The Elevator is a limited Zikoko series that details the growth of young successful Nigerian women. We tell their stories every Monday by 12 p.m.
Blessing grew up dreaming of being a medical doctor because she wanted to save lives but while studying for her first degree as a Biochemist, she discovered that Medicine wasn’t the only path to that dream. Blessing Abeng is a 26-year-old Communications and branding expert who works centres community building. In today’s episode of The Elevator, Blessing talks about her journey as a communication strategist with a goal to impact the lives of those around her.
What did you want to be as a child?
A medical doctor.
How did that change?
As a child, I was really enamoured by the idea of being a medical doctor. I liked the idea of being able to treat people. My parents got me lab coats when I was a kid. I read Ben Carson’s book like my life depended on it. I didn’t want it to be a basic medical doctor — I wanted to be a neurosurgeon because there weren’t many neurosurgeons in Nigeria at the time. It was like a superpower to me. Shonda Rhimes’ Grey Anatomy also played a part. Christina Yang was my favorite character — I loved how passionate she was.
In secondary school, I was in art club. I featured in plays. I was always part of the team that represented our school in writing competitions. I was also in science club. I also joined the school team for Mathematical competitions. When it was time for us to pick between science and art class, my choice was science but my teacher was not having it. Eventually we had a conversation with the principal, who agreed that I could do both science and art classes.
When it was time for me to go to university, my dad thought I was too tiny to go to the US alone so he suggested I go to Covenant University first to study biochemistry.He said when I was done, I would now go for my medical career. In my head, I was like Medicine is a long path. It didn’t make sense that I would finish biochemistry and go for another four years plus of schooling. One day, I was in one of my Biochemistry classes and I just knew that this wasn’t for me. The teachers didn’t seem interesting to me. It felt like there was nothing more to it and being a doctor in Nigeria can be very limiting. So I started asking myself of other ways to save lives.
One of my friends who knew I was a writer asked me to try writing business plans and I did. Most of the business plans I was seeing at the time were boring and looked similar so I used to add my own creative flair to it. I had such cool ideas for marketing and positioning. There was this club in Covenant University where we learned business writing. The facilitator would give us cool tasks like pitching products to attract investors. That’s how I wrote my first business proposal and it became a thing I did.
One day, another of my friends reached out to me. She said, “This thing you do, people make money from it. How about you try going to a branding school called Orange Academy?” I looked it up and I liked what I saw. I planned that it would be the first thing I did once I finished school.
During my NYSC, I was working hard to get the money required for the school fees. I asked my dad but he said I wasn’t going to be a doctor so why would he pay for that? I started looking for jobs in Lagos so that I would be able to go to the school there. I knew my dad would not let me move from Abuja to Lagos except it was for educational purposes so I knew I had to get a job. When I did, I was able to negotiate with my boss that he would pay a percentage of my house rent. That’s how my father let me move.
What was your first job?
I was looking for social media related jobs. At the time, social media was just getting popular in Nigeria. This was around the time where people still used to greet each other good morning on Twitter and tweet fights were sweet. I was good at mine so I thought managing a brand’s social media couldn’t be that hard.
I found a couple of openings and I applied. One day, a guy called me that they had received my CV and wanted me to come for an interview. I remember taking a bus from Imo state, where I was serving because I couldn’t tell my father where I was going and I couldn’t afford a plane ticket because I was still saving for branding school.
When I got to Lagos for my interview, me and the guy were just talking like we have been friends for a while. Personally, I have never had a bad interview. I always end just gisting with whoever is interviewing me because the worst that can happen is that they will tell me no and I would move on. Funny enough, I have never gotten a ‘no’.
At the interview, the guy told me about his company which was giving an afropolitan angle to things happening around the world. He was very passionate about changing the African narrative. He was doing that through films but I knew they could do more. He was so impressed by my ideas. He said, “Your vision for my company is bigger than what I even have in mind.” He promised that if I did well within the next six months, he would promote me to assistant manager. It felt good.
I took the course at branding school. I did really well at it that many agencies wanted to hire me afterwards. I kept getting better at my job and I realised saving lives doesn’t just mean holding somebody’s heart or brain in your hands. Business is a source of people’s livelihood. If you can help people’s businesses scale, you are saving lives because you are helping people make a living and improving the quality of their lives. Branding school changed my mindset and afterwards, I pursued branding and communications like my life depended on it.
When I joined the team, I was the only woman and I thought my colleagues were mad at me for coming from nowhere but we did amazing things together. That’s how I got my first business client.
Tell me about it
So at my job, I was the presenter, assistant manager and the business development person. I was to interview Lemi Ghariokwu, who was the album art designer for Fela for our program. Before the program, I researched him to know more about him but I found that he didn’t even have a website. All the conversations around him on the internet were by journalists. I found him really interesting for someone as old as he is. The day we met, I asked him, “Why don’t you have a website?” It led to a long conversation about how he had been scammed in the past and I convinced him to try again. My partner, who I am now married to bought him a domain name and web hosting. We didn’t ask for anything. I became his handbag. He took me everywhere and introduced me to a lot of people. Later when I was focusing on my business, all those people became my clients.
