FUNMI GBEMUDU, Successful At Home, Successful At Work!
In an exclusive interview, scintillatingly beautiful with flawless skin, attractive complexion and gentle charm, we have Mrs. Funmi Gbemudu an Architect by training, building contractor cum consultant by occupation. A perfect role model, this mother of four like never before in her life, opened up to Working Moms’ Mary Ikoku about life and her modalities for balancing the work-home situation. Full interview after the cut.
WM: Working Moms
FG: Funmi Gbemudu
WM: I’m delighted that I finally got the chance to speak to you Funmi. And I know WM readers are going to be happy to read your interview in our maiden issue.
FG: I appreciate what Working Moms represents and how useful it is—I wish there had been a working mom magazine when our mothers were toiling and raising us, or even when I was having my babies! I must tell you Mary that I am glad that you started this magazine. It is something that we truly need in Nigeria and Africa as a whole.
WM: Thank you Funmi, I’m glad to hear that. Now tell us, who essentially is Fumi Gbemudu?
FG: (Laughs) I am simply Funmi oh! A 1994 Masters Degree Graduate from the University of Lagos, I am the CEO of Rehob Consult a reputable Building Consultancy firm in Nigeria. I started my career as a staff of Adeniyi Coker Achitects Ltd. I am a mother to four kids, two boys, and two girls.
My mantra is that in life, it is never over until it is over. You may have dreams and aspirations lined up but life in itself can throw things at you that could change all of those dreams. When you do get thrown a curve ball, the way it affects your life depends largely on your foundational belief. Mine is in Christ, so He alone directs my steps. While working at Adeniyi Coker, I lost my dad and that was one life throw I tell you. My dad’s death was a huge turning point in my life. Everything changed and I suddenly became the male figure in my family, being the first child. I became the big sis to my siblings and even the husband if you like to my mom, because she was so heartbroken. Even though I had met my husband at the time and marriage introductions were done, my wedding had to be postponed to allow us time to mourn. I eventually got married after a year of his demise.
All the while I still worked at Adeniyi Coker but I knew that I needed to make a new move, a job change, because at the time, my take home pay could not really take me home (laughs). I knew it was time for me to get up and do something else, all I needed was an encouragement. Honestly, the best thing that happened in my life is the man that God brought my way, my husband. He supported me, helped me register my company and did all the stationary. He virtually set me up and encouraged me to be the woman that I am today. Now I am a business owner, all thanks to God because He is the one that directs the affairs of my life.
My background to a large extent also had a big influence on the person I am. Mine was a close knit family. I grew up with mom and dad showing us love and care that only a family born out of love could give. My dad Admiral Olu Omotenhimwa was in the Navy, my mom, Mrs. Florence Omotehinwa, was a businesswoman. We had a very happy family; my dad was lovely and my mom, fantastic. I was the first, the eldest of five children, four girls, and one boy. We lived in Victoria Island in Lagos. I was born there also. Because my dad was a Rear Admiral in the Nigerian navy, we were privileged to live in the Naval Base, the Naval Dockyard. At some point dad was on a foreign mission to London as a Defense Attaché, hence our relocation to London. This move was largely because my parents believe in having the family together at all times, so I have been brought up to know the value of family and having mom dad and children in one unit to foster good parenting and promote family values. We were all over the place, the UK, America at some point, Lagos and Calabar but all of these times, as a family. Looking back, I must say that it wouldn’t have been easy for my parents but trust me it was worth it because I think it has paid off, looking at how far I and my siblings have come today. Today I am a wife to a good and supportive husband, mom to Ariel 13, Brian, 10, Jessy, 7, and Ariana, 4 and I continually strive to give them back what my parents gave to me.
WM: Interesting. Like the saying goes “what goes around, comes around”. You had such a great family and parents, today you are a parent and running your own family. How have your growing up years affected the woman before me right now, Funmi?
FG: I grew up with a very strict mom, and my dad, though in the Navy, was a very easy going man. He knew he had many daughters and always told us, “do your work, face your stuff and you will not regret it at the end of the day”. Education was top on his agenda. He was also a bit strict, he would not say “don’t go out”, but he would want to know where you were going. As the eldest, he always told me that I was the captain on the ship. He always wanted me to be responsible for everything that my younger ones did. Just like him!
