Kemi Otegbade is the Head Consultant, Heartlink Ventures Limited, a popular events, human resource and PR company. In this chat with VANESSA OKWARA, the banker turned events manager recounts how it all started
What was growing up like?
I am from Ilesha in Osun State, but was bred and brought up in Lagos. Both parents are from Ilesha. I went to Ilesha until we lost them. I know my family house, but rarely go there unless I have to go for events of relatives and friends. I had my primary school in Lagos Island, and then the Methodist School, since we are Methodists in my family. I lost my dad when I was seven and I was the second to the last born.
I have retentive memory and could still remember him very well. I remember things that were done from age three very well, so I remember my father very well. My mother had six of us and was very hardworking. Her good Christian values and disposition made us what we are today. I’m actually very proud of her. She was my number one role model. She made us to understand that we can get anything we want if we are determined and with good name without having to play pranks.
She was a widow at 39 and she never remarried. I studied Business Administration and I served (youth service) in 1989. From there, I worked in the banking industry for almost a decade -working in admin, legal, treasury and also in audit. The only department I didn’t work in was the foreign exchange. I left the banking industry as a Deputy Chief Inspector in 1999. Just before I left the bank, I had established my company, Heartlink.
When I was doing my Youth Service in Benin, I told myself that I would work for five years before I start working for myself. I learnt a great deal about entrepreneurship from where I served and I told myself I would like to do my things my way. I’m very strong willed anyway, so I decided to do things on my own.
What made you want to be an entrepreneur?
I think it’s just God. That Youth Service year shaped my thoughts. I had always been doing events for years for free and I always helped friends to handle their events. The events business that I’m known for now, I had always done for years, even as a young girl growing up. If any of my friends were to do an event, they would put the responsibilities of organising it on me, even at short notice and I would still deliver.
Right now, I do training for those who don’t know what to do with their future. We also do Human Resources (HR) in my company. When we recruit, I find out that people I talk to don’t even know what they want to do. So I think we should start mentoring youths from final year. It doesn’t matter what they want to study, they can always do something else. I also develop concept and projects.
Tell us about your company.
Playfully, we started off as a matchmaking company. That is where we got our name ‘Heartlink’. We eventually veered into other things. We’re into human resources, training, organising party, events and also projects. We take up projects, develop and nurture it. We organise birthday parties, wedding and public relations.
Then we moved to writing business directory, which we were doing simultaneously with recruitment. We were recruiting drivers, domestic staff and office staff – from junior staff to managing directors – we have recruited for various banks and oil servicing companies. Later, we cut off the domestic aspect because it was too strenuous.
We were just providing the service to make an impact, but it could not pay our bills so we just stopped recruiting domestic staff and went for strictly office recruitment. We also do PR for individuals and we rebrand people in public office and celebrities.
What inspired the matchmaking?
Randomly, before I established the company, if I knew you and I had another friend and we talk deeply and they didn’t know each other, I would be able to know it’s likely that these two people would be friends and it would work out for them. When it comes to psychology, I’m deep and I can read people. In three regular interactions, I can tell a lot about you.
So informally, we were able to officially matchmake some people and we had what we called Heartlink Club then. We didn’t know them, they just registered, paid a token and they met themselves. They just read the profiles and what the person wants and if you fit in, we got their contact. We were not putting their names and that was how we started and it worked.
But it was getting a bit messy; we tried to put it on the Internet so that we just indemnify ourselves, but it didn’t work out. The person we paid ‘ate’ the money, we let it go but that did not stop our growth.
Could you talk about some of the portfolios you have handled?
We have worked with Federal Government agencies and state government agencies. We have done public partnership with Lagos State, Nigerian embassy in USA and UK too and we try to sell Nigeria to the world.
What is your staff strength?
Well, because we do events, it’s not all the time we need permanent staff. For now, we are just 8 or 10, but when we have an event like this project we are starting now, we will need like an additional six more till the project starts running on its own. So they will be on contract for like three to six months.
What has made your events company to stand out from the rest?
I’ll say it’s perfection. When I go to other people’s parties, you find out that I really don’t mind my business. I will be angry when I see people sitting for almost an hour and they have not been attended to. I know that it is very important that you have ushers or protocol officers standing and checking at least four tables, somebody with eagle eye.
Even in a hall of three thousand, I can scan at least five hundred people and when I move, I scan another five hundred because I have an eagle’s eye. I see everything since I’m tall and I will tell the person in charge of 50-100 that something is wrong. So what has made us outstanding is that we give attention to details.
If I’m handling someone’s events, I make sure that everybody is well fed. For instance, it is a sin to organise an event and not chill the drinks. In fact, it is an unforgivable sin not to over chill the drinks because the guests expect to have drinks that are cool rather than hot. I’ve gone to a Managing Director’s event and the drinks were just hot! It’s not nice at all because there are companies that make ice and they are not expensive to purchase. So it’s all about having an eye for details and making sure your clients’ guests are satisfied.
What event is your company currently handling?
