My mission to empower 1 million women to exit poverty — Shittu-Igbodike

Posted by News Express | 27 September 2021 | 1,653 times

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•Entrepreneur and philanthropist Joy Shittu-Igbodike


Madam Joy Shittu-Igbodike, founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Jaebee Furniture Limited (formerly Jaebee Interiors), is a visionary who by dint of hard work and tenacity of purpose has conquered limitations to emerge a notable amazon in a man’s world.
First Lady of Professional Carpenters and Furniture Making Association of Nigeria (PCFA), Madam Joy, a skill-development advocate and social entrepreneur is passionate about skill acquisition as a form of economic empowerment. She is a leading advocate and promoter of Made-in-Nigeria furniture. 

To walk her talk, her outfit, Jaebee Furniture, uses lean manufacturing methods to provide affordable and functional custom designed variety of furniture for individual and corporate customers. The award-winning carpenter and president of Interior Designers and Carpenters Cooperative Multi-purpose Society (INDECARP) began her journey at age 14, from her mother’s furniture factory. An engineer, nail technician, business administrator and certified beauty therapist, the amazon also founded the Furniture Experts Network, a Facebook community where she supports over 500 Nigerian furniture manufacturers, leveraging the platform to pay for the numerous training and learning opportunities she has been afforded.   
In this exclusive interview with THERESA MOSES, Publisher, Gatmash News, the furniture connoisseur talks about the challenges, values, ethics and positive impact of technology; her mission to help one million Africans, especially women, exit poverty which she believes can be achieved by empowering economically-vulnerable women with practical in-demand skills, which will increase their ability to earn and become value-adding members of the society. Excerpt.

Could you, please, tell us the journey thus far?
I grew up in the family of furniture makers: my mum was a furniture maker. So I’ve been in the furniture factory since I was 14. I have 25 years experience in furniture making. When I come back from school, I have to go to the furniture factory to help out throughout my days in higher institution. Fortunately, I studied Mechanical Engineering and Production options. By the time I finished, I didn’t think I would do anything but to come and work in the furniture factory with my mum. So I joined my mum’s furniture business in 1998 and started working for her. I’ve gone through all the departments, so when I came back to join her I rose to the position of Production Manager in the factory until 2005 when I resigned from my mum’s furniture factory to set up Jaebee Furniture Interiors. My mum was selling high-end furniture for the upper class. When my friends came to our house for a visit they said they love the furniture but can’t afford to buy it as the price is expensive. I used to tell my mum then that we should be able to do something that’s a bit affordable for everyday people. It was a pain for me when my friends can’t afford to buy what I sell and we can’t buy. If we were not furniture makers, we wouldn't have been able to afford the furniture; so it was in my head that everybody deserves good things, beautiful environment, furniture, irrespective of how much is in your pocket, there should be something good for you at your level.

I started researching for products to use, and how to make production cheaper. I noticed there was a lot of waste in her process; I will call her attention to it, but she will say she taught me and you are now thinking that you know more than me. You know how parents are. She wasn’t willing to listen. You know materials are coming into play, we researched them and found a way to reduce waste but my mum was not listening; so I resigned to go and try my hands in what I knew. I went to the back of my house and put up a carpenter shed and I asked my mum to give me one of her carpenters that will work with me so that we can start our own business and she gave me her worst carpenter. The guy is still with me; we have been together since 2005. That’s how I started trying new materials, making things less-complicated, trying to study from models outside Nigeria to see how they are doing and we started building our own. Her own started winding down till it crashed. She had 150 staff and the company is no more because they refused to change.

I will say I am a disruptive entrepreneur. I always want to disrupt the status quo; I thrive on innovation. I don’t want to re-invent the wheel, but I’m very innovative and (always) looking for simpler ways to achieve my goals, better ways to achieve the same result. I always feel that there is always an alternative route to doing things. My job is to constantly make sure that I create an alternative route that will make my production process seamless, faster, smarter and affordable.

