There are a number of us living at the cross roads of 2 or 3 cultures. We may have parents of 2 different nationalities and have grown up in a third culture. The most typical example would be that the parents or grand parents migrated to another country and have brought with them their ancestral heritage. Their children or grandchildren grow up with a mixed cultural heritage. Growing up as adults sometimes brings up a few soul searching questions as to who we truly are.
When Eny Osung and I met, our discussions inevitably led to Africa, a passionate subject for both of us as the continent brings up memories that have largely influenced our lives. I have spent a number of years travelling to various parts of Africa for work and Eny was brought up in Nigeria.
I have invited Eny to share with us how his cultural heritage has shaped his life.
How Does My Dual Cultural Heritage Influence Business Practices?
The Oxford Dictionary defines cultures as ‘The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of Ia particular people or society’. Coggins goes further in stating that ‘Culture is the values, attitudes, and ways of doing things that a person brings with them from the particular place where they were brought up as a child. By definition, culturally, I am a confused nomad as I have been brought up in two distinctly different cultures, United Kingdom and Nigeria. Perhaps you may conclude by the end of this post that I am better categorised as ‘culturally schizophrenic’ in my outlook and behaviours.
If asked, I would instinctively answer that I am more a man of rational decision-making based on the situation rather than conforming to any particular pattern of beliefs and behaviours. However, writing this post has been a journey of self-discovery, moving from assumptions through the process of analysing and documenting my ideas, approaches and practices in my life today as the owner and managing director of Small Business eMarketing Ltd, a growing digital marketing consultancy that I founded two years ago. I want to know am I quintessentially British or Nigerian in my outlook and behaviours? Am I the product of one dominant cultural influence or perhaps a mixed hybrid version of common beliefs and approaches of the two?
Answers to these questions matter in the context of Investopedia‘s assertion that “Corporate culture refers to the beliefs and behaviours that determine how a company’s employees and management interact and handle outside business transactions.
So within the context of being a business owner, the big question is whether the corporate culture I have developed, the way I treat people and run my company, is determined by the British or Nigerian culture? As with any journey of self-discovery, it is impossible to know exactly where I will end up. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the conclusion is that I am more of a freak than I care to believe.
Let’s start with a brief background of my childhood and how I came to be a British child raised in Nigeria and then living and growing old as a British adult into my now middle age. I will then examine the parts of my life where the evidence of cultural influences is clearly evident before concluding with insight into the effect of my cultural experiences on my business approaches and practices.
That’s me in the middle with sister (front) and uncle (right)
My story begins at birth to a pair of academically successful parents (Dad a doctor and mum a professor in a multinational food manufacturer) who moved to the UK in the late 1960s. Their busy work schedule and burning ambition saw my sister and I taken to Nigeria at the age of two and one respectively, to live with our maternal grandparents.
Mum and Dad soon divorced. Mum re-married a British man and started a new family. Inexplicably, she promptly forgot about us two children that were in Nigeria, apparently because we were safe and happy with our Grandparents. We had the good life in Nigeria, living as the privileged first grandchildren to a world-renowned Doctor and village royalty – Granddad owned several hospitals with orphanages for children whose parents were not able to care for them and was also a village Chief with large expansive compounds to boot. We spent our childhood befriending and playing with the children in the orphanages and the servants’ children.
After years of our father begging annually to be given custody of his children to bring back to the UK we eventually left village life in Nigeria aged 11 (me) and 12 (my sister) to live in Tooting, South London. Granddad would go on to be Nigeria’s Secretary of State for Health soon after we left the country. To our dismay, coming back to the UK soon saw the three of us living in one room in a Bed & Breakfast Hotel in posh Wimbledon Village. Spending the remainder of our childhood in state care as ‘looked-after’ children cemented this period as the most traumatic we had experienced up to then. My sister and I survived children’s homes and then foster care, before both moving into our accommodation (bedsits) on our 16th birthdays. So ours was a childhood of neglect as babies, followed by living in luxury with a sense of superiority over less-privileged children in Nigeria, to teenage years in the UK living a similar existence to the orphaned children we grew up with in Nigeria. At least we were somewhat prepared for the lifestyle reversal!
A degree and Masters later I have since married a British wife with whom I have three dual heritage children, Crystal, Perry and Kobias.
I am certainly thankful that my sister and I came back to the UK when we did as I fear the outcome of staying in Nigeria for even one more year and the difficulty that would have presented in my efforts to re-integrate into British society.
Looking back, I always identified myself as British even when I was a child because I was born in Woolwich, East London and always dreamed of coming back to the UK. In my mind, Nigeria was always going to be a stop-gap in my upbringing. I can admit that in my youth, I used my Britishness to justify my privileged status and lifestyle in my mind. I have often described myself as more British than most other British people because of my good spoken and written English as well as my enjoyment of British foods, values and general way of life.
