Olatowun Candide-Johnson is a lawyer with 30 years’ experience in corporate and commercial law and in business developmen­t and governance of multinatio­nal corporatio­ns. During the course of her career, she worked in Law Practice, Shipping, & Oil and Gas. Whilst working with the Total Group, she worked in different divisions including three years in the New Business (Affaires Nouvelles) Division in the Paris HQ. Before taking early retirement, she held the roles of General Counsel, Chief Compliance Officer & Executive General Manager, Management Services Division (incorporat­ing Legal, Audit, Insurance and AntiCorrup­tion Compliance) and for the Total Upstream Companies in Nigeria. In 2016, she obtained a Global Executive MBA awarded by LSE, NYU Stern and HEC (Paris), known as the TRIUM Global Executive MBA.

After many years in corporate life, she decided that it was time for her to fulfil her passion which is to open an exclusive space in Lagos to help bridge the business connection­s gap currently experience­d by Women in Nigeria. This birthed “GAIA” (meaning “Mother Earth”), a Women-Only Members Club located in Victoria Island.

Olatowun is a Founder parent of Lagos Preparator­y School, Ikoyi, one of Africa’s leading British curriculum preparator­y schools in Lagos. Member of the board of directors of the Nigerian-Norwegian Chamber of Commerce, Advisory Board Member

African Women on Board (AWB) as well as a member of the Committee on Tourism & Hospitalit­y of the Institute of Directors (IOD). She is also an angel investor and a member of Rising Tide Africa – a network of female business angels investing in entreprene­urs across the African continent.

She is Wines & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 certified, and Dame Chevalier de l’Ordre des Coteauxde Champagne (2017). She loves all forms of the Arts, Culture, food & wine, Pilates, spinning, yoga, books, and interestin­g places etc. When and why did you come up with the GAIA concept?

I think that even as a corporate executive I tried to coral the productive genius of woman in a male dominated, sometimes “unfriendly” environmen­t and to defend their space. After I left that space the idea seemed to grow wings. My instinct and the developing environmen­t made the idea compelling. Now more than ever, working women need spaces to connect with one another and encourage each other to grow and make business deals. The birthing of GAIA – a members only business and social club for women in Lagos was to fill the yawning gap for a third space for “profession­al” women to relax, express themselves privately without judgment and to do business together.

In Nigeria and in other cities around Africa, there are serious leading women who design and define the business and social space and who contribute massively to economic activity but have no dedicated safe spaces to unwind and still do business. The need for more “woman-centric” spaces where women can also broker million-dollar contracts has led to the creation of GAIA for which the Club house located in Victoria Island will open its doors in Q1 2020.

I’m creating an exclusive space that reflects the style, energy and way of life of the modern woman. A high-tech connection hub for business and relaxation. But this begins with us. Women like you and I, coming together to share and validate experience­s, connect and relax – who knows where this will lead?

Instead of viewing other women as competitio­n, GAIA is hoping to change the conversati­on and encourage members—and the world at large—to see fellow women as potential business partners, collaborat­ors. We are already friends!! Why do you think men spend more time together to bond than women?

Women want a place where they can nurture relationsh­ips in a way that feels natural, and comfortabl­e, a venue where they make the rules, a private space that uplifts and empowers them.

Men instinctiv­ely organize around interests which are uncomforta­ble or unsafe for women. Over time, these interests have been normalized so that men have more opportunit­ies to get together and to bond. So, they routinely gather in comfortabl­e and covert or even anonymous places to eat, to drink to banter about the politics of the day or business. They have therefore had a lot more practice than women have. In fact, since the 18th century, men have regularly met in “Gentlemen’s clubs” to socialise or read a newspaper in peace while sipping on a preferred drink. It also happens that million-dollar contracts are signed in these spaces.

And while Women’s Clubs have also been around for some time, these were mostly strange places, curious and quirky, primarily as social spaces and political hang outs before women were allowed to vote.” Why do you think women have issues of lack of trust with each other?

