Confident and full of dreams, Chude Jideonwo remains one of the most influential young people in Africa. Once he had the opportunity to start living his dreams, he didn’t waste time to take it up and pursue it passionately. His new book, a collection of essays, Are We The Turning Point Generation? is out and he’s on a global tour, heading to Paris on the 8th of June.
The Trent’s Onyeka Nwelue caught up with him to discuss everything about his new book, his work as a media guru, and the future for The Future Project.
When did you think you needed to collect the essays in Are We The Point Turning Generation? and publish them?
At about the middle of the New Leadership essays I was writing for some of the leading online platforms. Interestingly, at about that time, I was almost giving up. Because it was an incredibly difficult, draining series to write and it involved me taking trips into myself, second-guessing myself, and challenging my own beliefs and assumptions. But then as if on cue, friends, colleagues and random people on Twitter would comment about how important the series was and how it had to be made into a book. I particularly remember ‘Gbenga Sesan and Uche Briggs making that point, and that gave me the motivation to finish the series. ‘Gbenga particularly said someone had to begin the process of documenting the story of our generation and that was all I needed to hear – this had become beyond just the series of essays. Once I was through I shipped it to Farafina and they liked it immediately. I am so glad I finished the series of essays.
What is it that motivates you in a country like Nigeria? That thing that keeps you working hard and believing that things will be all right some day?
It is the sense that no one can frustrate me from living in my own country, and from excelling in my country. It is a stubborn, sometimes I say sadomasochist insistence on owning this space – because it is my space, it is my country; it should give the best chance of achieving full potential. And really at the end of the day that is all that we can have – that stubborn faith and hope that enables you look into an abyss and dare it and conquer it. When I say much is possible in Nigeria, by Nigerians, in spite of Nigeria, it is not just a witty quote, it is a statement of intent – and of defiance.
Can you tell us what kind of things you did before The Future Project and how tough it was getting them done! Did you consider yourself a failure any time?
I have never thought I am a failure more than I have always felt there is so much more to do. At every point in my life as long as I can remember since secondary school, I have lived life in a blur, constantly aware that there is so much that I want to do that I haven’t already done. There is so much I want to achieve, so many opportunities I want to explore, so many things in my head I want to create in the physical, so many things I want to change! Before The Future Project, I basically had a career as a journalist – I started with The Sunday Show with Levi Ajuonuma (of blessed memory) in 2000 just after I left secondary school, then I went on to work for Agatha Amata on Inside Out, on Celebrating Jesus with Gina Harry and then with Funmi Iyanda on New Dawn. My writing career started when I was with Funmi; I wrote first for TEMPO and then I moved to ThisDay.
Over the years before 2004 when we started The Future Africa Awards, I was working across television, print and online – writing for Big Brother, TRUE LOVE West Africa, MADE and others. Tough? It is always tough when you are starting out and pushing through. It was incredibly tough, but I also count myself lucky that I didn’t have to contend with poverty or extreme lack and that I managed to be able to meet people and find opportunity and exploit them. I have never let anything hold me back. I am a relentless person. I keep moving. And that’s how I view both the past and the future.
I have a different view of activism in Nigeria. I am, sometimes, appalled by the way people sensationalise them. You’ve been at the centre of controversies where people try to doubt your genuineness towards these causes. What kind of historical context of your country influenced what you are doing today? Or did you just start out of the fact that you needed to create business or didn’t want to work for anyone?
It used to bother me when I first started when people doubted what you call my genuineness. Because you know I already had a career before I began to get in the midst of advocacy. When I left school, I immediately got a job for NYSC with the Nigeria LNG, and then just after NYSC, my first job was a manager with Virgin Nigeria. From then, I moved on to NEXT as Copy Editor, all of this before I was even 25. While we were doing The Future Awards, I was either working with New Dawn, with Common Ground Productions, with The Apprentice Africa or with these other companies. It was me thinking, I can’t die without letting this passion out – and that passion was using the media to tell stories, to inspire and to empower. And my friends and I were using our personal monies to pursue our passions. So it could be very infuriating.
