BY TOPE TEMPLER OLAIYA
“Like they say, if you do something you love, you will never work again. I feel that way now.”
Working where magic lives does not make Biola Alabi’s story a fairytale; but it is something close. After seeing the best of two worlds in Nigeria and the United States of America, she now comfortably sits in Lagos as the managing director of MNet Africa and sets her eyes on beginning the year with a bang, the grand finale of Face of Africa, which will be broadcast live from Lagos.
Listening to Alabi tell her story and sitting down to watch a soap opera, both provoke the same sensation of excitement, intrigues and suspense. For the moment the narration lasted, you are forced to stay glued to your seat and hear all of it reel out in interwoven lock of adventures. Yet, the hardworker insists she is not there yet. “I am still at the beginning of my journey and I am looking forward to learning more.”
Growing up in a small family of three siblings in different parts of the world, she relishes the times she spent in Akure, Ondo State. “When my dad was here, he was a lecturer. So, during holidays, we always went to the family house in Akure. My education was in the US, so I enjoyed the best of both worlds and I have very fond memories of those places. There are sometimes when you miss both places for different reasons. My parents were very committed to us as children, making sure we had the right mix of exposure and experience.
“I grew up reading a lot. My parents limited our TV watching and; of course, NEPA also limited our TV watching, as there weren’t so much generators then. But the beautiful thing about reading is that you can read from anywhere. When you read, it exposes you to a lot and you don’t have the time to engage in chatter. It actually sprouts my love for travel. I had a list of places I wanted to see before I was even 10.” Then she retorted, “I hope people still read the way I used to. I hope young children still read?”
LOOKING back now, Biola never really thought she would be in the media. “My parents were typical Nigerians, you have to do things that made sense, and you had to be a doctor, lawyer or an engineer. They were very clear about what you wanted to do and I decided on medicine or pharmacy, which is why my degree is a Bachelor of Science in Public Health. But after an internship in a pharmacist company, I discovered it didn’t suit my personality.
“One of the courses you have to do is a marketing class. When I took my first marketing class, I was hooked and I knew this is the major for me. So, I decided to minor in Marketing. I didn’t even break the news to my parents that I wasn’t going to apply to medical school. I just decided to take a break, work for a while and see how things go. I was already exposed to different marketing opportunities in school and one of the jobs I had at the time was with CBS College Tour. CBS is a broadcasting firm in the US and they raise awareness in universities with the tour. So, when they came to my campus, I was already worked up. There were so many exposures and it made me realize marketing had so many facets.”
Eventually, she got hooked with marketing and left the US to live in Korea for two years, taking a job with Daewoo. “I traveled and saw different parts in Asia, before coming to work for them in the US. Their entry into the US market was a massive campaign, because they were bringing something new and I enjoyed talking about that.”
From there, she ventured into the internet world and met exciting opportunities. Internet was the revolution at that point in the US. She joined Big World, an internet service company. “It was an experience for me, everyone wanted to work in an internet company. Everyone was so young at Big World. The person who started the company was 25 years old and everybody was under 30.
“After a while, there was a crash in the market, some companies survived, some didn’t. Amazons is one of the companies that survived and it was able to buy up a lot of the little companies in that space and my company was one of them. At the end, all the internet business withered down. I think that is what happens in every revolution, when you have a lot of things happening at the same time, the market would correct itself. And I think that is what happened even with the stock market here.”
But did she go down with the firm? The answer was in the negative. “That was the best learning process for me, I always say that experience was my MBA. I learned a lot from the failure of it. It was fun working with your friends who were your age. You made mistakes together and grow together. The lessons you learn outside of the classroom really shape you and make you the person you are.”
THAT working her way back home marked the turning point in her career and her eventual journey into media business. Before coming back home to join MNet in November 2008, she was at a company in New York that produces different children programmes. One of the most popular ones is Sexmistry. “It was an organization that showed commitment towards educating children, not just in America, but all over the world. There were over 120 local versions of the programme. In South Africa, for example, the programme I worked on is in five different languages. I loved every minute of it and I loved New York, it was a city that I had always wanted to live in.
“So, when MNet came calling, I was ready to come back home and I had been looking for opportunities throughout Africa, though I had done some work in South Africa with Sexmistry, and I had began working in Nigeria, trying to do Nigerian version, which is really how I came in contact with a lot of people in African media. When MNet was looking for someone to manage the African business, I put myself forward and had the interview process started. It was the perfect match; they were looking for someone to be based in Nigeria. I didn’t have to think hard about it, once they made the offer, I said yes, packed my bags, left New York and came to Nigeria.
Now, she loves every minute of it. She got married last year and looking for the right word to describe her present status, she says, “it is very exciting. I spend my time watching TV. I truly love and enjoy TV. I still read and spend time with my husband and family.”
BUT what is her typical Monday like? “The beautiful thing about this job is that each day is different. However, we do have some things that are consistent. Monday mornings are big mornings for us. We usually start our day here by eight. We have staff based in Nairobi and Johannesburg. And we always get on the call first thing on Monday. We talk about where we are, what we are doing and I give strategic direction of where the company is going and what is happening. The next part of the day is getting into the nitty-gritty of what is going on in each production across Africa and responding to emails.
“We are constantly on the ball, understanding what is going on, what shows are doing very well and if the show would be appealing to African audience. When Oprah, which is a stable on our channel, announced that she would no longer be doing her show, although that is for another year, we still had to think of what is going to happen when the Oprah show goes out of syndication. There is going to be an Oprah replacement. We always have to be thinking a year or two ahead of what’s coming down.”
Alabi is passionately committed to telling the African story and she is not stopping at that, she is drawing from her last vestige of strength to project better images of Nigerians after the December 25 Christmas day terrorist attempt by a Nigerian, Abdul Farouk Mutallab.