In this interview, Titilayo speaks about her passion for startups and how she supports first-time founders in building innovative products. Excerpt:
Q: Briefly tell us about your education and how it shaped your passion for business and technology coaching?
Titilayo Obasanya: I qualified as an Accountant in London and I am now a non-practising fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. Whilst studying for the ACCA, I got another degree from Oxford Brookes University. A BSc (Hons) in Applied Accounting. My first degree was from the University of Lagos where I studied Industrial Relations and Personnel Management.
In retrospect, I think all my studying prepared me for what I do now. When I was studying for the ACCA I had a deep interest in small businesses, particularly from the perspective of using my strategic knowledge to help them make good general business decisions. I realised that a good or basic foundational knowledge of accounting was fundamental for business advisory so getting the ACCA in the bag was worth all the hard work and sweat.
In the early stages of my career, I supported business owners across multiple sectors by offering them strategic advice and writing business plans. Not too long, my career accelerated from working in various roles, business advisory and management to the beautiful world of startups. I found it quite easy to fit into the tech ecosystem because I have a lot of cross-functional experience that is of tremendous value to founders.
Q: In 2016, you were one of the top ten winners of the British Council’s Creative Enterprise challenge. Tell us about the challenge and how it shaped your entrepreneurial skills.
Titilayo Obasanya: In various capacities, nascent entrepreneurs are receiving support in the form of grants, mentoring and training. The British Council’s Creative Enterprise Challenge is one of the enterprise development initiatives in Nigeria. In the first stage of the competition, more than 10, 000 entrepreneurs submitted short essays explaining their business concept. Out of the 10,000, only 80 entrepreneurs were shortlisted for the second stage which was a video pitch describing our ideas, goals and objectives for our soon to be created business. Only 20 entrepreneurs made it to bootcamp, which was rigorous and altogether rewarding.
In preparation for the final pitch, the team from Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship, South Africa taught key elements of entrepreneurship and business startup in the simplest way I have ever known. The last part of the challenge was a pitch to seasoned business experts which was nerve-racking because it was my first time pitching. Only ten of us made it to the final selection.
I met brilliant and amazing people at bootcamp and the experience will remain with me throughout my entrepreneurial journey. I came into boot camp empty and I left full!
Q: You are the Director of Start-ups in Semicolon, what is the mission and vision of Semicolon? And what are its core offerings?
Titilayo Obasanya: Semicolon is a social enterprise creating employment and economic opportunities by training software engineers and techpreneurs. We are turning the Nigerian youth population into a vibrant army of software engineers via a 1-year intensive tech training and thereafter placing them in jobs. We help trainees who opt for our entrepreneurship track go from Idea to MVP. Upon graduation, startups teams can join our Growth Lab program where we focus on helping them build sustainable businesses.
We want to develop a generation of techpreneurs that will solve problems faced by Nigeria – and the world. Our work is focused on preparing young people for the future. We envisage a future driven by the fourth industrial revolution based on a digital economy. In preparing young people for participation in this digital economy, we emphasize the importance of digital skills and digital entrepreneurship.
Q: In what ways would you suggest Nigeria can be transformed into the Silicon Valley of Africa?
Titilayo Obasanya: In my opinion, Lagos is no doubt Nigeria’s and shall I be bold to say Africa’s “Silicon Valley”. This is partly because of the brilliant innovations that have come out of the city by founders whose hard work and determination have put Nigeria as a country leading innovation in Africa on the world’s map.
So many notable giant technology companies started in Silicon Valley. Like Facebook, Netflix and so on. In not so much of a comparison, we have Paystack, Iroko TV, Cowrywise, and so many others. But Silicon Valley is more than a location. It is the global centre of innovation fuelled by the culture that promotes open innovation and a kindred spirit of entrepreneurship.
I should also mention the participation of private and public stakeholders in the growth of Silicon Valley to what we have come to know it as being famous for. Universities (Stanford University for example) provide innovation seeds to the community through their research and development lab.
There is yet a lot more to be done in Nigeria. We need continuous government interventions – policies and regulations that support founders and their startups, a culture that encourages entrepreneurship by opportunity and not necessity- which means a more formal approach to entrepreneurship that can be introduced into our curriculum in schools.
We need to stimulate local participation in startup investment/ funding and introduce strategies to increase investors’ appetite for taking a bet on founders. Of course, the flip side to this is the founders and whether or not they are ready for investment. This is the reason why we need more venture builders in the ecosystem that will mentor and coach founders to become driven by vision, design and build great products and create solutions to critical problems in Africa.
Q: Prior to Semicolon, you founded Startup Desk. Tell us about it and how it is faring now.
Titilayo Obasanya: Startup Desk (www.startupdesk.org) is currently focused on helping university students and fresh graduates take the first step to starting a business. We want to create entrepreneurship clubs in schools with the objective of helping student entrepreneurs understand what it takes to start a business. This is a deliberate act of co-creating a sustainable or shall I say a clearly thought out alternative employment route for students before they graduate.
It has not been an easy ride at all. We have changed our business model a few times just to make sure we arrive at an idea market fit. The entrepreneurship landscape in Nigeria is peculiar and you have to stay agile to stay relevant.
Q: How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting your work? And how are you exploring technology to improvise and survive the pandemic?
Titilayo: We are working remotely like many other organisations. I think it’s easier for us because we are a technology-driven organisation and a lot of our work is automated at Semicolon.
Q: As a business coach and start-up builder, what would you say to an aspiring entrepreneur with no capital or funding but desirous to start a business?
Titilayo: We all know and agree capital is an essential resource to launch or grow your business. However, the business model, ensuring you are solving a real problem, choosing the right team and validating your business model is much more important when starting out. The first thing is not to look for funding. This is particularly relevant for startups. However, SMEs can take a cue from this thinking and in addition, they may get a business plan done. This will help them think clearly about their proposed business, target market, industry size and trends and also have a clear financial forecast showing their path to profitability.
Either way- collaboration is a currency. Whether you are a startup or SME, seek the right collaboration – Titilayo Obasanya
Q: Tell us about your creative writing and your book which is approved by the Lagos State Ministry of Education.
Titilayo: I started writing fiction many years ago. I enjoy writing short stories and songs. My first book Tales of a Dressmaker, which is a novella, was published under a traditional publishing engagement by Evans Group of Publishers. Tales of a Dressmaker is approved by the Lagos State Ministry of Education (Curriculum) as a recommended literature text for all Junior Secondary 1 students.
Tales of a Dressmaker is an interesting story of love, hope, dreams and vision. A grandmother, through the craft she knows best – Dressmaking – shares unforgettable life lessons with her granddaughter. Her intention was well thought out. She wanted to equip, inspire and prepare her granddaughter for the future. The story is read through the eyes of the granddaughter as she shares beautiful and sad memories of her childhood.
Tales of a Dressmaker has enjoyed many successes including being featured by Channels Television Book Club during a book reading event at Terra Kulture.
I self-published a fiction motivational story for young adults and adults last year December. You can find the title and get a digital copy of – The Girl My Father Never Wanted- on Barnes and Noble, Apple Books and Okada Books. It will make an interesting read to celebrate International Women’s Day.
Q: With the current economic reality of Nigeria, what kind of future do you envisage for an average Nigerian youth, and what advice would you give in that regard.
Titilayo: I think what’s important is each young person’s personal reality and how it aligns with their set goals, unique abilities and personal ambitions. In this context, I think leveraging available resources, communities of interests and collaborations to increase their ability to add value in their chosen path of ambition is critical to their personal and career growth.