By Remmy Ifueko Diagbare
Bimpe Benson is Co-Founder Kurtiva Group, an African headquartered global technology and media entity. Before venturing into technology and media, she had at various times held strategic positions at three of the top five banks in Nigeria, with oversight responsibilities for branches in Lagos and South West of Nigeria.
Bimpe’s vast experience in the world of financial services and structuring mega sized transactions for different business sectors came in handy when she stepped into the positions of CEO at KaadTech Africa; the African arm of the US based tooling and engineering firm. A firm in the oil servicing sector. Bimpe holds a first degree in Biochemistry from the University of Ibadan. She is married to Mr. Ley Benson, whom she identifies as her ‘mentor extraordinaire’ and she describes herself as, an involved mother.
What was growing up like as a female?
I was brought up in a loving family environment where there were same achievement expectations for all, boys and girls. My father, Pa F. A. O. Akomolede, was the Deputy Registrar, Establishment for the University of Ibadan, so we lived amongst academics and achievers. As you well know, the University of Ibadan produced some of the most amazing professionals in the country then and now. My ‘normal’ was visiting friends and families of doctors, professors, highly cerebral people. It was all about brain power. U.I. had them everywhere.
There was absolutely no delineation between males or females regarding achievement. You were expected to beat all the boys as a girl in class. I attended the International School, Ibadan, where my then principal constantly told us every morning that ‘low aim is a crime’. We had fun, amazing poems read to us by female teachers such as ‘The Female of The Species is More Deadly Than the Male’. So, my environment, as a child, both immediate and larger, did not make me feel less in any way as a female. If anything, it supported the idea that I could achieve whatever I set out to achieve.
Most crucial, though, in my upbringing, are my role models: my late dad was my absolute best friend and confidante and always supportive of me. I believe that closeness to him helped in shaping my self-confidence and till this day, I encourage friends who are dads to be close to their daughters and be their cheer leaders. There is a certainty of ‘self’ it bequeaths on the girl that helps and shields her in the larger world.
My mum, also, because I never saw her idle for a day. She ran a business and, sometimes, multiple businesses! Still, she had time for us and ensured no one strayed out of line. She was very loving and a strict disciplinarian. My older siblings also. I’m the last born; they’ve always encouraged me, edging me on. While I was a Daddy’s girl, they’ve always been my reality check. Lol! Looking back, I think my first culture shock after leaving school and the highly cerebral environment I grew up in, was getting into the ‘outside world’ and realising that the society had limitations on women! This was ridiculous to me!
What did you dream of becoming and are you living that dream?
I didn’t quite ‘dream’ of becoming this or that. I consider myself as work in progress and I am constantly praying for improvement.
What were the challenges you faced going up the ladder as a female, especially at the time you started out in banking?
Typically, in career, as with every other area of life, there are stereotypes and, sometimes, in our environment, the assumption is if you’re female, fashionable, etc., you shouldn’t be very smart. This assumption, for me, has however been a positive as under-estimation is a strength.
I have been fortunate, though, to work majorly in environments that didn’t discriminate. Places like Zenith Bank, where I worked for ten years, and UBA, for five years, give everyone truly equal opportunities. Our company is certainly equal opportunities oriented. I find that the more exposed and visionary the make-up of a board and management team are, the more career possibilities in those places are made equitable. It’s those stuck in medieval times who still relegate women to the background in this age and time. Lol. Honestly.
Did you face any discrimination as a result of your gender? Did you have to do any thing special to prove your capability?
I learned pretty quickly how to handle gender discrimination whenever I came across it. Of course, it’s rampant in this country but it’s your response/approach to it that matters. I usually ignore and let my work speak for itself. Business is no play and most people don’t joke with their money. When you see someone add value to your business, it quickly becomes unimportant what gender that person is.
There is also positive gender advantage which is discrimination in itself. Has to be a female helped in some instances? Maybe. You get noticed and sometimes a foot in the door just by being. Your staying within that door, however, is dependent on your knowledge and the real value that you bring to the table.
Did you feel that your feminity sometimes comes in the way of your being taken seriously as an executive? Have you ever faced that subtle talk-down on account of your sex?
As an executive, I usually am taken seriously as my role speaks for itself. Being a woman in business is a blessing, not a curse. Sure, some people will even call you ‘woman’ instead of your name at meetings but it’s a testament to their state of mind, not mine, so I usually ignore those things. It’s best to simply get on with the business of the day as best one knows how.
You left banking as a GM to join an oil servicing company as its CEO. Was that not risque, leaving stability to an unstable industry?
Quite honestly, no. I’ve never liked complacency and I didn’t leave in haste. It was well thought out. I like to be challenged by whatever I’m doing and learning new things is something I love. Probably, growing up within the academic community helped shape that in me. I’m grateful to God that He helped me make these career moves mainly on my terms and after lengthy thought. You have to think such things through. Once I had my husband’s approval and support, it was all systems go.
Having had a feel of the two, how do they compare?
At the executive management level, there isn’t much comparison to be done. It’s about vision, leadership and getting the best team, leading them to the execution of institution goals at minimal cost and in line with regulatory authorities, no matter the sector. I have found that these are the core elements of filling those roles, regardless the industry. If you can strive and be good at them, you can handle the transition between industries with some ease. You’d have to learn new ropes, though and quickly, too.
Don’t forget that in banking, I had to know about different industries because if you’re going to be part of the team presenting and approving credits from those industries, you must understand them well. It’s imperative that you understand cash flows, technicalities and influencing factors of those industries, together with their under bellies and everything about how they work. You don’t want to toy with depositors’ funds. These skills that I had to develop have always been helpful.