Now 30 years on it feels like the right time to reflect with eyes wide-open. Am I am more British or Nigerian in my outlook, beliefs and business practices?
Without a doubt, my childhood in Nigeria plays a large part in many things I enjoy and who I am. However, as I intimated earlier, I would like to think that my life experiences both in the UK and Nigeria define me in equal measure for reasons that I will outline in the remainder of this post. Let’s look at the evidence
On a personal level, my upbringing in both Benin City and London has affected these areas of my life:
Any Nigerian worth their salt is judged on one fact only: owning a Mercedes – it doesn’t matter how old or the condition of one’s Merc as long as you drive the car with that star on the bonnet. To paint a picture, Granddad only ever drove or travelled in his Mercedes. Furthermore, one of my uncles, Vasco was a very wealthy man who owned every Mercedes model from the two-door to the jeep, all gold-coloured, obviously. Yes, he had them all parked in his heavily protected garages every evening.
I can safely say that I achieved this Nigerian goal in my late 30s when I bought my Mercedes E240 Avantgarde. Now my quest for driving heaven has been satisfied, although admittedly, I break out in a cold sweat at the thought of what my next car should be – I cannot contemplate driving any other vehicle to make until my dying days.
I grew up with nine uncles and aunts in Nigeria – four doctors, two accountants, one architect and two lawyers. So education was always going to be a priority for the family and I. Learning and getting qualifications was even more of priority given the fact that Nigeria does not have free education at any level, so Granddad had to pay our fees. Furthermore, schooling is Nigeria is essentially a process of learning to pass exams as failure resulted in physical punishment, disapproval of the fee-payer and subsequently staying a year behind your age cohort, which could go on indefinitely. There was a 16-year-old man with disabilities, Elise, the Head servant’s son, who failed the end of year exams so many times and repeated year after year until I caught up with him when I was ten years old, for example.
I have approached and been relatively successful academically in the UK because I brought ambition to succeed academically as well as the skills to pass exams, thankfully. I lived for test and exam days at high school and university, with a little inherent interest in attending classes or the learning process itself. I was even awarded a Professional Doctorate at 21 years of age!
While I enjoy tasty fish and chips, Sunday roast, bangers and mash as much as any other British person, I have to admit that I would climb mountains for good old jollof rice and meat stew! Give me a plateful of incredibly slimy okra soup and pounded yam and I will be your friend for life! In fact, I am a sucker for anything with chicken and gizzard stew and rice or yam with cow foot stew (See pictures).
My passion for spicy Nigerian food is so strong that I keep healthy relationships with some Nigerian people for no reasons other than the fact that they are willing to cook my favourite dishes every so often.
Distrust of government
You’d have to be living in a very deep cave not to have heard about the plague of corruption that is virulent in Nigeria. In fact, David Cameron was recently caught discussing this with the queen. My experience of living in Nigeria is that corruption has and continues to cripple the country. It is endemic at all levels of Nigerian society from the average member of the public right up to government levels. Put simply; you have to pay someone a back-hander to get anything done.
Consider an entrepreneur who wants to open a new petrol station in the oil-rich country, which sounds straightforward, but is nothing of the sort! He would first have to buy the land for the petrol station, which cannot happen until he pays a bribe to the local chief to stave off unwanted attention from the authorities and criminal gangs. A bribe also has to cover the local Police for them to guarantee the safety of the enterprise. The risk includes staff, facilities, products, deliveries and operation. The State Governor obviously has to be paid off to give permission to the business, as does the relevant Secretary of State. Depending on how far the materials have to travel, it is likely that other chiefs, state police and regional officials also want their cut too.
Indeed it is hardly surprising that few people start innovative businesses in Nigeria.
The putrid corruption machine in Nigeria led me to have a deep distrust of government and authority as a child. For better or worse, this distrust is now part of who I am today. The effect is that I can’t bring myself to vote for any government that I believe is not on the side of the average man on the street -not the squeezed middle class but staunchly socialist and firmly on the side of ‘benefit man, wife and children’, even if that bankrupts the country.
My youngest son can’t help but accept his is partly Nigerian as he has a Nigerian middle name that he happily recites to my delight when asked his name. I have done my best to drum being the Nigerian into my children, spectacularly unsuccessfully in the case of my older twenty-something offspring.
I have deliberately stayed off the over-controlling practices that many Nigerian parents typically exhibit behind closed doors. They include routinely physically chastising children, believing that children should be seen and not heard, and assuming that they know best what is right for their children. The over-zealous parenting does not stop there. Add the dreadful insistence that the children must go to fee-paying private schools in Britain and a ridiculous demand that religious belief must be part of children’s control mechanism and you get the picture of ‘healthy’ love for children in Nigerian culture!
