IWD 2021: Onoise Onaghinon explains why we need more female leaders

Every year, the International Women’s Day celebration re-emphasizes the important role women play in cultural, political, social and economic development.

With this year’s celebration themed “Choose to Challenge”, women all over Nigeria and indeed across the globe are standing up against stereotypes and gender bias with the hope of seeing a more inclusive world.

The Global Gender Gap report 2020 released by the World Economic Forum places Nigeria in the 128th position out of 153 countries in closing the gender gap, a marginal improvement from 2018 when the country ranked 133 among 149 countries. 

Despite the odds stacked against them, women have consistently proved their mettle in every field you can think about, from travelling to the moon to making power moves in the boardroom. One of such women is Onoise Onaghinon, an executive director at Afrinvest who has stamped her authority in the commercial and investment banking sectors. 

In this brief interview, she opens up about her ascent in the corporate world, the challenges women face on their way up and the importance of having women in leadership positions. 

What is your personal story? What inspired you to start a career in finance? 

I initially did not plan for a career in finance as my role model at that time was my Mum who is a Development Economist and is a professor. I had desired to work for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as my mum was a consultant to the organization and I got to develop a good understanding of what she did for them. Surrounding her were also mentors who worked for the organization like the Secretary-General at the time. They always travelled around the world working on projects to do with Poverty Alleviation, Gender Gaps etc. This led to my pursuing a degree in Economics. 

It, however, felt like the goal post (working for UNDP) kept shifting. It started with encouragement to first study Economics in the University (which I did in the University of Benin) then it was to acquire a second degree first and so I went for my Master’s degree in Economics, from The University of Leicester (UK). I was later encouraged to gain some work experience, and this led me into the world of investment banking after which I never looked back again. 

My banking career started with a stint in the United Bank for Africa where I did my national assignment. I was retained as a permanent staff in 2000, working in the Corporate Banking Division of the Bank. I got the opportunity to study Economics at the University of Leicester in 2001 and left for the United Kingdom. Upon my return, I got called for an interview at SecTrust (Securities Transactions & Trust Company, now Afrinvest) in 2003 to work with the Asset Management Division and was ambushed at the interview by the COO at that time to join the Corporate Finance Team. Then, my investment banking career was birthed and I indeed became passionate about corporate finance and advisory at that time working with my mentor (Mrs Mabel Etomi) and my great boss, His Excellency, Mr Godwin Obaseki (now Governor of Edo State). They both pushed me to go above and beyond my limit and treated me as an equal colleague!!! I learnt so much from both of them (finance, great leadership styles, relationship management and so much more). These values form my guiding principles in mentoring and sponsoring other up and coming colleagues. 

What were the challenges you faced as a young woman working up the corporate ladder? 

My challenges as a young woman working up the corporate ladder would be the long hours on the job which tended to leave one exhausted and with limited time for personal endeavours. I had to compete with other firms that had teams that were male-dominated. There were times meetings were into the wee hours of the night and you are wondering how to get home at 12 midnight and your male counterparts are not even bothered. There were transactions where my boss would push me to be aggressive (especially on joint mandates), where he did not want the competing firms to have an upper hand on the transactions. Balancing family and work was a big task and my job entailed having to have Chinese walls (my husband was also working for a big investment bank and I couldn’t even discuss my transactions with him even if one such transaction was going to affect his business!).

Also once had a boss at some point who did not like my style of work since I was not playing to his tune – the result was a bad appraisal in a year that we closed some of the largest deals in the country, but I persevered and pushed on. For almost 6 years in a row, we had to close deals on the last day of the year (so we were either in Abuja close to the regulators’ offices or in a particular state) and so the yuletide festivities could not be celebrated with extended families). I was always determined to excel in my work, and I was not afraid to get my hands dirty (I was more of an executor of transactions) but at last, had to step into a leadership role doing more networking and building relationships. 

What steps is Afrinvest taking to achieve equality in the workplace? 

Afrinvest is a great place to work and the culture within the firm encourages transparency with an open-door policy. Everyone is encouraged to share their ideas and air their opinions. When you look at some of the various businesses across the Group, you will find women at the helm of affairs.

I think that the firm has done well in promoting women who have demonstrated their ability to excel and work hard at achieving the objectives and goals of the firm. Each of them has earned and deserved the positions they have attained today.

In addition, you will notice ex-Afrinvest women in leading positions in other organizations in the country because of the nurturing they got from Afrinvest. The environment creates competition between colleagues and if the woman comes ahead, then so be it. Training is provided at every step of your personal and work development ensuring that you are equipped technically and well-grounded for future challenges. 

In your opinion, why is it important to have more women in management positions? 

In my opinion, it is important to have more women in management and leadership positions as we are generally more principled in our ways. We tend to manage our resources more efficiently and are quite prudent in terms of cost.

I believe women are quite loyal to their organizations (they do not move from one firm to the other frequently just to get promoted). Women tend to have not just technical skills but soft skill as well that would enable them connects with their teammates.

There is a tendency for women to be more perceptive and feel the heartbeat of the organization than men who tend to focus on short term profit considerations. Such an approach ensures the longevity and sustainability of organizations.

Women also tend to preserve the culture of organizations and tend to be better focused on nurturing the team. 

What advice can you give to younger women for finding success in the workplace? 

My advice to the younger women for success in the workplace is to stay focused, work extra hard (while leveraging on your generally superior emotional intelligence that comes naturally to women in Africa). Be good followers in the first instance as this will lead you to become exemplary leaders.

Do not wait for the firm to send you on training. Learning on the job is even faster. There are so many free tools online to train yourself, go for those tools and learn.

Look for a mentor in your space that can tutor you and learn all you can from your mentor. I am a firm believer in mentorship programs to help the younger ones get guidance along the way and to get assistance in their areas of weakness relating to their job skills.

They should also be disciplined in the way they conduct themselves at work. Be careful of compromises in value systems, they come back to hunt. Focus on being the best, not just by copying, but by leveraging on your innate qualities. So, know yourself, leverage your strengths and qualities and you will manifest your desire.

If you had the power to freeze a moment in time, which would it be? 

That would be Pre 2008 (Bubble Burst in the Capital Market) when Investment banking Mandates were a joy due to the Fees and Revenues we were generating at the Time (Margins were great at that time). Profit-sharing after a great and successful year was something we looked forward to!