After her Law degree, Beverly Agbakoba-Onyejianya backed out of legal practice because her father, a senior advocate of Nigeria, had raised the bar too high, and she might not be able to replicate or surpass his feat. She stayed in the shadows for ten years until fate led her back to Law.
Today, she’s breaking barriers in the legal circle and other areas of interest. She is currently a Partner and Head of Sports, Entertainment & Technology (SET) at Olisa Agbakoba Legal. She shares her story of struggle and success with the Business Elites Africa team.
BEA: Your parents are lawyers; your paternal grandfather was a judge; how was it like growing up in a family of lawyers?
Beverly Agbakoba-Onyejianya: My grandfather on my maternal side was a Permanent Secretary too in the old mid-western region, which then became Bendel state. So, it was a very interesting childhood because I had a mix of not just professionals. I was very fortunate to be a third-generation educated person, which I realise is now a rarity. To have my grandparents and my parents and now me. It’s quite an honour.
I was exposed early on to a lot of knowledge, which gave me an appetite also to want to learn. I was reading voraciously from about five. I remember my dad bought me my first encyclopedia set. I think it’s called an almanac for the 20th century. I had the appetite for reading very well, and it really put me in good stead because, now, not only do I still have a love for reading, I now like writing and not just legal material. I also write about personal development and then stories that my grandfather would tell me. Storytelling was a big part of my life.
You know there was no digital anything back then; you had to rely on oral history. So, I used to just sit at the foot of my granddad’s bed listening to stories, and that entertained me.
BEA: I know studying Law was a given. But you didn’t want to practice after your degree. Why?
Beverly Agbakoba-Onyejianya: I had this brief imposter syndrome. I felt like I could not fill my father’s shoes. He’s already done it so well, even my mom. I just didn’t know how on earth I could do it and be as good as he did. Back then, Law and legal career meant litigation, and I was petrified.
My mom too, found her niche in corporate commercial, but for some reason, when I think of Law back then, the corporate commercial side didn’t appeal. But that’s all I do now. But you know what? Even though I chickened out, it set me on the right path into the world of compliance and regulation, an area I love so much. Even when I eventually started practising Law, I didn’t leave it. I’m fortunate to be doing it for SMEs, MSMEs, and startups now.
I would have never considered compliance and regulation if I had just done exactly what my dad did. But at some point, I got bored and decided to return to Nigeria from the UK. Luckily for me, that was when compliance and regulation became a major function in financial services. So, I fit into the system very seamlessly. I was one of the pioneers of compliance in the country. I set up the Chapel Hill compliance department. I was also fortunate to have been one of the pioneer compliance officers at the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), where they had ceremonies to onboard compliance officers. It was a time when compliance was just being taken very seriously. So, I was basking in that euphoria. But then, something happened, and I started feeling bored, and that call-back to Law came, and that was when I went to the Nigerian Law school and was called to bar.
BEA: What got you bored?
Beverly Agbakoba-Onyejianya: I did compliance for ten straight years. I think it’s because compliance has a slight degree of monotony. It’s about following rules, creating a framework, and ensuring the entire company is in line. So, there’s a lot of the check listing, and It shouldn’t be that way. A really good compliance officer goes beyond just check listing; you’re having conversations, and you’re building relationships internally. Well, I think after ten years of doing anything, sometimes you need a bit of change. I left a good job and went to Law school.
It was hard to find my fit when I started practising. A lot of conventions bind legal practice here. You can’t advertise; we’re not really seen as business people. Now things have changed a bit, but when I started practising, it was still bound by those old conventions, and I told myself, ‘hope I haven’t made mistakes.’ But as luck would have it, something led me towards the niche of sports, entertainment, and tech (SET). The sports element was easy because I was already running a football club. I just never connected the two.
My childhood friend, Kemi, inspired the entertainment side. She needed representation, and she said, I need you to represent me, and I said, Of course, I would, and she was my first client. And then, the tech side replaced fashion. Sometimes when something is not working, you have to make changes. So, we dropped fashion for tech. These practice areas were small but we did it afraid, and since then, it’s just really taken off.
BEA: Your story is full of trying new things and delving into new territories. Does the fear of failure not hold you back?
Beverly Agbakoba-Onyejianya: I think there’s an element of naivety when I approach certain things. I really don’t see the difficulty initially, which is a good thing but also bad because if you’re not strong of heart when difficult times arise, you can quickly quit. Sometimes I wanted to quit the football club because it was hard. To even book pitches at the stadium in Surulere was hard. I’ve had so much bad luck; I’ve been duped. I just move on because I’m passionate about it, but I don’t just do it out of passion. I do it with that sense of structure, so that sense of structure drives the passion. The truth is, passion isn’t enough to drive things through; passion will ignite interest. Because of my compliance training, I can quickly create frameworks in my brain of how something should run.
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