Covenant I made with God at age 40 — Folorunsho Alakija
Billionaire businesswoman and philanthropist, Folorunsho Alakija, tells MOBOLA SADIQ about her life at 70, business, family and other issues
Have you achieved all that you wanted at age 70?
Do you know that the goal post continues to change as long as one is alive? For as long as one is alive, one will always have other things to achieve. One can never achieve everything while one is alive. There would always be something that one would be aspiring to do or get. And, it might not be everything one wanted at a particular milestone; one could still be working on some. It is when one dies and gets to the ‘beautiful gate’ that one would know if one has achieved all. Right now, it is too early to say (that I have achieved all) because I still have more time.
What are the most profound lessons you have learnt about business and life in general?
About business, I have learnt that it is not every business one ventures into that one would succeed at. One would win some and lose some. But, when one loses, one should not give up or run away. One just has to keep trying. It is the mistakes that one made that would teach one lessons that one could apply to improve on subsequent attempts. I have learnt that one can turn one’s challenges into bigger and better opportunities.
As an employer in Nigeria, I have learnt that when one hires a staff, no matter what they tell one during an interview, one is going to find out that one would have to teach them a lot of things they said they could do. But, one must not throw the baby away with the bathwater. One should give them an opportunity to learn something new. Also, one must follow up with staff when one issues instructions. Set reminders and targets. At home, one would find out that children, no matter how young, are extremely intelligent. Children will test one’s patience and mood. Also, one should not be far away from one’s children. One should always be in constant contact with them. Children need to be guided and if parents don’t teach them, outsiders would teach them the hard way. Every child deserves the attention of their parents. When one is too busy with work or business, something could happen in their lives that could lead to regret.
In what ways are you grooming women to be successful in business?
We are doing that through ‘Flourish Africa’—a women empowerment movement. I came up with that because public speaking had made a lot of people reach out to me to become their mentors. But, I don’t have the time to mentor people individually. So, I decided to make it a group thing since they have common interests, goals and values. I set up Flourish Africa to help women to be who God created them to be and flourish.
Is this initiative for only Nigerians or other africans as well?
We are getting there but an adage says, ‘Charity begins at home.’ We felt we should start in Nigeria before we spread our tentacles to other African countries and beyond. In June, we wanted to take some women to the Commonwealth Business Forum in Rwanda but it was postponed.
How does it feel to be re-appointed as the Chancellor of the Osun State University, Osogbo?
I thank God that nobody said, “Thank God, her tenure is over; good riddance.” It was the exact opposite. That means I have been doing something that endeared them towards me, to the point of re-electing me for a second tenure. It feels good to know that whatever I’m doing is being appreciated.
How do you combine being a Chancellor with your activities as a businesswoman?
The Chancellor role is not an everyday one. It is quarterly, and once a year, for convocation. They bring matters to my attention and I give advice. It does not take too much time
Women of your status in society usually have many traditional titles. Do you deliberately not have one?
Yes, it is deliberate. It is not for me.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a major scare in many countries, especially for elderly citizens. Did you at any point fear contracting it?
When the index case was reported in Nigeria in March 2020, God specifically told me, “Fear not my daughter. I have anointed the doorposts of my children’. So, I was going about my duties without any fear. As soon as the airports were opened, I travelled to countries I needed to go to, and I’m still flying. I initially said I would not take the vaccine because after all, God had spoken to me. However, my son convinced me to take it. He told me it was a precaution, so I just took the vaccine last month.
Do have spiritual fathers that mentor you?
Of course, I do. One needs to. When one is confused about certain things, one needs a fatherly guide. One needs clarity and advice from them. They play the same role a biological father or mother would.
a lot of people say it is often hard for accomplished women to submit to their husbands. What’s your reaction to that?
That is a wrong notion. I have always submitted to my husband. The Bible says we should submit to our husbands and no one can rewrite the Bible. Also, one should not do things in ‘one’s way.’ Rather, one should do things in ‘God’s way.’ Husbands also have to love their wives. There is more demand on the woman to submit. They have to show one another respect. And, it’s not just about the money. One is also supposed to submit one’s money. In fact, one is supposed to submit everything that belongs to one. God no longer sees two people when one gets married; He sees one. Nobody owns anything more than the other (in a marriage).
Do you have any plans for retirement?
I am still feeling strong and fine. I still climb the staircase when I need to. And, it shall continue like that
With your fame (as a billionaire), how do you cope with demands from different quarters?
I do as much as I can because I cannot please everybody. If anybody else were in my shoes, I don’t think they would do more than I have done. As long as I have satisfied my conscience by following God’s instructions and helping out as best as I can, then I’m okay. If one tries to please everybody, one would end up pleasing nobody. We all have to help one another. I cannot do it alone. That is why many affluent people are helping out in whatever areas they can.
Can you share some of your childhood moments?
I grew up in a polygamous home. My dad had eight wives and 52 children. My mum was his first wife and they both died about 12 years ago, one month after each other. They lived till 92 and 95 years old respectively. I thank God that we have longevity in our family. I went to England at the age of seven with one of my siblings who was six years old. I was there for four years without any visit to Nigeria. Those four years actually shaped a big chunk of my life later on.
I met different people, different culture, different language, different food and different lifestyle. I really learnt a lot in those four years. Those four years were bittersweet in the sense that I didn’t like the weather. But, we learnt new things. We lived there and ‘grew up’ with people from a totally different culture from the one we were used to, so we found it interesting. By the time we came back (to Nigeria), we had begun to ‘lose’ the Yoruba language to the extent that we mispronounced some words. However, I grew out of that stage and began to speak proper Yoruba again.
I am glad that we were brought back to Nigeria because I learnt a lot of things, such as not trusting everyone like I used to. It became clear to me that it is only God that one can trust. Man would always deceive and fail one. Over time, I bonded more with my siblings that were about the same age with me. We stuck together a lot and did not listen to some of what our mothers told us about the other wives. Then, we all started getting married and we were not seeing one another as often as we used to. But, the love that bonded us was still there.
There have been different phases in life. There was a time I thought I needed to leave the bank to pursue another career. I no longer saw a future for myself at International Merchant Bank where I used to work. We (staff) started noticing that over the years, the rate at which people got