‘There is nothing more powerful than an inspired and empowered human being.’ Fondly referred to as ‘Debola Lagos’ or ‘Debs’ by friends and acquaintances, Adebola Williams is one focused, passionate, and phenomenal Nigerian Media Entrepreneur, Journalist, Political Activist and Motivational Speaker. From working as an Actor at NTA at the age of 14, to becoming the co-founder of RED – home to several well-known brands including The Future Awards Africa, YNaija.com, StateCraft Inc., amongst others – Adebola Williams has come a long way with his share of scars and medals to show. RACHEAL ABIRIBA had an insightful one on one with the ‘man with the golden touch’ over a cup of Affogato at My Coffee, Victoria Island, Lagos.
- Outside of being known as ‘The Man Who Helped Three African Presidents Get Elected’, who is Debola Williams?
(Laughs) It’s hard to answer because I live my purpose with my daily existence. So it’s hard to separate who Debola Williams might be from the man who has done the things that they have said that, with the grace of God, I, my partner Chude, and my team have been able to do. So, it’s not that different. I can be fun, but I’m always purposeful. And I think that that’s the mission of life. We should be able to be purposeful with anything we are doing. So that headline for example says “The man who helped three African Presidents get elected”, I spend most of my time helping my friends, helping people. I want everyone around me to be happy. I make jokes, I check on them, I call them, I send them gifts, I host people. If one of my friends is having a birthday, I throw a surprise party. So it’s me. My purpose generally is fulfilled when I’m able to reach out and help those around me, my friends, and my family. So it’s not that much of a big difference.
- I know that you have talked about how Chude Jideonwo and you came together to create Redstrat, but why communications and not politics?
From a very young age, we understood that the media has limitless powers to influence and shape society. And because in the hearts of the both of us is a passion for humanity. And the easiest way to influence humanity is using Mass Media because that way you can reach 16 or 25 million people at once. I can talk to you now and everything we’ve said now, you might be inspired by, you might be excited about, but, if you don’t put it out in Genevieve Magazine, it doesn’t go anywhere. Nobody reads it. Nobody is inspired. So we understood early that the power of the media is limitless. And that there is nothing more powerful than an inspired and empowered human being. We found inspiration and empowerment in all sorts of ways that pushed us to do the things that we were doing. So while he was 16 and I was 15, we were doing so much. When he was 18 and I was 17, we were putting our hands in so many things. We found inspiration somehow. And we made it a mission that we had to inspire other young people, for them to now take action to get the beauty of their dreams into reality. So for us, that was it. That was why we went into the media.
- With so much success at everything you do, what would you say drives you?
I think it’s a sense of mission. It’s a sense of purpose [because] yesterday is gone and today is another day to win. I realise that each day is a transaction. Every day of your life, you lose one day from the amount of time you are going to spend on the face of the Earth. It takes from you, so what do you take back from it? If you do nothing with your day, you’ve just wasted your own life. I have been responsible for myself since he was 14. It’s not that I didn’t get money from my siblings and my family – but I got it because I worked to get it, so I have had that sense of responsibility all my life. Every day, there is a purpose, there is a mission. I am someone who is also responsible for many other people; I run an organisation, which I am responsible to, I have a business partner, (someone who has a heart for the nation), I have a nation which I am responsible to and I’m someone who also feels “Listen, I have talent. I have skill. I can use it. I have seen the results.” Success motivates you as well. It’s like someone who wants to climb a mountain, once you climb one, and you want to go for the higher one. Every time I make a success, it pushes me to want to do more. But at the end of it all, in my quiet moment, what drives me? It might sound cliché, but it’s really a mission and a passion for humanity. After all is said and done, I live on a street called ‘Hope’. I am one of the most hopeful people you’ll meet. So everyday I wake up and I hope that I can achieve the goals that I have set out to. And that hope drives me to get up. If I did not have hope, perhaps I would stay back in bed and be like “Oh well…” So, if you have to summarize what drives me, it is the fact that I live on the street called ‘Hope’. There is nothing more powerful than a hopeful human being. And there is nothing more dangerous than a hopeless human being. A hopeless human being is a ticking time bomb.
- What has been your most challenging project so far?