What inspired your NGO, skill up initiative?
I lost my marriage and in the process lost my business, factory, everything, and left with nothing. In that process, I attempted suicide twice. As I had no place to stay, I was squatting with a friend. I even borrowed what to wear the next day because I left the marriage empty. Before then, I bid for an interior job. A week after I lost my marriage, I got an alert of N8 million from the client as part payment for the project. At this stage, I didn’t have a factory, a home or even access to my kids. What do I do? So I called the client to have a meeting with him to tell him I was going to do a refund of the money he paid as I didn’t have where to work or produce. But he told me something that has stayed with me till date: that’s what gave birth to my Skill Up Initiative. The man said to me, madam, I didn’t pay you for a factory space; I paid for your brain, I paid for what you can do. So if it will take you many months to settle down to get yourself, you are the only person that can do this project for me, because I believe in you. That statement stays with me till date.
That is, whatever you have in your head, hands, nothing can take it away from you. Even if you are out of sound mind and you are mentally stable, and you have a skill, even if they take everything from you, that will always be with you. That’s how I want to make other women to be stable. I’m not saying every woman will go into a bad marriage or lose their marriage, but if you have something in your hands, it’s always what you can use to eat. My mom, friends and everybody rallied around me and I didn’t know how we were able to pull the order because I was very depressed at that time. To the glory of God, we were able to deliver that job beautifully well, and the client paid extra and we still have a very good relationship with his family till date.

So I’ve been thinking about how to help other people and how I can pass this knowledge on to others. If I wasn’t skilled at a very young age, what would have happened to me? A lot of women even lose their spouses and that’s the end of the world for them. Maybe, they will start selling their body, begging, sharing their children everywhere; but if you have something that you can do, at least, even when you are down for a moment, you can always get up and bounce back. That’s what made me set up Jaebee Furniture School to teach and train people on how to make good furniture because a lot of people are making bad furniture in Nigeria. I have people all over Nigeria and outside Nigeria come to learn and invest in the furniture business industry, thereby improving myself. That’s why I do a lot of support for others, because I got a lot of support too. I got scholarships from the World Bank, the Enterprise Development Centre (EDC), OxFam, Federal Government grant, etc. I work hard for them, yes, but then, these things help. I feel like I can also push somebody to do more as I am helping because I couldn’t have been able to achieve what I achieved if I didn’t get all the support.

I was like a project for everyone and people were willing to support me to succeed. Everything about my life has an impact; that’s why I always want to give back and impact on the next person because that’s the only thing that I see that will always stay with you. Money can go, but whoever you’ve touched will always be there. That’s how I started Jaebee furniture school, teaching people and we are still having issues, looking for workers. People start asking me for staff and people to employ and work for them. That’s how I thought of the easiest to empower people to succeed without stressing themselves, especially women, to train them in furniture making and the easiest that won’t be stressful, but will come naturally.

After I researched, I realised that all over the world the best upholsters are women. Meanwhile, I’ve not come across one female upholstery maker in Nigeria. I love to challenge myself; if you go to 10 furniture companies, the 10 of them are looking for upholsters. So it’s a skill that has a huge gap, a sought-after. That’s how I thought of teaching this skill because it’s not as tedious as the rest of the regular furniture making. What does it really need? It needs someone that’s very detailed and precise, which is natural for women. People were laughing at me about how I will do it; but, still, I will do it. I said I will try and that’s how I started in 2017 with support from the Ministry of Women Affairs, Lagos State and since then we have been training girls and they are so amazing; I see how good they have turned out and how better and proud they are of themselves.

This is who I am. I live a life of impacting people and the world. Maybe, because I’ve lost everything in life so I see everything as vanity, am not attached to anything, not even the children God has blessed me with. I feel everything can collapse; but what will you have? The legacy, the only thing that kept me: l always say God will not have exposed me to an industry this much experienced at my age for me to do it for myself alone. God doesn’t give you a gift that you can’t use for other people; and by doing so, you get better. That’s my philosophy. I’m a skill development advocate, a social entrepreneur and also an engineer to the core.

