Architect Ojoma Atanu: 'Clients Appreciate When You Know What You Are Talking About'Published: June 07, 2011
Ojoma Atanu is CEO of ArkNature Consulting, an architectural design and construction firm that she started in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2007. She traveled to the U.S. in May 2011 to participate in the month-long Fortune Mentoring Program, an initiative of the U.S. Department of State that connects emerging women leaders from around the world with Fortune magazine's "Most Powerful Women Leaders" from companies like Time and Google. Knowledge@Wharton 10,000 Women spoke with Atanu while she was visiting the Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York City.
Knowledge@Wharton 10,000 Women: What has been your most valuable lesson during your visit to the U.S.?
Ojoma Atanu: I find out every day that architecture, like so many other professions, is really relationship-based. I've been having meetings, doing network sessions, talks with architects and people in the design field. I'm leaning toward green architecture and sustainability, so I've been meeting with people in that area as well. It's a time to mix with people.
K@W 10,000 Women: How did you choose architecture as your career?
Atanu: I have always drawn and painted. I started out with the intention of being an artist. In my home country, people went into African art and Nigerian art, but I didn't think they could make a comfortable living from that. I noted that a lot of them were bankrupt. I didn't want that to happen to me. When I was about 10, my father was building a family house. His friend, who is an architect, handled the design of that project. My father would always take me along to the [construction] site. I got the opportunity to see first-hand what happened from start to finish. I looked through the plan and I could actually identify things on the plan; it seemed like second nature to me. I liked what I saw -- very straight lines, nice color schemes and different materials. That intrigued me.
K@W 10,000 Women: Why did you decide to start your own architecture firm?
Atanu: When I finished school, I immediately got a job with a construction firm. I [eventually] came to Lagos, which is Nigeria's commercial capital, and got an opportunity from one of my bosses to handle a project because she wasn't going to be around. That project was given to me to run fully by myself. I had already registered a company for the future, [thinking I might start my own firm].... After I finished [that project], I thought to myself that I could actually do this. I took the opportunity and ran with it.
K@W 10,000 Women: What are ArkNature Consulting's specialties?
Atanu: We're a design consultancy that specializes in architecture, construction and interiors like color schemes, fixtures and fittings. We also do some graphics, such as stationery, letterheads and envelopes. In the future, we are leaning toward project management and a strong emphasis on green architecture -- sustainability, protecting the environment and [so forth]. We work across the board: residential, office projects and remodeling. Some 60% of the jobs we've done have been remodeling jobs, converting from residential to commercial. Three major eateries in Nigeria are our clients. We also hope to go into the development of parks and recreation.
K@W 10,000 Women: How prevalent is green building in Nigeria?
Atanu: It is relatively new. People have various views about green architecture. Some think it's propaganda, and others feel it might not be really sustainable. I'm finding that you can either do the high-tech thing or you can find solutions for the environment that are not as high tech as we may find [in the U.S.]. We may be at the forefront of this trend. If we succeed at all we want to do, it's possible.
K@W 10,000 Women: How has the 10,000 Women program helped your business?
Atanu: After the program in 2009, I realized that I did have a path I could follow. I decided to open my office fully and begin to implement the things I wanted to do. I renovated the servants' quarters in my building as my office and started to work. In Nigeria, we have the EIR, Experts in Residence, which is organized once a month by the Enterprise Development Services at Pan African University [where the 10,000 Women program is held]. Experts in different fields come in and give their time pro bono to women who have graduated from the Goldman Sachs class. I kept going for each of these EIR sessions. One issue that kept coming up is how I could be profitable. I wanted a situation where I could price my products and get my customers to pay for those services and actually use the money to expand my business. I have streamlined my operations such that I can bill properly and get my clients to pay for the services. I increased the number of clients I have. Last December we actually broke even. Now we are charting what goes [into the business] and what comes out. I can actually see where I'm supposed to go, which makes my job easier.
K@W 10,000 Women: What has been your biggest challenge in developing your business?
Atanu: Building a strong client base and getting them to pay for the service that I give them. I want to give my staff a chance to build their careers and be trained, but that's all tied to money. That money will come from the client. We must serve them so well that they don't have a choice but to come back to us for business.
K@W 10,000 Women: How have you been able to improve client generation?
Atanu: I've tried to get better informed. If I'm better informed, it boosts my level of confidence.... Clients appreciate when you know what you are talking about. They can trust you and leave their endeavors to you.
K@W 10,000 Women: Where do you see your business headed?
Atanu: We have a problem with power generation and power distribution. Electrical power is not something you have around the clock [in Nigeria]. It affects a lot of our businesses and the profits we could make. So I started finding out about solar power, energy conservation, water conservation and inverters. People shouldn't wait to build their houses before they put these things in. You should include provisions for light generation and all of that. [For example], people don't have to have artificial air conditioning. The natural positioning of the buildings and the designs should help them to live better lives and spend less money. It's not just a question of those who are affluent being able to use architecture. Everybody should have a comfortable home. I loved the home my father built; it always made me happy. I can do that for other people, too.