Allure Cover: Udo Maryanne Okonjo – Boardroom Amazon
Udo Maryanne Okonjo is the enigma redefining luxury real estate practice in Nigeria and across West Africa. Currently the Chief Executive Officer/Chairman, Fine & Country West Africa, the international lawyer ranks as one of the most successful business and personal brands in the region. A prolific writer who has authored several books including; Financial Freedom Workbook and Go Mega, she possesses a fierce desire for excellence which screams loudly in all she’s ever done since childhood.
Okonjo, who holds a first degree in Law from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, studied at some of the world’s finest institutions including; the Lagos Business School, Oxford University, and the Cambridge Judge University of the University of Cambridge. Admired and loved by millions of people around the world for her daily mentorship and motivational activities on social media space, as well as book writing and speaking engagements, Okonjo, who sits on the boards of several organisations, is Founder, Inspired Women of Worth, IWoW.
In this interview, she speaks on her childhood, business and upcoming IWoW conference themed, ‘Unleash the Extraordinary’.
Records show you were an exceptional law student; why did you delve into Real Estates?
You are right; I did excel as a law student, emerging as the best female law student in 1991 at the Nigerian Law School. That actually won me a Chevening scholarship to study Corporate and Commercial Law at Master’s level at King’s College School of Law. I practiced law for more than a decade and also served as Special Adviser on Legal and Constitutional Matters to the Senate President in 2005-2006. However, real estate found me purely by coincidence; initially as a personal passion, but very quickly, I realised that I could leverage my legal training in providing real estate advisory as a service.
Did you envisage this level of success for Fine & Country?
My vision was of a professional service boutique firm, delivering the highest level of strategic real estate marketing, advisory and sales support to the upper quartile of the market. These are mainly professional developers of large scale projects and high net-worth clients, made up of business leaders and C-Suite Executives. I felt my corporate legal background and Fine and Country’s reputation prepared us to serve this segment because, they are astute and discerning clients who know the difference high level competence can make.
We are grateful for the recognition and success so far but we have so much more ground to cover. I believe the next 10-20 years will be more strategic and establish our real leadership in the segment where we operate; mainly Prime Commercial Grade A offices and Luxury Residential Developments.
As a key player in the luxury real estate sector, what’s it like doing luxury in a melting economy?
No doubt, the real estate sector is a mirror of the economy at every point. So, when there is a lull or slow down in the economy, its effect is seen across all segments of the real estate market, especially the luxury segment. This is because most luxury segment buyers or investors are discretionary purchasers. In down times, their focus is on building and protecting their exciting investments, to ensure that it is stable and thrives. However, there are always transactional activities going on irrespective of market cycles. Discerning investors know that the best deals happen during market downturns. Our goal at Fine and Country is to ensure that some of the key transactions that happen, come through us. That’s why we keep on creating value irrespective of the market cycle.
You are a successful business leader; why are you not into politics?
I am very interested in helping those who are called to political service thrive and excel. I am a strategic adviser, and possibilities igniter. I help leaders develop bold vision and accomplish better outcomes through strategic inputs. I believe everyone has a calling. Mine is to advise, coach and strategically support leaders in whatever sector to achieve better results. I’ve done this in the past through being Special Adviser on Constitutional and Legal Matters to the President of the Nigerian Senate. I’ve also trained a lot of legislators, at the National and State levels; including senior ministry executives. I am also currently actively involved in training and developing the next generation of leaders (men and women) through Ignite Africa, a leadership development organisation, in my spare time.
…and how are you helping to develop other women?
The work I do with Inspired Women of Worth (IWoW) Network is also helping to prepare a pipeline of ready leaders for public service. IWOW was birthed in Johannesburg, South Africa, in October 2010 as a result of my desire to encourage, inspire, enlighten, educate and celebrate women. I found that most career women and entrepreneurs, lacked the clarity, confidence and connections needed to unlock their true potentials.
Since then, I have actively built and championed IWoW along with other female business leaders.
What are some of the strategies employed by the network?
We provide group mentorship to high potential younger women. We also initiated peer-to-peer accountability circles since 2011 and found it to be very useful in fast tracking personal growth and professional development among members of the network. We host an annual Leadership and Business summit every March called the Global Possibilities Summit—which serves as a platform for women who want to develop themselves, learn leadership skills, build their careers and businesses and be connected to other ambitious and purposeful women. Every year, we choose a theme that acts as a rallying cry and action call to the women. In the past, we have had: Unleash Your WOW Factor, The Power Within, Women Rising, No Glass Ceiling! It’s Showtime! etc. This year’s summit, a two-day event, is holding in Lagos later this month.
What’s the focus for this year’s edition?
The theme is: Unleash the Extraordinary! We believe that this is the right time for women to go beyond the ordinary, take bigger risks, vote in favour of their highest vision, and seek bolder outcomes in all areas of life, business, career and in movement in governance. The Global Possibilities Summit is set up to equip and educate in addition to inspiring and connecting high potential women.
What do you think women must know about leadership?
