ASPIRE CEO: Olatowun Candide-Johnson, Creating a Space for Female Leaders

On November 13, 2021, GAIA Africa officially opened the doors of its Clubhouse to the general public, three years after its founder and CEO, Olatowun Candide-Johnson launched the premium, all-female membership club.

Commenting, Ms Candide-Johnson, in an official press release, said, “It is incredible to see one’s vision come to life. In spite of the challenges, I have seen our beautiful Club House completed, members continuing to build trust, form new friendships, investing and doing business together. And best of all, it is great to see membership on the increase.”

Exterior of the GAIA Africa clubhouse
The GAIA Africa Clubhouse at Victoria Island, Lagos. Image courtesy of GAIA Africa

To mark the event, we spoke with Ms Candide-Johnson about the history of GAIA Africa and everything there is to know about Nigeria’s first premium all-female, members-only club.

Olatowun Candide-Johnson, founder of GAIA Africa
Olatowun Candide-Johnson conceived GAIA Africa as the female equivalent of the traditional ‘gentlemen’s clubs.’ Image courtesy of Africa Legal

ALM: Tell us about GAIA. What was the process like from ideation to creation and now execution?

TCJ: GAIA AFRICA is a members-only business and social club for the select female leader looking for a community of like-minded women with whom to connect over mutual issues of interest. It can often be a lonely place for women at the top and so GAIA encourages “her” demographic of top women to come together, build trust, elevate and sponsor one another, collaborate in business, investments and also create social impact.

It started with my conviction that women did not connect purposefully. I saw that we connected on several levels but didn’t often discuss business. I interviewed and discussed [this] generally with a number of women and found that I was getting similar responses as to why women didn’t connect for business – a lack of trust! I thought about men and about how they have the “watering holes” that they visit regularly: meeting up with the same people, talking business, collaborating and partnering – some gossip – but ultimately connecting for business. And I thought, ‘why aren’t women doing the same? We really need our own space.’

First, we started with the business dining club which met once a month (in different restaurants) to bond, discuss business and start new friendships. From there, we started other ‘mini clubs’ and hosted events around them on arts & culture, film, books and the French language. Later on, we launched the gourmet, travel, style and investment [mini clubs]. We moved from a no-membership requirement to a network membership to full membership.

From day one, I envisaged a clubhouse and started to look for the right location. This took about 3months. I was really looking for an old bank building or a colonial building with its original features intact (even if covered). Sadly I never found one, but I am happy enough with what we found and with the design achieved by the architect. The whole design concept took around 9 months with several iterations; [in fact] we were still making changes earlier this year.

The Haven private lounge at the GAIA Africa clubhouse
The Haven is the Clubhouse’s private lounge for members only. Image courtesy of GAIA Africa

What took the longest was raising funds. Clearly, this is my first entrepreneurial venture and so I had no track record in business. What I do have is integrity and the ability to work hard. I have also learnt to think strategically. So, to raise additional funds [apart from initial investments], I basically decided to lower the entry investment amount and pitch to founding members and a few non-members. Some members agreed to invest and did so; also a couple of non-members.

I got many rejections from far and wide. From “no business case” to “I don’t see you as a CEO” to those who didn’t respond and those who said “No.” Altogether,  it has been a good learning experience and the [lessons] I take from this are (i) to listen to all (ii) decide what works for me and what doesn’t, and, (iii) be razor-sharp focused on my vision.

ALM: Why did you choose the name ‘GAIA’?

TCJ: GAIA is a name that my husband came up with. It is a name found in Greek mythology and means “Mother Earth.”

Mother of all Earth – what better name for a Women’s club?

ALM: Did any experience from your professional or personal life impact your decision to start GAIA?

TCJ: Perhaps in a way.

I didn’t have any time to nurture friendships or networks while I was in corporate as I did not have any control over my agenda. I was travelling A LOT and even if I would arrange to meet up or attend something, I would in several cases have to cancel because I’ve had to leave town, a new meeting has been scheduled, etc.