You will see the most Nigerian part of my parenting in two areas:
- Good manners
My kids also know that I am a fanatic for manners – that the quickest way to cause a meltdown in the home is to forget to be courteous to anyone older than them. However, a simple ‘hello’ ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’ virtually gives them a free pass to have a joyous day.
- Ambition and academic effort
Another essential part of my Nigerian identity that my children cannot ignore is my focus on academic effort. Again while I accept individual differences, they know that I will not accept anything less than them trying hard to do well in any academic task. Admittedly this has been a challenge for my two older children. Initially, I sought to make them adopt my values but quickly realised that doing so would require me to be everything I hated about the adults in my life when I was growing up – over-dominant and resorting to corporal punishment at the drop of a hat when they didn’t do things my way. However, it quickly became evident that taking a harsh stance with them was placing an enormous strain on our relationship so for better or worse, I chose to back off and used a light touch parenting technique instead.
One part of my Nigerian heritage that I have sought to leave behind is the irrational religious belief that appears to afflict Nigerians. As a child, I dressed up in my best clothes and went to church with the family every Sunday. I have to admit there was a sense of status turning up in our Mercedes and sitting in our allocated seats; such was my granddad’s influence and status in the community. I also admit that I regularly failed to put all of the money that grandad gave me into the collection bucket. Instead, I would sneak out to the shop to buy sweets/snacks.
My reasoning was simply that the church did not need the money given that the priest had his own Mercedes, a lovely big house and dressed far too smartly for a poor man. As I grew up, I began to see the church as a corrupt organisation that was part of the oppression of the people rather than a force for help and good. Materials I read about things like the slave trade and colonisation of the third world when I got back to England reinforced this belief. The incredible sight I witnessed when I went back to Nigeria as an adult in my early 20 further reinforced my doubts about the church. I saw the entire village trooping off to church several times a day with all of their worldly goods, including food, to give as offerings in exchange for Holy Communion.
The following poster beautifully captures my distrust of the church.
This distrust has fuelled my passionate belief in taking action to achieve anything in life or business. Never will anyone hear me pray to a divine being for anything, much less when things do not go as planned. My belief in taking action is one of the most important things I have actively encouraged in my children. We live by the mantra of self-sufficiency and taking personal responsibility for everything that happens; we never resort to praying or hope for divine intervention. I believe this has a massive impact on our outlook on life in that every day; we strive to be better and achieve more each day.
Impact of cultural heritage on business
Picking out discernible cultural-specific business practices is difficult. However, I will highlight three here that are important to me: Business with a conscience, customer service and management.
From as long as I can remember I have always had an entrepreneurial streak in me. My uncles and aunties reminded me that as a little boy, I started a business reselling sweats and food to other children with a huge markup, naturally. My struggle to understand why I am so determined to succeed as a business-owner in my current business was the hardest part of writing this post.
I eventually found the answer many months after I started writing in an article by Bisila Bokoko. It is that “African entrepreneurship is unique and laudable in the fact that at its core, profitability and gain are not bigger than the will to substantially improve living conditions of local communities… providing the impetus for economic growth and social equality.”
Here’s how this entrepreneurial mindset plays out in my my digital marketing business.
Business with a conscience
Having spent most of my childhood playing with children in the orphanage in Nigeria, it was a stunner to find myself living on the other side as a child in care in the UK. I am enormously grateful to Social Services for actually raising me, regardless of the challenging experiences that go with the care system. Both of these experiences have resulted in me having deep empathy with people, especially children, who are less fortunate. I turned my back on the typical Nigerian parent’s ambition for their child to be a doctor, accountant or lawyer, much to my father’s annoyance – determined to put right the wrongs of my childhood for children in care and disabled children. In fact, I spent 15 years (most of my adult life) managing Advocacy Services and doing business development roles for the charity until I set up my digital marketing consultancy.
My digital marketing company is motivated in large part by this empathy for those less empowered small businesses and start-ups who are handicapped my market forces in the digital marketplace. Put simply; most consumers are online these days, and if a business is not online, they are as good as finished. However, most local small business owners do not have the expertise to make the Internet work for them. Neither can they afford the exorbitant prices that many professional marketing agencies charge. As a consequence, local small business’ Do-It-Yourself (DIY) marketing typically leads to wasting ridiculous amount of time to stand still or worse still, lose money and sink. The alternative option is no more palatable because it involves spending a king’s ransom that they cannot afford with digital marketing agencies that do the bare minimum and more often than not, does not bring a Return on Investment.
You have to know Rachael’s story to understand what fuels my perspective.
