I am Laila Adji, a Cameroonian Nigerian citizen raised in France. I knew that I wanted to take on a leadership role that had a social impact early on in life.
I grew up in France, and from a young age, because of the cultural structure of my family, I understood that I had no right to fail. At first, I was the usual nerd. I wanted to become a lawyer or work for the UN.
At age 16, after my French baccalaureate, I was told I needed to follow the usual traditional path of getting married with so many dreams yet unmet. I decided to get an internship in a French logistics company. With this experience, I discovered that I had a knack for networking. Then, I developed my career for four years in business development.
After the company folded, I joined an agent of General Electric company after solving a client problem for them. At the interview, I remember telling my future employer – who became a second mentor – that I didn’t know anything about turbines, and I’m not, and I had no Engineering background. His answer was inspiring. He said, “You will learn”.
Felt like an “impostor”
In 2011, in my next job, once again, I had to embrace the role and learn from it. I found myself in high-level government offices and felt like an “impostor”. Sometimes, I imagined someone would figure out I had no clue. It was hard. I experienced some patriarchal attitudes. I was asked to serve tea for all. But I learned how to fix boundaries and say no.
In 2013, we were the only American company to win an asset under the PHCN privatised assets. I was the only woman in the group picture taken. My next challenge would come from not a male-dominated world but rather from women not helping or supporting other women.
At the conclusion of the rather unfortunate key sales contract we were seeking, the American company I worked for pulled out of the country. I realised that I needed to build my own company. I started a consultancy outfit and used my networking and strategy skills to build a name for myself.
In 2020, in the middle of COVID, a family reached out and said a friend had a start-up in South Africa and wanted to make a feasibility study in Nigeria. The UN Foundation funded the PayGas feasibility study and sought to help women in city dwellings and poor urban communities make a living for themselves. I took it on without much thought except for my earlier dream of wanting to work for the UN.
Everything goes fast! In April last year, PayGas Nigeria was registered, and I was asked to be the CEO and be a part shareholder. I didn’t start off knowing I would end up in the energy space, but I knew I wanted to have a social impact with PayGas. I get to create an ecosystem for other women to give them the opportunity to be franchisees and own a business.
And in doing this, I feel the little girl who dreamed of being a lawyer and working for the UN got to take all the various pieces of the puzzle. Various steps have come full circle.
My advice for young women who are still looking to find their path or build on their skills is to be determined, have mentors, and mainly to know their strengths and skills and build on that. It may look like an impossible task, but every little step adds up, and before you know it you get to say: “Uhuru”.