Bidemi Zakariyau: ‘I want to see more women included in the workplace’
Bidemi Zakariyau is the Founder & CEO of one of the fastest growing PR agencies in Nigeria, LSF|PR, a full-service public relations agency with core competencies in corporate communications, consumer and lifestyle brands. Zakariyau handles the day-to-day management of LSF|PR and currently leads her team in creating communications strategy for the consultancy’s clients. She is actively involved in advising clients on critical communications strategies and issues. Her work reflects the international scope and breadth of the agency’s offering and has included advising clients on entry strategies into the Nigerian Market and ongoing corporate reputation building efforts. She recently founded and is the head of business development of The Luxe Digest, a pan-African luxury content platform. In 2015, she was recognised as one of the leading female entrepreneurs under 25 in Nigeria by SME100 and in 2016 she was awarded The Future Awards Africa Prize for media enterprise. Earlier this year, she was recognised as one of the 100 most influential women in Nigeria by Leading Ladies Africa. A member of the Nigerian Bar Association and the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations, she also sits on the board of Réle Art Gallery. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks of her transition from law to public relations, her reason behind employing only women and her plans for the future among other issues.
You made a complete U-turn from law to public relations. Can you tell us what informed this decision?
I studied business at Brooke House College, Leicestershire, England. Law was one of the courses under the business foundation programme. At the end of the school year there were two best law students and I was one of them. At that point I thought the right thing to study at university was law even though I was intrigued by how the media space worked, but I was quite sure what I wanted then. So I went ahead and studied law at the University of Sheffield.
I moved back to Nigeria at the end of October 2011. It was too late to join the NYSC batch and it was also too late to join the law school at that time, so I decided to intern. My legal internship started at Consolex Legal Practitioners, where I was for a couple of months before moving to Udo Udoma & Belo-Osagie for six months. Interning at UUBO exposed me to a lot in terms of learning about the Nigerian business environment. It was also during this internship period that it became very clear to me that I did not want to practise law. I went ahead to join the law school in June/July 2012 because it was very important for me to qualify as a lawyer. I started to pursue my media interests while I was in the law school, because I was 100 per cent sure I wasn’t going to be working in the legal field once the law school was over. I set up LSF|PR and started working with small brands and taking on small-scale projects and once I was done with the law school, I decided it was time to focus on the business full-time.
Besides figuring out that you didn’t want to be a lawyer, what else motivated you to start your business? Especially with all the risks involved with starting one, why didn’t you look for a job?
Looking for a job never really crossed my mind and moving to Nigeria was quite tough for me. I didn’t know many people and I really felt like I had my back against the wall. I took the risk of starting my own business, not knowing how I was going to do it. Sometimes I thought I would fail, other times I thought I wouldn’t, but I started anyway.
How did you get the funding required to start?
I had zero capital to start with or any sort of funding support from friends, family or any third party. It was very tough, but I had to get really creative and utilise the little resources I had. I couldn’t afford an office, so I worked from home and made sure I always took meetings with clients at their office. When I saved enough money, I hired an assistant and eventually got an office. I then started to put a team together as the business grew. The business has since been able to fund itself to the point where we are now.
LSF|PR has been described as one of the fastest growing PR agencies in Nigeria. How does that make you feel?
(Laughing) I always think in my head “what are you saying?” It has taken a while for it to sink in. I started LSF|PR as a fashion PR company and in less than five years we’ve been able to build a diverse portfolio of clients within the corporate, consumer and lifestyle sector. We’ve also created a small business division, LSF|SME which is focused on start-ups and small businesses and LSF|Digital, which is our digital marketing division. A lot of times I don’t believe what we’ve achieved, but I’m very pleased that our work speaks for itself.
You’re known for employing women. Is there a reason behind that?
