An Afternoon with Mo Abudu (aka the ‘Oprah of Nigeria’) at the Wharton Africa Business Forum
On a mild Fall (that’s ‘Autumn’ to those of us outside of America!) Saturday in Philadelphia, Movemeback were fortunate enough to be in the audience for an engaging and effortless talk by successful serial-entrepreneur Mo Abudu, who is perhaps best known as being CEO of Ebony Life TV – ‘Africa’s First Global Black Multi-Broadcast Entertainment Network’. In line with the Forum’s theme – ‘My Africa Story’ – Mo takes us on the journey of her life and, arriving at her current stop, speaks about the need to use media to change the narrative of Africa, and leaves us with lessons (we are at a Business School after all!) to aid our own business success.
Mo’s African Story
“It’s one thing to dream ideas. But it’s really about how you exercise your dreams”
Despite being ‘Africa’s most successful woman’, Mo remains firmly grounded in her roots, talking about how her humble beginnings in Nigeria, and her early years spent in the UK are embedded in her DNA, and made her who she is today. Mo was born in the UK, and relocated to Nigeria at age 7, living with her grandparents on their cocoa farm, before returning to UK aged 12 to live in Tunbridge Wells after her father’s death – all a far cry from the star of African TV who stood before us in an elegant green dress, causing one audience participant to exclaim “I love your dress”.
When speaking about her business success across numerous projects and businesses (namely establishing Vic Lawrence & Associates, a HR development company; developing an executive training centre at Protea Hotel; through to becoming a talk show host and creating Ebony Life TV), her determination becomes very apparent. With every project undertaken being more ambitious than the last, Mo tells the audience “Sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone – you owe it to yourself.” A tenacious individual, Mo is also clearly a believer in the power of hard work. “It’s one thing to dream ideas. But it’s really about how you exercise your dreams” she tells us.
“Sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone – you owe it to yourself.”
Changing the narrative of Africa
“Nothing is going to change unless we have our own reference point.”
Many would feel blessed to wear the title ‘Oprah of Nigeria’. However honoured as she may be, Mo talks of the problems associated with the constant need to have a non-African reference point. “Coca-Cola is just Coca-Cola” she reminds us – so why should our brands not stand up as global brands? “Nothing is going to change unless we have our own reference point.”
On this matter, Mo also shares with us her experience on the pavements of Marble Arch in central London. Mo ran an experiment, stopping and asking people what word first came to mind when she said the word ‘Africa’. Famine, HIV, Mugabe and (to the audience’s amusement) giraffe were among the responses. When asked why those words, participants cited the media as the source of their immediate references. Mo is clearly passionate about changing this, arguing that the most powerful way to change public perceptions of Africa is through media.
What is a Business School with the absence of lessons?
As a fitting tribute to the fact that the talk was held at a Business School, Mo caters for her audience by leaving us with a series of lessons – although admitting that she does not always take her own advice!
“It’s ok to have big dreams – if you start small, what are you going to be left with?”
- “It’s ok to have big dreams” she says, reminding us of the fact that she came from humble beginnings. “If you start small, what are you going to be left with?” Mo shares with us that when she created ‘Moments with Mo’, she started as she meant to continue. Rather than working her way up, she made the audacious attempt of securing a high-profile individual for her first interview – and she succeeded. Nobel Prize winner, Wole Soyinka, was Mo’s first interview guest. After having technical issues with the first recorded interview, she even persuaded him to do the interview a second time, noting that he was humble enough to take an okada (Nigerian motorcycle taxicab) to make the interview on time!
- Have true passion for your dreams. Mo likens one’s dreams to falling in love – emphasising the importance of following a dream that you are completely obsessed with, and suggesting that if you are not truly passionate about the path you are following, you may be headed in the wrong direction.
- Challenge the status quo. On this lesson she offers a suggestion for reading material – Blue Ocean Strategy.
- Identify the currency with which you are trading. In Mo’s case, Ebony Life’s currency is quality, premium TV.
- The numbers must make sense. In Business School talk – validate your business model and consider your bottom line.
- Be innovative. Mo stresses that there will always be someone – a competitor – behind you trying to catch up with you. It is therefore important to continuously be striving to be more innovative, to increase the gap between you and your rivals.
- Accept criticism. Take it as valuable learning from which you can build. Mo tells us that along the path to business success “You’ll meet your dream makers and your dream killers.” If the criticism is used to up one’s game, the dream killer can be as valuable as the dream maker!
- Teamwork and the creation of valuable partnerships, Mo says, is the only way to succeed.
- Work hard. Mo emphasises the value of tenacity – believing that hard work always pays off… in the end!
- Do not take no for an answer! “Sometimes a ‘no’ can be the beginning of a ‘yes’”. Mo tells us to ask ourselves why someone is saying no, and, if necessary, to use that knowledge gained to innovate and improve your value proposition.
- Relationships in business are key. Mo tells us that people like to do business with people they like, trust and respect, and stresses the importance of adhering to these characteristics for business success.
- See the opportunity rather than the challenge. When you spot a challenge, consider how you can use business to fill the void.
- If going back to Africa to operate as a business owner or entrepreneur, be humble and prepared to roll up your sleeves for some hard work. Mo shares the common belief that often those returning or going to Africa go with the belief that they are superior to the locals. “They know what time it is!” Mo exclaims, warning us that the locals are highly innovative, whilst having the benefit of knowing how to operate in the local market.
- The M-Factor – With the authority of a Nigerian matriarch, Mo tells us all that if we do not have a good relationship with our mothers we must rectify it! “Your mother is your number 1 fan”, she reminds us, describing the belief, love, and unwavering support her mother has for her.
- The G-Factor – Mo tells us that she is unashamedly Christian, and describes how her daily prayer and faith is responsible to for her success – “I am grateful to God for all of my opportunities.”
“Sometimes a ‘no’ can be the beginning of a ‘yes’”.
Mo clearly had many fans in the audience. During the question and answer session, two members of the audience could not contain their excitement as they asked Mo a question: one trembled with nerves as she whimpered “I just love you so much!” whilst the other insisted that Mo promise to give her a hug after the talk. (I’m not convinced that Mo actually obliged – but would be delighted to be proven wrong!). The final audience question came from a male participant who asked what support Mo received from her husband during her rise to success. Mo answered that she is no longer married, but continues to receive support from her ex-husband. But she also reminds the female audience participants “We shouldn’t feel guilty as women for wanting to have it all, and I wanted to have it all”.
“We shouldn’t feel guilty as women for wanting to have it all, and I wanted to have it all”.
Mo’s final words of the afternoon: “If you can think it – you can do it.”
“If you can think it – you can do it.”