Why would a business graduate working in Calgary for Shell, then in the U.K. with Cadbury, leave a high-profile position to make an entertainment blog in Nigeria her fulltime job?
Third time was the charm for a clear enough phone connection to the West African nation recently to interview Uche Pedro, HBA’06, and find out why. When asked if a landline would be clearer, she said, “there are almost no landlines left in Nigeria. Everyone has a cellphone” – or, in fact, a few phones, to help prevent dropped calls.
Formerly Uche Eze to Ivey classmates, the 28-year-old is the editor and founder of the very successful Bella Naija entertainment and fashion website (www.bellanaija.com) that reflects and celebrates Nigerian and West African culture. In a few short years, the site has grown a strong international following.
Presently, Bella Naija gets more than one million unique visitors and more than eight million page views a month. “A big part of running a website like ours, especially for our advertisers and stakeholders, is data and analytics. So, we have a lot of programs that track where the visitors are coming from. If you look at any given month we have over 100 countries that visit our site for whatever reason,” said the entrepreneur.
Regularly in the top 10 countries where visitors originate – along with the usual mix of African nations (Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, etc.) – are the U.S., the U.K. and Canada.
Bella Naija is not an ordinary ‘entertainment’ website. In fact, in recent weeks, Pedro felt it important to add a news section to the site to reflect current African affairs. “Our readers can see all the glitz and the glam and the lovely things on our site. What we really had to balance out was the reality of what’s going on around us, making sure that people are informed and they are engaged in the current affairs as well.”
The success the site is now experiencing did not happen overnight. The seeds were sewn early though, in fact, just after Pedro’s graduation from Western’s Ivey Business School in 2006.
“My graduation ceremony was on June 12 and my first job was starting on July 10 in Calgary. So between that one month period, I was like ‘well, I’m done university. I’m going to start a job in a few weeks. Let me just start something.’ So, it wasn’t something I started with a business plan at that time.”
That wouldn’t happen until just a few months before she quit her job in January 2010 and really created the formal business plan for a site she had been operating for more than three years.
Pedro admits some of the site’s success is it’s an idea originating from the heart.
“I think that it came from the heart but at the same time passion without structure won’t get you too far.”
She felt fortunate when the opportunity arose to remain with Cadbury but move from the U.K. to Nigeria and continue her work as Human Resources advisor for the Middle Eastern, African unit of the chocolate company. “When I moved back to Nigeria, I was doing Cadbury during the day and at night I would come home and blog. It just got to the point where I had to make a decision on which to go forward with. Did I want to keep growing my career in strategic human resources or did I want to take the plunge and become an entrepreneur? It was a really, really difficult decision to make. But I decided to take the plunge.”
For the first two years of doing Bella Naija, Pedro did not receive a cent from it. The Google ad revenue was a minute amount.
“Without structure, it probably would have fizzled out. Thankfully, I was willing to put structure into that passion at the right time. Now we have a good work team. We’re constantly saying ‘how can we make this better?’ ‘How can we alternate it?’ ‘How can we make it more interesting?’ ”
The extra work of her small but determined team has paid off. The site has won awards for its style and events sections. And many advertisers have jumped on board, African and international companies.
“What we really strive for is to be excellent in every single area that we cover. I think that really appeals to our audience… One of the things that we added is the wedding section. Weddings are such a big deal in Africa. And we are considered the number one wedding online portal in Africa… we’ve really done well in that regard,” says Pedro, who was just married in June 2012.
Being an Ivey grad, Pedro is familiar with case studies and is inspired by the Huffington Post business model.
“We look at what they’re doing and say, “OK, they are doing this. Is that working? How could that work in our environment and could we build up from there?”
Operating a business, especially a web-based company, can be a challenge in Nigeria where Internet connectivity can be unreliable. Since the Ivey grad moved back to Nigeria in 2008, the Internet speed has slowly improved but not near what someone in a major North American city would experience.
Despite some technical challenges originating with Internet service providers, Pedro still sets high standards for herself and for her many readers. “I want the reader’s experience from a technical point of view to be seamless. I want you to click on your desired story and you’re looking at the facts that you wanted. From the content point of view, we have so many different kinds of readers. When you have one million unique visitors a month, these are people across different age groups, across different continents, with different tastes. We want people to find that little corner where this is ‘their thing’ on Bella Naija.”
“So, I want everyone to come in and see something that catches their eye. But honestly, not to be cheesy, I want people to be inspired.”
Apparently, she has inspired others, including Oprah Winfrey. The talk show icon was putting together a show on “beauty around the world” in early 2010 and Pedro was contacted to see if she’d be interested in filming a segment.
“My segment was actually aired and I got to speak with her as well and that was so phenomenal because she’s such an inspiration. I don’t know if she’s ever been to Nigeria or Africa but her impact is so great. So, it was one of those opportunities that was a really, really phenomenal experience.”
The message she delivered to Oprah’s audience wasn’t just the latest fashion on a model’s runway. It was a little more cerebral than just a flash in a pan. “In Nigeria beauty goes right along with brains. You have to be smart, driven and educated,” said Pedro to the television audience of millions.
Unless you are there with feet on the ground in Nigeria, there are just some perspectives that cannot entirely be captured by reading a story or visiting a website.
“I am an African woman. It’s unique. In Canada you wake up and know that certain things are there. Here, you wake up, like this morning, and there was no electricity. The second thing that’s kind of different out here, it’s so important for youth to be able to see some positivity, some positive examples that tell them ‘you know what, I can do this.’ Lead by example. That’s a big thing for us.” For Pedro, some of those lessons were learned at university in Canada.
“My experience at Ivey, at Western, was really, really positive. The HBA program, we’re taught to challenge ourselves, push ourselves. I think that made me more fearless. So, I’m happy with the decision. It’s really worked out.”
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