Businesswoman, fashion designer and even a marriage counselor; Folorunsho Alakija won’t be retiring any time soon.
Folorunsho Alakija is not only the second richest woman in Africa but she has also been listed as one of the most powerful 100 women in the world by Forbes magazine. This is a businesswoman who takes diversified interests to a quite remarkable level, as Alakija is not only involved in oil mining and fashion design but has even written books on marriage counseling and started up her own ministry.
So how did this 64 year old Nigerian woman end up in such a position of wealth and influence?
Folorunsho Alakija: “Many have asked how I got to where I am”
Alakija arrived into the world on July 15th 1951, born into a large family in which her father had an incredible 52 children. Alakija and one of her sisters were sent to school in the United Kingdom at the age of 7 and remained there for 4 years.
Although she returned to Nigeria for her high school education, Alakija made her way back to the UK as a young adult where she studied to be a secretary and also took up a fashion design course at the American College in London and the Central School of Fashion.
Alakija began her first job in 1970, working as a secretary for Sijuade Enterprises and then 4 years later moved on to become the Executive Secretary to the Managing Director of First National Bank of Chicago (now First City Monument Bank).
From this point on, determination, hard work and the confidence to take risks are what saw Alakija’s career go far beyond her formal qualifications. While she did not have a degree, diligence and natural talent helped her carve out increasingly senior roles in the corporate world. Within two years of joining the bank, Alakija was promoted to the Head of Corporate Affairs and subsequently rose further into the company hierarchy by becoming Office Assistant to the Treasury Department.
While many people would have been happy to continue such a progression in the corporate world, Alakija wanted to use her creativity and took a gamble by leaving the security of her career to launch her own fashion house in 1983. The Rose of Sharon House (originally named Supreme Stitches) was an almost immediate success and made Alakija a household name in Nigeria as she promoted traditional prints and Nigerian styles in her clothing.
A move from the finance sector into fashion design might seem unusual, but Alakija’s massive success has been built upon her willingness to take calculated risks and in 1991 she made another bold move into yet another arena.
“A truly family business”
In 1991, Alakija ventured into the oil industry and although her prospecting license was not granted until 1993, it was the move that would turn a successful career into one that made billions. Alakija’s company Famfa Oil acquired 60% of a lucrative block of coastal oil that came to fruition in 1996 when Texaco (now Chevron) approached her to broker a deal. Negotiations lasted 3 months, but at the end of it Alakija had a deal with a multinational oil company and Famfa Oil became a juggernaut in African business. Famfa is, as Alakija states, a “family business” in that her husband of 40 years is the chairman and their four sons are the Executive Directors.
Having been happily married for four decades and being a devout born-again Christian, it is perhaps unsurprising that Alakija is saddened by the world’s increasing divorce rates. What might be more surprising about a billionaire businesswoman is that she decided to try and address this by writing a book on marriage counseling and by regularly giving speeches around Nigeria to try and help provide advice on how to make marriage work.
“A burning desire to help the less privileged and needy”
Helping people is something that is important to Nigeria’s richest woman and her huge financial clout has meant that she is able to do a lot more than write books. In 2008, The Rose of Sharon Foundation was launched to allow Alakija to invest in the futures of widows and orphans in Nigeria. Scholarships and interest-free loans aim to help those with very little prospects have a chance at changing their own fortunes.
There have been 9,000 medical and engineering scholarships thus far and in addition to this work, Alakija has provided 21 clinics for treating tuberculosis across the country, 21 science laboratories and is in the process of designing the building of two schools that will bear the name of her foundation.
Alakija’s career has been extraordinary by any standards and yet with her foundation, public speaking and the ministry she launched in 2004, there is no sign of her slowing down any time soon. And it is her religion that she insists is behind her success and her passion to keep working and promoting her belief in her faith. Although many people might look to her ingenuity, brave decision making and talent, Alakija says “Though many have claimed that I have become their role model, I assign all the glory to God.”