Rachael’s story in brief
- Child in care
- Became her advocate at 13 years of age to secure funding for university course in contemporary dance
- Advocated successfully on her behalf of financing for books, materials, course trips, accommodation on school holidays, etc.
- Paid Rachael’s’ tuition fees for Masters course
- Rachael starts company making handmade Union Jack brogues
- Rachael can’t get buyers despite having a website, mentor and bank loans
The reality is Rachael is not the only entrepreneur with a brilliant idea and products for whom the Internet seems rigged against getting customers online, making a profit and growing their business. The plumber and electrician you know, and the local shop near your home, have the same problem as Rachael. The Digital economy is passing them by while the big businesses with large marketing budgets and teams dominate every sector – do a quick Google search for any area you like and you will see that only large companies appear in the top results!
I am driven to change the equation by providing professional results-driven digital marketing that will enable local small businesses to compete with the market leaders! The challenge is finding the digital marketing formula that gets sales online consistently and replicating that cost-effectively to clients. My mission is to give 500 businesses the knowledge and services to reach their ideal customers online and get sales by 2020.
The following graphic illustrates the current situation of the company at the time of writing this post, two full years into my mission.
This graphic is significant in highlighting the reality that the road to achieving our mission is a journey that involves continuous improvement and frequent changes of strategy based on applying the best knowledge and expertise that we have at any particular moment in time.
I am a staunch believer in exceeding customer’s needs and expectations. I exist to delight my clients and leave every one with better systems and processes to benefit in the digital marketplace. To that end, I am probably more American than either British or Nigerian in that sense as I feel both are lacking when it comes to delivering exceptional customer service as a norm.
My customer service ethos comes from some Harvard Business Review articles I came across in my early days in management consulting. We reflect this in our firm by the enormous sense of failure that we feel when a client leaves because we have not delivered to their expectations.
A forensic examination of what went wrong and ways to improve for the future typically follow these experiences. To be honest, it is usually one of many reasons that are not always down to our poor performance. The issues include not being clear about what we can deliver, and not explaining the complexity of achieving the client’s goals. On the other hand, the issue could be not being forceful in getting the client to do their side of the commitments to make marketing work, etc.
As you will see in the following section, we actively take steps to address the issues that arise in the business.
I have been to the proverbial entrepreneurial well and drank from it! I have lived the startup life in which every day was a challenge full of ups and downs, feast and famine, etc. To be honest, I quickly realised that trying to do everything myself was getting me nowhere except exhaustion and burnout. Something simply had to change!
That change came from talking to other business owners in the digital marketing sector and beyond. Perhaps business coaching has had the biggest influence on the way I run my business today. One of the first and best pieces of advice I got was to read books. Michael Gerber’s E-Myth was a massive eye-opener that gave me understanding of my journey up to that point and how to move forward.
I have since read many books and attended many coaching sessions that have emphasised being deliberate, structured and consistent in behaviours and actions being the foundations for growing a business. Implementing the strategies have involved getting rid of my lax approach to time that results in being late to every appointment which I blamed on African time.
Another essential part of managing my business is empowering my team by using participative management style. Other effective business practices I adhere to include documenting/testing/refining systems and adding more structure to everything I do by working to a set weekly diary, building a team, delegating tasks and working on my business.
I feel it is important to emphasise my dislike of paying tax –in fact any mention of the word or indeed HMRC brings me out in a terrible rash. That is not to say that I avoid paying the tax I have to pay. However, like most small business owners, I am happy to take advantage of any opportunity to delay and reduce my tax bill by any legal means necessary!
This post has been a therapeutic self-reflection in which I hope you agree have kept my promise not to be my judge and instead leave it to you to decide if my Nigerian or British upbringing primarily dictates my outlook and behaviours. Maybe you can see a mixture of both cultures or perhaps neither. I totally accept that I addressed this topic (cultural influences) based on personal and therefore anecdotal evidence. Doing so runs the risk of irking British and Nigerian people who may feel that my representation of the culture does not do justice to them. Rest assured, my aim is to inform, educate and entertain in equal measure.
Am I a cultural schizophrenic? It is over to you!
Eny Osung is Founder and Managing Director of Small Business eMarketing Ltd (http://smallbiz-emarketing.com), a Croydon-based digital marketing consultancy that provides email, social media, search optimisation, Pay-Per-Click, Video, and Mobile App marketing as well as coaching for small businesses to reach more people on the Internet.
He is passionate about helping business owners get essential services, knowledge and skills – which he satisfies through his marketing business, business networking group (South Croydon Omni Local Business network) and his podcast show: Eny’s Happy Hour that goes out on www.businessradio.co.uk at 12 pm every Wednesday