First of all, that leadership is gender neutral—and yet there are a few benefits that our gender confers on us, which we can harness as an advantage in leadership roles. Our ability to listen and empathise, multi task, as well as our intuitiveness, can be advantageous in leadership roles. However, leadership is also about results and influence, and we must learn to take bigger risks and achieve bold results that stand us out so we don’t end up as wallflower leaders; seen but not heard, no impact, no real results, just nice to have around. Leadership is about bold action and a lot of women sometimes, struggle with balancing this and their natural tendency to nurture and empathise.
You amazingly create time daily on social media to inspire others to lead fulfilled lives; is this a calling?
I believe that my life’s calling is to encourage and inspire confidence in people to become more than they think is possible. To put it simply, I desire to help people become champions of their lives.
What drives this passion?
My passion is an internal deposit I believe comes from a divine source—the Holy Spirit. I’m most fulfilled when I’m helping people see better (have better perspective), do better and be better in whatever endeavour they are interested in. I cringe at the idea that anyone that I have access to, could live without achieving their full potential. I believe in the inherent greatness of all humans and want to help as many unlock this power within.
What mistakes would you say women make in the workplace that hinder their growth?
Failing to negotiate what’s important to them. Accepting status quo. Not speaking up. Not distinguishing themselves as value creators, and an inability to communicate that they are adding significant value through demonstrable results. Businesses are not a girl’s hangout—it’s about results. And any woman who cannot, and does not focus on producing tangible results, will end up defaulting to the lowest point—begging for favours, which sadly, creates dangerous outcomes.
The boardroom is traditionally a boys’ club. How did you make it there?
I recall when the publicly listed company on which I currently seat on their board invited me to join their board, I asked them what were the qualities that made them seek me out? I was told, my dynamism, creativity and the fact that I had excelled in both the legal and real estate fields, and stood out in my approach to business. I found it intriguing that they noticed my personal qualities beyond the business skills.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt at the business arena?
My biggest lesson would be to show up consistently, and do what needs to get done to get the results. Make absolutely no excuses once you set a goal or make a commitment. People who make no excuses and who allow challenges, whether it’s their gender, recessions, downturns, Ebola, Coronavirus, low oil prices, lack of access to capital, regulatory upheavals, slow client response or whatever else shows up to stop you in your tracks as far as business is concerned, will always end up winning. Resilience equates results in my dictionary. Business is about results and once you have results, no one can argue with you or your value.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I honestly love my personal space and time. I love doing absolutely nothing! I believe doing nothing should be law for leaders (Laughs). When I have downtime, I read a lot, journal a lot, write, and do nothing. Just be. It’s a learned art for thriving.
What’s your favourite travel destination?
Seychelles! I am absolutely besotted with Seychelles. Unbelievably, that it is part of Africa. I intend to retreat there annually with other business leaders. It’s such a beautiful place for retreating, to reposition and relaunch a more radiant and reinvigorated version of yourself as a leader. I am sold on intermittent getaways for the purpose of just exhaling and gaining new perspectives.
What developed travel destinations in Nigeria do you go to and encourage your friends to go to?
In fairness, I don’t know many places I’d encourage others to go locally which is sad because when we were growing up, we travelled across Nigeria. I used to love Jos. I also escape to Abeokuta now and again. My marital hometown Ogwashi Uku in Delta State is also a great hideout.
What’s your most priced and cherished fashion item?
None. I don’t really value fashion items. I have what people may consider valuable items and some quite unimpressive items at least as far as pricing goes—which is how most people assess fashion. I just enjoy looking good and comfortable.
You’re extremely fashionable; what won’t you ever be caught wearing?
I won’t be caught wearing extremely tight, body-hugging mini Lycra. I love comfortable decent clothing that enhance my personal style and that is age-appropriate. I am a somewhat conservative or classic dresser. At least I think so.
Who has inspired you the most in your industry and personal life?
Pam Golding has been a source of inspiration as far as women in real estate are concerned. She’s built an incredible real estate company in South Africa—she was my early icon when I got interested in starting a real estate firm. Robert Allen, the author of Nothing Down, Creating Wealth and Multiple Streams of Income, has also influenced my interest in real estate.
What fond of childhood memories do you have?
I had a memorable childhood. My dad was in the Federal Judiciary and was a strict disciplinarian. My fondest childhood memories are of growing up in Kano on Bompai Road. I recall going to Sabon Gari market with my mothers—drinking kunu, buying kulikuli and other delicacies (I come from a positive polygamous family and we all grew up together, and took turns doing chores with whichever mum was in charge for the week).
I recall my school, St. Thomas Primary School in Kano, while my siblings went to St. Louis. We learnt Arabic and Hausa (Don’t ask me to speak—I’ve forgotten most of it). I recall long road trips from Kano to Onicha Ugbo our home town; and that was incredibly fun. We would stop and visit some of my dad’s friends in Maiduguri, sleepover and carry on the journey. I ended up going to Federal Government Girl’s College, Benin City, which is where I forged some of my life long relationships to date. My childhood was a blessing.
Words By – Josephine Agbonkhese