That’s interesting. What was your first project?
It wasn’t my first per se considering that I had done a lot of things at school but it was the first time my company did a website for a client.
Nice! Tell me about your company
It was a branding and communications company. I wanted to register it as a publishing house but my dad advised against it. He is a businessman so he liked to give me advice on how best to navigate issues. He advised me to register the company as a communication company that could do digital training as well as publish. Then, the only thing I wanted to do was publish and I did. I wrote my first book and published it as an experiment. I like to experiment with things I don’t fully understand — that’s how I learn.
I knew that I had a lot to learn as a business owner. I wanted to grow, which is why I started looking for jobs. I even told my first boss that I would be using his company to practice everything I learned from school and he was super excited about that. The company eventually went defunct after I left. They couldn’t find someone who could replace me and so the company lost that direction. I feel bad because I think I should have groomed someone to take over for me.
I moved on to work at an agency and I learned so much from that experience. That was the period a lot of people wanted to work with me but I didn’t want to commit to just anything in the name of side hustle so I decided to test my company. My company offered the same services that the agency I worked at offered — branding and communications for businesses but instead of going for big clients like the agency did, my company went for smaller brands.
My friend who was a top staff member at a big company asked me to take over the communication manager role at the new company he was setting up and I did. He also set up a microfinance bank and I handled communications there as well. For my company, I ensured that I didn’t hire full time staff so it was a flexible schedule for everyone. It was a great experience — I put all the things I had learned over time into my work. But after a while, I got bored and started toying with the idea of becoming a housewife so I could chill and travel.
LOL. What happened next?
In 2019, I quit every single thing and focused on my business. In under one year, I built the business of my dreams. We had a rule where we would never take more than a certain number of clients so we can give the best possible services to the brands under our clientele. It was really successful. People reached out to me to join their teams but I really didn’t want anything else at the time.
But then towards the end of 2019, Disha reached out to me and I liked what they had planned so I joined their team. I became the Co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Disha. Before I joined Disha’s team, I made sure I had set my business up in a way that it could run without me. I automated a lot of processes and changed the services we offered. Instead of a hands on service, we offered short term services that didn’t require a lot of our attention. For example, instead of taking on content creation for a brand, we would create content strategy plans that they could employ someone else to execute.
A few months later, my friend Maya, who had been chasing me for two years to work ]with her, told me about a social project she was working on. I really loved the idea and I had never worked in nonprofits before. I thought it would be interesting so I joined the team at Ingressive4good as Director of Communications, which is where I work currently. Unfortunately, I had to resign from Disha.
Your journey has been exciting so far. Do you have a favorite project?
One of my first loves was Heritage Bank. It was one place where I broke rules and did things brands weren’t doing at the time on social media. This was around the time Jon Snow just woke up in Game of Thrones. I had a fun idea to use Game of Thrones to teach people about their finances. We did that for a while and it trended.
I also really loved Disha. When I joined the team it was easy to build the business because I loved the business, I loved the idea and I loved the people in the team. In the short time I was there, I was able to help the business grow from 1000 users to over 20,000 users and increase revenue by 5,900%. It was such a lovely company that even the users knew that it was a gift.
That’s amazing. How do you deal with stumbling blocks along the way?
I am never afraid to ask for help. I also borrow from other industries. When I have a problem, instead of researching that problem, I could read other things like architecture or engineering. I realised that the most innovative solutions came from marrying two entirely different things together.
What have you learned so far?
My favourite hack to set structures that ease your process. For example, whenever I have a bad experience with something, I would create a structure to ensure it doesn’t happen again. I also do this when I have a good experience — i replicate it and make it even better. That way, I am not brainstorming every time I have to do something similar. I do that by documenting the process every step of the way.
Are there any women that you admire?
I like Ellen DeGeneres. I think she’s a marketing genius. I know she has a team but I know she also has to sign off on a lot of things and I think her campaigns are always super interesting.I also love Shonda Rhimes and Chimamanda. They share something in common, which is independent thinking. They can think for themselves irrespective of whatever backlash they’re going to get. I like women who are fearless and confident. That’s something they all have one thing in common.
With everything you’ve done, what’s something you’ve learnt along the way?
One of my biggest lessons has been about consistency. One day during the lockdown, after brushing my teeth, I had a light bulb moment. I realized that when we forget to brush our teeth one day, we don’t associate shame with it and stay away from brushing our teeth forever. Instead, the next day, we brush harder and that is consistency.
What’s next for you?
One of the key things I’m focused on is finding ways to directly impact members of my community beyond what I have done now. I’m passionate about ensuring every single person I meet is better than when I met them. I often think of how I can help the people around me and right now, I’m thinking of pivoting my communications careers towards helping individuals with personal branding. I can’t wait to see what I come up with.