But the more I began to read and deliberately understand the world around me, the more it began to be understood as normal, especially in a country like ours where people are angry and frustrated and feel taken for granted. There was a time there was such criticism; I withdrew from the public space and said I would just focus on growing and building our business, because after all those were suffering because of my involvements especially after we founded EnoughisEnough Nigeria in 2012, but inevitably I have come to tell myself, I must be true to myself. Since I was a child, I have been unable to stand injustice. I have always been pushed to stand up and speak out. It is the riskiest thing to do, and I have suffered consequences, when you are a businessman in a largely corrupted society like ours, but it is the way that I am made.
I look at those whom I admire intensely; Hillary Clinton chief amongst them and they have been savagely criticized and second-guessed even as they continue to crash ceilings and make big change happen. Look at what Hillary went through for healthcare in the 90s. It took three decades and Barack Obama to vindicate her. The word of making change happen is hard, but it is one that is inevitable if we are serious about transforming our country. There is nothing selfless about it. It is self-interest to work to build the kind of country where we can achieve full potential. I tell myself, I have no choice. And guided by my internal moral compass, I am determined, warts and all, to do my bit and forge the kind of Nigeria and Africa I want to see. I have no choice.
Who do you admire? Is there someone who influences you so much?
Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes. Hillary Rodham Clinton! That woman is INCREDIBLE. You look at the trajectory of her life, from commencement speaker at Wellesley, as an activist, as a first lady through the line, changing the face of government in America and the way women are viewed, and then going on her to join government and craft her way, making history as the first serious presidential candidate and then a glorious tenure as secretary of state. One of her quotes guides my life, and it’s ‘Bloom where you are planted’: whereever you are, whatever the cost, however the challenge, you can bloom, you can shine, you can excel, you can overcome the challenges. It is the story of hjer life and I take immense inspiration from it.
Did you receive some kind of economic support to start The Future Project? If you didn’t, how did you do it?
We started with zero naira. No debt, no investment, no seed fund, no bank account. It was those of us founders, as Adebola will also tell you who just used the monies we made day to day as journalists and as media talent that we invested as it came into the project. But along the line we got huge support from people who believed in us and whom I will NEVER forget: Pat Utomi, Adesuwa Onyenokwe, Saheed Kekere-Ekun, Solape Agagu, Bukola Adubi, Bolanle Austen-Peters, Reuben Abati, Toni Kan and others. God bless them deeply. They made all of this possible. They made it possible for us to give you. I will NEVER forget them. God sent us angels.
You have had the chance to travel around many countries in the world. What kind of things have you learnt during the trips?
Ah I have learnt plenty. I have learnt plenty. In Africa, I have learnt directly from listening and asking questions that much is possible by Africans; that societies can be regenerated. That no matter how bad it gets, a country can be changed, a people can be uplifted. In Europe, I have seen how one can live in a society with the implicit, deep understanding that your government cares for you and will be there for you. In America, I have come to an understanding of the depth of a people’s desire to control their destinies. Different countries show you different things, but they show you that the themes that define our lives are universal really. And that the human spirit is indomitable. There is nothing the human being cannot achieve – I believe we have a limitless capacity.
What lessons have you acquired to help grow your business?
The ability to manage people first and foremost, I have always known and believed that people are the most important resource, but I grew up as an only child and working on my own pace. To learn to manage people, with their prejudices, emotions, fears, feelings, expectations, it is at once the most demanding and then the most rewarding aspect of my life in running a business. Human beings are incredible o. I am however thankful for the lessons I have learnt in managing people. An engaged and joyful team of people working with you can enable you achieve anything. Anything.
What kind of support have you gotten so far from young people in Nigeria towards your business?
Not so much in my business as in the things we have done in terms of engagement with country and continent. Young people who were passionate about what we have been doing with The Future Africa Awards and The Future Project made it possible for us to go far – we were in the center of creating the community of many of the most influential people in the media now, and they were there for us as well in helping us build this movement. Of course, there are many people who will spew negativity and who have consistently not lent a hand. Those who praise you loudly in public, but resolutely will not step in in private no matter how many times you ask particularly intrigue me. Thankfully, they are not represented of the large majority of my generation, and so I am proud to say that we have received plenty of help with young people.
