Exceptionally brilliant is a modest way to describe the octogenarian, Olutoyin Olakunrin. She is a distinguished woman of many caps with an exceptionally brilliant career many would envy! An accountant and a founding member/President of the prestigious Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria. So passionate about her job as an accountant was she that with some help of some other females in her field, they formed Society of Women Accountants in Nigeria. Olakunrin encouraged women to realize their potentials in the field of accountancy, mathematics and other numeracy disciplines. She didn’t only pursue a career in accounting, she also delved into the manufacturing industry, owning and managing industrial units. She also ran a stock broking firm and was on the council of the Nigeria Stock Exchange. In Corporate Management, she was the first female President of the Institute of Directors (Nigeria), an arm of the prestigious Institute of Directors UK – a body that sets standards and monitors the practice of corporate management worldwide. In the Educational sector, she participated in the monitoring of the Lagos State University, she has been a Council member of the University of Ado Ekiti, and in the last eight years, has been Chairman of the Education Trust Fund, a Federal Government Fund set up to utilize a 2% levy on all companies in Nigeria to elevate the quality and structure of the sector covering all Local Government areas and all levels of education.
FUNKE BABS-KUFEJI spent a riveting afternoon with this amazon, who spoke to her about her career, life experiences and turning 80!
For an 80 years old woman, you look absolutely fabulous, is there a secret to your looking this good?
I thank god for the way I look I thank god for my life. The secret to my looking this good is the grace of god. I have good health and good family. life does not stress me, so that is why I look this good.
As a trained Chartered Accountant and a founding member of (ICAN), how were you able to garner respect in a male dominated profession as far back as 1965?
I qualified as a Chartered accountant of england and wales in 1963, after which I came straight home and we founded ICan in 1965. I belonged to the accounting body from 1963 and that was the body that covered all different accounting qualifications. It was in 1965 that the more professional bodies were removed and put into ICan. I was the only female in that body. I thank god that both the professions and business community accepted me on my arrival because I was much younger than most of them and by stature I was very small, so maybe it was an element of sympathy for me. But I never demanded any form of sympathy and I acted professionally. as a yoruba girl, I respected my elders. I remember there was an assignment I was sent to perform as I had been auditing that client’s books. It was about 10 working days inside a cold room, because the client had demanded a physical count. we all came out every ten minutes to breathe fresh air and went back in. My friends suggested I turn down the job, but I did not see it that way.
Did you at any point feel like you needed to prove yourself a lot more than your male counter parts to be respected and did you ever think of giving up?
I never thought of giving up. Did I have to work harder to prove myself? yes, I think I did. There were occasions, when arriving at a client’s place, they would assume I was a secretary and were usually surprised to see that I was leading the team. I never allowed anybody to carry my books for me, as that would be an indication of weakness-the weaker gender. I put in as much into the work and more so as to prove that I was equal to my contemporaries.
You were the first Chairman of Society of Women Accountants and a promoter of the organization for over 10 years. In your own opinion, has the organization achieved what it is set out to do and how would you say it has helped female Accountants in Nigeria?
yes I would say that the organization has been a very successful, more successful than we even hoped for. we set out to draw more girls into the profession. There is a feeling that a woman who is very mathematical won’t get a husband, but we have shown that that doesn’t apply. of course we talked to the women at the market and girls in schools, encouraging them to see us as models to look up to. some of our members held lessons at their homes for ladies living in their locality. we were able to give support to women to attend classes in accountancy, hitherto, their husbands had been reluctant to let them go, but here were we mother hens, ready to protect them. we found out that women in other professions could not break the glass ceilings to get to the highest levels in their professions because of lack of accounting knowledge. so we ran courses for them called accountancy for non-accountants and we ran it at the institute’s head quarters. Through this, we encouraged the females in other professions to form their own bodies too. The society of women accountants in nigeria and all the female accountants are a big united force to be reckoned with in ICan.
There is a general belief that accountants who audit private and public company accounts contribute to corruption in the public and private sectors. As a foremost accountant how will you respond to this?
we do not live in a bubble, we are essentially part of the nigerian public and so despite all the pressures put by ICan and our leaders, we are not immune from the cankerworm in the nigerian situation. ICan tries desperately to give them the kind of support they need, but whilst our motto is “accuracy and Integrity” they need to get employment and retain employment, to be able to feed themselves and their families and when they err, it is because of we nigerians who employ them and who live in a corrupt world. ICan tries to instill this discipline by threatening them with discipline and to encourage them in all ways to uphold their integrity.
You also served as the first Female President of the Institute of Directors (Nigeria) an arm of the prestigious Institute of Directors UK – a body that sets standards and monitors the practice of corporate management worldwide. What will you say your greatest achievement was heading this group?
I was a member of the UK branch and found the interaction with other directors very useful and rewarding. so when Chief guobadia decided to set up a branch in nigeria, I was one of the foundation members. There were very few members at the startup, and we used a colleague’s small office off Ikorodu road. we were trying to build up membership but still dependent on the UK. when Chief guobadia handed over the institute to me. I had a look at the UK office and decided we should do something similar, so with great faith and a lot of hard work, we were able to move to a flat in Victoria Island. It was a lot more appropriate for an institute of directors; we invited the UK to commission. we, the few founding members donated books and other items to make it look slightly prestigious. we started to hold programs and started recruiting. we even established a relationship with the presidency to consider us as one of the institutions that they would consult on corporate management issues. But now of course, IoD has grown tremendously. we are no longer a branch of london, we stand on our own. we have thousands of members and we are making a big impact. we are indeed a force to be reckoned with.
