The proprietress of one of Abuja’s most prominent gift shops, Gift Source, Dr. Samiah Oyekan-Ahmed, explains why she’s not looking back after set aside medicine for entrepreneurship
You appear to be running farther and farther away from practising medicine. First you opened a gift shop and then you went into writing. Was studying medicine a mistake?
I don’t think anything that happens in life is ever a mistake. Often, God just redirects us. A lot of things I learnt in medical school such as attention to detail and ability to work on little or no sleep are useful to me even now. I also met some of my dearest friends and have quite a number of pleasant memories from medical school. So, it’s definitely not a mistake
Religion tends to encourage and even promote a fatalistic approach to life. How do you reconcile that with your training in science as a medical doctor?
I’m very fatalistic in my thinking. Death is the one thing that we know for sure will happen. Being fatalistic does not however mean that you sit around waiting for death, or even forgetting to live, it means you just prepare for life after death. But whilst living, you have to try to live optimally! Physically, mentally, spiritually and all ways! So I don’t think being a doctor is contrary to any of that.
In a number of her books, but particularly in Infidel: My Life, Ayaan Hirsi Ali pants a very unflattering picture of Islam as a religion that oppresses women. Do you share that view?
Anyone that can say Islam oppresses women is likely to have been raised according to traditional and cultural beliefs and not true Islam. With all modesty, I’m a practicing hijab wearing woman who is a medical doctor, owns her own businesses, is a published author, wife, mother and who contributes very positively to her society. Do I seem oppressed to you? Islam is very pro-women’s rights. We are quite frankly spoilt as women in Islam. The question though is, are people practicing the real Islam or what their culture or tradition dictates to them.
How did you persuade your parents that you would not practice?
To be honest, there was nothing to persuade them about, I was grown up and married at that point.
What was their reaction?
My dad was initially disappointed, not that he ever said that, but I assume as a parent who wants the best for their child, he was just worried I was leaving certainty for uncertainty. Right now, my father is one of my biggest supporters and cheerleaders.
At what point did you decide that you will not practice medicine and how did you deal with it, considering the time and resources you and your parents had invested?
It was never a conscious decision. I moved to another city after marriage. I didn’t get into a residency program immediately as expected and instead of sitting twiddling my thumbs, I started my first company. I realized I enjoyed being an entrepreneur a lot more than I did being a doctor, and the rest as they say, is history.
How do young people growing up avoid the “mistake” of spending time and resources studying a course which they might later find they really didn’t want to practice?
As I mentioned, nothing is ever a mistake or a waste. There’s always something valuable in every experience. What I advocate is parents paying closer attention to their kids’ natural passion and talents and helping them harness those, even as regards career choices. We weren’t given much choice in the matter when I was growing up, and I hope not to be the same with my kids.
You describe yourself as a “portfolio entrepreneur.” What does that mean?
A portfolio entrepreneur is one with different businesses running at the same time. I’m currently running two multi-faceted businesses, but at a time, I was running four.
How does managing a gift shop give you satisfaction?
I absolutely love running a gift store. I’m in the business of spreading love and happiness and fostering bonds. Gift giving is highly recommended in Islam. The Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, said, ‘Give gifts, for it increases love between you’. I have this saying blown up on my store wall to remind me of how important and blessed what I do is. And I thoroughly enjoy running a gift store in its entirety.
What’s the market size of the “gift industry” in Nigeria?
It’s a huge market and it’s growing everyday. People will always need gifts. So, there’s always a ready market for gift services. Converting that to sales is up to the individual company, but I can say from my experience, that it’s a very lucrative business venture.
Are their significant trends that new entrants might need to be aware of?
I’m not a follower of trends so I’m not sure I’m the right person for this question.
What common supply chain problems have you experienced and how did you overcome them?
I work with a lot of international suppliers, so my biggest supply chain headache would be dealing with issues at Customs! Sometimes, strikes and erratic tariff changes affect importation. But when this happens, I balance up my stock by increasing local content. We work with a lot of high quality local brands, as well as produce some of our gifts locally, so when importation is difficult, we just focus on these till the issues are sorted.
What is about the Nigerian business space that keeps your hope alive?
The amazing changes in the face of entrepreneurship in Nigeria in the last 10 years alone tells me something great is coming! There’s so much interest from the world about Nigeria and I believe that if we keep trudging on, our entrepreneurs will become formidable. A lot of great entrepreneurs in the past had businesses that died with, or shortly after them, but now a lot of entrepreneurs are working hard to implement structure to build generational businesses. In a few years, these businesses will mature and will contribute greatly to the economy of Nigeria, especially if they have the support needed from the government.
