In the words of Gordon B. Hinckley – “The best antidote I know for worry is work. The best cure for weariness is the challenge of helping someone who is even more tired. One of the great ironies of life is this: he or she who serves almost always benefits more than he or she who is served.”
Today’s inspirational story shines a spotlight on a woman who has devoted her life to service: businesswoman, politician, change advocate, educationist and the former deputy governor of Lagos State, Princess (Mrs) Sarah Adebisi Sosan, OFR.
Whoot Africa’s Founder, Olushola Pacheco sat down with Princess Adebisi Sarah Sosan at her palatial Lagos home as she celebrated her 60th birthday.
Below are excerpts from our conversation with her:
Press write-ups, articles and journals abound detailing your work and achievements in business, education and youth advocacy. Beyond these, what can you tell us about yourself and your newly founded GFR Academy?
I was born almost 60 years ago, into two prominent families in Lagos; the Durosinmi family from Irewe town in Ojo Local Government and the Onikoyi Family in Lagos Island. Both my parents are real “Omo Eko” as the Lagosians describe themselves. My time as a child was split between Ajegunle (the famous Mobil Road) and Lagos Island. In Ajegunle, I grew up with other tribes from Nigeria and acquired a very good perspective of different cultures and what it meant to have “one Nigeria”. We didn’t have distrust issues growing up like we are currently experiencing in Nigeria now. We were one regardless of tribe and my parents were wonderful with teaching us acceptance, tolerance and respect for other tribes and religions.
On the Island in Lagos, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents mostly during the holidays and gained insight into Lagos life proper. Growing up in Lagos Island at that time opened you up to a kind of culture and tradition, so this blend of experiences made me who I am today. I had a very good childhood.
I trained as a teacher, starting out from the lowest rank. The opportunity for me to be a teacher just came, I didn’t plan it. Actually, I went to Muslim college to collect a form for a cousin of mine who I felt I owed her late father the duty of seeing her through school in my own little way by helping his daughter. We were both our parents’ only daughters. When I got there, the form for the six years training had closed; at the time they had a teacher training course for six years and another for one year, for those who had school certificates. My admission to the university was being delayed as a result of my A-levels not meeting the accepted qualification criteria, so I thought to myself, why don’t I try this for myself too?
That one year teaching form I picked up ushered me into the teaching profession, a path I never thought I’d ever cross. I went in for the one-year training, from there to the Nigeria Certificate in Education (NCE) course and from there to the university and that’s how I ended up training as a teacher. I never dreamt of becoming a teacher. In fact, I had my eyes on other areas, but today when I look back, I thank God for His direction, a chance career that has now become my one passionate area of career focus and one I remain very committed to.
What inspires and drives a woman like Princess Sarah Sosan?
First and foremost, I empathize a lot. I love to be a problem solver and to give back to society. Sometimes you have a dream and you don’t have the financial capacity, the wherewithal or the resources to make it work, to make it happen. I know I wasn’t cut out to be a politician but God had a purpose. I used to look down on politicians as noise makers who only consumed tax payers’ money and just shared our resources amongst themselves. It wasn’t until I got into office as deputy governor of Lagos State that I knew what it meant to serve in office, to be in politics too. There are politicians and there are politicians. The commitment level is what separates us. Some are committed to that service. While you are giving service, you are rewarded as well, but when it is all about money and you don’t care about the people, you don’t care about the community, about your nation, then you are that politician.
How did you get into youth advocacy?
You see a lot of these youths and by the time you get close enough to hear their stories, you realise many of them have nothing doing and their parents have little resources to support them. I reached out to many of them through their leaders, helping them understand that I also have a story. As a very young person I hawked goods on the streets for my parents; my mum was a trader in fruits. Today, those tough experiences made me strong and hardworking and instilled the belief that it is only through hard work that one can succeed. I refuse to let young people roam offices looking for handouts or get into political thuggery for selfish politicians who use them for their own selfish needs. This is why I decided to create empowerment opportunities for them.
The youths are the lifeblood and engine room of any country, so we can’t close our eyes. Every day when I wake up, rather than lamenting about these issues, I choose to stay inspired and do more for as many youths as I can.
What is the vision behind GFR Educational Services Ltd?
We have professional politicians who have taken up politics as a career, which should not be, and that is why we see this do or die thing. Where you have people who have their own profession and established careers it is not a do or die thing because you have your career to fall back on after leaving office. I decided to set up GFR to use my expertise to focus on empowering those in the education business by consulting for those who are interested in setting up schools, further teacher management trainings, qualitative teachers’ seminars and conferences. I listen to the stakeholders in order to proffer solutions to the various problems they are currently facing. I was termed the tough lady who gave the education sector a tough time because I wouldn’t compromise on the standard of what I needed education to be. Thankfully, over four years after leaving office, I still get thank you letters and the like.
