Today’s Inspiration Africa interview shines the spotlight on award-winning CEO and Editor-in-Chief, Genevieve Magazine, Betty Irabor. A publisher par excellence, Betty Irabor speaks to Whoot Africa about being a woman in business, breast cancer advocacy, the value of family, women’s rights, and the power of never giving up.
Outside of the press articles detailing your work and achievements, please share a little with us at Whoot Africa: who is Mrs Betty Irabor?
I am a very simple woman, a typical example of the saying “what you see is what you get”. I’m a bit shy but people don’t know that, especially given that people don’t expect strong women to be shy. I appreciate “me time” with my family. Family means everything to me. I was born into an ordinary family; my dad was a corporal in the police force and I remember growing up in the barracks in Obalende, Lagos. My parents split up at early age and we ended up being raised by my amazing mum. My mum was such a hardworking woman with great entrepreneurial prowess. She worked multiple jobs while doing business on the side just to ensure we never lacked anything as a result of our dad’s absence. Growing up, I learnt to be a resourceful go-getter. People would say if you want things done, and fast, then that’s Betty.
Have you always wanted to be a publisher?
As a young person, I didn’t really have a defined outlook on what I wanted besides graduating and getting a good paying job. My mum’s biggest vision at the time was ensuring we all got an education, and she never let us slack in this regard. I attended a function at the United States Information Service with my husband early in our marriage, and Dr Doyin Abiola was also in attendance. My husband asked me if I knew who she was, and I had no clue. My husband told me she was the editor in chief at the then Concord Press Newspaper, and asked me to approach her for a job. I took a chance and ended up getting a job at the Concord Press Newspaper. In 9 months I was promoted to assistant features editor and grew in the organisation from there. Being a publisher wasn’t something I had anticipated at all. In 1982, my husband while on a trip to the US bought me a book called “The Magazine” by Dr Leonard Morgel. The book had everything one needed to know about starting up a magazine business. I had no intention of using the book, but somehow I kept it, and as we moved from one house to the other so did the book. My work at the Concord saw me interested in people, places, fashion, travel and also consumer activism through a column of mine called ‘The Consumer. I remember brands would come to me and try to get me not to write stories about them, but I was really adamant about the fact that products and brands have to be accountable to their consumers.
From that workspace, I moved around into different portfolios because at the time women were really pigeonholed into feminine columns and I had way too much potential to be boxed in just because I was a woman. I moved on to other organizations in different capacities until I teamed up with my husband’s company to be a freelance writer for some of the largest media platforms where I interviewed some of the most influential women in the Nigerian business and advocacy space. When I turned 45, a Singaporean friend sent me a batch of magazines from Singapore. One of the magazines was called Female and it dawned on me that we didn’t have a lifestyle magazine for women in Nigeria. I experienced a Eureka “I can make this happen” moment and it just wasn’t going away or easing up until I got my board members in place. I remember one morning while I was doing some reading, I called a member of the board – he was on his way out of town – and he said if I could make it to him in 20 minutes then I had a meeting. I jumped in my car and made it in 18mins, delivered my elevator pitch as quickly as I could, and he just stopped me halfway and said he would invest. I had also just made a good profit from my corporate gifting business which I put aside and set into starting Genevieve Magazine. At the time, people weren’t excited at the prospect that I was going to use all that money to delve into a business that was male dominated with little prospects for women in terms of success. Despite all the discouraging scenarios painted for me, that book my husband had bought me in 1982 became the tutorial I needed about publishing and setting up Genevieve Magazine. From page planning and layouts, to subscriptions and marketing, a book that seemed to have no meaning to me when it was bought became my best guide to publishing the phenomenon now known as Genevieve Magazine today. Genevieve Magazine has been a shaping experience for me. There were days in the beginning where we lost money; people let us down in terms of work delivery. In fact, I had an experience where I had to burn a whole issue which not only cost us money, but also morale and time. Still, it is well worth the journey.