At the moment, we are launching a new project. We call it Celebrity Fan Date. It’s being promoted by Heartlink group and we have a page on Facebook. We are going to have an App where the public can have the opportunity to vote to be the winner to have dinner in a concert with a celebrity of their choice.
We are not promoting one on one relationship, we do not want to spoil anyone’s steady relationship. If it’s a man that wins, they will sit together at the function, snap together, dance together and we will put the pictures on bill boards and all social media. So the winner is actually a star fan and indirectly, we might be creating another star.
We are going to use stars, the old school, new school and legends. We need more sponsors for this project, even as we are spending our own money on it as well. Then we are going to give a percentage of our income for the first one year to the Heart of Gold in Surulere. That home is dear to us because they pick not only abandoned children, but children who are deformed that most people don’t want to see.
So we pray people support us so that we can take something substantial to them. We are kicking it off in January.
What is the advantage of being a public figure?
The advantage is when you get to places, people recognise you, they give you respect and a lot of people want to be your friend. But there is also some danger in it; everybody cannot be your friend, it’s not good. You earn friendship, people who are outstanding don’t have lots of friends so you don’t need too many friends.
You can have associates, but friendship is different. So I do not want to have plenty friends.
Do people find you intimidating by just looking at your height?
I will say some find it intimidating, some find it challenging and some are actually short standing beside me. When I was growing up, it used to give me concern because there were not so many tall girls. When I went to Balogun Market, I did not see my size and you know Balogun Market is filled with our dear Igbo boys and they will start singing for me ‘Ogologo’ and it always made me cry. I didn’t go to the market anymore, so my mother would use a broom stick and measure my shoe size. I have been as tall as this since I was 16, so you can imagine what I would have gone through in my teenage years.
I don’t know how I got my confidence back but now, I know I’m very confident. I just feel nobody is better than me. We just have different opportunities, but it grew gradually over the years. Now we have very tall women like Agbani Darego and I’m happy. Once I see them, I must take pictures with them because in my time, when I was growing up, I was outstanding and I didn’t know it was an advantage, I did not find it funny now, I even wear heels at times but not all the time.
Describe your fashion style.
Well, I just see some clothes and I know that this is me and I see some and know that this is not me. I also see people design and play with it and make it mine. I try not to wear what you can see in some other places. Because of the kind of work I do, we see people who are really well dressed, a lot of people I admire and I feel I shouldn’t be caught off guard.
So with the height, it has made it look as if I’m more fashionable. They are not too expensive and I have one or two designer shops I use in Manhattan, USA. I’m not extravagant, I’m very sensible when it comes to money; there are so many things to be done with money. Once in a while, when I make good money, I pamper myself and give myself a shopping spree and the clothes I buy may last for 18 months.
Among celebrities, who do you think is a good dresser?
I like the way Aunty Grace Egbagbe dresses. I have copied a lot of her styles. She is outstanding and I think she has grace and she has a style of her own. As for the guys, if I say male now, it could be my friends. I can’t even think of a male now, maybe because I take them for granted and I’m always in their midst, but I could say Chidi Mokeme and another woman is Rita Dominic.
You spot gold hair. Would that be your style signature?
Well, somehow I started spotting it 10 years ago. I publish and do a lot of writing. I used to write for The Punch. I used to critic the movie industry and give grades for about one and a half years. There was no time to visit the salon. Then I used to go to Bobbies Salon and when you get there, you pick tally number and sit and wait for over five hours and I would want to cry; I would rather be sleeping or writing.
It was like the weekend was not enough for me for the kind of things I did, it just wasn’t funny and I was going between Lagos and Abeokuta so where was the time? I used to have Anita Baker hairstyle but I could not get a good salon to my satisfaction in Abeokuta, so I just decided to cut it and because I was producing a beauty pageant, I was supposed to be fashionable at that time. But there was nothing to show that I was fashionable, so I just decided to colour it.
I started with gold, sometimes, I toyed with red. It was a journalist that was interviewing me then, over 10 years ago that said ‘we love this low cut, why don’t you just keep it’. So I think they just built it for me and left it and since then, it has b e c o m e c o n v e – n i e n t a n d stands me out. Who are your favourite designers? In Nigeria I have two: Divine Endowment and Surliet.
Some of the good clothes you see out there are made by those two. Divine Endowment is owned by Mrs. Ayeni and Surliet is run by a Cameroonian. Some clothes I buy from America that are not my size, if you give it to her, it will be almost better than the original. She makes bridal wears and you will not know it was made here. She makes Ankara too.
She is not nice with charges and she is not nice with timing. Once you can overlook that, you will be very proud. Those are my two designers in Nigeria. Then abroad, I use ‘Love to Dress’ in Manhattan.
Are you married and do you have kids?
Yes, I have two kids, lost one like 10 years ago so I don’t really like talking about family.
What are your plans for this Christmas season? What is your new year goals?
My Christmas will be spent chilling with family and friends but the office will be on vacation which means I will only attend to urgent official enquiries on phone or online. I will use the break to rest very well as we do not go on leave at all till end of the year. New year goals, to start working out as in hit the gym. To kick off Celebrity Fan Date monthly series, to tidy up some strategic partnerships and draw closer to God.