Inclusion is very important to me and LSF|PR as a company as well. If we get a CV from a man and he goes through the interview process and turns out he is competent and will add value to the company, we won’t say that we’re not hiring him. However, with regard to employing women, that’s something I’m very passionate about. The stats are very clear. There are fewer women in the workplace in Nigeria and fewer opportunities available to women compared to men. Women for so long have been marginalised in the workplace, women who, in all likelihood, had what it took; who were diligent and competent. I believe women who are competent and hardworking must be given a chance to excel.
Are there any women in business who inspire you?
Yes of course, Dr. Amy Jadesimi inspires me; her vision to lessen the country’s dependence on foreign investment and solve critical infrastructure issues in order to push local content and create jobs is admirable. I’m also very inspired by so many other women who have excelled and are excelling in their fields including Muni Shonibare, Denrele Sonariwo, Kene Rapu, Gozie Coker and so on. I’m inspired by women making a difference, whether they’re working in paid employment or running their own business.
You recently started working on a career development programme. What’s that about and why did you feel the need to start it?
The career development programme was birthed from the HR challenges we face as a company. In almost five years of running LSF|PR, we have the same challenges every time we’re looking to hire, we receive hundreds and hundreds of CV’s – meaning that a lot of people are looking for jobs. However, when it’s time to review those CV’s we narrow down to three or five at the maximum. What I’ve found from this is that people are “unemployable.”
Yes, unemployment is a huge challenge in Nigeria, but people don’t have the right skills to get a job. Little things from adding a subject to your email, simple email etiquette, adding a cover letter, addressing the right person – all those things are consistently missing from the CV’s we get sometimes and I thought to myself, that these people need to get out of the “unemployment circle”. Some of these people had no idea what was wrong and why they were not getting called after applying for a job.
As a result of this consistent problem, I decided to start the career development programme this year. It ran for five weeks (every Saturday), we had different people come speak to our participants. We started off with a one-on-one CV review with HR professionals and employers from different organisations. In the other weeks, we covered topics such as identifying opportunities, the importance of not being desperate when looking for a job, what to do while you wait for a job and most importantly, getting the job, keeping the job and growing at the job.
It was a great learning experience for the participants and myself too. This year I started quite small by working with 12 to 15 individuals who had previously applied to work at LSF|PR. Next year I hope to scale up by opening it up to more people.
In April 2017 you launched The Luxe Digest, which is quite different from PR. How did that come about and how do you find time to juggle both?
The idea to start The Luxe Digest was a result of my experience in PR. We have represented and currently represent a few luxury brands and there are no luxury media platforms to place clients’ content. Nigeria and other countries in Africa also have a very small or limited media landscape. I started researching this at the end of 2015 and found that this is a problem across Africa as a whole, well except South Africa, which is a more developed market in terms of luxury.
With my research findings, I decided that the continent needed a platform that would inform, educate and connect the continent and the world at large. Africa is still very much portrayed negatively by Western media. The Luxe Digest is a platform that tells our story, of course with a focus on the luxury sector. The world and the people on the continent need to know that, yes you can go to Accra and stay at a luxury hotel, or come to Lagos and shop local and foreign brands at concept stores that are as great as others in the Western world. People on the continent don’t even know what we have here; The Luxe Digest is a platform that is documenting this.
What are some of the key lessons you’ve learnt so far?
Finding and having your own voice is key. So many times people will try to push you in different directions and tell you what they think you should be doing, even if that’s not what you’re interested in. Listening is one thing, finding your own voice and focusing on what you really want is another thing. I’ve also learnt that it’s important to say NO, never take on too much and sometimes some things are just not meant for you.
What advice would you give to people who are looking to start their own business?
You can do it, be prepared. Focus, work hard, stay determined, and keep pushing. Success is a journey, take a breather to celebrate the little moments but don’t get distracted. You will feel lonely sometimes or even depressed but you have to snap out of those moments and remember why you started and where you want to get to. Start now, start small and scale. Sustainability is a key factor, don’t ignore it.
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