How did you get into the breast cancer awareness advocacy?
While I was at the Concord Newspaper, a celebrity fashion designer was said to have been dying of breast cancer. It was being whispered at the time, and someone was asked to go interview her. Word came back that she didn’t have long to live. This was the first I heard about breast cancer. It didn’t mean anything at that time, as most people couldn’t relate to it; the awareness wasn’t what it is today. What we did inadvertently was to start the breast cancer conversation. I noticed magazines around the world had the month of October set aside to celebrate the breast cancer awareness programs with the now popular pink ribbon. I called my editor towards October that particular year with the intention of doing something similar. The search for survivors was very challenging because it was something most sufferers and survivors treated so privately. There was a form of conspiracy of silence about it. It turned out someone who was helping us put the edition together was a survivor of breast cancer. We asked if she would do us the honour of sharing her story and she eventually agreed. That became the unveiling of breast cancer advocacy via Genevieve Magazine; in that particular edition we approached women to take up adverts to share their thoughts on cancer. Most were widely travelled women who were more than happy to help spread the message. We not only generated revenue from that edition, the issue sold out and portions of the proceeds were donated to an awareness centre. In 2005, we had the first Pink Ball – which turned out to be really explosive and bigger than I imagined it would be.
We had started a movement and a conversation about breast cancer and the realities of the disease. Of course people criticized the event for being extravagant; they said I was trying to brand my magazine and that it was a charade, but we didn’t take that to heart. Feedback is great, but we had a vision and it didn’t matter much. We didn’t understand the impact of the ball until people started coming out to tell their survival stories which quickly turned out to be a positive widespread fire. People were no longer embarrassed to talk about it, they didn’t see it as a stigma anymore; instead it was about sharing experiences and supporting those in the fight. I was asked why I was doing what I was doing, especially from people who believed you had to have been directly affected to be able to stand and speak up for others. That not only motivated me, it encouraged me to want to do even greater works with the advocacy. Also, I will never discount the God factor in all I do – His grace and favour.
What inspires a woman like Mrs Betty Irabor?
When you grow older, your inspirations change from when you were young and impressionable. You’d be amazed by how just waking up to see another day can be so inspiring. My mum’s resilience and the determination she had with raising 4 children on her own also inspires me. I think about her journey, think about mine and I am simply inspired to be an even greater mum. I think I am also inspired by the resourcefulness of the African woman. I am inspired to live a life where one-day people will look at me and go wow, she really inspired and made a change in everything she did, defied many odds and became great at what she did.
You recently celebrated 13 years of Genevieve Magazine despite the fact that print media remains one of the most unpredictable businesses in this region. What would you say has been the secret to the success of the Genevieve Magazine brand?
I think if you are not passionate about something it is very easy to give it up. In 13 years I have seen magazines from people I have mentored come and go. I think one of the things that I would say has kept me going is the fact that I am very passionate about telling stories that inspire. Genevieve Magazine has given birth to other brands – The Betty Irabor brand, Morning Dew, the Genevieve brand and of course the charity aspect which is the Pink Ball brand. The Morning Dew page of the Genevieve Magazine platform has helped me tell my story like it has never been told, talks about my failures, my trials, and basically things that inspire other women to go out and do amazing things with their lives.
If you had to describe your business journey in 4 words, what would they be?
“The Power of Tenacity”
You are a woman and business pioneer who has achieved such greatness and built a career on dogged hardwork; a fact that signifies victory and the power of possibilities to every Nigerian woman. Women still complain about unfair remuneration and working conditions; do you think women ask/demand for too many opportunities and constantly compare the playing field to that of the men, rather than proving what they are capable of?
I think this would have been relevant a few years ago. Right now, women are not asking for permission or a head start anymore, they are bulldozing their way in, developing skills and really going after what they know how to do best. Women are not asking to be given anything on a platter based on gender; all they are asking is for laws that protect them in the workplaces. The equal opportunities women are asking for is mere formality that ensures that women around the country and the world are protected in black and white for what they are already doing. Why do we need these bills passed? It is because of the cultural and traditional beliefs, to protect against some of the things that have been accepted as the norm when it comes to women’s rights.