How have you coped training girls 15 to 25 and above for free?
Basically, they don’t pay me but like I said, I am doing it for impact. It's not easy to train people for free; but I’ve committed a percentage of our profit to that for now and we are doing the best we can do, hoping that people will see us some day and we will be able to scale this. But for now, we are taking the ones we can take; but the good thing for me is that I’m seeing these people transform from nothing to people who now have skills. For me, that’s worth the joy. Seeing that I’ve impacted someone and she’s moving forward. And I know that it is a ripple event. As they learn, they start their businesses, they will encourage other people who they will also teach, and that circle continues.

What’s the background of the girls you train? Are they school dropouts, orphans, single mothers or divorced?
Women are different in many ways. I’ve had somebody that has a Master’s degree; I’ve trained architects, secondary school dropouts, homeless people, orphans, and lots more. 

Why did you choose to train only girls and women?
People say I am selfish – what about boys and men? But I’ve come to realise that there’s a bond that we have as women. When you keep women together under an environment to learn and stand as an inspiration for them, they forget where they are coming from and they all hold each other’s hand. I have had an architect and a married woman that’s pulling up an orphan. That’s what I’ve always told them to do: if I am pulling you, pull the other person. Let’s keep pulling ourselves up, that’s the spirit I’ve imbibed in them and I see them work. They respect each other and have this mind that we are all growing together and there’s no madam among them to cause wahala. But immediately a man comes in, they stop being themselves. It’s easier to fail and laugh at each other. But if a man is there, they will be more careful and watch their steps. That’s why I’ve always been in the class of women only. That’s the only way I can truly get results and can really push them to where I want them to, at least, shape their life to an extent.

How would you describe yourself or want to be described in terms of professionalism?
I am a very modest person and I don’t really like talking about my achievements. I really don’t like it, but as a professional, as an engineer, I didn’t drop into furniture making; I did production options so what I am doing now is what I studied in school. Learning carpentry furniture making from a very young age also made it easier for me and made me higher than most of my colleagues. I remember back then when we were in school, when we had to do assignments everybody would come to my mom’s factory to do their assignment. We had a production line, welder, etc. Things they teach us in school: I was experiencing practical things as I was growing up. So it just makes me better than most of my colleagues. I used to be among men while growing up. My friends call me the king of boys. In the factory, we are just very few women and every other person is a man. I’m used to being able to express myself where men are and talk freely. As a professional, I had my first degree in Mechanical Engineering and Business Administration, second degree, from Unilag; and [have attended] lots of professional courses. I’m a certified interior designer and entrepreneurial development expert as well as [attended] courses sponsored by World Bank, OxFam, etc. I keep learning and researching and reading. Now in view, I’m trying to do a Master’s in furniture design.

What comes first - the materials or the design idea?
Design first.
What aspect/s of the process excites you the most?
I think it is still the design.
What are your values and ethics as a professional?
I summarize my values as Teamic: I am a team player. That’s the first thing for me. I’m always calling people together because I understand that without a team you can’t do anything. All the ideas I have in my head, I can’t execute them without having the people around me. Everybody has a role to play for the thing to look good. I believe so much in team work and excellence; it has to be excellent. Integrity is another thing, because I feel any product that I sell has my name on it. So I tell my customers that if I give you a product and it's not 100 per cent, I will refund and give you back your money: I promise a refund. And I don’t want to refund people so, I will (rather) die there, and make sure that the quality is okay. 

What makes you different or unique from other furniture makers?
Furniture making is me! That’s what gave me my voice. I used to be a very shy person but when I’m talking about furniture making, I open up and talk. That’s all I am about really. Aside from my kids, furniture making revolves around me. It’s all I do; you can’t separate me and furniture making. It’s not for money, it’s just me. I can’t do anything aside from furniture making.

