My name is Adaora Mbelu-Dania. I’m a director at Trellis Group. Trellis group is a group of companies in the brand development and experiential marketing space that has worked on several projects across various industries, with brands such as Microsoft, Google, Sterling Bank, Union Bank, Lagos State Government, Nokia, Diageo, Absolut.
I’m also the founder of Socially Africa, a foundation that gives back to the community through several initiatives. In 3 years, we have executed one of our projects “Art For A Cause” in 15 schools across Nigeria, Impacting over 8,000 kids. We’ve also run our code classes for teenagers, teaching basic programming to 80 teens. We have given out 1,000 Love Boxes, Hosted 2 food drives, and launched our volunteer platform, The Amber Circle. Socially Africa is more than an NGO, we are a movement teaching young people how to give back.
Prior to forming Trellis Group, I worked as a content director on the following projects – United Nations World Tourism Conference, Nigeria Centenary Awards, International Conference On Peace & Security. I also worked as the project manager for Freemantle Licensed TV Shows, Nigerian Idol and Nigeria’s Got Talent, where I was responsible for managing various aspects of the show – business, brand, and production. I was also the Corporate Communications Manager for OSMI during the 2010 World Cup where I managed all communications on the broadcast rights for Nigeria. Prior to moving to Nigeria, I was a Credit Analyst at Citigroup, where I received an award for outstanding sales, and team spirit.
I believe in sharing my knowledge, and also helping teams operate at optimal capacity. I currently conduct brand and productivity trainings through Trellis School Of Decisive Advantage. When I’m not busy being an Entrepreneur, I am busy helping people discover and live a purpose driven life via my social media platforms, and my alter ego “Lumina” who is a Rapper and Poet.
FROM HAVING AN IDEA TO STARTING YOUR BUSINESS
I started my business to solve a problem that I identified in the creative sector. When I first moved back to Nigeria, I found that a lot of creative people did not have the skill sets to monetize their creativity. Hence, I started off helping people structure their ideas, and create sustainable products/projects that would allow them monetize and build something that made them truly proud. In the process of doing this, I started to help brands find innovative ways to engage with their consumers, and tell their brand stories. Over the years, our business has evolved into what is now the group structure.
WHY DO YOU LOVE WHAT YOU DO? THERE ARE SO MANY OTHER BUSINESSES YOU COULD HAVE EXPLORED, WHY THIS?
My focus is to help people find clarity, and position their lights in such a way that it impacts other peoples lives. It sets off a ripple effect of impact and positivity. For me, the ultimate thing is to help others succeed, and this is what my business is built around. It is called “Trellis” because a trellis is a wooden or metal framework that holds plants in place to receive adequate sunlight and nutrients for growth. This is the same way that our business operates – we are a framework for businesses and individuals.
AT WHAT POINT DID YOU KNOW BEYOND ALL DOUBT THAT THIS IS GOING TO WORK?
I’ve always known that it would work, because my measurement of success is different to most people. The moment I see that the work I do is providing clear value to my client, and helping their business, I tick off my “Job Completed” box. I don’t judge my business growth solely by the money that comes through. It is possible to make money without providing impact. Many people generate income from projects that didn’t really help their client. For us, we genuinely want to see our clients succeed.
HOW DID YOU RAISE THE CAPITAL TO START YOUR BUSINESS, ESPECIALLY WITH THE HIGH COST OF RUNNING BUSINESSES IN NIGERIA?
Capital for our business was raised through executing projects individually and collectively. My business partners and I worked on multiple projects as freelancers, to allow us fund the business. I’ve never really believed in investors, and raising capital at the commencement stage of business. I prefer to work hard for the seed capital, as it urges me to manage it more efficiently, versus spending someone else money.
HOW SOON DID YOU START MAKING PROFITS?
I would rather keep this private.
BRILLIANT IDEAS DON’T ALWAYS MEAN GREAT SALES, HOW HAS IT BEEN MARKETING YOUR SERVICES?
I believe that brand marketing is a very important part of every business. It’s important to understand that people buy into extensions of themselves and their life’s story. As a business, you want to be consistently chosen by the people you exist for. You want them to buy you over and over again and make you a part of their beautiful story. For this reason, you must develop a brand strategy that positions you own such a way that when they consider their journey and what elements perfectly fit in, they think about you. Branding isn’t solely about logo design, or visuals, as much as it is about Making a Promise, and Keeping that promise. Our focus at Trellis is always in keeping our promise – it is true this that we receive referrals.
AS A SMALL BUSINESS OWNER YOU CAN’T DO EVERYTHING, WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR EXPERIENCE HIRING STAFF AND BUILDING YOUR TEAM?