You have also moved from oil to technology as CEO of a media enterprise. First, you seem like a maverick. Are you mercurial?
Ha ha ha. I’m not. I’ve always yearned to create or be part of creating businesses of my own or, in this case, our own. I’m Co-Founder of The Kurtiva Group with three firms: technology (specifically media and mobile tech), real estate and personal asset management. This new business, to me, is a natural progression for someone who has been quite the diligent employee for some time and I’m grateful to God that I can.
You must be very confident to take such leaps. How do you do it? And, what usually informs your decision to make a move to decide ‘it’s time to make a change’? We are looking at three different industries here.
I believe that my career path has been a product of the mercy of God and you’re not allowed to edit that part out. Lol! I’m not going to even try to say that I had any special powers or I’m this or that. It pleased God to have mercy and so what I’ve seriously had to do has been to say, ‘Lord, please lead me’, and that’s it. My role in it was to plan as well as I could, work hard and make seemingly crazy leaps of faith. It may not be the typical ‘executive’ response you expect, but it’s my reality…
Have you at any time wished you hadn’t made a move?
Nope. Not once. Once I’ve taken a decision, I try to keep my sights set ahead.
Not many women have your boldness and, certainly, self-confidence. Why do you think women sit-tight when an opportunity comes and making a move is just what they need to get to the next level?
Fear of the unknown, undoubtedly. It’s pretty difficult for a lot of people to leave certainty for uncertainty and I understand that fact. Don’t forget there aren’t many well-paying jobs in this country and so when people have one, they do all they can to hold on to it and one can’t blame them for that, male or female. Responsibilities are real and bills are real and you must earn a living to meet them.
Where I have an issue is where the woman doesn’t constantly seek to improve herself, fill her head with technical knowledge, learn new things and constantly add to her skill set. Nature does not tolerate inertia; where constant pressure is not applied to improve, decay sets in. Where you’re feeling that to sit tight and keep doing the same thing is what will work, you’ll most likely eventually be kicked out for becoming the elephant. I’ve seen that happen too many times. You must evolve. I’m also really blessed to have a husband who mentors me and supports me, who is supremely confident in himself and his achievements and so encourages fulfilment in my work. I probably would have been unable to do much if I didn’t have him cheering me on as I cheer him on in his achievements as well. Again, mercy and grace kick in.
You said you have Diva Support Group. What do you do with the support group? How do you help each other and can you give women some of the advice that you share with the support group?
Diva Support Group is committed to the improvement of women through knowledge and experience sharing. We hold seminars, group talks and basically ‘hand hold’ one another to succeed. We strive to eliminate the negative competition that women tend to have amongst themselves and instead support one another. You can learn more about us at DIVA SUPPORT.
Some advice I’d give is:
– Fall in love with learning. Ignorance is expensive.
– Live within your means and stop sabotaging yourself. It’s the fastest way to financial self-sustenance.
– Learn and master the art of communication. Verbal, written and abstract. It’s the single most important thing in your business or career.
– ‘Packaging’ is a myth perpetuated by those who are not ready to put in much work into their endeavours. Let no one fool you. Constant learning, humility and consistent hard work are the keys to long term success.
You are now in the technology industry, at a level where few women are. Why do you think there is a dearth of women CEOs in the hi-tech industry?
I think things are evolving fast in Nigeria. Women are many in technology, though mostly as online business owners. That’s not entirely tech. I’d like to see more women in coding, for example, and design areas, building platforms and creating new segments altogether. There’s a dearth of women CEOs in most industries in Nigeria, apart from the events areas of business. There could and should be more, but then, many promising careers fall off along the way as the woman makes choices as she grows and influences are stronger in women’s lives. Not all men like their wives to work and not all women like to work; this is a reality. These are individual life choices that must be respected, even where we don’t personally agree with them.
In all of these, you are very much into high fashion. How will you describe your style?
Fashion is one of my steam outlets, ha ha ha. I’ve always loved dressing up and realised early on in work life that you are certainly addressed the way you dress so that helped to feed an already natural instinct. I’m a mood dresser so I will wear what I feel like wearing. Whatever it is, though, there must be attention to detail, comfort and good finishing in the mix.
What is a must have fashion/beauty item for you?
A great pair of shoes and a lovely handbag are not-negotiable. Lol.
Your most expensive splurge?
There are price limits that I wouldn’t cross. I think there’s a fine line between loving great value stuff ( which I do) and making purchases a life mission. Lol. They’re just stuff. I’d rather help improve a life or add value to someone if I can.
I must not forget to add that you are also a prolific writer. Do you still write?
I have to write. It’s who I am. It’s an outlet for me. So, write I do. Articles (some under pseudonyms ), poems, songs, and I have a book coming up that’s on crazy, real stuff women go through in business and career and how to emerge winning. I also enjoy my speaking engagements.
Compared to many women your age, you are so multi-talented. Are you for real?
Maybe a bit too real, ha ha. Those close to me will tell you I’m quite blunt and a simple person. I just think everyone should try hard to articulate those things that come naturally to them. There’s a parable in the Bible about some guys who buried their talents. I don’t want to be like them. Lol.
Finally, a word for women, both young and mature.
Please, strive towards self-actualisation and try to do something, even from home. Poverty is the number one problem of women in Nigeria; it’s what feeds hopelessness, misbehaviour, staying in violent relationships, helplessness, etc.
Also, help another woman, wherever you are. Everyone has something they are dealing with so, even if she looks like she has it all together, there might be something disturbing her. Realise this and be good to one another. It’s a no-no for a woman to allow herself be used to destroy another.