Buogo Obi-Oloketuyi: The Chic Carpenter
Words By – Jemi Ekunkunbor
Buogo Obi-Oloketuyi, represents the typical, modern Nigerian woman who is not limited by gender biases or boxed into a career path that does not satisfy her hearts yearnings.
After qualifying as a medical doctor, graduating with merit from the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH, Buogo left all that and returned to the workshop to be a carpenter, a craft she has loved since childhood.
The mother of one and native of Anambra State, she is CEO of Wooddesignes Furniture Company, a Lagos- based furniture company that specialises in indoor furnishings.
Buogo is not only passionate about women empowerment and excellence, she has used her gender to bring to bear on her work, fluidity and femininity.
She has been honoured with several awards and spoken on various panels with prominent and intelligent people.
As we begin the count down on women’s month, we spoke with this amazing teacher of woodworks who loves to witness people excel in vocations.
It is the desire of many parents to see their children embrace fields like medicine or Law which they consider prestigious. Why did you give up yours to take up carpentry?
My parents’ condition was simple; finish school, finish well and then, you can be whatever you want to be. I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be a carpenter even though I grew up around it and I loved being with my dad when he was making these amazing pieces. It was more like a lightbulb moment when I was done with school. My parents are quite open compared to the majority, I know it’s more of the fear of their children failing that makes most parents push their children to this ‘prestigious’ professions. I was taught that as long as it’s honest work and you love it, then that’s all that matters.
Did your decision grieve your parents?
I don’t think so; maybe my mother, a little, because every opportunity she got, she still introduced me as Dr. Buogo. It would have been very short lived, though. She noticed the changes taking place, saw the success and the drive and the ‘boasting’ changed from ‘my daughter is a doctor’, to ‘my daughter is a carpenter’, have you seen her interviews?’ My father was just happy that atleast one of his children took an interest in carpentry. I believe you must believe in your path. Nobody is grieved by success.
What was the allure for you?
The allure for me was focusing on making these pieces that would be in people’s homes for years, bring them comfort, joy, style, ease and be intertwined with their history. They will tell stories of how they used to jump on our beds or eat breakfast as a family on a dining table that Wooddesignes made. Another thing that I looked forward to, was making these pieces with little or no distraction while enjoying my music or talking to my dad. Some of my fondest childhood memories were of ‘helping out’ in the factory in the evening and it’ll be my dad and I gisting and working. Then he’ll finish what he’s making and I’ll be like ‘wow, this is beautiful’. I wanted to be able to make pieces that people would appreciate like this. Watching my dad cut and put different pieces together to make a masterpiece was always a trip and I wanted that too.
You cut your teeth in woodwork under your father, what was it like working and learning from him?
It was hard (it still is, I’m forever learning- although at this point we learn from each other). Because my father is highly intelligent and creative, the problem with learning from these types of people is the fact that they feel you can read their mind and you should just instinctively understand what they’re teaching. I have been accused of this too so, I make a conscious effort to get feedback from whoever I’m teaching.
It’s interesting learning from him, we’re also friends and it’s always enlightening.
How many of your siblings are into furniture making business?
None of them are into Carpentry, but when we have a lot of work and maybe some staff disappoint, all of them will make time to help in operations, management and deliveries.
What type of wood do you enjoy working with the most?
HDF (high density fiberboard). It’s like laminated plywood. It’s more expensive than what most carpenters use but it lasts longer and is very eco friendly.
What innovation have you brought to bear on your work as a woman?
More fluidity/femininity in our designs. This has given Wooddesignes an edge especially with the current furniture trend (minimalist). You would be surprised at what a small change in design can bring to the look and feel of a furniture piece. Also, better finished products.
Does your gender pose as a challenge when potential clients meet you?
Yes, it does. It has gotten a lot better but it still does. I’ve told several of my experiences on how it was in the beginning and what I had to go through; from having to take a man with me to meetings, to deflecting sexual advances, to outrightly being told we are unserious, or not being believed when I tell them I’m the CEO and that I also make the pieces. I’ve had an old man walk away from a meeting before. I used to get upset/insulted and we lost some work, but time and experience have taught me a lot. I realized it’s not about me, it’s just their ignorance. They have judged my potential work based on their archaic idea of what a carpenter should look like (not female). Over the years, our work speaks for us, people don’t really need to have meetings before jobs, people are getting more open minded, and we’ve trained people we can send for some meetings. You would think with all the advancement, that my being a woman shouldn’t still be an issue.
