Folakemi Fatogbe is a multi-dimensional board-level executive with a compelling financial services/ business background and a fascinatingly creative mindset. She is the Chief Executive Officer/Founder, De-Risking Lab, and the Creative Director/ Founder of Oyaato. In the heat of the 2008/2009 global financial crises, she was headhunted into the dual roles of Special Adviser to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor on Banking Reforms and Risk Management as well as Director of Risk Management. She spoke with ENIOLA DANIEL recently at the launch of her emerging fashion brand, Oyaato in Victoria Island, Lagos.
Share with us your growing up and early experiences
I was born in the UK to my Quantity Surveyor father (now late) and my Human Resources and latterly, local government chairman mother. I am the first of six children.
I attended St. Louis Girls Secondary School, Ondo, a school that was very tightly run by Irish nuns that was renowned for its academic excellence and strong discipline. The combined education received from my Ekiti parents at home, and St Louis have formed the bedrock of the discipline and ethical values that I still hold and stand by today.
Being, the first child of a Quantity Surveyor, my father wanted me to be an architect and constantly pushed me to pursue a career in the sciences. He had scant regard for the liberal arts or social sciences. Hence, it was no surprise that I followed his nudging and started out doing sciences at university.
However, I really did not enjoy it and decided, midway, to swap my pure sciences for a course that allowed me to choose electives from both the liberal arts and social sciences. My brain is very logical and extremely analytical hence, I constantly question and seek the practical benefit of any concept, policy, rule or other. I have always been very good at Mathematics, especially mental mathematics and all things numbers but not calculus – simply because I did not see the practical logic of it and its raison d’être. Hence, I moved over to the University of Ibadan to study Communication Arts from the then, University of Ife. After I switched courses, my father barely spoke to me for a year. However, my Mother said that my career objective of being a banker was a noble one and that I shouldn’t worry as it was common to see architects, engineers, lawyers and the same quantity surveyors all going to ‘dobale’ (prostrate) for bank managers.
Tell us about your journey in the banking sector
When I finished school, I worked at Owena Bank in the Public Relations department. However, because I did not want to be pigeon-holed into only PR, I decided to go for an MBA in Finance and International Business at the Cardiff Business School. From there, I went into UK banking and started in financial control and corporate strategy at the NatWest Banking Group, Head Office in the City of London. During my time as a Corporate Banking Strategist at NatWest, I produced a paper on NatWest’s strategic positioning vis a vis its competitors that earned me a call upstairs and special commendation from the MD of Corporate Banking. At that time, NatWest was obsessed with Barclays Bank, its seeming closest rival. In my analysis I told the bank that they were wrong to focus most exclusively on Barclays because by virtue of their service quality and excellent return to shareholders, the significantly much smaller Scottish banks presented a greater competitive threat. Whilst my immediate boss was dismissive, my boss immediately above him was not, hence my unprecedented call upstairs by the Managing Director of Corporate Banking and my special commendation.
A few years down the line, I was proven 100% right when the much smaller Royal Bank of Scotland (NatWest was four times its size), succeeded in its audacious takeover bid of NatWest. Note that the other frontrunner for NatWest’s takeover was the other much smaller Scottish Bank, Bank of Scotland that I had also warned NatWest about in my strategy report less than five years earlier.
I subsequently applied to the Bank of England where as a senior risk analyst covering Emerging Markets, I covered African and Gulf banks. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. From there, I moved to work as a Programme Director for Banking at NCR and from there to Lloyds Financial Markets, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and Chase Cooper Consulting as a Risk consultant. In between, I took my first entrepreneurial foray into property development and trading in order for me to have more time for my children. At the height of my foray into property, the global financial crisis came and the UK property market crashed. Prior to this a number of my friends that had relocated to Nigeria had been emphatic about the need for me to contribute my skills set to Project Nigeria.
Around this time, my dear father died, during his funeral ceremonies, in Nigeria, my son was the last person on the dance floor and I realised just how much my children loved Nigeria. This made me reassess our continued stay in the UK. I then opened my mind to a possible return to work and live in Nigeria.
