Profile interview: Bolaji Sofoluwe, non-executive director of operations, BGEN International.

Profile interview: Bolaji Sofoluwe, non-executive director of operations, BGEN International.

At BGEN, no two roles are the same, so we are talking to colleagues across the organisation and asking them five questions to get insight and understanding of their journey here and how they fit into the company.

Bolaji Sofoluwe recently joined the BGEN group of companies after working with us on our market entry strategy with our brand-new subsidiary, BGEN International, in Africa. She is based from her office in Colchester, UK, but spends a vast amount of time at 35,000 feet, travelling to and from Europe and Africa.

Can you tell us a little about your background and the path that has led you here?

Bolaji: I was born in Birmingham and my parents decided to move us back to Africa when I was about seven, which was a life changing course of action. From that time until I finished University I was in Nigeria, other than for holidays and visits to the UK. Spending my formative years this way shaped the rest of my life in so many ways, preparing me for who I was and who I was going to be.

I always knew that I wanted to be ‘international’ so studied language and linguistics along with professional courses, leading me to become a Business Consultant, which I adored!  

After a few years in risk within the banking industry (an education!), as well as carrying out my national service, I found my way back to management consulting, returning to Africa to work for a few years.

In 2010, I returned to the UK and started ETK with a couple of cofounders. ETK helps businesses go into African markets, from expansion planning to execution on the ground. I’ve been doing this for 11 years, supporting businesses to develop strategic plans and then carrying them through in-country with various dedicated teams.

We have a huge number of people working with us now within the continent, across thirty-two varied sectors and sub-sectors, with businesses netting from 100k to 30billion turnover. All markets in Africa are entirely different, so we are constantly learning and consulting with our partners, not to mention scheduling across all the different time zones!

Because I love entrepreneurship so much, I also mentor for the Innovate UK Edge and ‘Mandela Mile’, as well as working as an Entrepreneurship Expert at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford and various business institutes.

‘What does your average day look like’ seems a strange question following everything you have described! Could you attempt to answer?

My average day starts with me trying to get some exercise in. I don’t manage all the time, but I try. I also have some quiet time with myself to reflect and to pray. I get my two girls ready for school and then I go into work. Once I’m in work mode, I’m completely absorbed. It’s like the submarine – once I’m in, I’m in! I do sometimes forget to eat lunch!

The fundamental of my daily job is talking to top level executives -from entrepreneurs and unicorn CEO’s*, through to procurement managers and export managers – all those sorts of people. I really enjoy talking to these people on a day-to-day basis!

…And just to pick up on your experience of ‘normal’, how – if at all – have you seen things change here?

Since we’ve been working from home, I have seen a lot of changes. Certain things are more acceptable. The other day my gardener came onto a call with his shears, and my colleagues thought nothing of it. And why should Craig (my gardener) care? He’s at work too!  Obviously, people have been home based for years – but I think it’s the fact that we’ve been home based together – we’ve really seen a shift where our personal lives are now acceptable and accessible.   

In this industry, however, most people are seen as vital workers and so in that sense it’s been business as usual. Within this space, I have seen huge changes in innovation. I’ve seen a lot of momentum in terms of moving things towards sustainability and all those things that matter.

So overall I would say the biggest changes have been in the workplace perspective but also in terms of businesses looking at the bigger picture.

Has anything shocked or surprised you?

There’s one thing that I can think of that’s been quite shocking and quite sobering. I’ve just completed a masters in ‘International Business Leadership and Management’ and as of a part of this I studied climate policy. I was shocked to learn and understand that the commitments made to the least developed markets had not been honoured. Whilst these countries have contributed the very least to climate change, they are suffering the worst as a result – for example with natural disasters and pollution. There were no real mechanisms in place in the Paris Agreement to check that support had been established for these countries.

We’re hoping that COP 26 is going to be different and that parameters are put in place to make sure that that governments will achieve their targets. The richest countries are the biggest culprits of CO2 emissions and so I think the onus is on their governments to make an impact on policy direction from the top down to the bottom.

What do you currently see as your biggest challenge?

Currently my biggest challenge is working with BGEN International in Africa. I really want to help create a footprint across Africa. One of the reasons why I accepted the offer to join BGEN was the interesting community impact plans and policies that will be put in place. It’s an opportunity to make a real positive impact on the local economy, which is so important to me.

My husband asked me why now and why this company, and this is why. I do feel that this company wishes to add value to how corporate business is done, and how clients and customers will be served and to bring the core values that I see in BGEN embody to Nigeria and other operational markets in Africa – it’s a HUGE challenge, but I think we are capable.

Fifth and final question: What advice would you give to someone setting out in their chosen career?

My main advice is to put structure down first. I am a huge advocate of proper planning. I don’t like to go into anything with my eyes shut. Create your plans: A business plan, a market entry strategy, an expansion plan, a situational analysis. Think about what you need to do to make an impact and bring something new to the table. It’s so important to have a blueprint – something that you can refer to when you’re feeling lost or taken off guard.  

It’s counter intuitive but the more prepared you are the more fun you are likely to have along the way and ultimately this is what we want from our careers – to enjoy ourselves!

*Unicorn CEO’s as described here are those that have business valued at over 1billion and only started 6months ago.

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