In all sense of humility, everything I do, myself, my team, everything we do, we go in with some confidence and some fear. We go in thinking “We hope we can do this.” You heard what I said? “We hope we can do this.” So even though we are afraid, there is hope. That hope pushes you. So, we’ve done all sorts of things. When we did The Future Awards, I was 17 I think. When we finished the event, someone said “Ahh, look at these ones. And they said they don’t have money. Look at décor. Look at full event.” Little did that person know that as at 11 O’clock that day, I didn’t have access to the hall because I was owing N80,000. Little did that person know that as I got into the hall, the person that did my décor did not cover my chairs and my tables. She said I only paid some little amount of money so she only did some miserable drapes I had in the hall. And I had to go and look for chair covers and table covers. They didn’t come until like 1 o’clock. Little did that person know that my anchors cancelled that day. But when it was done, they said “Ahh, look at these ones.” At that time, that would have been the biggest thing I had done in my life. And we did it every year for five years. In 2010, we led the ‘Enough is Enough’ march to Abuja. The first time young people in this generation would do a proper march; young professionals, young entertainers, needing nothing from government to go and demand, you know, for the legislature to do what they are supposed to do. I went to Abuja, I was arrested by the SSS, you know, trying to get permissions, was pushed back and forth until it was done. That could have been the biggest thing I had done at some point. There was Occupy Nigeria that we were a part of. You know, we opened our media company, Y! Naija, Rubbin’ Minds, all of these things. So, at different points in my life, I’ve faced different things that seem like the biggest thing we were doing. In 2014, I was running a campaign for the President of Nigeria. In 2011, I was running a youth campaign for the President of Nigeria. By 2014 – 2015, I was running the whole campaign for the President of Nigeria – focused on communication, not the whole gamut. By 2016, by God’s grace, I was also running the communication campaign for the President of Ghana, in another country, with language barriers, cultural barriers. And by God’s grace, I’m on to many more things now. So, every point in time in your life, you would have a level that seems like it’s the biggest level, that seems like the next level. And then you conquer that and enter another level. You keep doing it. I always say to people, you must get the street credibility for your sector. Whatever your sector is. So every step you take, you are afraid, and you think that it’s the biggest thing you have done. And then when you conquer that, you want to[go to the next level] the next one. And that is life, you are promoting you, step by step. That’s the journey.
- What will you say is your biggest achievement so far?
Hmm… what makes me so excited and fulfilled with my life is the journey of the FutureAwards. The Future Awards has birthed ideas, it has birthed a generation. It has created an ecosystem that is formidable – young people who are empowered, who are powerful. Some of them don’t even know the journey, they don’t know the beginning, they don’t know that they are doing what they are doing now because a group of people came together, were inspired and started doing it, and you being inspired by what they are doing. Because the most potent thing that has ever led to conversion for young people is peer-to-peer education. And that’s why we zeroed in on the Future Awards. I said, “Listen, let’s find our peers, and use them as strong positive images to inspire other peers and create an ecosystem.” So we’ve created an ecosystem, this critical mass of young people now who are vocal in business, in technology, in music, in arts. The only thing that cut its teeth properly when we started The Future Awards is art. And then the Future Awards put the serious business around it for young people. And I remember M.I saying “Listen, the biggest thing that happened to me was not that you guys gave me a platform to perform at The Future Awards. It was the fact that I came to that Awards and I met TY Bello, I met Tara (Fela Durotoye), I met people that I was only reading about in the papers. And that told me that I could not go back to where I was coming from. I needed to break through and stay with this people.” Bayo Omoboriowo, the President’s photographer, in 2010, he came to the our photography training which we do for young photographers. In 2012, he won the Future Awards and we started commissioning him to go to Osun State to photograph the elections for Y!Naija, to go and photograph around the country, he started meeting with people in the government. By 2014, we put him on the Presidential campaign as the President’s photographer. And today, he is the President’s photographer. That is a testament of The Future Awards. Those are my powerful stories; many of those types of young people whose lives have changed as winners of the award and the people that they have inspired. So now, I say that we are all lights to Africa. But one light here, one light there, and another light there cannot light the Continent. We need to discover those who are lighting the Continent in different parts and bring them together. We need to now use our own light to light others. And before you know it, Africa will change from ‘Black Africa’ to ‘Great Africa’.
- Are you scared of making enemies during the course of your career? Has that held you from embarking on any project in particular?
(Laughs) If you are scared of enemies, you will never wake up.
- So you are never scared of enemies?