Did you ever encounter unfairness in your banking journey?
Of course I have. Too many to mention and in different forms and from different channels. However, difficulties or obstacles assume relevance only when you allow them to derail or diminish you. I guess one of the most unpleasant types is where one is treated differently by virtue of one’s gender, race, tribe etc. For example, one of my most unpleasant encounters was when I experienced racism at work. During the course of one of my UK banking roles, I had a boss who asked for a performance report of my time a secondment posting. He asked if I thought it was necessary, I said that I didn’t think it was but he should go ahead and request for one if he felt it was necessary. He went ahead to request for one and hid it away upon receiving it. Unbeknownst to him, the head of the unit where I served the secondment also sent me a copy of the report. It was excellent. I remember being quite excited about just how good it was moreso that I worked within a highly competitive of specially selected bank high-flyers. However, when it came to bonus and assessment time and I asked to see my file, as I was entitled to, I immediately noticed that the said assessment report was nowhere to be found on my file. When I asked this immediate boss of mine about the report he said “don’t you remember that we said we were not going to ask for one?’ I then had to let him know, that I was aware that he had both asked for and received a report. ‘Red-faced’, he opened his drawer and brought it out. Sadly, the bonus decisions had already been made with myself and the only other person of colour coming at the bottom of the payout list, alongside the office coffee-maker. With this additional revelation, I decided that it was time for me to move outwards and upwards.
How did you get into the CBN?
One of my friends from Business School, Mr Alfa Barry, then a partner at Deloitte Nigeria told me that he had seen my CV and that a number of people were very interested in speaking to me. Mr. Folusho Phillips was also helpful. They sent my CV to six banks and four banks called me within 30 minutes that they wanted to see me. Then another good friend told me to consider CBN, but I declined. A number of my contacts argued that I should give the CBN further consideration particularly as it had a new governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, who they felt I would be able to work well with. I came across his interview in the Financial Times and when I saw that his brand of central banking was not going to be just about inflation management but also economic development, my interest was piqued. Unbeknownst to me, a number of friends/ business contacts had also mentioned me to the CBN Governor. All of this culminated in my leaving the UK and resuming at the CBN in October 2009 as the Special Adviser to the CBN Governor on Banking Reforms & Risk Management a role which I combined with that of being the Bank’s pioneer Director of Risk Management. Aside from the reforms, one of my key roles was to set up a new risk function for the Bank, as approved. The work Governor Sanusi and the team did to mitigate the risks arising from the Global Financial Crisis won the Bank considerable acclaim, including an invitation by the United States Congress to share with them how we were able to successfully shield depositors and stave off a financial system meltdown in Nigeria. We did a lot that we can be proud of till date. I had a great team at the CBN. It remains a big family.
What were your aspirations when you were young?
I was interested in being Nigeria’s president when I was young. I used to review political party manifestoes and engage in deep political discussion with my parents and my uncles that were in politics. At that time, I had two uncles who were gubernatorial candidates in major political parties and they would say, ‘Let’s listen to Kemi.’, even though I was only in form one. I wasn’t brought up in a family where the girls were taught to be seen and not heard so it was par for the course for me to speak my truth and engage in such discussions armed with my facts. Furthermore, our mother was always a working career person, so each of my sisters have followed suit. Each reaching for the stars in their respective fields of endeavor.
Why didn’t you pursue a career in politics?
The Second Republic killed all my political ambitions. Specifically what played out between the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) and the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in the old Ondo State and the violence that erupted in the immediate aftermath. We lost a number of family friends to that mindless violence. I swapped my dream of political participation with a dream of contributing my skills to Project Nigeria, hence my time in public service via the CBN and my current reincarnation as an economic gap-filling and job creating double entrepreneur.
What are you passionate about?
I am very committed to: creating jobs, seeing Nigeria and Africa move forward socio-economically. Nigeria and indeed Africa have been favourably endowed by God. It is tragic and most regrettable that Nigeria, my country is the Poverty Capital of the world. Why?? It is a totally unacceptable narrative that I hope and will continue to work to change.
