‘Our goal is to help SMEs scale-up, end cycle of poverty in Nigeria’
Mrs Nwamaka Okoye is an entrepreneur and Chief Executive Officer of Housessories Limted, a furniture making firm, as well as the President of Stanford Seed Transformation Network in Nigeria. In this interview with FEMI ADEKOYA, she talks about the Network’s forthcoming anniversary and efforts to assist small businesses scale-up, redefine their strategies and make ambitious changes toward exponential growth that will generate new jobs notwithstanding the challenges in their environment.
Can you give an insight into the objectives of Stanford Seed Transformation Network in Nigeria?
The Stanford Seed Transformation Network in Nigeria is a network of business leaders and entrepreneurs who are all alumni of the Stanford Seed Transformation Programme. The programme was initiated by and run by the Stanford Graduate School of Business, California. It was started with a grant from some philanthropic individuals, Bob and Dottie King. They gave $150 million to Stanford University. The goal was to end the life cycle of poverty in developing economies. Instead of using the usual aid donation to Africa, the University decided to use it to empower people and companies. They decided to use the fund to assist small businesses to scale up their operations to large enterprises. They gathered entrepreneurs who are already in business and are innovative as well as have the potential to scale up in the next five years, and equip them with what they will need to scale up. They provide them with the support in terms of learning. The programme is one that the entrepreneur applies to and if admitted, will come into the centre and have sessions with experts from the school and other industry experts to equip them on tools and methodologies needed to grow and transform the business. Some of the STP topics include leadership training, strategy, organisational design, business model development, operations, accounting, marketing among others.
At the end of the sessions, they help the entrepreneurs with developing a transformation that plan that will help them actually scale and go in a certain direction. After doing this, they also provide support. When the entrepreneurs graduate, they provide support like consultancy, coaching, internship among others. It is a huge resource.
Is the programme limited/restricted to alumni or open to the public?
The network is only open to only the alumni of the Stanford Seed Transformation Programme while the programme is open to everybody. You have to apply but have an annual revenue range of between $150,000 and $15 million, as well as a big vision. The purpose is to alleviate poverty by empowering entrepreneurs. This vision is being actualised through the network of alumni by building synergies for advocacy and business networking. I have been able to network with a service provider with the furniture value-chain to deliver high quality made-in-Nigeria products as against importation.
How many members do you have on the network and why Nigeria at this point?
The first cohorts of the Stanford Seed Transformation Programme were accepted in 2013 and I was a part of them. It was done in West Africa. About five West African countries were represented there. Recently, the programme was launched in East Africa and India as well. The Network itself was launched in Nigeria last year, on September 23rd. At the event, all the cohorts from all the Networks came to Nigeria and it was the first time the network was inaugurated. We are independent but co-dependent with the Stanford University. We are registered in Nigeria already one year in the country. As the giant of Africa, we have to be the trail blazers. We have also realised that it is not enough for us to be a part of the Stanford Seed Transformation Programme and receive the benefits and have our companies creating wealth but also give back to the society. Earlier this year, we launched something called SUITE and that is the Start-Up Impact Training for Entrepreneurs. This initiative by the Stanford Seed Transformation Network Nigeria is one in which we leverage our strengths as a network of business leaders and entrepreneurs. Every month, we have free trainings for start-Up entrepreneurs because we recognise that there are things that we have learnt to be where we are. If we can train these other start-ups, they don’t have to go through some of the things that we went through and it might make it easier for them to be able to apply for the Stanford Seed Transformation Programme and therefore scale-up. This will also help us to grow as a nation and we do want Nigeria to have a strong global presence.
Considering the issues of abuse of grants, what are the measures put in place and what is the maximum that can be accessed by a member of the network under the initiative?
Stanford Seed does not give you grants; rather they give you training and support. So, you get almost like an MBA education, but in practical form. They also give you access to funding opportunities. While I was undergoing the programme, they brought in potential investors to talk to us. They won’t give you money, so it cannot be abused. As regards the application process, you have to write. It is based on the contents of your application that you will be considered. For you to graduate from the programme, you must have developed a transformation plan. It is not really about giving money because it is assumed that you are already a profitable business but for some inefficiency that need to be addressed. We have been able to improve our operational efficiency as a business after the training. You are given the tools to survive and thrive as a market leader.
From your experience, how would you describe doing business in Nigeria?
You can see from the index that there has been an improvement in the ranking but it is still tough doing business in Nigeria. The easiest business to do in Nigeria is trading. Many times, trading doesn’t add value to the society. But that is the easiest way. If you look at people that have made a lot of money, they made money from trading before venturing into industrialisation. Industrialisation is very difficult. Even the banks are into trading. It is very difficult to survive in the real sector because there are so many variables that are inconsistent. You cannot predict what the policies might be tomorrow. There are a lot of things that have to be provided by the entrepreneur. You have to be your own government and still pay taxes as well as get harassed by the tax people arbitrarily. You can’t even trust the infrastructure, people, among others. If you are trying to do a business that will transcend generations, then there is also a challenge of finding leadership material. You are sometimes challenged when you have talents who have very low level of intellectual curiosity. This is because the world is changing everyday and the only way to keep up is to change. If you hire talents for their skills set, those skills can go obsolete with a new app or new way of doing business. Such people have difficulties adapting to such technologies or learning something new. They sometimes want to remain on the job description for which they were hired rather than being versatile.
In terms of the challenges, human capital is a big issue as well as finance. Trust is also an issue as it limits an entrepreneur’s access to credit and when you get such access, it is always very expensive. Power is equally a huge challenge. It is difficult to do business but I believe having a business goes beyond making money but a means to growing a nation. I believe it is through private enterprises that the nation will grow. Apart from your business growing and expanding, the people that have been trained on the job also help to transform the nation when they start their business. To own a business in the real sector is a way of contributing to my quota to nation building, helping people to understand what things should be and creating an environment that is ideal as possible and one that is devoid of the Nigerian factor, so that people begin to imagine the possibilities and experience the realities as it is in other parts of the world.
What mechanisms have been put in place by the Network to ensure that goals and objectives are realised?
What makes us different is our goal at the Stanford Seed Transformation Network. We seek to help Nigeria become a global force and economy to reckon with. We want to be the most vibrant network of entrepreneurs in Nigeria. We have a number of programmes that we currently execute. One of them is the tactical workshop that is facilitated by thought leaders in the industry. To deal with tactical issues that businesses face. In some of these programmes, we make them open to the public in order to bridge the gap between the C-level and other levels of the leadership in the organisation because of the yawning divide. We are enriching the environment through the quality of start-ups and entrepreneurs that we produce. We are establishing ourselves as thought leaders in the society to help propagate some of the solutions that we have developed as well as stories of how some entrepreneurial challenges were addressed. This Saturday, we are having a year-end dinner and our first anniversary. The Chairman of MTN Nigeria, Dr. Pascal Dozie who is our guest speaker will be talking about his experience as well as his highs and lows. Everyone hears the winning story but nobody hears about the challenges and they were overcome. By doing this, he will help many to learn and help us to advocate for policies that are beneficial to the business community. I have reached to the PEBEC council on the possibility of having a town hall meeting on the ease of doing business. We are harnessing these synergies to be focused and move Nigeria to be a global force in the world economy.
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