I can give you a classic example; any day a picture of me is put up on our Instagram page, that’s the day we get the most skepticism by clients when placing orders, the day we get most ‘suggestions and advice’ from people that know nothing about carpentry, or the day when I get insults and the usual underhanded insinuations. There was a story we put up that showed a glimpse of me driving home and someone commented ‘it’s carpentry that bought this car, na wa oo. I don’t know why you’re deceiving people.’
How many other women have you been able to pull up with you?
Hundreds I hope, lol. I hope my life path, interviews, and work ethics have encouraged women all over the world. I feel it’ll be a little conceited of me to say I’ve consciously and successfully pulled up X number of women, but I do know my life is a positive influence on most people I meet, get to know and teach.
So far, how many girls have you trained?
I’ve trained nine so far, and two currently. These are women I feel we have successfully trained. We get a lot of women who see me and think carpentry must be easy; those ones don’t last more than one week with us. I always say if you can survive the first month, then 90% of the time, you’ll finish the program except there are unforeseen circumstances. I’m always so happy when I meet these women that are excited about learning carpentry. When they make their first piece, when it’s setup- you can tell this is someone that loves this,and would most likely continue when she leaves.
How are they faring compared to the men?
Two of the women we trained are practicing and doing great.
What is it like working in a male dominated field?
Tasking, frustrating usually because of the bias (having to prove yourself over and over again). But with every stride we make, I’m happier and very grateful. It’s also a great avenue to stand out. It’s up to me to make standing out a positive or negative thing. Once you’re a woman in a male dominated industry, everyone is watching you. Some are watching to see you fail, some are hoping you will fail so they can say ‘I told you this is for men, leave it for men’ and many, I hope, are inspired, supportive and cheering me on, praying that I succeed. This is a lot of pressure, it has taken some time but I’ve come to realize I’m doing it for me, not to prove a point, not to please anyone’s mindset, but just because it’s something I enjoy doing immensely.
I hope my life path proves to every woman that you can be anything you want to be, just believe. I also hope that every woman that’s standing out is doing so positively, that you’re doing what was once considered a male role, and you’re doing it so well that you’re changing the narrative.
Were your carpentry skills what attracted your hubby to you?
(laughs) He said no, but I think it was. He was attracted to how focused and determined I was (I still am). He was attracted to the joy and intensity he saw in one of my interviews then; but he would never have seen that if I wasn’t doing the carpentry I love. And I’m sure, it didn’t hurt that I was also very beautiful while doing all this.
Do you intend to practice medicine again?
No. Except I’m needed in a life or death situation.
What is the trend with living room furnishing?
It’s going towards minimalistic designs now. Simplistic designs, none of the bulky furniture our parents were fond of. People now want more space.
What piece of furniture do you specialise in making?
Indoor furniture. We’re very good at most and offer custom made option.
How has your life in carpentry been?
It’s been a rollercoaster ride. Ups and downs with a lot of learning curves but I’m in a great place mentally. I would go months without collecting a salary but always make sure our staff were paid. One of the worst and best period was during the lockdown and COVID. We didn’t want to let any staff go, yet we weren’t working or making any money. It was tough but we pulled through without letting anyone go. It was also one of the best periods because people were home and they could see all the furnishing that needed changing, they started working from home so they wanted more home office furniture. So, once the lockdown was over, we had quite a number of orders come in. I thank God for each learning curve and I’m grateful for my growth especially mentally and emotionally. I’m very grateful for our growth as a company.
You love to teach, any plans to set up a proper school?
I’m not sure yet; because carpentry is an apprenticeship, you learn best hands-on. I love teaching in the factory and once we’re done with the theoretical aspect, we immediately make it. You go through the process from start to finish even to the point of delivering to the client. If we can imbibe this process in the school, then I’m very open to that notion.
What do you look forward to?
I look forward to growth and expansion for the brand- Wooddesignes. I look forward to continuing to run a successful company while inspiring young people and especially young women to break barriers and change societal norms concerning professional or career choices.