What do you regard as the greatest achievement in your career to date?
(Laughs) There are plenty of them. I think the first one that wowed me was when I was awarded “Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2017” by Daar Communications. They went to different business schools to nominate people that they think are qualified for the award. I was sitting down one day in my house and somebody called me on the phone, EDC of the Lagos Business School and asked me how old I was; so I told her and she said I am qualified for the award. I think one need to be under 40 to be qualified; she said she nominated me for an award. I was shocked and I asked why? We’ve had entrepreneurs that have gone through that system, people that I look up to and respect so much.
Of everybody in your database, why me? She said two people were to be nominated and it’s you and one other person. I can’t believe how they would nominate me. I now asked why, she said they have watched my growth. They watched me when I was down and they saw how open I am and how I’ve been able to implement everything. ‘That’s one thing we’ve taught you: you have been implementing and we keep seeing results and you’ve not stopped there. You’re also sharing what we’ve given you to other people. So we think you are one of our best we can recommend for the award.’

After a few weeks, I got a call from the Director of Programmes, Daar Communications that I’ve been chosen for an award. I was so shocked. I asked the man why I’m deserving of the award, because I would like to know why. He said the nominees were outstanding, but I was chosen because I'm giving back. That I didn’t just stop at entrepreneurship, but started sharing my knowledge with people. So when you do things you don’t know that people are watching, you don’t know what it will bring tomorrow. That has encouraged me to keep doing more.

Outside that, I think an outstanding success for me as a carpenter is the fact that I am the first lady of Professional Furniture and Carpentry Association of Nigeria, Lagos State chapter. This also came, again, because I teach. It’s our professional body in Nigeria that’s recognised. I didn’t know about the body on time. It was when I was launching my NGO, Girls Skill Up programme that I got to know about it and I joined. When I joined they asked me to be the First Lady because I’m not just practicing but bringing in more women. That was in 2019 and I was given a branch last year December (2020). We now have a professionally recognised female wing of Professional Furniture and Carpentry Association of Nigeria and I am happy to be the governor of the branch. That’s the highest for me in my profession as a carpenter in Nigeria. I’ve not stopped at that; I am also the President of Interior Designers and Carpenters Cooperative Multipurpose Society (INDECARP) and Vice President of NECA's Network of Entrepreneurial Women (NNEW) furniture and interior design sector.

What would you consider your limitations or major challenges in the industry?
The major challenge that we have in the industry is the lack of manufacturing hubs. With the way the economy is we depend on importations as 60 per cent of our raw materials are imported. The fabrics are imported, accessories, fittings, boards are all imported. We depend largely on imports and you know the exchange rate now is something else. So it makes our production cost keep rising every day. The challenges we have is that the average person in Nigeria does not have money to spend like that, so purchasing power is actually decreasing, not increasing.

Meanwhile, the cost of production is going up. So the only way I think is if we start manufacturing some raw materials here, which is possible but, again, it’s only the government that can do that; and the issues of overhead. All of us depend on generators. If there’s a manufacturing hub, as it’s abroad, people will just come to pay for a space and will be sharing the overhead cost of machines, and power, etc. That way, the cost of production will drop. It’s our overhead cost that’s killing most of us in this industry and the cost of raw materials, but we hope to survive it with time.

In what aspects have changes in technology affected your trade, and how far have you adjusted to keep up with new tech?
Like I said, I thrive on innovation and I always look at technology. For example, the upholstery department is advanced. When we started doing upholstery, people were using nail and hammer but we no longer use nail and hammer again. We’ve researched and see how it’s been done abroad. I used to tell people that I am a copycat: I copy every good thing. I try to emulate what they do and we brought digital manufacturing into our operation, which is using machines; digitally producing the products before we produce them manually. How do I mean? We digitally design products now, for example, when making a chair we will design it digitally to prepare all the parts, to see the maximum use of materials to get out the part. We’ve calculated wastage even from the design stage in the system. We’ve reduced sizes into dimensions to give us a maximum yield from each material. Not the one we will be doing guess work with our mind. That way, we can actually know this is the cost of production. When we now have that, the next stage is designs into templates.
The templates are now used on the raw material to do our entire cutting plan. That way, we can actually know this is the cost of production. When we now have that, we eliminate a lot of waste; our process becomes more consistent, faster; we can also infuse unskilled workers into the production phase. We now have people that are unskilled but still work with us. That, naturally, reduces our cost of labour, which will have a reduction in the cost of the product. We can’t work without technology; it has really changed the way we work positively.

