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‘Success Should Never Be A Zero-Sum Game; It’s About Creating A World Where Everyone Can Thrive’

Neya Kalu is an astute business executive, lawyer, entrepreneur and philanthropist. She is currently Chairman of The Sun Nigeria, a reputable Nigerian news organisation, Chairman of Sun Heaven Hotels and Resorts, and Founder/CEO of BaseCoat a chain of Nail Salons in Nigeria. With a first degree in law and an MSc in Financial Services Management from the University of Buckingham, United Kingdom, Kalu has in the last 12 years, garnered experience across various industries crafting and implementing business initiatives and functions. Before her appointment as chairman of The Sun Publishing, Kalu worked as an HR professional in the shipping and banking sector where she led dynamic teams to bridge the gap between employees’ performance and the organisation’s strategic objectives.
Driven by a desire to help women relax and invest in self-care, Kalu delved into the beauty industry with the launch of her nail studio, BaseCoat in 2019. The Business Executive and Entrepreneur is passionate about solving social issues especially as it relates to women. She believes in the development and empowerment of women as they are major players in national and world development. This burning passion drives her work with the Orji Uzor Kalu (OUK) Foundation, contributing to the implementation and achievement of Sustainable Development Goals. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her career journey, running multiple businesses and empowering lives.

You are a serial entrepreneur and business executive, take us through your career journey?
My journey as an entrepreneur and business executive was inspired by my dad. I began my career at the age of 18, initially working for my father in his companies which subsequently grew into me diving into my own thing. I also gained experience in the banking sector and then having my own businesses under the entrepreneurship hat. The zeal for having my own business and succeeding in my career came from watching my father work and being present at numerous business events and deals with him. As I continue this journey, I eagerly anticipate the exciting adventures that lie ahead.

As a HR professional who has worked in the shipping and banking sectors, how did the experiences shape the work you currently do?
To be candid, the roles I held in those industries bear no resemblance to my current positions as Chairman/Publisher of The Sun, Chairman of Sun Heaven Hotels, and CEO of various smaller companies. Nevertheless, a common thread connecting these experiences is the development of managerial and interpersonal skills inherent in HR roles. These experiences also equipped me with the ability to effectively handle conflicts, a skill that has proven very useful in my present endeavours.

So, how are you bringing your expertise to your roles as Chairman, The Sun Nigeria, Chairman of Sun Heaven Hotels and Resorts, and the Founder/CEO of BaseCoat a chain of Nail Salons in Nigeria?
For the newspaper, it’s quite challenging because I’m trying to infuse a touch of youthfulness into the paper and it has been quite a difficult terrain to navigate because that side of media is a traditionally mature and time-honoured industry. Notwithstanding, it’s been a fascinating journey and I remain committed to putting my unique spin on things. Surprisingly, the idea for the hotels was entirely mine. I had a specific target audience in mind and a clear vision for what I wanted to achieve with that venture. With BaseCoat and the other businesses, I run, my goal is to maintain a youthful and dynamic approach. I strive for innovation and staying in sync with global trends to keep things exciting and engaging. It’s all about injecting a sense of freshness and vitality into each facet of my business ventures.

You are solution-focused in line with your key role of effectively creating and implementing your organisations’ direction and strategy. What drives your thought process?
You know, what truly fuels my thought process is an unexpected companion – failure. Failure, oddly enough, is my biggest motivation. It drives me to challenge this constant narrative that women can’t pursue ambitious careers while being devoted mothers. This is one limiting belief I have banished from my thought process. There’s another odd force that propels my thoughts – imposter syndrome. It might sound ironic, but it’s the honest truth. It motivates me and drives me to want to do better. It’s not about dwelling on others’ perceptions of me; it’s an internal battle. I have a point to prove to myself. I am my only competition on this journey called life and I am determined to keep proving to myself that I can provide groundbreaking solutions that will change the world.

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You are keen on women empowerment through solving social issues, how are you achieving this?
Recently, my team and I decided to officially register my foundation – The Neya Kalu Foundation. This move follows a decade of my unconventional and somewhat covert efforts to support women and children in Nigeria. I’m not sure if it’s full-fledged public knowledge but hospitals ‘arrest’ patients who are unable to pay for their bills. In essence, these patients just live in the hospital unable to leave until their debts are cleared. My aim is to free those patients. Take, for instance, a young woman who has just given birth and is ‘arrested’ by the hospital. Her baby is released and allowed to be taken home by family members while she remains in the hospital until all bills are sorted. I believe this is unfair and it strikes at the heart of fairness and compassion. It’s unfortunate that the healthcare system doesn’t do much to accommodate people who are unable to afford their bills.

The Neya Kalu Foundation has been a significant force in impacting countless lives, both directly and indirectly, although our impact may have been somewhat unofficial in the past 10 years. So far, we’ve managed to secure the release of approximately 50 women and children from hospital detention, and we’re only getting started. We firmly believe that everyone deserves a chance at affordable healthcare without the looming threat of detainment. Looking ahead, the foundation has ambitious plans. We’re setting our sights on liberating even more women and children from these challenging situations. Our strategy includes, forming collaborative partnerships with both privately owned and state-owned health maintenance organisations (HMOs) to make affordable insurance readily accessible to these women. Additionally, we’re committed to expanding our efforts in educating the public about hospital detention and its non-compliance with both national and international laws, including the notable Article 11 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. With a purposeful future in sight, we ready to make a lasting impact.

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How do you get inspired and stay motivated?
I consider myself a bit of a visionary and how I stay motivated is by constantly looking ahead, picturing where I’ll be in two years, five years and the kind of impact I aspire to make. It’s like a movie reel of my future playing in my head – the legacy I’m carving out for my son, the milestones I’m setting for myself. I know and I’m surrounded by a lot of incredible people that have done amazing things. Some are in the spotlight and others work behind the scenes, but the inspiration I pull from these people and their remarkable feats is what keeps me going and helps me stay motivated.

What tips do you have for women struggling to get a hold of their career and/or business?
To all the young women out there, I’d say, first and foremost, be patient with yourself. Trust me, I was all over the place when I was unsure of what path I wanted to tread. Did I want to do this or that, be here or there? But here’s the secret: once you develop tunnel vision, exercise patience and treat yourself kindly, the road ahead becomes smoother. It’s crucial not to take criticisms personally. You shouldn’t care what anyone thinks about you. You can’t have imposter syndrome, and that one, I’m still working on shaking it off myself, so you’re not alone there. In a nutshell, don’t be deterred on your journey. You’ve got this!

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How can we get more women to become successful and rise to the top as you have done?
I don’t believe I should be the benchmark. What we truly need is to empower more women to achieve their own success and rise to the top on their own terms. Success, after all, is a deeply personal and relative concept. Take, for example, a woman who sells delicious “boli” on the roadside – she might view herself as successful because she’s known for the hottest “boli” in town. On the other hand, someone like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala may not feel successful if she hasn’t yet achieved her personal goal of becoming the President of the World Bank. This example just emphasises the fact that success is indeed relative. In this regard, I believe it’s essential for more men to see women not as competitors but as collaborators. By doing so, we can make it easier for everyone to find their place in the room and contribute their unique talents and perspectives. Success should never be a zero-sum game; it’s about creating a world where everyone can thrive.

What is your life’s mantra?
My life’s mantra is being your sister’s keeper. Loyalty is the name of the game. Your word, an unbreakable bond. There’s simply nothing quite like it. It’s all about knowing you’re doing the right thing for someone every single day, behind and in their presence.

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