSc. you must be wiser and strategic in your choices. Don’t just move with the wind and drag your feet into things. Do your research, match your interests with the opportunity offerings, check that it aligns with your long term plans before you move.

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Let people know what you want

According to Ada “Sometime in 2012, I visited Nigeria and spoke to a friend who runs a Private Equity fund and we spoke about the industry in general, I explained about how I enjoyed doing Private Equity but still had a deep passion for development. I was looking for something that merged the two. He told me about the Tony Elumelu Foundation and the work they were doing to develop the private sector and entrepreneurs in Africa, and he made me aware of a job they were recruiting for to be seconded to the Ministry of Agriculture as a Senior Investment Advisor to the Minister. I had a look at the job description and returned to New York to think about the opportunity, especially the compensation, given it would involve a significant pay-cut from my PE salary. After a few months, I got a call from Nigeria, reminding me to apply for the role if I was still interested.

I researched the role further, and learned more about the Minister, Dr. Akin Adesina. Everyone spoke very highly of him, he had a very strong academic and professional pedigree, and I realised it was a good opportunity for me to contribute to the country, as well as learn from such a charismatic person. The role was also relevant to my skill-set, as it involved being the point-person driving private sector investments into Agriculture in Nigeria.

I met the minister for an interview in the U.S, and after 3 hours of chatting I was convinced I wanted to be part of the ambitious plans he had in mind for Agriculture in Nigeria.”

If you don’t tell people what you’re interested in in, if you don’t let them know your plans, how will they know the kind of information that can help you? It’s important that when relating with people you leave them with a clear idea of who you are and what your interests are. You never know who can link you up with your next big thing. Another thing we should take away from here is the importance of having a good network of people across all walks of life and preserving already existing relationships. Ada was working abroad, but the friend in question is someone based in Nigeria. If she had failed to nurture that relationship and it completely collapsed, she could have missed the opportunity. Reconnect with old friends and build new relationships today.

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Confidence! Confidence!! Confidence!!!

Ada gave this advice in an interview “make sure you are confident when you interact with colleagues or partners in the work place or business environment… Particularly if you are a woman, and you are young (or young-looking), some people in the work place tend to disrespect you or take you for granted. So you need to know your stuff! Be articulate in expressing yourself, be confident in your interactions with people, and hold your own. Just think about what you bring to the table and focus on that. It’s all about what value you add.”

While speaking on what is it like for her as a woman in the boardroom, she said “I tell people that since I came back to Nigeria as a professional, I have never felt an outright discrimination as a woman. I tell people, I just have to speak at a meeting and give my point of view and whatever concepts the men may have about a woman falls away. Know your stuff as a woman! You have to be extra prepared. If you are in school, stay up late and read. If you are making a presentation in the office be on Powerpoint, do your research and come prepared because that is the only way this male-dominated society with the perception that they have can be changed. I tell every woman that I mentor, know your stuff if you want to make it in this society. Have confidence. Nobody can take that away from you. Also, find a good supporter, mentor or role model.

I always say to those I mentor, be the one to take notes because at the end of the meeting, it will give you an opportunity to say something. It adds up.”

She also shared this story at the same interview “When I was working as Senior Investment Adviser to Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, he was invited to speak at the Bankers Committee Meeting with the former CBN Governor as chairman. They all went to Calabar for their annual retreat. My boss couldn’t go so, he said: “Ada, please go and stand in for whatever they have to say on Agriculture”. At one point, Dr. Sanusi was lamenting why my boss could not come and so he was told that he sent somebody and he was like, “Who?” So, I stood up. I was wearing a blue, short straight dress, keeping it nice and elegant with my heels and I had long hair. The governor was like, “Is this the person Adesina sent?” And he added, “Things are changing in Agriculture”. And I said: “Yes sir. This is part of the transformation agenda.””

When I read her comeback to Dr. Sanusi I said “You go girl” in my head. Lol. The truth is the world of work right now is still male dominated and so people are still trying to get used to the idea of skirts in the board room and tbh I think that’s okay. It’s okay because me and you were born for a time like this. Me and you are the ones who can help these guys get comfortable with the idea of a 50-50 society. The best way we can is to show them competence thereby increasing their confidence on our abilities. You might be thinking why do we have to do this? Well, these are the times we were born in, it was even much worse before. Let’s just do our homework, ooze confidence and share those brilliant ideas we have built up in our brains.

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Keep it Classy

In an interview, Ada was asked “What won’t you do in the name of fashion?” She said “I always like to look elegant and respect myself as a woman and in the way I present the essence of being a woman. I may want to be sexy, show legs where possible but no exposure. I work with my body. I wouldn’t wear something that would make me an object of somebody’s wet dreams. We can be sexy and elegant without showing anything. I will not go to the extent of showing parts of the body that the Lord has given to me to be covered and kept.

Let’s echo this together “I wouldn’t wear something that would make me an object of somebody’s wet dreams.” It’s really simple. Try to not distract people from your brilliant ideas with your beautiful figure. Except of course that’s the kind of attention that you seek but if it’s not, C’mon. Cover up. Save the goodies for Bae or at least other more appropriate engagements.

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In 2014, Ada was named one of Forbes 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa. She is also an Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellow of the Africa Leadership Institute and a fellow of the African Leadership Network (ALN). She is a founding board member of The SHAPE initiative, and IMPACT, both youth-focused non-profit organizations in Tunisia and Nigeria respectively.

This post was culled from the Thresh woman WCW Column. The ThreshWoman WCW is a column I manage with the goal to celebrate and encourage the successes of women all around the world while inspiring other women to chase their dreams fiercely. 

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