The activists who are pushing for women’s rights especially in this country will further help protect the rights of vulnerable women and widows especially with the right to inherit when they lose their spouses. Also, there’s the issue of fair wages based on skills and capabilities: why should a woman work in the same capacity and role as a man and earn a lot less than he does?
Women are not helpless. In fact, they are hardworking game changers, role models and people with guts who are daily developing themselves in various leadership and key strategic positions. I can tell you this first-hand because I am surrounded by these phenomenal women.
Pepsi Co’s CEO, Indra K Noogi sent the business world buzzing in 2014, when she was quoted as saying, “we pretend to have it all, women can’t have it all”. What are your thoughts on work-life balance from your own experience over the years?
I think Oprah Winfrey further expatiated on this topic. She said women can have it all, but not at the same time. With regards to work-life balance, I would say being married to a man who allows me to be me, a man who appreciates the fact that raising a family is not a job or role for the woman alone and that it also requires that a man be hands-on with caring and nurturing in the home front, has helped. Raising my children was relatively easy for me. I started Genevieve Magazine when I was 45 and my children weren’t kids anymore. Sometimes we had to work late, and my husband would bring the children around with dinner and drop them off at school in the mornings or do picks up when the job became too taxing to do so myself. The work-life balance flowed seamlessly because we didn’t have assigned roles. We are partners in progress on a journey together, making things effortlessly smooth. I also need to mention having amazing children who didn’t give us any cause to be summoned at their schools for getting into trouble.
Back to cancer advocacy – we run, walk and have concerts for cancer awareness. We have raised awareness, but have we told the government (lobbying groups) about the need to subsidize treatment for cancer patients and to also help with care programs to bring relief to care givers?
When I started the Pink Ball to raise funds for breast cancer treatment, we bought the mammogram machine which we donated to one of the government hospitals and all we faced was sabotage here and there. It was disheartening and discouraging, but we didn’t give up. We have a team of doctors who have volunteered a certain number of free surgeries per year. We have also dipped our hands into personal funds to make sure some of the cancer patients who come to us get the help they need along with the support to their care givers who are on the journey with them. Would I get the government involved at full capacity if I could? Of course yes, but unfortunately, things are not that simple, so for now, I will keep pushing to help these patients fight, one life at a time. When it comes to lobbying government to pass laws that allow for subsidized care for breast cancer patients, I will have to be led to pursue the next stage when the time is right. I don’t want to waste my time when I can be doing my best within the capacity of the Pink Ball Foundation. I am a woman of faith and I believe God will endow me with the wisdom for that next step when the time is right. For now, I will take a cue from Mother Theresa’s “If you can’t feed a hundred, feed one at a time.” That is exactly what I plan to do; one life at a time.
You have achieved a lot in the business world and in advocacy, being an inspirational role model to the younger generation. If you had to address a room full of young people, what words of wisdom would you like to share with them about life, success, processes and the need to stay the course?
Don’t despise the journey. Don’t despise the process in the bid for overnight success which is defined by money in the bank. Success isn’t all about the car you drive and the house you live in or the designer gears you can get your hands on and how much you can display on social media. I would like to sit in a room and share the real journey of life, handling the things life throws at you that you are not ready for. Appreciating the moments with enthusiasm and a “can do” spirit separates the achievers from the rest, instead of feeling entitled; nothing is given or guaranteed. Life is in the process and the details of life and success is embedded in the processes.
Importantly, life is meaningless if you don’t share or give – You need to give a little of your time and money. You also need to redefine the definition of success; what money can buy is the smallest of what success is.
How would you like to be remembered 30 years from now?
I would like to be remembered as a woman who came, worked hard and made a difference.