Before you set up Gift Source, you were running Fusion Lifestyle. How is it possible to stay focused and maintain optimum level of energy managing two businesses in Nigeria?
I think once you have passion, and are solving a problems or meeting a need, meaning you have a ready market, and then have the blessing of a great team of people working with you, running multiple businesses is actually not as Herculean as people assume. When I was trying to do it all myself I couldn’t give my best to any of my businesses, but since I started working with others and delegating, it’s considerably better and a lot easier to do my work very well.
What do you find particularly frustrating and how do you cope with it?
Doing business in Nigeria is tough. Everything seems to work against us as entrepreneurs. But I have a very strong positive spirit and I like to focus on things I can actually change rather than whine and whimper about things I cannot.
Have you had to use banks or any other lending institutions in the country before?
No. I’ve never used any lending institution or banks. My religion forbids interest-based transactions so credit facilities that require interest are a no-no for me. I’ve always had family and friends that provide me short-term interest free loans when I needed them, and for that I’m very thankful.
People say business and ethics hardly mix. What has been your experience so far?
I say there are some things that should not be separable from any aspect of life. Faith and ethics are some of those for me. To know me is to know what I stand for. I do not compromise on those for anything, especially not to make money.
Is there something about the Nigerian business space that makes business ethics particularly problematic?
The lack of access to finance makes people do things contrary to what they believe in. That’s one major problem a lot of business start-ups face.
What popular entrepreneurial advice do you agree or disagree with? Why?
The one that says, ‘Customer is always right’. I believe in excellent customer service, but I do not believe that customers are always right. People also advice that you should do all you can to make the customers happy and your business will flourish. This isn’t always true. I focus more of my energy on making my team happy, they will in turn convince the customers to stick with us.
What is your advice on expansion or diversification? Do you think it should be organic or driven by external financing or partnership?
There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to expansion. I think every business has a voice and the business owner must learn to listen to it and know what the business needs. Financing and the opportunity to scale up before a business owner is ready can kill a business faster than taking baby steps and growing organically. But if the business owner is well and truly prepared, it can be the absolute best thing for a business.
Are you building this as family business, something your children might take up in future; or you’re just doing your own thing?
My intention is to build a generational business that I can pass on to my kids, should they want it. If they do, it’ll be theirs to take over, if they don’t I’ll enjoy my life and die happy by God’s grace: it’s a win-win situation for me.
If you should start over again tomorrow what are those things you would be eager to change?
Funny that you ask this, I was just thinking about this recently. I’ve had a pretty good life, I don’t think there’s anything about my life I would change to be honest. Even the experiences that at the time I thought were against me, turned out being for me. I strongly believe in enjoying every stop on one’s journey through life. I certainly am doing that with mine.
Domestic violence, and often fatal ones, appears to be on the rise. What do you think is responsible and how can we tackle it?
I think we are just more aware of it because of social media and people now speaking up. It’s always been there. In my opinion, I think a lot of it stems from horrible vicious cycles of kids raised in abusive environments who grow up and continue the cycle. A lot of the work rests on us parents. We need to make our homes havens for our kids and break the cycle of domestic violence for those who have been exposed to it. It’s a lot easier said than done, I know, but often times things that can bring about significant change often are.
What’s your experience in inter-ethnic marriage?
Mine has been a very pleasant experience. I’m a Yoruba girl married into an Ebira/Hausa mix and not once in my 10 years of marriage have I regretted being married into the family I’m in.
In a 2015 interview with Bella Naija, you said you go bed by 2am! Do you still maintain that schedule?
I’m older and wiser now, and I have learnt how to work smarter as against harder, so I definitely go to bed a lot earlier now.
Are you thinking of getting involved in politics at some point in the future?
I have absolutely no inclination towards politics.
Share your growing up experience with us
I had quite a pleasant childhood. I was the only daughter of four kids to my medical doctor parents. I didn’t lack for anything and my parents were comfortable enough to also provide a lot of extras. I was brought up with a very strong Islamic identity which I’m very thankful for, even though I learnt a lot about Islam on my own in my late teenage years. I was a smart kid, so I definitely had the brains for medicine which is why it was easy for my parents to steer me that way, but I was always a creative with an overactive imagination from reading too many books and I must have written dozens of incomplete novels as a kid!