I have had a multifaceted professional career spanning over 40 years, one that has been dedicated to positively impacting and transforming lives through philanthropy, entrepreneurship, film and television production, arts and culture, and investment funding. I spent the first decade of my professional career, from 1979 to 1986, empowering Black and Asian creativity through funding, cultural programming, and policies to mainstream our creativity and our cultural contribution to Britain, spurred by the power of art as a force for political and social change. In 1986, I pivoted into a career as a film and television producer, born out of a passion for telling compelling untold stories from around the world. From 1986 to 2004, I generated a body of work that challenged the mainstream of film and broadcast media to open itself up to perspectives that emerge from the margins and worked to bring about institutional and mindset change to bring marginalized talent into the mainstream. In April 2014, I moved yet again into philanthropy when I accepted the invitation to join the Tony Elumelu Foundation. As the CEO, I brought my unique mix of skills, talent, and imagination to design, develop, and launch the TEF Entrepreneurship Programme, a 10-year, $100 million commitment to identify, train, mentor, and fund 10,000 entrepreneurs from across the continent. Since 2015, the Programme has empowered 9,600 African entrepreneurs, across 54 countries, giving them the tools, the networks, the mentors, and the funding to transform Africa. In retrospect, I feel Africa was my destiny and everything I had learnt and achieved before in arts and culture, film and television production, film finance and business consulting were leading me to this.
What ignited the spark in you to start a new business venture or to make significant changes in an existing business?
How did the idea for your business come about?
I started Formation Films, an independent film and television production company producing documentaries, television programmes and feature films in 1986 with Julian Henriques. We had a mission to tell untold stories through images, music, and words for the widest audience possible, by working with those who had lived these stories and showcasing never-before-seen creativity with the highest production values. The company worked with award-winning directors to achieve the highest production standards. Our production began with a commission from Channel 4 in 1987, and in 1997, we produced our first feature film with a £2 million budget from Channel 4.
What books are you currently reading? And your recommendation for entrepreneurs to read?
I am currently reading Obama’s 2020 memoir, “A Promised Land” which I recommend all entrepreneurs to read! Other books I have recently read and recommend are: Bridgital Nation: Solving Technology's People Problem, co-authored by N. Chandrasekaran & Roopa Purushothaman;
· No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings & Erin Meyer;
· Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built by Duncan Clark.
Did you ever deal with contention from your family and friends concerning your entrepreneurial pursuits? How did you handle it? What would you do differently in hindsight?
Entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial mindset are in the Indian DNA, and so I would never have gotten pushback from my family because of that. However, there were societal challenges – the lack of diversity in the British film and television industry were barriers to me as an Asian woman wanting to work in the industry. In hindsight, if I were to set up my production company again, I would set it up as a business and not just a company moving from one production project to another, producing single films.
What would you say was the single most influential factor in your business success?
I would say my can-do attitude and advocating for systems change: in the UK it has been for the representation and mainstreaming of ethnic minorities in British arts and culture, and film and television; in Africa it has been the empowerment of African entrepreneurs, advocating for an enabling business environment and changing the African narrative.
What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started as an entrepreneur?
Patience, focus, and the value of business management skills. Over the course of my career and through a hands-on approach, I developed skills in film production, but business management skills are also vital because they require you to also think in terms of long-term sustainability for your business and I did not build those skills when I started.
What advice would you give to an upcoming entrepreneur locally and internationally?
I would advise entrepreneurs to think of their journey in the long-term. Entrepreneurs do not exist in isolation, and cannot afford to only focus on their businesses, but must be part of the wider entrepreneurship ecosystem. They must also be involved in organisations campaigning and advocating for more conducive environments for entrepreneurs in their countries or regions. Entrepreneurs should have a seat at the table in co-creating policies, solutions, strategies, initiatives, programmes, and incentives geared towards strengthening the survival of SMEs.