ALM: What has been your greatest challenge so far on this journey?

TCJ: 1) Articulating my vision in a way that it is properly understood.

2) The clubhouse remodeling project (hair-pulling!)

3) Finding the funds to bring GAIA Clubhouse to life!

And 4) Personnel! You won’t believe the way that people are able to sell themselves on paper and at interviews. Put to the test, they fail.

the fitness room at GAIA Africa
The Clubhouse is packed with luxury lifestyle amenities, including this fitness room for letting out stress and getting in shape. Image courtesy of GAIA Africa

ALM: You must have a lot of dreams and goals for GAIA. However, what is the one goal you want the club to achieve? An absolute ‘must’?

TCJ: Ensuring connections for business and financial expansion as well as [establishing] GAIA AFRICA in at least 3 other African cities.

ALM: What do you think sets GAIA apart? What do you think makes it unique?

TCJ: The demographic; the GAIA House; the ‘Zen Vibe’; our regular peer to peer learning activities, and, the ‘equality’ in the environment.

ALM: Who is GAIA for? Also, tell us about the GAIA Gazelles.

TCJ: A GAIA AFRICA Woman is experienced, culturally and socially cosmopolitan, and is a special and select pioneering woman corporate/business/professional leader. They have achieved impact in the business/corporate environment, in their professions, in public service and the creative arts. They have achieved financial success and have a social and developmental impact on people and their communities. Our members are open to giving and receiving knowledge and they are active in building their careers, businesses, brands and associated networks. The GAIA AFRICA Woman is in a phase of establishing and expanding her impact while ensuring she is truly ‘living’ with peers who understand her.

Aaah … Our wonderful GAZELLES !! First of all, let me explain The ‘GAZELLE Series’ which is designed to drive relevant and productive conversations for career development and business growth among young ladies in the target age group (of 21-29 … sometimes this increases to 33) and GAIA AFRICA Members.

The Objective of the GAZELLE Series is to equip and empower the next upcoming [female] professionals and business owners in Nigeria by creating a safe space for healthy discourse, as well as the opportunity for younger women to connect with GAIA women who are themselves leaders in diverse industries as they share tips, experience and strategies to excel in their career or business. It is also created so that the young ladies that attend begin to build a network outside of their own specific environment.

The Gaby Lagos
The Gaby Lagos: a place where connections can be created and strengthened amidst fine dining and beautiful decor. Image courtesy of GAIA Africa

ALM: What has been very surprising for you about GAIA from a ‘user adoption’ or ‘members requirements and participation’ angle?

TCJ: If I’m being truthful I would say the slow pace of adoption. One would imagine that most women would appreciate such a space but then I have heard many different reasons for women not participating amongst which are “Women do not enjoy women-only spaces”; “[GAIA Africa] is for a certain type of woman”, and, [the membership fee] is too pricey.

Each time this is brought to my attention, I patiently explain and hopefully what I say will soon take root!

ALM: What are some interesting facts about GAIA that are not readily talked about?

TCJ: 1. Our all-female executive team;

2. The business connections and friendships that have been built so far;

3. The growth of our investment club fund which was started over a casual conversation (Monday evening Cocktails ‘n’ Chill) during the lockdown;

4. The way we pivoted in 2020 in order to bring value to our members, and,

5. Our international members [Digital Membership (DigiX)]

ALM: What has creating GAIA taught you, as an entrepreneur and as a woman in business?

TCJ: That while it is exciting to bring something new into an environment, business is not for the faint-hearted! It is tough and so you have to have resilience and determination and razor-sharp focus if you want to see it through.

I have also seen that some men will try to belittle what you are doing and will look for reasons NOT to invest, and while some women did not believe in the vision, I am proud to say that I have around 20 female investors who did, and I thank them all for their trust, support and encouragement.

Banks in Nigeria are really just there for you to house your money and take fees (this they never fail to do). They do nothing else to encourage or assist entrepreneurs: well, they certainly did not help me. BOI on the other hand did to some extent, but it was not a straight road – there were so many challenges, and it took a number of months.