So subconsciously, I didn’t see myself any less than a man and that has propelled me even to end up in a male dominated profession. Because my parents gave me that sure footing, built my confidence and were always there to guide me and provide the right nurturing, the woman you see today is a product of a well oriented family and of good parenting and hard work. That is exactly what I strive to give back to my family and work. Although I find that it is not very easy coping with the challenges of motherhood and work, I do manage to do them all. If you’ll excuse me to borrow from your words which I read in a ‘Woman of the Sun’ interview, “Motherhood is a responsibility and not a challenge”. So I try abi? (laughs).
WM: Very true Funmi, Motherhood is a responsibility. I remember our first meeting in 2001 or thereabouts at the National Hospital. You had just lost a baby. Taking a peep into that horrifying period of your life, how did you feel? Any guilt? Were there things that should have been done by the hospital that could have saved that little life?
FG: O yes yes, Kai Mary, you remembered! It wasn’t just a sad experience but a painful loss to my family. You know that after carrying a pregnancy for a period of 9 months and pushing in labour, the only joy one has as a mother is to hold her child at the end, but my case was different. I was in the middle of a huge project during that pregnancy and also had my daughter and my son to care for. I was giving attention to all of them, my children, my job and my baby still in the womb. Carrying a pregnancy, raising two other kids and working on a challenging building project was not very easy but I have always been a determined and strong willed person and was doing all I could to balance everything.
And yes, I felt a certain kind of guilt when I lost my baby. The fact is that she came too early. I gave birth to her quite alright but she died 3 days later. I blamed myself because I felt that it was my work, the running around, the travels and all the juggling that must have made her to come pre-term. I felt so much pain especially when I saw other moms in the hospital breast feed their babies. I wept as I remembered the long, dark days I’d been through, pushing the pregnancy, I remembered all my struggles and I cried at my emptiness at the end of it all. But I endured, with the kindness from my husband and the support of my family and friends. Finally my belief in God as the One who has answers to everything that happens to me, made me even stronger at the end.
Things that should have been done by the hospital that could have saved my daughter were not farfetched, just very tiny but important things. Being clinically clean, ‘good Hygiene’, was missing from the hospital. True my daughter was born premature, but mine was a live birth and she could have been alive until this day if not for the infection that she caught while in the incubator. We lost her due to that infection. I believe that if the hospital had been a bit more careful with her handling and if they had ensured that the incubator was safe, perhaps my baby would have lived.
WM: Sad, But thank God your other children are there to be grateful for; Now let’s talk about the children; having babies and at the same time working. What was it like juggling both?
FG: Hmm, juggling is both challenging and incredibly satisfying because thanks to modern technology I could have an electronic version of my children’s timetable, and could from afar, stay in constant touch with them as well as give instructions to my nanny. Looking back, I can’t say I did it all by myself. I have been blessed with the right support, blessed with a very supportive husband and blessed with wonderful nannies. When we lived in Lagos, the juggling was a bit tougher. Living in Lagos takes a great toll on working mothers because the hustle and bustle of Lagos, accompanied with the mad traffic situation doesn’t help matters, it adds to one’s stress. When we relocated to Abuja, things were a bit different. It is far easier to cope in Abuja. In fact, Abuja afforded me the opportunity to bond more with my children and husband. I also have two partners working with me and that helped too.
One thing that put me in check in Lagos is the fact that I came across a lot of very successful women who climbed to the peak of their careers, had so much money at their disposal but their families suffered for it. I took note of these things and knowing where I am coming from, I didn’t mind the Lagos traffic and all the chaos, I still made my family my priority. I make sure that my children’s time was theirs and it had to be quality and not quantity. I did a lot of scheduling, prioritizing and sacrificing.
WM: How do you ensure that the demands of your work do not suffer because of your responsibilities to your family?
FG: When I was starting, I told my father that I did not want to neglect my family, my children. I observed that there were people who face their work, are very successful but they do not have enough time for the family, and this has a detrimental effect on the children, and I did not want that to happen to me. So I thought first of all, I should work from home, which is why in those days with any apartment we rented, we made sure that there was a nice room that was sort of separate from the main house that served as my office. This still helps me balance the situation especially where I have to work in the night.