We have GFR Educational Services and we have the GFR Academy which is taking form and is being managed by my son, Mr Gbenga Sosan.
Your story and rise to the top details a systematic and dedicated career climb that speaks of hard work and resilience; looking back at your journey so far from being a teacher, a parastatal head and then deputy governor of the great state of Lagos, what are those things you think set you apart from your peers at the time? Did you ever think you would make it this far?
I do my work diligently because it was one of those virtues my mum instilled in us when we were growing up. She taught us what hard work meant. I don’t allow people to fault me when it comes to my work because I give it my very best. It has been a part of me: you do what you are supposed to do and do it diligently too. Right from the primary school level to the secondary school level, the inspectorship levels and then to the civil service, I did what I was supposed to do. During my days as an inspector of schools in Lagos State, I never cut corners. We visit schools and catch the business of the day like they usually run it whether good or bad. I didn’t mince my words when it came to praising those who needed to be praised, as well as chastising those who needed to be chastised for shabby work.
I believed in myself and I also had that confidence and the boldness to do a lot of things. Often, I don’t mind whose ox is gored. I remember when I was just a class teacher, a grade two teacher with my school certificate then. My head teacher at the time was tribalistic and was trying to draw lines based on tribes and I stood up to him. When I look back, I still laugh over it because that was a bold move. You can imagine this tiny single lady who stood up to her head teacher. However, my teaching records were top notch, and he had nothing to hold against my work so it was easy to stand up to him on the issue of his tribalist views and way of treating people — especially considering the training I got from my parents about love and respect for people of other tribes.
I am not perfect, but you will never fault me for my words, I say it as it is, and in front of those who need to hear it. I would rather not say anything than say things and be quoted wrongly or be part of anything that would bring me into trouble or bring people down.
After stepping aside as the deputy Governor of Lagos state in 2011, what were you up to career wise before GFR Academy?
Career wise, immediately I left office, I went for some rest. After that vacation period, I needed to upgrade my knowledge. I had to talk to some of my high profile friends about recommending short courses they had taken. Luckily for me, I have this lovely friend and sister, Pastor Awosika who has been a fantastic shoulder for me to lean on and learn from despite the age difference. She is a God-sent blessing in my life, and she introduced me to the IESE Business School (Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa) in Barcelona. It was an amazing experience, shedding that air of importance and getting down to learning alongside young and enterprising people. I attended Harvard Executive Education Program, Boston. It was really time consuming, practical and worth every penny. After this I committed to attending at least two or three summits and conferences every year around the world that had to do with women, education and general knowledge.
At a global Summit for women that I attended few years back, I was elated to meet a lot of the WIMBIZ ladies and business executives from Nigeria in attendance. It was so encouraging that these women were seeking knowledge and improving themselves. I would also commend WIMBIZ, these women are not just beautiful women, but many are phenomenal and brilliant women too.
With your work so far, how can the education system in Nigeria be revamped from your personal perspective, first as an educationist and as someone with background knowledge and experience on the challenges facing the system?
Funding! Funding is very important, and money is vital to education. If you look at it, every other thing rotates around education and comes from education. People who are not properly trained or educated will not be able to manage what is around them, or what you entrust into their hands. Whether we like it or not, education has to be properly funded, and until that money is available, we will keep going round in circles with regards to quality education. If you go all over Nigeria today many schools no longer exist in terms of infrastructure. Children have to learn in environments conducive to learning, before they can assimilate and enjoy what they are being taught. We are not even asking for fanciful or gigantic infrastructures, we just need functional ones for a start, where water will be available, power, security, furniture, etc. How do you teach a child who has to sit on the floor?
We also need quality teachers, from the primary to the tertiary level. Things have deteriorated badly and it will take a long time to properly put everything in place. Funding will address the issue of quality teachers, especially from the foundation level. There is the issue of inadequate teachers too; we need to make the profession attractive for people to go into it. There must be intrinsic and extrinsic rewards to teaching. God forbid we are still trying to solve these issue 30-40 years from now. If you ask the older generation what primary education used to be, most of us can vividly recall how we were taught during our primary school days. The teachers were committed to making us better people with their skills, encouragement and commitment to ensuring no child was left out. Many of them were trained by missionaries who gave them proper training, training they passed on passionately to their students. These days, things have changed, but we can still do something. We can still start from the basics and retrain these teachers.
The political will must also be there to do the right thing. You can skimp in other sectors, but definitely not in education. You cannot skimp in education because you are dealing with human lives, and when the damage is done from the foundation it affects everything and we keep patching until the cracks become too bad to patch. When you have average and uncommitted teachers in the classrooms, you don’t need to wonder what kind of students they will be raising at the end of the journey. We also need effective quality assurance processes to be revived and restored to be what they should be.