What else do you enjoy doing besides designing and making furniture?
I like to have a good time. When I am not in a work mood, I will be with my friends sharing a bottle of drinks and talking about how to make things better. Generally, it’s just gist with my friends of like-minds. If my kids are around, we hang out. I like to stay in the house. I don’t watch television. Unfortunately, I'm bored, so I don’t watch TV at all!
What major challenges do you face in the furniture industry as a female? 
I have never had any form of discrimination in this profession. Maybe, because I started very early so I had a very high level of confidence.
Another thing I always tell my female colleagues is this, and I have also held on to it seriously: If you want to thrive in the industry as a woman, you have to know double what your male counterpart knows. It's a knowledge thing, so if I am talking to my colleagues they listen to me because they know I know what I am saying. I know my onions; they know where I am coming from. The same thing when I am talking with a client. I’m talking because I know the job. Even when you bring a man to bid for a job, I still will beat the man, I am not making mouth. I will talk practical, it’s what I know and do.
The thing with other female manufacturers is that they sit down in the office. I’ve worked through every department of production of furniture making. I know how to do everything. It’s not that I’m just talking from a madam point of view, I’m talking from a practical point of view and my colleagues respect me. They even refer me to people. In fact, it’s the men that are pushing me up in this industry. They are always like go, we are behind you. They support everything that I do and am so grateful to them. They have never seen me as an opposition, but willing to push me to go further and do more; no form of discrimination at all. I can’t say for others but for me, no discrimination.

If you were not into furniture by virtue of your early exposure to carpentry, what would you have liked to be?
Funny enough I’ve explored, I’ve learnt so much. If I tell you today that I am a nail technician, you will not believe it. I am a beauty therapist, a cosmetologist. If I am not in furniture making, I will be in the beauty business, that’s the truth. I used to own a spa, also have a boutique and I won’t do any business without learning how to do it. So, I am a certified therapist, and a masseur. 

What is your advice to young entrepreneurs willing to venture into wood work?
I would say learn, learn and learn on the job! There’s money in the furniture making business, but don’t be in a hurry to make money, learn the job, learn how to be skilled in an aspect of the job, then you can do business.

As a mentor, what are your parting words of motivation to youths who are showing interest in skill acquisition but yet to appreciate the importance of having a skill?
To those that have shown interest or want to acquire a skill, they should not look at money now. Once you start focusing on money, you cannot learn a skill. But when you are not focusing on money, you are learning and picking up knowledge and when the time comes, you will now make use of the knowledge you already had. To those who are not into any skill, Nigeria is such that there’s more than just carrying certificates, so you must have something in your hand that you can do. I’m not saying everybody should be a furniture maker, upholster or anything, but there are other skills that are not as hard as this. Every young person should aspire to have a skill outside the certificate he/she is carrying. The certificate is no longer enough to even thrive; it just helps you to have more opportunities.
I’d advise parents to encourage, expose their kids to skill acquisition. If I wasn’t exposed to this skill early by my mom, I might not have been here today. So parents should also encourage their kids to learn a skill, not summer classes/coaching alone. There’s no skill that’s a waste. There will always be a use for that thing sometime. I sew; I learnt sewing when I had my first child. I learnt hair dressing. All of these skills have been in me till today; they still make me see things differently, it just sharpens your world. So every opportunity you get to learn, learn a skill. Let’s expose our children to skills, it doesn’t stop them from going to school, they can do it side by side.

What are your final words? 
Let’s stick to knowing what we know how to do. Learn to give more of ourselves and time to make the country a better place. Don’t be selfish, give and share the knowledge you have – impact lives, environment and let’s live handprints (not footprints) everywhere we go.

Source: News Express

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