A few weeks ago, I had cause to undertake business trips to Kenya, Ghana and Rwanda and was pleasantly surprised at what I encountered, especially in Rwanda, which I left feeling both humbled and inspired. Rwanda’s progress has to be seen rather than simply just heard or read. In Kenya I was blown away by Kenyan chocolate. I discovered it by chance, displayed alongside more expensive but more travelled and therefore, less fresh, European chocolates. I was shocked to discover how absolutely delicious the Kenyan brands tasted and how less expensive they were. However, despite these major plusses, it is impossible to find Kenyan chocolates on Nigerian supermarket shelves, let alone European or American supermarket shelves. Why?? Africa contributes less than three per cent to global trade and GDP despite contributing 16.72 per cent to the world’s population. Addressing this imbalance is a key thing that I am passionate about. What are we doing about this via the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)?
African countries should be trading among themselves because there is so much to do. The world has accepted our music, it is time that we follow our music with our fashion, our fashion, our cuisine, our services and other products. We have to mobilize and create collaborative synergies to ensure that the world accepts the rest of us. We have the creativity, the grit and the brains to change the image of an unbankable Africa that the world has continued to see us as.
We are the poverty capital of the world. I am totally unhappy about that. I like to or put my money where my mouth is. So, right now, I am doing two key things, de-risking because when I was in CBN, I engaged extensively with both sides of business i.e. the banking industry via its risk teams and bank CEOs and a large number of entrepreneurs. I established and served as the inaugural chairperson of the industry-wide Chief Risk Officers Forum (CRO Forum). I was also the inaugural chairman, of the Risk Management Association of Nigeria (RMAN), a position I recently stepped down from.
How did you get into fashion?
A childhood friend of mine, Yetunde Kazeem, recently reminded me about how I used to design ball/ party gowns for a number of our contemporaries when we were in university. I have always been creative I guess, I have written a book, I have done property development and design and also derive a lot of joy from photography.
I can trace the biggest influence on my turning my passion for fashion into a business to my first visit to China about fifteen years ago. That visit was a huge eye-opener for me – it gave me a deep insight into the world of manufacturing and trade in a way that no textbook or lecture theatre could. Because I am determined to die empty and deploy all my talents to the benefit of my generation and those that come after, upon the end of my tenure in CBN I knew that I would seek to produce something and given my longstanding designing flair, moving into fashion design and becoming a fashion entrepreneur was a natural progression hence the birthing of my fashion brand, Oyaato. I see Oyaato as the proof of concept of my Risk & Opportunity Management skills. Dying empty means that I have to deploy all that is within me. In my banking career, I have typically used the left side of my brain with my fashion business I predominantly use the right side of my brain. I am highly motivated by the need to positively impact economic growth, job creation and governance. I want to use the skills and talents that I have to contribute meaningfully to humanity.
How has your journey into fashion been so far?
It has been incredibly exciting and fulfilling. It is a business that I am doing with my daughter, who also has a strong creative flair and leanings. We have both been excited and humbled to see how incredibly well received Oyaato has been. We had a fantastic festive season with every single one of our clients giving us positive feedback on how very pleased they were with their items and the extraordinary compliments that they received when wearing them. There really is no form of marketing that is as authentic as customer feedback and word of mouth.
At a conference I attended in Kenya recently, the women loved an experimental dress that I was wearing, to the extent that some of them joked that they would not wait for us to set up in Kenya but would rather take the dress off my back immediately. We have since christened the dress, the Oyaato Nairobi dress, they wanted to take it off me. We were recently asked to close the catwalk at Africa Fashion Week, London (AFWL) which we did to great acclaim.
As a result, of all of this, as a brand we are inspired to do more and be more. Nigerian music is excelling on the world stage, we see no reason why Nigerian fashion cannot do the same; for example, if we look at the clothes typically on display at the various international fashion weeks such as the London, Paris and New York fashion weeks our clothes compare very favourably against them, it could actually be argued that our clothes actually showcase a higher level of creativity, diversity and realism. I hope to use my fashion brand to force some of these barriers to entry down thereby creating jobs for our people and by so doing create jobs and alleviate poverty.