WM: Working moms in Nigeria have a tremendous need for the skills that you have, starting as an employee in an Architectural firm to being your own boss at a building consultancy firm which has really secured its pride of place in the industry, boasting to your credit, some of the best buildings in the FCT and Lagos. All the management and resilience, how did you pull it off?
FG: Really, what worked for me may not work for the next ‘Archimom’. The most important things were the skill and training I got from school and the skills I acquired from Adeniyi Coker. Those were all that I started with. My first break which was really the first job I did was while I was still working with Adeniyi Coker. My client then was my father’s friend. I was a bit scared of approaching him but my husband encouraged me, he got me all that I needed, letterheads, business name and all of that and he encouraged me to go ask for the job. He believed in my capability to do a good job as an independent consultant. And not only that, growing up, dad always told us that beauty is not all that a woman needs, he told me that as a beautiful woman, I should always push forth my professional side. He encouraged us his daughters to always show what our brains could do rather than what beauty could do. I am not saying that beauty is not good. It does add to your portfolio, but it is your brains that speak for you in the end. So having my dad’s advice at the back of my mind, when I finally walked up to seek the opportunity, I was given the chance. When I was asked to bring one drawing, I would do more than 1, in fact, I presented 3 different drawings to him, I wasn’t just doing this for drawing sake, I wanted to prove myself. I wanted so much to impress my clients with my work, I wanted to show that I could do much more than they asked for. I was finally given the contract, and I executed it to the best of my ability, my client was very happy and I was satisfied just seeing him happy. It made my husband proud and ever since I have not stopped designing. I started taking pictures of the buildings I designed, showing off my works to prospective clients and existing ones. I became more confident, I became bolder. I resigned from ACAL to face my firm. It wasn’t all rosy but it has paid off. So I believe, it involves a lot of hard work, determination and resilience to come this far. The other important thing that helped me is passion for what I do. Passion is what kept me going when things weren’t so smooth. Did I mention that my engine house or rather my backbone is my husband? I don’t ever want to forget all his support (winks). I owe him so much.
WM: What are the challenges of being in the ‘male profession’ of Architecture? And how are you coping with the demands?
FG: Yes, it is a male-dominated profession but I had already thrashed out those problems in school, being five girls in a class of forty men. It was not easy, but I had been brought up in a tough manner. I have always sort of felt like a man all my life, so it came to me naturally. I’m sort of a tomboy (Laughs)
WM: And the demands of the industry?
FG: I am coping very well. It is not very easy being a mother of four, and also having to juggle being an architect. But I have been able to balance it so far. First of all, I am very prayerful about my activities. I want to get a nanny, a cook etc I must pray. I put God first in all things that I do. And because of that, God has been very faithful helping me to pick the right people. I had a nanny that stayed with me for nine years.
I believe that as a woman, family is first. Apart from being an architect, I am also a builder, and that is a different ballgame altogether. I was an architect for maybe about three years, before going into construction. And now as a contractor and architect/ builder, it is even harder coping with the workmen, having to go down to their level and talk to them to get them do your bidding.
WM: So how do you keep the outcome in focus when dealing with your clients?
FG: In so many of the situations I find myself, there is no right or wrong, black or white or easy answer. If there were, we wouldn’t be where we end up. And therefore I’m always trying to put myself in the shoes of the people with whom I’m dealing so that I can try to see what’s happening from their perspective. I try to empathize where possible. With some of the clients I deal with, it is very hard to empathize because you just think, “Come on. Stop patronizing quacks, end the faulty building construction, hire us for a better and a more structured building and quit discriminating against women.” There are so many matters that are of great consequence to me that are just not of concern to some of the people that I work with. So I am sometimes trying to empathize with someone that I do not have anything in common with and whose values I don’t share, to try to find some common thread that will enable me to get through to them. When I am dealing with a tough client and I push them to allow me a free hand to hire my work vendors and suppliers, they look at me like I’m asking them to release their bank account to me to run as I please. It’s a constantly difficult balancing act in my business but thank God things are looking up, with us getting more solid referrals.
WM: We will soon host our second annual Working Moms Conference for Women in Oil and Gas, Urban Development and Security Careers. We’re finding initiatives that ensure that women can succeed in “extreme” or male dominated jobs like yours. Do you have a perspective on supporting women in these kinds of high-stakes careers?
