Alumni Profile - Bekeme
Bekeme Masade-Olowola studied International Human Resource Management MSc and is the Founder and Chief Executive of CSR-in-Action, a conglomerate of 3 businesses with a mission to redefine the sustainability terrain in Africa.
Bekeme talks about her start as an entrepreneur, her stint on The Apprentice Africa and what it’s like to run the leading Corporate Social Responsibility firm in Nigeria.
What influenced your decision to study an MSc in International Human Resource Management at Queen Mary? Did you have a particular career path in mind?
I chose Queen Mary because I wished to study a business course, veering away from my first degree in English, and away from my original love and choice for a postgraduate, journalism. It was a very intentional choice. I also wanted to study at one of the colleges of the University of London, and because I love to see how my work may impact positively on people and institutions, labour and employment relations looked to me a good way to make that impact.
What aspects of your degree did you find most enjoyable? What modules did you enjoy learning about and was there anything that surprised you in your studies?
I absolutely loved Organisational Consultancy, Cross-Cultural Management, International Human Resource Management and Organisation Therapy. It’s interesting that I scored best in those modules as a result of my interest, even though I had to leave my classes to go straight to work every day. From my first class on Organisational Consultancy, I knew that I wanted to be a consultant.
What was it like having to balance your work alongside your studying? What was your role at the time?
I had lost my mother in 2005, a year before arriving at Queen Mary, so I had no choice but to work. It was not easy at all because I had to literally move from school straight to work and vice versa. I was extremely lucky that I found work first as Housing Project Coordinator and Communications Officer, and then as a Central Project Executive for Communications, Policy and Performance Development, that was flexible enough to accommodate my scholastic schedule. Both these roles worked for my good, too, because I became enamoured with policy and performance measurement, the former of which has led to my preeminence in governance and policy shaping in Nigeria, and the latter of which led to my appointment to an international board which focuses on impact measurement. My studies did suffer expectedly, but I was able to work very hard to make at least a Merit. I thrive under pressure.
Before you joined Queen Mary, you had already begun your career as an entrepreneur, making your first million by the age of 20! How did you manage such a huge achievement at such a young age?
Yes, I had informally started my career as an entrepreneur, selling high end retail products. I would typically retrieve household items from friends and partners and sell them directly to consumers who may not have found the time to go out to purchase them. I also always made sure to buy fashion items from my holiday trips to the UK and sell them from the boot of my car – loaned from home, of course – to friends and other students at the University of Lagos where I attained my first degree. In addition to these, I became an investor in my mum’s contracting business and made sure to receive returns per delivery cycle. There is something really satisfying about counting your money as the Queen in her counting house does in the nursery rhyme (laughs).
What were your early experiences like after graduating from Queen Mary? Did you find interesting work straight away or was it more of a journey?
Thankfully, I went straight into The Apprentice Africa house just a few months after the completion of my degree, which provided me a much-needed buffer. My degree was officially completed in September 2007 and I was at The Apprentice Africa location by January 2008. I also was kindly employed by the sponsor of the show – Bank HB – upon completion of the show and provided with accommodation and relocation funds. That was a brilliant stroke of luck and exactly what I was hoping for in a soft-landing back in my home country, Nigeria.
What was it like being on The Apprentice? What did you learn from your experience?
I am quite introverted and didn’t like the cameras following me around. I hadn’t done reality TV before, nor was I an avid watcher of the genre, so I didn’t know that I had to play up to the camera; which is all for the best as I don’t have to deal with any cringe-worthy moments now or in the future!
I learnt that reality TV is anything but reality and that you should pursue your passion no matter how tough it may seem, because it is your passion that would keep you going and that will ultimately get you there. I also bonded with and learnt from the Africans from across the continent and those who already had broader work experiences.
Can you describe what you do now and what a typical working day looks like for you?
I run the leading Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability firm in the country, CSR-in-Action, which was founded 10 years ago, and I am a partner at a reputation management firm, Zenera Consulting, amongst other businesses that I am involved in.
I primarily work in sustainability consulting, advocacy and training, which is basically providing support services to institutions – business and government - and sometimes individuals, that would help them incorporate sound economic, environmental, social and governance practices within their corporate structures, in order that they continue to exist for a very long time. The journey for institutions evolves and their needs are diverse, and so the gamut of our services range from developing sustainability strategies, need assessments and environmental audits, to stakeholder engagement – including community engagement – assurance services, reporting services and the like. We also convene for advocacy purposes, such as we’ve done for the past 8 years with our Sustainability in the Extractive Industries (SITEI) Conference through which we have designed the nation’s first Community Engagement Standards, which has been approved for use by the federal government.
My work has put me in board and other leadership positions, including becoming the first West African on the board of the leading sustainability standard-setter, the Global Reporting Initiative, Amsterdam, and the Nigerian version of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the Business Coalition for Sustainable Development Nigeria.
My typical day never really ends, to be honest, as there is always so much to do. However, being an entrepreneur, I have the luxury of being able to weave everything around my family life, consisting of my husband and four children.
What is the most exciting thing about what you do?
I absolutely love making the impossible possible and abhor repetitive tasks; so what I find most exciting is working on a range of projects concurrently or simultaneously and subsequently seeing the spread of my impact. It gives me so much joy and there is a thrill that comes with working on every new, preferably challenging project.
Looking back, how did your time and study at Queen Mary help with your career and development?
My time at Queen Mary helped me determine what I wanted to do in a broad way and in some way, in a more particular sense, too! It is not a coincidence that my two favourite courses – Organisational Consultancy and Organisation Theory – are very much the foundation for what I do today; consulting and advocating for healthy institutions through probing closely and then developing interventions that would facilitate those thriving systems. Cross-Cultural Management, Managing Diversity, Employment Relations and other modules have also helped me with a more open mind useful for engaging multicultural teams both within and external to my organisation. Early on in my professional career, every time that I was faced with a business dilemma, I would recall Game Theory covered within the Strategic Games for Managers module, and I would strategically decide whether or not to follow through on a course of action.
What was special about your time at Queen Mary? Can you give one or two examples of your most memorable moments or favourite places on campus?
Seeing as I was a working MSc student, I must confess that I was hardly ever on campus for lengthy periods of time. But I did find the library very comfortable and thoroughly enjoyed my classes on Organisational Consultancy (for content) and Organisation Theory (for delivery). I also enjoyed learning the culture of my colleagues, particularly those from China, India, Pakistan and Russia, during campus parties. I remember my Chinese friends being enamoured with my Afro hair (laughs).
What would your advice be to students interested in studying MSc International Human Resource Management at Queen Mary?
I would ask that they spend time networking with peers who may already have some professional work experience, as well as seek mentorship from lecturers who may have experience in the particular area that they choose to specialise in. Be open-minded and go with the flow; change is the most constant thing.