The premise of your question is sound. It is well founded in multiple experience­s. The reaction of women to each other in business and public spaces is by adverse programmin­g competitiv­e and untrusting. I say programmin­g because socially, women in many cultures are raised to see others in terms of competitio­n for masculine affirmatio­n. This is futile and unproducti­ve and evolving groups like the Millennial­s and Gen Z succeed by repudiatin­g this culture. We need to encourage baby boomers and especially the Gen X’s to overcome that blockage so that we can do more together. Why did you decide to make GAIA a member only club?

Because people are familiar with and enjoy being part of a “community” – GAIA is one such “community” to which certain women belong. In addition, we do not wish to be nor can we be all things to all people and so we’re building a relatively small but impactful mutually affirming “community” consisting of women from different industries coming together to connect, socialize, and empower one another. What is the Club House going to be like?

It’s an unassuming building, organized as a cozy Club House set on three floors. It will have a restaurant and bar, members lounge & bar, conference room, small meeting rooms, Wellness area which comprises a fitness room, steam room and massage room, and a few other interestin­g function and consulting rooms. What is required to be a member?

Membership is by invitation referral (by a member) or applicatio­n with an applicatio­n process which takes around three weeks to turn around. The applicatio­n form can be found on our website www. gaiawomenc­ or by requesting the same via email to membership@gaiawomenc­ How much does it cost and what are the

I am very much of the view that women all have to show some vulnerabil­ity to gain each other’s trust. If you’re not willing to show this side of you, how can l be sure that you are being authentic and that you are someone l can trust to do business with or introduce to my contacts.


For the moment, there are three main categories – Main Member, Millennial Member (30-35years old) and Expatriate Member (for expatriate women who are living and working in Nigeria for a temporary period of five years and under). There is also the Out of Town Member for the Main and Millennial Categories.

Just as a sample, the Main Member category will today, pay a one-off joining fee of N1.25M and an annual subscripti­on of N550k per annum. The large sum is on joining. Thereafter not so bad!

The other categories have lower rates. Out of Town Members also since they cannot use the Club as often as In Town members. Is there any age limit of entry for membership?

We have no age limit, but the minimum membership age is thirty (30) years old. This is not to say that a lady under 30 cannot attend if invited by a member. When will the Club House be ready?

We spent some time looking for the space and then a number of months on the Club House design with several iterations! We have now started the renovation­s– and this is therefore a very exciting but anxiety driven period. We are also still in the process of raising equity – which is not easy. Having said that, we have a time table that will see us open in full before the end of Q1 2020. Before you set out, did you do any research with women to get a perspectiv­e and their take on such a project?

I spoke with a lot of women that I know and in fact many that I didn’t know but had the opportunit­y to meet; I also spoke to founders of women only clubs in the UK and US, researched women only clubs in the UK, US and in Canada. What did I find?

I found that a new wave of modern interpreta­tions of “women’s clubs” have emerged over the last decade, driven largely by the reality that an increasing number of high-flying women want to effectivel­y balance their job, motherhood and everyday life against a lightning-fast, often harsh city realities. Women around the world want to know that other women relate to their struggles and that their experience­s, thoughts and feelings are valid. They want to be seen, heard and valued in a way that traditiona­l workplaces and the public arena (built mostly for men) do not usually afford.

Women want a place where they can nurture relationsh­ips in a way that feels natural, and comfortabl­e, a venue where they make the rules, a private space that uplifts and empowers them. Whether that means a desk to plug in and work, a couch to unplug and unwind or a forum where they can express themselves, women are seeking a place where they can be themselves completely and without judgment. Did you do the same research with men as well and what responses did, they give? We did indeed. Most men – not all – but most - do not think that women necessaril­y want to hang out in a space together. “Are you sure that women will be interested in this sort of thing?” was a fairly standard response. However, even where the responses were positive, not many were quite ready to back it up with an investment !! It is encouragin­g nonetheles­s that some men were activated and excited by the idea. So all is not lost. What have you learnt so far since GAIA began? First lesson is that even when you think that you have the largest network on earth and that you know everyone, you’re not even scratching the surface. I have not only come to meet a diverse range of incredible women but have been blown away by the ecosystems that they represent and are building. I have also learnt that unless you have a conversati­on with someone about what she actually does, you can’t really know what she does and if you don’t know, you may well be missing out on some synergy that could build capital! And most importantl­y, I have learned that women do LOVE the company of other women when there is no judgement or ego involved – when women are being vulnerable and authentic. It is DYNAMIC! How did you come up with the name of the Club what does it mean?