In your own assessment, would you say business at Red Media Africa is booming?
It’s growing and we are grateful for God. We are managing almost 60 staff across our two Lagos offices and our London office, and we meet all our obligations with enough to have and invest. We take care of our people and we have no loans, every day we experience year on year growth that motivates us. We also are proud of the work Red Communication does for brands including the Nigeria LNG, GTBank, EbonyLife TV, the Nigeria Economic Summit group, and others. YNaija.com continues to be a leader Internet newspaper, the magazine has expanded across Africa, the TV show is still number one in the youth segment. What is left is growth.
In layman’s language, what exactly does Red Media do?
Red Media Africa is a group of media companies and brands focused on empowering a generation. Red Communication does marketing and corporate communication and has subsidiaries including YouthConnect and Small & Medium for SMEs, and the content business has Y! Africa magazine and online, YNaija.com, Teen Y!, Y! 2015, The Future Africa Awards & Summit amongst others. Our affiliate The Future Project works to empower young people who can solve problems in their communities across Africa.
What are your plans in the foreseeable future?
We are focused on driving our platforms and brands to be number one in each market space, working with the team leads of all those companies who have become thought leaders in their sectors. We like to do more and avoid talk because the journey is still long
Let’s talk about you as a person. What kind of person are you?
I am actually a very, shy, reserved person often intimidated by the world and the scale of its challenges. But I have trained and built myself to face the world as it is and transform it as I would prefer it to be, both in my little space and I’m the larger world. People who knew me as a shy, almost shrinking child or teenager will be surprised by how my voice has gained confidence. I come into an understanding of the world everyday and it makes me more resolved to make it a better place.
How can you define yourself and how do you think people consider you as an entrepreneur?
I define myself as an entrepreneur who is very interested in nation building and citizenship. Those passions mean that something I will have my voice loud as an advocate, sometimes I will find myself demanding better for my compatriots and myself actively, and sometimes I will keep my head down and focus solely on building value for our businesses and our brands. Luckily our ethos and philosophy as a conglomerate focus on building people and societies, so I find myself very lucky to have my profession and passion focused on the greater. In trying to define me, people have put me in a box and when I don’t fit that box, a minority has enacted vehemently. But it is the nature of the world. What I owe the world and myself is to be true to my self, to my calling and to my vision – and to do that with impact and integrity. So I focus my energies on positivity and building – there is so much work to do, and there is so little.
What kind of legacy would you like to leave in Nigeria?
I don’t think its time yet for me to think of legacy. But I know what I want to do – I want to stimulate a country where people can count on the media as an ally. I want to build media platforms that will touch, inspire, empower and galvanize to action millions of young Nigerians and Africans. Our continent and our country have so many problems that are urgent. It needs urgent solutions, and all hands on deck. Look at what media locally like YNaija and Punch and Premium Times have done with #bringbackourgirls and how CNN made it a global concern, and movement through sustained, involved coverage. That is the role of the media now. In this century, the media can no longer be a bystander, and that mission daily, that’s what I am focused on now, drives me. Legacy will take care of itself.
So far, what is your biggest success or goal you have reached in your career?
On my birthday this year, someone tweeted at me and said thank you for switching on the button for your generation. And that almost reduced me to tears, because it captured the essence of what we do so succinctly. With young people in business, entertainment, fashion, and other sections, what we did and are doing with the awards, with enough is enough Nigeria, with aggressively using YNaija to drive issues and ideas in the mainstream of youth conversation etc, is to galvanize a generation to get involved in our most urgent and important problems. Beyond the awards I have received, turnover of profitability of the business in millions, or Forbes listing, that – success in getting thousands and millions of young people engaged, empowered and involved is our biggest success. And we are just getting started.
Onyeka Nwelue is currently Visiting Lecturer at Hong Kong University’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures. He is a founding member of The Trent Voices lives and he lives in Paris, where he runs La Cave Musik, a record label, specialising in quality music from Africa and the Caribbean.