Interview

INTERVIEW: Jewel Okwechime’s template for creating success and giving back to society

Jewel Okwechime has accomplished success across multiple career paths. 

Over a decade ago, she was an environmentalist at the top of the oil and gas industry. Many organisations in the sector sought her consultancy service because of her unique and cost-effective strategies of disposing waste whilst achieving environmental and safety compliance.

After years of making strides in the industry and peaking as a Fellow of the Institute of Chemical Engineers, the highest level of professionalism in chemical engineering, Jewel sought for a new challenge.  

She found that solace in business. 

She started by finding investment opportunities in the industry, then pitched these opportunities to top bankers in the UK. She repeated this process until she was the sector’s go-to person for getting investment and investor relations.

Aiming for more exposure and success in business, she extended her business network to renowned Nigerian billionaire Tony Elumelu for mentorship and inspiration, and got engaged as his senior executive consultant.

“It worked for me for a couple of months and I enjoyed the exposure,” Jewel says, reminiscing how she grabbed the rare opportunity with both hands. “He (Elumelu) then promoted me to work for Transnational Corporation Plc (Transcorp) as the Head of Administration. That was a big career jump for me, so I just embraced the new role.” 

Soon her business interests were directed to the financial sector, hence today, Jewel is the Non-Executive Director & Chairman of the Remuneration Committee and Investor relations for the VFD Group Plc. 


In this interview, Jewel sat down with NewsWireNGR’s Oladele Owodina to discuss how she has replicated success all her life and her way of giving back with Billion Strong.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


What was growing up like for you?

Basically, I was an introvert who didn’t really have many friends while growing up. I was also a very quiet kid, so I used to just hang out with myself.    

On the first day of my secondary school at Chrisland college, I was sitting down at my desk, minding my own business and the teacher came up to me and said we were going to vote for a new class captain. She asked everyone to pick someone, but they surprisingly picked me and made me their class captain. 

I understood my role was to keep the class clean and organised. I was very strict, and I ensured this happened. I became a teacher’s pet because of my performance and it was my first taste of leadership.

On getting to the second year, the teacher asked again that the class pick someone to be the class captain, but this time they did not pick me, they picked someone else. But the teacher insisted I remain class captain. 

I realised at that point that I had leadership skills. 

I am very grateful that my parents took me to the best schools. I was not one of the rich kids, but I learnt to build relationships with my peers and these relationships continue today. We have our WhatsApp group that helps us maintain a good friendship and also share business opportunities. I am grateful I managed to go to the school where I have access to these collaborations.

What did you think you would do when you were young? 

When I was much younger, my mum was a teacher so somehow, I wanted to be a teacher. I even had teddy bears that I taught. Then, I also started writing articles in the Guardian when I was 7. I was really passionate about writing and then I heard that doesn’t really make you much money. I was worried because I wanted to be in a career that had money. So I then said maybe I would study medicine or something similar but when I saw somebody faint, I almost passed out myself. I was so scared. So I decided medicine was definitely not for me and would do something around physics and maths. 

Luckily, when I was in the UK, Imperial college, which is one of the best universities in the UK, was doing a 3 day course where they would help women decide what they would do in science and engineering because they wanted more women to be engineers. During that time, I tried physics and also chemical engineering. Electrical engineering was really hard, I couldn’t understand what was going on, so I dropped it. Mechanical engineering was all right. Aeronautics was a bit too high tech for me, but I always felt at home with chemical engineering. 

I went back to college to study chemical engineering. At the same time, I partook in a chemistry competition because I was told I was going to get one hundred pounds. I was thinking about how to spend that money, not expecting to win the prize. The organisers used the money to buy me books worth the prize money. So on the day I thought I was going to get the money, the next thing I saw this big massive gift. I opened it up, and it’s called the Handbook of Chemical Engineers. I took this as  the sign of where I was heading. That’s it. So I just took the book and I’ll keep it until I start my Chemical Engineering degree program. This was how I decided to be a chemical engineer.

You reached the peak of the chemical engineering profession, but you switched to business. Why did you make that switch, even though you are crushing it too?