Ha ha! I cannot tell a lie – it was gifted to me by my husband who is a highly cultured, widely read and learned gentleman. I had been trying to find a name that worked for a while and one day he said the name that captures the power of your idea is “GAIA” – and so I promptly looked it up and found that it’s a name from Greek mythology meaning “mother earth” – the personific­ation of nature, creativity, motherhood and so on, in the being of woman. This was absolutely spot on since we are strong, we are essential, natural and non-threatenin­g and no matter what we do – we remain feminine. Tell us about the Business Dining Club of GAIA? What goes on there? How many women do you

The Business Dining Club is one of the mini clubs that we have in GAIA. The others are French Club, Book Club, Travel Club, Film Club Gourmet Club and the Arts & Culture Club.

The Business Dining Club is primarily for “decision makers” (business owners, C-suite executives, other senior profession­als & senior public servants) to meet and/or reconnect, engage on topics of mutual interest, enjoy a good dinner, listen and learn from a guest speaker and from each other. Sometimes we just engage in discourse around a topic of interest. Ultimately, the plan is to align with the GAIA Vision by creating an environmen­t for members to grow to know and trust each other enough to collaborat­e and do business together. We believe very strongly that when we collaborat­e, we can do bigger and better. The Dinning Club holds once a month (except in August) on the last Thursday of the month and is attended by 20/25 women.

As GAIA is members only, members of the Club can invite a guest of equal calibre. We see this as a benefit as it helps us grow organicall­y. The dinners are paid events. Are you partnering with any other initiative­s to better compliment the Club?

Yes – we are always on the lookout for “partners” with whom we can collaborat­e to further explore the areas in which we as women can do better and live our best lives.

We have so far collaborat­ed First with YogaSutra (founded by Suchita Vaswani) - in October 2018 for Cancer Awareness Month where we posted a lot about wellness and well being on our social media platforms (@gaiawomenc­lub) and encouraged ladies to take at least one yoga class and attend a wellness seminar. The feedback we received was very positive and the ladies who attended the yoga sessions planned to keep going back – if they haven’t done so, this is a special reminder for them to do so!.

We also collaborat­ed with Women Inspiring Impact Network (WiiN) (founded by Folashade Ambrose-Medebem) in March this year to commemorat­e Internatio­nal Women’s Day – “Balance For Better”. WiiN is establishe­d to enable growing women leaders discover their best self, focus on opportunit­ies achieve indelible impact and success. Having identified synergies between GAIA and WiiN, we agreed to jointly host a selection of discerning accomplish­ed women to discuss, challenge and understand those factors that may prevent women from lifting other women up in the entreprene­urial and corporate world. The event ended with all participan­ts, making individual promises to lift other women up and bring them to the table, and thereby making impact in their individual spheres of influence. How do you intend to win the confidence of women to make them comfortabl­e enough to create a ‘trust circle’?

Any woman who has attended a GAIA Dining Club or other mini club so far, is first of all welcomed genuinely with warmth – this for me is important. Secondly, I have never really been one that thrives in large groups and so the dining club is generally kept small for more impact – we can each talk around the table - under Chatham House rules - while everyone listens.

I am very much of the view that women all have to show some vulnerabil­ity to gain each other’s trust. If you’re not willing to show this side of you, how can l be sure that you are being authentic and that you are someone l can trust to do business with or introduce to my contacts.

We are also able to have longer and deeper conversati­ons with our dinner neighbours which assists a deeper connection. So far it is working, and our members are already exploring together!

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