Here on Whoot Africa, we not only showcase brands, but we also talk to the people behind those brands and have them share with us their back stories as well as give tips on how to successfully start and run a business.
Welcome to Whoot Africa’s – 15 Questions with the CEO.
Today, we will be talking with Tonya Lawani-Okojie, CEO of VVA Nigeria and ABC Inflatables.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and both brands you oversee?
My name is Tonya Lawani-Okojie, the last child in a close knitfamily of seven. I hail from Edo State, though I can easily say I am a Northern girl as I grew up in Kaduna and speak impeccable Hausa.
I attended the prestigious Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where I graduated from in 2005 and hold a Bachelors Degree in Economics.
I am currently the Managing Director and CEO of two companies, VVA Nigeria Limited and ABC Inflatables Nigeria.
VVA Nigeria Limited started in 2005 as a Trading company that has nowdiversified into manufacturing. It was birthed out of a need to produce world class corporate promotional merchandise. At VVA our focus spans advertising merchandise, business promotion products, corporate gifts, hotel amenities and luxury gifts for brand projection.
My second company, ABC InflatablesNigeria started in 2006 and specializes in innovative Advertising ideas through the use of Inflatables; Blimps, Sky-High Spheres/Balloons, Windymen, Cold-Air-filled Inflatables, Rooftoppers, Giant and mini product Replicas, Inflatable Arches, Mobile Billboards, Inflatable Lettering/Messages, Latex Balloons, Inflatable Stage Creations and Decoflags.
The basic idea behind the company was to showcase advertising in a different and catchy way through the use of inflatables.
So, whether you are a small company looking for simple advertising inflatables, or a large Company looking for complete supply and operation of inflatable advertising for your brand, product or Event, We value your enquiry.
How did you get started in Business and what did it take for you to get to where your businesses are today?
While I was in University, I started doing some petty trading where I sold items to fellow students. The experience made me realize that I couldn’t do a 9 -5 job.
During my NYSC I started on a very small scale by contacting companies and showcasing inflatables, telling them that they could advertise in a different way. I got loads of rejection, so many companies weren’t interested. But a few listened. After my first few real contracts others started pouring in. This was as a result of the quality of those jobs we did and also referrals.
I would say that hard work, passion and an eye for perfection have enhanced the growth of both businesses to where they are presently. We have grown from a staff strength of 2 to over 30 and we currently have our own production factory.
What were you doing before venturing into both businesses?
I was a student. I started both companies right after university.
Did you know you were going to be an entrepreneur all along or did it happen by chance?
I had always known I had to be an entrepreneur. As a student at ABU Zaria I did a lot of petty trading and I knew I had a passion for doing business at an early age from watching my dad run a successful business.
What do you love most about your business and your life as an entrepreneur?
Both companies give me the chance to constantly think on my feet. The Nigerian is quite sophisticated and wants something exciting and different every time. It’s my job to think of all the different ways to conceptualize products that not only satisfy the customer’s needs but also stand out from the crowd. The innovation and creativity put into making these happen gives me a thrill and makes all the hard work worth it. Also, a successful team makes successful entrepreneurs. I work with a fantastic team, and they make being an entrepreneur so much fun.
What keeps you and your team motivated?
Success and the positive feedback from all of our clients.
What do you think are the most important personal skills someone must have to be successful in business?
People skills. Successful entrepreneurs should be able to understand that people are different and should be related to as such.
How do you envision both businesses in 5-10 years from now?
I see both companies as global brands with undisputed market share and leadership in both industries.
What were the obstacles you encountered in your business journey and how did you overcome them?
Hmmmm… two obstacles really, being young and being female.
I started off business as a young, single girl. Most heads of organizations I approached either didn’t take me seriously or were more interested in asking me out to dinner than in my company and the products I was selling. It took a lot of perseverance, tact, and gut to make them realize that I meant business. I found out that being knowledgeable and knowing my onions helped in making people understand that I wasn’t joking. My understanding and knowledge of my products and the business terrain often left clients bedazzled.
How would you describe your leadership style?
No one leadership style can sum me up. I would say my leadership style is a combination of all sorts but most of all I am an affiliative leader; I believe strongly in creating emotional bonds that engender a sense of belonging and having a stake in the organization. For me people come first.
I am also a coach. I believe in developing people for the future and also believe in building consensus through participation.
11. You have worked on some major projects and organization’s with ABC inflatables from the pictures on your website do you ever get that unfathomable moment feeling sometimes where you can’t believe how far you have come as an individual or CEO?
Oh yes! I get that feeling a lot. Especially when I do some jobs that I just can’t believe we were able to pull off.
One of such moments was when we worked with the Lagos State Government and First Bank during the FIFA under-17 World Cup hosted by Nigeria in 2009. This was a huge and challenging experience! We had to set up over 40units of various ABC Inflatables around Lagos within a 2-week period! And most challenging of all was having an Inflatable LED Screen on float on water at the Marina Park! My moment of fulfillment came when I saw the screen power ON and the amazement on the faces of spectators as they viewed football matches on a screen floating on water from the Marina Theme Park! It was Amazing! It was a culmination of two weeks of practically living on-site with my staff…..and oh certainly the fear of the Lagos Island thugs!. It was fun.
What do you think about college education? Should kids go to college now or get into business if they feel it’s a better choice? Considering some of the world’s greatest never had college education, your thoughts?
Kids should be nurtured to follow their dreams. A college education is not a blueprint for success. In my opinion kids should be given a chance to excel in whatever dreams they have.
Who was the most influential person or mentor in your life?
My Dad. He was an amazing business man who taught me that the best way to lead was to lead by example. He passed on when I was 10 years old but he motivated me to strive for the best and to become the woman I have grown to be.
What has been the greatest Risk you have ever taken business wise? Any regrets? What would you do differently
Risks? Each day of being an entrepreneur is a risk. Hence, I have long started to view and accept risks as opportunities for growth. As for regrets I have none, because I view mistakes as a learning experience… so, I just learn, learn and learn again
What would be the most important piece of advice you would give to young entrepreneurs and why?
Listen and follow your dreams with passion. It got me thus far.