The Lord has said that He will lay a table before me in the presence of my enemies. He did not say that he will lay a table for me in the presence of my friends, my family and my loved ones. So he has already told me that there will be enemies, but they will be there to watch me eat. I have always said that people that backbite, people that go on blogs anonymously and curse you, they are backbiters. They are at your back. So what you do is you keep running fast. As you are running, the dust from your heels will be going into their mouths and they will be eating the dust. So everyone who feels that there is an enemy anywhere, don’t worry, they are enemies, they are behind you. You just focus on your work and keep going, and keep lifting enough dust so that they will be eating. They have a hole in their hearts, all they need is love. And if you don’t have the time to give them the love, don’t be too wicked, just be giving them dust.
- How do you remain relevant in the industry?
So, a man’s work will make way for him. That’s working to remain relevant. But another thing, is to keep reinventing yourself. Pay attention to the times. Don’t lose yourself, but find out what value you have that is in line with what the times demand. Different times and seasons require different things. You have your core value, but how can your core value serve different times and seasons? If your core value can only serve one season then you’ll go to extinction.. There is a time lap. 24 months on everything you are doing. So remember, we did The Future Awards, we launched Rubbin’ Minds on Channels TV, we did Enough is Enough, we launched Y! Naija, we started Nigeria Symposium for Young and Emerging Leaders, we moved into doing elections, we moved into doing African elections. Last year, we launched three more shows. So, what is the time asking for? We have the same value proposition: youth empowerment, youth enlightenment, youth inspiration. And we’ve put it across all of these brands over the years. Even for elections, we inspire young people to vote. That’s what we do. So how do you take your value proposition across the board to fit into cultural tensions? The way you remain relevant is if you fit into cultural tensions. So you see me in the morning with the President, then you see me in the afternoon with the head of ‘awon boys’, then you see me in the evening with Pastor Tony Rapu, you know, that’s how we do it. So if you are able to expand yourself, and build relationships across, then the relationships, the reinventing, the work all come together to ensure that you are relevant.
- You recently did a movie; will we be seeing more of that?
Possibly. I mean, I’ve received two or three more scripts since then, including Okafor’s Law, which I couldn’t do- timing and all of that. But 93 Days was very important to me because it told a powerful Nigerian story. For the first time in a long time, a story told us as efficient, as hardworking, as disciplined, as smart, as committed, as people with humanity and people who are compassionate. That was important for me, not just to tell the story but from a Nigerian angle. Because, if you had allowed the Americans to tell that story, they would have told it from a totally different angle. So for me, doing 93 Days was beyond just a movie, I would like to also do movies that are like that. But my primary interest usually is the stage as well. My friend, Lala Akindoju, has produced a number of stage plays which I have been on.
- Is there a difference between you as a public person, and you as a private person?
Except from the fact that when I’m in the public I always wear a uniform. (Laughs).
- Do you have any regrets?
There are no regrets. There are learning moments. I say ‘shame is useless’. What is important is integrity, dignity and remorse. If you are remorseful, you can fix what you have done wrong. Or if you have done something that is shameful, you can correct it, you can apologise. But shame, is a useless emotion. So regret is like shame. It is a useless emotion. Anything that happens to you, what do you turn it into? What do you do with it? Everything is a learning moment. Sometimes, you might need to go and pray to God and say “Father, can you show me what I’m supposed to learn from this?” Some things have happened to me that I felt really bad about, especially this year, but God has shown me over and over again what I have to learn from them.
- Has it been difficult finding time for your loved ones?
Sometimes… Sometimes it can be because it takes a toll but I manage. So, if you check with my friends, they will say “Oh…you are so busy. You travelled.” But ask them who called last. It’s me. Who came to visit last? It’s me. Because when I’m around, I try to do the rounds. If I can’t do the rounds, I host a lot in my home. I open my doors, and bring my friends around. We eat, we laugh, and we have a good time. So, I might not be able to see all of them or visit everyone, but, at least we are able to bond, and stay in
- What is the biggest lesson that life has taught you?
A life without purpose is useless. Each day must be a mission. When each day is a mission, anything that life throws at you, you can deal with because you’ve woken up, determined to do something about it. But I also find that, in all of these, that ability to be resilient is most important because life will throw things at you, but you must stay. Everything you’ve dreamt of, everything you’ve prayed for, will happen to you if you stay long enough and work hard at it.
- If you were to give one advice to the youths, what would it be?
Keep working, keep doing it. There is no overnight success. Everybody put in the work. You have got to put in the work. You have got to get your medal. You have got to get your scars.