Also, if you do not have collateral, you’re basically on your own. That, by the way, is a requirement of all the banks if you’re looking for money above a certain threshold. Women seem to be limited to a threshold of N5M -N10M (without collateral) – don’t ask me what men have access to. I remember applying for a short term (one of those maximum N10M as a bridging loan with a max tenure of 6 months) loan from one of our banks earlier this year in order to pay for a valuation on the re-modelling project. Guess what? Having passed all investor funds through this bank, I was told that we would only qualify to apply for N5M: we [could not access the maximum] amount. I told them to keep the money and continued to raise funds [by myself]. I succeeded.

The hub at GAIA africa
The hub is where anything can happen – business meetings, small events, but also, private parties and much more. Image courtesy of GAIA Africa

ALM: Where do you think Nigeria, and Africa by extension, is in terms of creating equal, viable solutions for women in non-domestic situations?

TCJ: We still have far to go.

Women in corporate settings are still being overlooked for promotions: a mediocre man is more likely to be promoted over a more intelligent and dedicated female employee. This is not sustainable, is inequitable and unfair.

While we’re better off than some nations, we really need to do a lot better. Women are 50% of the population and should be treated equally. We are different but equal. Our differences should be acknowledged in everything that we do – Isn’t that the whole point of diversity and inclusion?

ALM: Is the GAIA House open to members and non-members alike? Who exactly can access its facilities, and will it be restricted to the female gender?

TCJ: GAIA House is open to members and their guests. However, Gaby Lagos (the Club restaurant) is open to anyone with a discerning palate because we have a most interesting menu (Mediterranean and evolved fusion).

Also for the moment, we will welcome non-members to our wellness area via a booking system. Our events will be mixed – members only, members and guests, and open to the public. The majority of our events will be for men and women as we recognize the power of the other half and would like them to [in turn] recognize the power of our half!

Finally, certain rooms within GAIA House may be hired for full-day or half-day (or evening) events, private dinners, board meetings, board lunches, dinners and small birthday parties.

ALM: What is the one thing you would like to see change for women?

TCJ: 1. Recognition & celebration of the massive contribution of women from different walks of life to society and

2. […] Women being treated as equals. So for example, men really need to remember not to set decision making meetings at a time that is not convenient for women like 01h00?! Soon and soon enough, women will be setting the time for these meetings in any event.

ALM: What is your typical workday like?

TCJ: Do I have a workday? At the moment I seem to be working day and night and even when I’m supposed to be sleeping, I’m thinking! This will probably only make sense to entrepreneurs, but that’s my life at the moment. I have recently taken up spinning again and happily so.

Olatowun Candide-Johnson flanked by two other women
Olatowun Candide-Johnson: I do not have a typical workday. Image courtesy of Tega Onakpome photography via Blazers and Baby

ALM: When you are not overseeing GAIA, what is your most favourite thing to do?

TCJ: I unwind with movies and so love to watch a good movie. The problem with me is that I very often watch the same movies over and over again because they make me happy and I can zone out a little. I also love to read, but these days, I listen to my books and find them relaxing, even as I learn something new. With our book club, I’m reading a minimum of one book a month but generally at least 2-3 books during one month: lots of knowledge to grab and learn.

ALM: What are three things most people do not know about you?

TCJ: 1. That I’m really quite shy and do not enjoy the limelight;

2. I have a “catholic” taste in music, [and]

3. I have three children and they are all creatives: actor, musician (Singer & songwriter) and animator & writer.

ALM: If you were not a lawyer, what career path would you have pursued?

TCJ: Honestly, that’s a tough one. I can’t think of another career I would have enjoyed … Okay, well, maybe a consultant of sorts – I enjoy providing solutions.

ALM: Complete these sentences “I never leave home without…” and “I never go into a meeting without…”

TCJ: “I never leave home without lip balm and I never go into a meeting without my notebook and pen.”

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