Purposeful and relentless, Udo Okonjo has made her mark in real estate, both within and outside the shores of the country.
With over 400 offices globally in 275 locations worldwide, and an ever-expanding network of real estate professionals, her organisation, Fine & Country International, West Africa, has become one of the world’s largest and most prestigious real estate networks.
Prior to acquiring the Fine & Country West Africa licence in 2007, Okonjo enjoyed a successful legal career for more than two decades, after being called to the New York Bar and Nigerian Bar Association in 1991 and 1993 respectively.In 2005, she wrote the South African Real Estate exams and qualified for certification by the Estate Agency Affairs Board, and in May 2008, she earned a certificate in Effective Real Estate Marketing from the National University of Singapore in conjunction with the Dubai Real Estate Institute.
She explains the basis for the certifications: “My main consideration in seeking to acquire an international real estate licence was because of what I perceived about the Nigerian professional real estate service. It was an all-comers game with no barriers to entry. It was unlike the legal profession, where you had to be licensed through a rigorous process in order to practise. Of course there are professional associations such as the Nigerian Institute of Estate Surveyors and Valuers among others, but in practice, representing clients whether buyers or sellers as an advisor, or presenting a property to the market, was not a licensed activity.
“I therefore wanted to differentiate myself by subscribing to an international global network, which had clearly defined standards of operation and which would therefore, act as a template for us to operate locally.”
After acquiring the licence in 2007, the company was successfully launched in Nigeria in 2008. Eight years on, she counts her blessings: “We have had an unrelenting focus on being the leading resource for real estate developers/investors in the luxury residential and prime commercial segment of the market. That focus has not changed. It’s an absolute uncompromising vision of excellence, professionalism and leadership in the sector. We are very clear about it and nothing has changed.”
According to her, the journey has been unique, inspiring and in some cases ‘insane.’
Passionate about real estate as a means of wealth creation, she advises on leveraging on marketing in real estate business.
“Real estate investors at the high level don’t seem to recognise how critical it is to take professional advice in advance, but prefer to bring in experts to fix a broken situation. Most don’t realise like Peter Drucker said, that the real business of real estate just like any other business, apart from innovation i.e. creating a winning product, is marketing.
“For buyers, it’s failing to conduct due diligence and not dealing with reputable firms, forgetting that the very basis of property is its title. So many people get burned by unscrupulous agents,” she says.
Apart from the real estate business, Okonjo, who was the best graduating female student in her year at the Nigerian Law School, is also passionate about helping women find their voice both at home and at the workplace. She founded the Inspired Women of Worth Network, to inspire women.
Through the iWOW Network, she has succeeded in organising fully-funded summits for professional and entrepreneurial women, supported autism and breast cancer awareness among others.
On how she started, she recollects, “I reached out to a few friends as soon as I thought about it and got started in 2010 in South Africa, where I was at the time. Initially, it was a gathering of friends and friends of friends, but it has grown to include hundreds of unrelated but just as purposeful women of worth from all walks of life between the ages of 19 and 76.”
Memories of her childhood are nostalgic reminders of good times as she admits that a lot has changed in the society. She notes, “My fondest childhood memories are that of me living in a large ‘compound’ in the Government Reservation Area of Kano State. My dad, a strict disciplinarian and Federal High Court Judge, gave us the best life possible in all its simplicity. It is a season of my life I still recall with great joy and yet mixed emotions, because I didn’t realise then that I was an Igbo girl from the East, Delta State or Bendel State as it used to be known.
“Sadly, my children now know the difference in tribes, although we are more interested in raising them as global citizens with a Nigerian foundation and connection.”
Growing up, Okonjo imbibed some core values that shaped her into the woman she is today. According to her, her values centre on her belief that everyone is born with the potential for greatness. “I can’t help pushing for people to bring out their best and not deprive the world of their gift. I hold myself to the same standards. I always say, ‘don’t settle, only dust settles.’ Nothing can stop a man or woman who is clear about their purpose and willing to pay the price without compromising. There may be a delay, but ultimately the world will have no choice but to step aside for such a person. My key values are the pursuit of divine purpose and a commitment to excellence in all I do. I have no interest in accolades from men and women. I’ve found them to be too fickle,” she points out.
It was not surprising that she was awarded the prestigious British Chevening Scholarship to study at the University of London, Kings College School of Law, where she graduated with a master’s degree in Law. She specialised in Corporate and Commercial Law.
The Delta State-born light-skinned beauty has no airs and graces about her and would not take the glory for her feats.
“I have come to realise that much of what people celebrate us for, are really to a large extent a function of grace. I honestly can’t say that I was the absolute best female student in the law school in 1991, or the most qualified to get the British Chevening Scholarship. I studied hard, but I played very hard too if truth be told. I wasn’t necessarily the most diligent, but I also wasn’t cavalier about my progress.
“Over time, it’s occurred to me that some of the best outcomes of my life have been by what I would refer to as ‘divine orchestration’, nothing I can put a real finger on. Of course, there are some minimum benchmarks; I’ve noticed that when I show up, make the effort, push myself, do what’s required and believe for the best, things tend to work out for the best over time. I have never felt limited by gender and I don’t believe that it is truly a major issue in the journey to success,” she recounts.
Not about to rest on her oars, she adds, “I will be fulfilled when I hear the words: ‘well done, good and faithful servant.’ In the meantime, I strive to live purposefully daily.”
A mentor par excellence, she spares some advice for women and the youth: “Don’t chase fame or fortune, chase after God’s divine purpose for your life. Embrace purpose because therein lies the key to power and unlimited possibilities. Success outside of purpose is a paradox to my mind.”
Happily married and a devoted mother, she speaks candidly and fondly of her husband: “My husband reminds me of an Iroko tree. Strong, solid and rooted. An Iroko tree survives all sorts of conditions and thrives beyond all expectations. It is durable and resistant to attack and rot. That sums him up.”
The mother of four advices busy parents: “You can have it all, if you give up some things. It’s all about balance. I personally don’t want it all. I only want some specific outcomes, and even then, prioritising is the key. Life is to be lived and not ‘busied’ away. Be deliberate about making time for yourself and your children.”
Her hobbies? “I love to read and listen to music. I love to surf the social media. I find it therapeutic, because of my love for people and psychology. I can engage with people without the need for physical interaction. I find that liberating. I love nature walks by the beach and in the woods. I love hanging out with my husband and children when they are home,” she says.
Describing her style, she says, “I consider myself a cut between classy and classic. I don’t really like to fuss over my clothes these days, and honestly wish I had a personal stylist because I hate thinking of what to wear.
“I wish I could wear all black and not have to worry about dressing up. I’m not sure I’m really a stylish person. I just want to reflect excellence as with all things that I do. I end up making a bit of an effort to ensure I’m appropriate at all times. It’s what excellent people do and if that makes me stylish, then that’s a bonus.”