FG: I am committed to enhancing and increasing opportunities for people in my employment environment. But I’m conscious of how difficult it still is for women in these high-stress, high-visibility positions—whether it’s in the public or the private sector. I think all of us who have children recognize that it does make it more challenging and that every one of us lives with a certain amount of guilt and concern about doing right by our family. Sometimes you just don’t want to make those trade-offs until your children are grown.
WM: I must say that I am very impressed with the records you have made, not just the success in your business but the fact that you have not left your family to suffer because you have to earn a living or build this business, What can you tell new moms were your best strategies?
FG: Strategies! Hmm. Well I always had a timetable for the kids as well as my schedule for my business. The kids timetable is detailed from wake up, morning devotion, housekeeping, self help, breakfast, go to school, return, lunch, siesta, homework and all of that. You make huge sacrifices to keep the home running like clockwork. You sacrifice your long baths for quick showers and late nights for early mornings. Mothers sacrifice a lot but at the end, you will be happy you did.
As a new working mom, you should make your priorities known to your colleagues -you’d be amazed how willing people are to accommodate you if you speak up. Ask for help, engage nannies and grannies, they were created for a reason. Make sure that your child’s nanny is someone who really cares. Also I encourage moms to read books on the balancing act. It helps too. Be open with your children; make them your best friends so they can tell you everything.
WM: Do you think your children especially your daughters will be affected in any way due to the role you have played in their lives and at work?
FG: As a young girl, I always admired my mom. She had always worked, even though she was not in a career climbing job. She had run businesses and this had a very profound effect on us her daughters. Watching her work as a little girl also helped me, therefore, I believe so strongly that my daughters have and will be positively impacted just the way I was by my mom. I am already noticing my 13 year old Arial, she is already an independent minded girl and I can already see the lady she is turning out to be. She will definitely be her own woman with her own likes and ways and she will imbibe some of the positives that she saw in her parents.
WM: Should your husband wake up one morning and greet you with the distinct message “No more of this work stuff, it has to be the full-time housewife gig for you,” what would be your reaction?
FG: He wouldn’t do that. And with the way I have structured my business, I can actually take a back seat now because I have a good work force that can do the work for me. I only have to oversee. Plus I have a partnership with two other people, an architect and a structural engineer.
WM: Could you afford to be a full-time housewife?
I couldn’t. I think I would get sick if I tried it.
WM: What do you think is the tonic that keeps your marriage blossoming?
My husband is a very understanding man, and I appreciate him for letting me work and for trusting me because it is not all men that allow their wives to work, the way he does. I wouldn’t do anything to shake his trust or betray him.
WM: Even with your busy life, you don’t seem to have compromised on your health and beauty, how do you unwind and stay so beautiful?
FG: Massage; I have three massages a week. I go to the spa. I also exercise a lot.
WM: One last thing and the most recent; turning 40. How does it feel to have attained the ruby age? Is 40 the new 30? How did you celebrate?
FG: I like the part about 40 being the new 30 and for me, I think the new age is a time of thanksgiving and reflection. I have always wanted to do something for the underprivileged members of our society. I prayed about it and God helped me by directing me to the ‘City of Refuge’. Initially, I wanted to donate an orphanage to my home town in Kogi State, but unfortunately the only person who ran an orphanage well in my town had passed on when I inquired, so I continued to wait on the Lord for direction until I met a woman who runs an orphanage in Abuja. We met at a conference, got talking and in the course of our chat, I found out more about them. They operated from a rented building in Maitama. That struck home and right then I told her my plans to donate a home to an orphanage and she was so happy. She encouraged me to go ahead and that she would provide any needed support. One interesting thing is that at the time I was having this discussion, I didn’t have the money required for the building but somehow, I believed I will do it when the time came. Close to my birthday, I commenced the building and was able to finish the main part. The uncompleted part was my birthday request of my friends and family. During the celebration of my 40th birthday, I appealed to every of my guests, friends, and families to please not give me birthday gifts, but rather support me to finish up the uncompleted part of the building.
My friends surprised me, the response was awesome, to the glory of God. Today, we have been able to donate that Orphanage to the City of Refuge. I am happy it is done and I am a fulfilled woman at 40. All I pray is that God will continue to sustain me, my family and friends to continue to do more for humanity and to give back to the society.
WM: Funmi, thank you so much. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your time and your words of wisdom.
FG: Oh, Mary, it was so wonderful talking to you.