My mum was a banker at a time, and my dad was an accountant. So I said I’m not going anywhere near those subjects because they were very strict when I was growing up. We are going to be complete opposites, so I decided to be an engineer. So I’m an engineer and I’m happy to be an engineer. I joined the Institute of Chemical Engineering immediately after I finished university. I followed their protocols. I go through it all to take myself to the next level. 

But when I was around people; they looked at me like what are you doing here? I was a chemical engineer, but it looked like I was being questioned at every corner. That skepticism made me to use the institution as an assurance that I am an engineer and no matter what anyone says, I have the credibility that I am an engineer. 

So I used the institution to become a chartered engineer and after that, I asked what next? I then decided to pursue the highest level of professionalism in chemical engineering, which is a Fellow. Now I know that I have the highest level of credibility as an engineer. Also, my plan is to be on the board of these institutions to make some changes about women and engineering, women of colour and those stuff. 

When I did that, I was working in Oil and Gas as an environmentalist for most of my career and I found that more interesting because I was all about environmental pollution reduction. 

An environmentalist will ordinarily say put nothing in the water. As a chemical engineer, I would say you can, but make sure the quantity of the water going into the ocean is good enough to not kill the bacteria in the oceans. So I always look at things in different ways and because of that, I was special as most environmentalists are not engineers and most engineers are not environmentalists. I had that uniqueness that attracted companies as a consultant. 

I started going to conferences and meeting guys in the private equity sector. I found out that these guys were really cool. They have fun and party all the time, and I was like these guys have more fun than us engineers.

So I started to find investment opportunities, and that was how I got into that sector of investing. I said to the oil and gas companies; I have a couple of guys to help you get equity amid other investment opportunities.  

So I built a network of the top bankers in the UK. The best guys in the field of raising funds and all I had to do was be the middle person. I did that and that made me like the sector’s go-to person in getting into investment and investor relations. With that, I started to have an interest in the area. 

Then I “stalked” Tony Elumelu around the world. Wherever he was, I would be there and whenever he did anything, I would post and send him a message. As I kept stalking, he later said what if I hire you, will you be back in Nigeria? I agreed, even though deep down I didn’t want to move back to Nigeria. But for him, I will do it. He offered me a job to work for him in Nigeria as his senior executive consultant. So with that, I told him if I took this job; I wanted him to expose me to global leaders. Knowing I had reservations about returning to Nigeria, my mentor, Tony Elumelu played a huge part in my change of heart. The opportunity he gave me to work with him gave me direction and access to the key business sectors, particularly the financial sector. That was a huge deal for me!

Having gained great experiences and exposure to large corporations and individuals for 2 years at Transnational Corporation, I was ready for new challenges, still maintaining my credibility as an oil & gas expert engineer.

I moved back to the UK, and I utilised all the relationships that I had built to explore other opportunities. I went into banking and facilitated whole investments, like a synergy between VFD group Plc and Abbey Mortgage Bank. I had to ensure I was abreast with the Banking sector’s regulatory requirements. But I have never had any regrets in my life. I just believe that this is how I was meant to grow and even though I am in banking, I still come up with innovative ideas relevant to the sector.

You are described as a creator of success; and your success in chemical engineering and now business is testament to your brilliance. How have you been able to create this success persona?

As a kid, I could tell I was clumsy, so I did something about it. When I was getting overweight, I knew I had to do something about it and I did something about it.

I am always looking, always trying to fix things I am not comfortable with. This is my way of dealing with issues. Being raised by my mum, a powerful lady, instilled some values into me consciously and unknowingly.

My father also had this very straight face and strict aura, but I used to know how to get to his soft side. So my thoughts are if I can easily approach my father who was straight-faced, then I can approach anybody.

I also wanted to learn, so I was always open to learning. I knew that my mentors were my strength so I used them as a way to learn things I can build. I learnt from Tony Elumelu to take notes and write things. So I used my i-phone to write anything that comes to my head. I learnt from my other boss too that you can always listen to anyone.