For most Entrepreneurs, at the start up phase of your business, you usually have to assume an operational role in addition to your client facing responsibilities. However, as you grow you can start to take a back seat on operations. For our business, even though we aren’t a start up, I am very involved in hiring staff and team building, because our business is built around people to people relationships. Our people are our product. In the past, I have hired for values and trained for skill, and it has worked to some degree. However, I learned that hiring for skill and values is a much better approach to having the right people. The former is an easier route especially when you don’t have the funding to hire a certain type of people, but in practicality it becomes difficult for you to focus on your key role as a founder. Now, I only hire for skill and values – not one or the other.
YOUR GREATEST SKILL/STRENGTHS THAT HAVE BEEN PARTICULARLY BEEN OF HELP IN STARTING AND RUNNING YOUR BUSINESS?
My ability to clarify and understand objectives has been of tremendous use on my business journey. Understanding the objective means that I know where we need to go, and can find various ways to get there. Many people jump into projects without truly understanding the “Why”. Hence, when they hit a stumbling block, it becomes difficult to take initiative or maneuver.
Another strength that has helped me is Emotional Intelligence – this has helped me build and nurture relationships that have been mutually beneficial.
DID YOU HAVE TO GET A FORMAL TRAINING OR QUALIFICATION TO BE ABLE TO DO THIS?
I graduated with a BSc in Economics and Entrepreneurship. My academic background definitely helped me with structure and discipline, as well as allows me to create a science of what I do – to be able to have repeated success on projects. However, the larger part of qualification has come in the form of experience. I truly believe that experience is the greatest teacher. It is not enough to have theoretical knowledge. It is in application that we really learn and improve.
YOU HAVE BEEN RUNNING YOUR BUSINESS FOR SOME TIME NOW, WHAT DO YOU KNOW NOW THAT YOU WISHED YOU HAD KNOWN BEFORE YOU STARTED?
I wish I knew that there was nothing wrong with paying myself as I paid my employees. For the longest while, I would feel guilty paying myself and felt the need to continuously re-invest in the business, causing me to neglect my personal needs. The downside with this is that I started to lose motivation, and grew frustrated that the business was making money, while I wasn’t generating income for myself. I didn’t realize that there were ways to structure the business in a way that it pays me too. Now, I’m happier, but I wish I knew that earlier!
ANY LIFE EXPERIENCE THAT HAS PARTICULARLY PREPARED YOU DIRECTLY OR INDIRECTLY FOR WHAT YOU DO NOW?
My family background provided diversity of thought. My parents are from different racial and cultural backgrounds, and this provided an opportunity for me to understand diversity very early in life. Hence, I keep a very open mind, and this allows me to forge relationships with people without bias for their backgrounds. I consider myself more open minded than many people. I’m also the last child, and only girl in my family, hence, I built confidence and strength really early in life.
CHANGE CAN BRING OUT A PART OF US WE NEVER KNEW EXISTED, WHAT NEW THINGS HAVE YOU DISCOVERED ABOUT YOURSELF IN THE COURSE OF STARTING AND RUNNING YOUR BUSINESS?
I’ve learned that I‘m a very resilient person. It doesn’t matter how many challenges I encounter along the way, I simply don’t give up.
Everything in life comes with various challenges – even the superheroes in the movies have to fight people, and even their own emotional struggles. I have my fair share of challenges, especially as I work on the client side, but also manage operations. I am continuously dealing with solving people’s problems, and that sometimes means fully immersing myself in understanding the problem first, before I try to solve. I have learned to focus on the objectives, and not worry about the Fluff – there is so much fluff in the consultancy world. The most important thing to me is generating results, everything else is secondary.
THE GREATEST BUSINESS ADVICE YOU HAVE EVER RECEIVED AND BY WHO?
“Put God first in all that you do. If you make it God’s business, He will be the best CEO you’ll ever have. “. This advice came from my mother, and it has worked for me throughout my entrepreneurial journey. There are decisions that God has made for me, and even though they were tough decisions for me to apply, they were important for elevation and growth. I have literally fired people simply because I knew in my heart that they needed to go – for my growth and theirs too. In this same light, I have turned down business where my spirit is uncomfortable, and knows that it is not for me.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE MOST ESSENTIAL SKILLS FOR WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS ESPECIALLY IN NIGERIA?
Time Management is an important one. Time is one of the most important currencies in Entrepreneurship. Women tend to have multiple responsibilities occurring simultaneously, and in order to be truly efficient, it’s important to learn how to manage time. Communication is also an important skills to learn. I think as women, we are generally more emotional beings, and while this has it’s advantages, it can also come with it’s headaches. It is important to learn how to communicate, and clarify expectations on every table that you sit. In cases where there is a challenge, this allows you to focus on the problem, and not the person.