A woman of many caps you’ve worked as an accountant, delved into manufacturing and worked in the public sector on the Education Trust fund and more. Which one of these many jobs gave you the most fulfillment and why?
on that it will be the education trust fund, because we took it up from infancy and built it into an organization that identifies the needs in education at all levels and establishes support. During the time we were there, we worked with the FIrs to encourage
there were occasions, when arriving at a client’s place, they would assume i was a secretary and were usually surprised to see that i was leading the team. i never allowed anybody to carry my books for me, as that would be an indication of weakness-the weaker gender. i put in as much into the work and more so as to prove that i was equal to my contemporaries.
the private sector to build up education tax. we did this by studying every education taxpayer year after year. I also had six trustees working with me representing the six zones. They effectively studied their zones because they had been in education all their lives. even with picking the board, we had one person representing the universities, secondary, primary and other tertiaries. we were able to get the almajiris and their mallams to recognize that studying the quran alone was not enough. we established discussions. we were part of the feeding of schools program and had achieved great success in Kano state (not funded by us), because it was private sector driven and the ultimate aim was to produce education fit for participation in the private sector. we tried to run it on a private sector system and we worked to have not more than 100 personnel. Today it has become more of a public sector agency. It caters for only tertiary institutions and has expanded to 500 employees. It is now called TetFund.
As chairman of Education Trust Fund will you say companies have been cooperating in remitting their contribution to the funds and how has the fund assisted in improving infrastructure in the educational institution particularly in universities?
I was chairman of eTF 1999-2007, at that time the big companies were cooperating, and just before we left, Ifueko omoigui- okauru took over at the inland revenue and taxes improved tremendously for that year. During our time, there were two years when government did not provide capital funding to the universities and the little amount we could provide was all they had. TetFund doesn’t cater for primary and secondary levels, just tertiary. Presently, the taxes have improved tremendously, so the universities are better funded now.
What is your general view on the education system in Nigeria and what issues do you think should be addressed so as to improve it?
I see so many people who have graduated from secondary school and who are not educated. In many states, Primary education is still carried out in the mother language. when do they convert to the english language that is common throughout the country and will help them outside the country? Many teachers who are working now have missed education and are not qualified to teach the younger ones. we have a craze for going into the universities rather than for teaching and technical education. Many leave university without understanding the purpose for which they have graduated. In fact, many graduates pay their way through, especially the girls, through cash or in kind. we should do more to produce quality teachers, we should do more to produce technical skills to build up the country, it appears that what we seriously need is for government to re-examine the education system and design it towards achieving the vision for where nigeria is supposed to be heading.
Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
yes. looking back honestly, any one my age would realize that there are some life objectives one would have achieved better, but I am not going into that now.
What advice do you have for women who aspire to take up leadership roles in male dominated fields to excel?
They are male dominated because there are few women there, so my first suggestion would be to get more women into that field. however, there are some professional activities that are not suitable for women. women tend to be multi-tasked as nature intended them to be. If they are married, they have to attend to their husbands and if they have children, care for them and that is a full time task. sometimes women feel it is the system that doesn’t allow them to achieve the same level as men, but it is actually the various distractions they are involved in. whereas men can be pigeon eyed focused on their work.
secondly, women are built differently from men, and whilst they might have difficulties in carrying out various functions, men, similarly, have difficulties in areas that women are appropriately built for. I think women are too bothered about wanting to be equal to men. They should concentrate on doing what they are designed for and exceed the men, that way the men will envy us. There is hardly any career line today where we do not have both women and men. I cannot think of any. everybody should make their individual choices and not be bothered by competition from men.
It’s rare to find one still working at your age and being on boards of companies. Any sign of retiring soon?
I think my 80th birthday is a watershed and I will be tailing off on the few things I’m still doing. at 80 no mater how fabulous one looks, some of the functions of the body are not like before. your legs don’t carry you as fast as they should, your memory is retiring, you’re no longer up to date with happenings in the community (mostly because you don’t want to), but we thank god for being able to be active till now.
On a lighter note how does it feel to be 80 and what legacy do you hope to leave behind?
In the last two months, I have asked that question at least twice everyday. really they say age is but a number, I now understand what they mean. 80 does not come up on my raider at all, except when I’m thinking about the parties planned. There are no rules for being 80, perhaps I should read a book on what it should be, turning 80.
as to what legacy I hope to leave behind, whatever I have achieved so far. I do not intend to start anything new at this stage, so you must take me as you see me.
And now that you have more time to yourself what do enjoy doing?
I catch up on local and international news on TV. I was never an athletic person, so my activities are more stationary than all over the place. I read, I pray, I reflect on my past, I write, though not much. These are the things that I do.
Do you have any pet Peeves?
I find it difficult to accept young people not being well mannered. During our time, it was tough, but we had to follow the rules. as yoruba’s we were sent to live with other relatives who would train us in the traditions of our culture if our parents were being too accommodating.
I do not like to see blatant and shameless stealing and corruption. There are many other activities that I cannot tolerate, but I try to tell myself that this is the 21st century, and I should try to accommodate. My
time was in the 20th century.
At 80 you have seen it and heard it all, what is your definition of a complete woman?
she is a woman who has satisfaction at being a woman. she has enjoyed being a woman and not a man. she has recognized the privileges of being a woman and has made the most of this with no regrets. she stands tall as a woman.
We should do more to produce quality teachers, we should do more to produce technical skills to build up the country, it appears that what we seriously need is for government to reexamine the education system and design it towards achieving the vision for where Nigeria is supposed to be heading.