Some say the true essence of success is giving back to the society. Tell me about your work with Billion Strong and the other ways you impact the society  

I was at an event where the CEO of Billion Strong was the speaker. At the time, I wasn’t really aware of what people with disabilities go through in terms of riding on their waves. Listening to her, it occurred to me that this is something that is so powerful because we think disabilities are just people who are physically impaired, but there’s so much more to it.

Your parents not being able to use technology is a form of disability. The kids out there going through poverty are disabled. There are so many out there. So I just started to embrace that people with disabilities are included because they have a voice. 

So when we had that conversation, she was like we have to work and do something together and work. I became a partner of the initiative and I am very excited to push that forward to Nigeria. In the UK, for example, we have got all kinds of support for the community with disability, unlike in Nigeria, where we don’t do that enough.

Why should Nigerians care about Billion strong?

I truly believe that together we are stronger. I also believe that we are all one, we are all connected, and we need to help each other. We can unite and be strong together regardless of who you are. We just have to come together, match our energies together, create a better world for us and a better community for others as well. 

How can people plug in into the initiative?

Billion Strong has a website https://www.billion-strong.org/  and on the site, there is a place you can just basically sign up and be a part of the movement. It is very important that 200 million or 1 billion people join the movement, so we show how we are big and strong enough to make a big impact. We need people to provide us with the support that we need to make Nigeria as great as it can be. We need to support schools, to support education, to give out free courses, free education, anything that can make us be included in Billion Strong and bring the best version of ourselves.

I am available in terms of talking to people and spreading the word, helping more people that want to join. I want to build this network with people that take action. I believe I can attract them by building a strong network and then just seeing where it takes us. 

In terms of funding, the possibilities are endless because we are looking at big corporations like Huawei, Amazon for support and exposure.. At some point, they want to penetrate African countries, because Africa is going to be the most powerful continent in the world. It is right now, but we are not even half as strong as we can be.

What does life mean to you?

I believe that when we came to earth; we had an agreement that we would have the best experience ever. I am really excited, really happy to live.

I feel life is like a blessing, and the best gift I was given so I need to enjoy it to the fullest. I also need to respect the voice that was given to me and my body, which is the transportation of the vehicle that I have must be respected.  

I want to be the best version I can possibly be every second and I believe in the now because now is the most amazing moment. The past is gone and you never know the future. Now. is beautiful. 

What’s your daily routine like? 

I normally start my mornings with a bit of meditation. I like to meditate because it helps me prepare for the day. Then I make my bed because laying my bed is like one of those tasks that I truly look forward to. And then I take supplements. I do not use chemicals for my skin, everything is natural, so I use oil pulling, baking soda. I don’t use any fluoride because it is very bad for the brain

So the less you have chemicals in your body, the longer you have a healthy life and I think a healthy life is very important to me. Everyone should wake up energised, no one should wake up feeling like oh I can’t get up, I need some coffee; that is a sign that there are toxins inside your body because waking up is the best thing.

So then I go to the gym to continue a training program that I do. After training, I start work but sometimes I start work earlier, but the key thing is I work once I’ve got the blood flowing and ready to go. And during the day, there are some moments that are important to me. For example, 5 pm because my brain is in a different mood. The waves are different because of my circadian rhythm. I follow my circadian rhythm to figure out what to do. It makes me more efficient, more effective as a leader, as a mentor, as a daughter to my mother, as a sister to my sisters and as an aunty to my nephews. I hang out with them, speak to them and motivate them as well. 

Where do you go for inspiration

Inside. I go inwards, then outwards. But outwardly it is just so busy, distracting and not real.

As someone who lives and works in Nigeria and the UK, what are the cultural differences between both countries?

So it’s a very interesting question. In terms of culture, they are completely different. Nigeria challenges you but at the same time, you get to grow fast in order to survive.. The UK is more like you have access to everything in terms of what you want because you have access to everything. So you have that freedom to explore. At the same time, the UK is a melting pot of different cultures so you can mix with all kinds of different people. 

Nigeria is a bit chaotic and you don’t really know who’s there for you because everyone seems to have their own agenda. But at the same time, there is a sense of belonging to a community and being able to feel the love and connection that you have with these people. And because of that, there is always this love I have from people and the connections there.

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