You are passionate about education, but sadly Nigeria still has the highest number of out of school children in this region. 10.5 million children are estimated to be out of school in Nigeria alone. What are your plans to help tackle this growing problem via your access to lobbying with your connection in government?
There are already structures in place to tackle the issue of out of school children; the only problem is the enforcement aspect. In tackling the problem of out of school children, how many homes can the government go into to ensure that these children are in school? The orientation needs to change, parents need to take advantage of the free education and push as much as they can. With regards to Lagos State to the best of my knowledge while I was in office, a law was enacted that children who do not attend school will be arrested on the streets and their parents dealt with. This makes the responsibility of ensuring they attend school that of their parents.
Despite the number of children who are out of school in Lagos, Lagos State is forced to cope with the alarming number of unregistered education providers. What are your plans as an educator to lobby with lawmakers on how to clamp down on this menace?
We clamped down on a lot of them during my time in office. As you know, we are in a democratic government and a listening administration, we have to be responsive. We checked them out and got as many that met the standards legalised, with licences to operate. The new government in Lagos State, especially the deputy governor, sent out a warning recently to let schools without licences know they are coming after them. The number right now is alarming and I can’t help but applaud and commend that move and I am optimistic that with the support of Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, this issue will be sorted. The education business is attractive and with every attractive business, there are those looking to make money at the expense of people’s lives too.
Clamping down on mushroom private schools operating without licenses is also a duty of the citizenry. When a school looks like it isn’t licensed, it is the duty of everyone to report to the right authorities.
If you had to look back at your younger self, say the Princess Sarah Sosan at 21, what would you say to her? What would you change about your journey?
I used to admire people without knowing how they made their wealth or achieved success, but today, I would say to my 21-year-old self, work hard, be confident in who you are, stay in your lane and work tirelessly towards your dreams. What is meant for you will work out in due time. When you are looking for role models, not everyone is a role model, so be specific about what you need to be encouraged about and keep a singular focus. Forget the glamour and wealth, what you need to focus on is the richness of values.
If you also had to address a young woman who is reading this interview, what word of advice would you give to her about being a career woman, a nation builder and an overall achiever?
First and foremost, believe in yourself that you can make it, and then launch out. Be principled, and entrust everything into God’s hands. Stand by what you believe in, don’t let anyone intimidate you. Don’t be easily influenced into doing wrong because when you finally get there, they will use these things against you. Be truthful; your integrity should speak for you, because the value system in the world we live in today has broken down, but your integrity will always speak for you wherever you go. A woman needs to be determined from the beginning and consciously remind herself every day of the greatness she carries and how she doesn’t need to be immoral to achieve anything. What you have in your mind, God’s help will get you there. It may be long but it will surely happen for you. Be steadfast, be consistent; if you don’t get it, try and try again.
You kicked off the Sarah Adebisi Sosan Foundation to tackle youth unemployment and empowerment program especially with women, how has this been so far? And what more should we look out for with the foundation?
Even though it had been on my mind for so long, but I decided to put integrity first. We just got the legal aspect of the foundation sorted as stipulated by the government with regard to charities, and we also just got the board of trustees sorted too late last year. I am super grateful to have achieved this vision of mine, The Sarah Adebisi Sosan Foundation. I look back to where I started from, and if I had the opportunity as a girl child to have been trained when many were being married off, what do I say to my Maker if I don’t try to empower as many women as possible? When I was in office, I did a lot of these empowerment programmes for widows and people who were really in need of a turnaround in their situations. After leaving office, I couldn’t let go of the conviction to continue with these programmes and that’s how the foundation started. We decided not to limit it to widows alone, but make it a general empowerment programme for women. I want to educate these women about health issues and proper family planning for their own benefit and welfare, and especially that of their children. Many of them are talented women, and it is our duty to help them discover their talents and also help facilitate funding.
For the youth, we are working on vocational trainings, scholarship schemes, and health awareness programmes. I strongly believe that poverty should not be an excuse for our youths to give up on their dreams. I plan to also get successful people to give talks and motivate these people, to keep them going and help change their perception about the facts of life and survival skills they need to succeed.
Women, healthcare and empowerment are my focus for now with the foundation; we will further expand and take on more causes as we proceed with our pilot studies of areas we can improve on.
Do good girls get the corner office?
Well, a woman who is determined and knows what she wants, with hard work will always get the best corner in the office. When a situation calls for you to be a tough cookie, be one, and when it comes to showing empathy, compassion and sympathising with people, then you let the aspect of being a woman be there too. It is a combination of both. If you cannot combine both, you will be rubbished. People need to know you for who you are and know what lines and boundaries you have set for yourself as a woman.
30 years from now, what would you want the world to remember Princess Sarah Sosan for when your name is mentioned?
I want to be remembered as a God fearing woman, one who lived and who dreamt, worked hard and achieved her dreams despite her challenges. A woman who spared nothing to empower and push herself to becoming and achieving the best life she could for herself.