I, like most people, am searching; for meaning, for purpose, success, happiness, love, joy and and and… Unlike most people though, I’ve come to understand that this is what is called the journey. See, we are all called for something in this world, with our many different gifts, talents, skills, we have all been put on this earth, in this lifetime, to serve a certain purpose. For me, speaking to people is one step towards realizing my own calling and I hope that by me sharing their stories, you will find yours too.
I had the privilege to sit and have a chat with a very successful businessman and talk to him about the things that got him this far. This man oozes grace. The way he talks, the way he listens, the way he beams just before he says hello, tells you that he is human 1st, before he is a leader. His name is Joseph Osawaye, goes by Joe and he is the CEO and Managing Partner at Kiza restaurant and lounge, Dubai. I used to hear people talking about Mr. Joe as “the Kiza boss” so I did a search on him and decided that I would interview him for a blog. I bumped into him one night as I was leaving Kiza, put on my most professional face and asked for an interview. He agreed. My excitement! I didn’t show him but as soon as I got in the elevator I was doing the Gwara Gwara (dance). Fast forward to the day of our meeting, I’m grateful for the lessons that came from our conversation. Read on and be inspired.
Joe was born and bred in Nigeria and he comes from a middle class, affluent family. He had a very strict dad and a very liberal mom, talk about the perfect balance. As a teenager, he was absolutely clean, one of those guys whom when you see in school uniform in the afternoon, it’s as if he didn’t even leave the house; so neat and tidy. Joe is a people’s person, intrigued by the things that make us tick, the way we think, what goes on in the mind, so he would have loved to study something in Philosophy or Psychology. But African parents want their kids to either be a doctor, an accountant, lawyer or engineer. So, at university young Joe was going to study to become a doctor, just like his sister, and make his parents happy. At his graduation, people were shocked to see that he had been studying Medical Sciences (Biochemistry), because of his character they had imagined him to be in the Arts. When the time came for him to go to the US to study Medicine, he was certain that was not what he wanted to do, so he pursued entrepreneurship instead. This is a person who naturally gravitates towards people, he knew that his calling was centered around bringing people together, and he finally got the courage to do just that.
“I like concept to reality, the intangible to tangible, because it reminds me so much of how faith works” Joe Osawaye
When I was doing my research about Joe, I didn’t find much information about him online. I asked him why this is and he told me that he likes for his work to do all the talking. He says, when people see the work, they will want to know who is behind it, then look for him. Joe comes from a business family so his introduction to business would be helping his mom out at her bakery during weekends and holidays, and later teaming up with his dad, a chartered accountant who used to import and sell cars in Nigeria. Now Joe was a young man. He’d be talking to his father, of a different generation, about the possibilities of making millions and billions. His dad would be like ‘boy chill, you wanna rob a bank with all that talk!’. This was not to discourage him, but to try and protect him from the harsh realities of business. But Joe was adamant that in order to be a man (or a woman), you have to get out of the shadow of daddy to go and discover yourself, most times. A few years later, he went to study Information Technology in the UK, worked as a Software Developer for some time then went back to Nigeria to start a Project and Facility Management Business in Telecoms, which he still does till now. That is but one of his businesses doing well in Nigeria. He also has an Oil and Gas subsea company which he co-owns with his brother. He explained to me what they do but honestly all I heard was rovs, submarine, pilot, robotics, water current and that was enough for me. One thing that stood out though, was that in deciding to go for this field, they looked for an area where the barriers of entry were extremely hard so that initially they would have to put in a lot of work, but once they met all the requirements, they would be in business for the long run. While most people are discouraged by long and demanding procedures this field requires, Joe and his brother saw this as an opportunity to eliminate too much competition, dominate and play in a certain space. Need I also mention that his brother is a Harvard graduate with a passion for business, so rest assured that he has all the necessary templates to make any business flourish. Hello… I hope you are taking notes.
Joe has stayed in different parts of the world: Canada, United States and the UK to name a few. He had been visiting Dubai since 2005 and it was in 2013 that he decided to settle in this region. When I asked him how he got to this decision, he said it’s because every time he came to Dubai he got inspired. His words were “Dubai inspires you, it makes you understand that nothing in the world is impossible, nothing! So, I wanted to be in that state of inspiration all the time”. This is something I can totally relate to, and also add that the hope and chances of you being anything you want to be are that much higher in this city. While Joe could’ve easily went into Oil and Gas or Construction, he knew that he did not understand this market, so he explored Real Estate instead, a very common play field in the UAE. This was not the best option for him as he was met by a couple of mishaps and misfortunes. While this might have been a rude awakening, it was also a blessing in disguise, because it opened the doors to Kiza. Lukman Akanbi, a high school friend of his founded Kiza Dubai. Joe liked the concept and saw an opportunity to take it to even greater heights. When he came on board, they shifted from Oud Metha to Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC), a more sophisticated, business savvy and central location. This was in 2015 and they were ready to position themselves better, meet international standards and represent Africa in a way that had never been done before. But boy was this transition tough! This saw Kiza facing some dry days, almost as if the restaurant was starting from scratch.
This is Kiza! It is beautiful! You get inside this place and you have all sorts of emotions: You are home, you want to eat, you want to dance, you just smile at drums for no reason, you make new friends, you hang out the same way you would in any part of Africa. This place is vibrant, catering for the youthful souls and the mature kin. It has been designed to create a cosmopolitan African atmosphere, with colors that radiate the African spirit and a soundtrack of Afrobeats that just ignites the rhythm in you as soon as you step in. Good times are had here. Guests can enjoy formal dining during the day through to the evening and when night time comes, the dance floor gets packed with all sorts of dance moves. The staff are smart enough to act professional, but also amicable enough to show guests a good time. Here you can learn the “Odi dance” that Kenyans bring to the dance floor, or embrace the “Shaku Shaku” that was borrowed from Nigeria. Some Zimbabwean guys would be bringing in the hype of “maClarks” or you might just find yourself in a small dancing circle initiated by South Africans who just want to “Vosho”. They usually have themed nights that attracts numbers of people. One of the events that stand out for me is the DJ Battle that was organized by The Circle Dubai. This was not just a battle of the best Reggae DJs in the UAE but a musical war between nations. The battle resulted in a tie between a Zimbabwean DJ and a Kenyan DJ because the crowd just couldn’t make up their mind, and that’s how fun it can get! Kiza easily represents a united Africa by infusing its many different cultures into one. From the atmosphere to the menu, Kiza sure does take you to the motherland. They serve dishes from most parts of the continent and I must say; the food is amazing. This is where I get to enjoy some South African Oxtail Potjie or Wors, Pap and Chakalaka. I know I’m being patriotic with the food, but I will let the pictures do the talking when it comes to the rest of the menu. I will, however, say that many of the non-African expats really get a true taste of Africa in this place, and I guess that is what caught Joe’s attention. In a country that is so multi-cultural, what could be more beautiful than representing your own?
But let’s get back to business. Anyone can start a company, right? That is not an issue. The question is, how do you sustain it and make sure it succeeds? Joe runs a number of companies, all of which are different in their own right and I like how he answered this question throughout our entire conversation. He spoke about how it is never really about the business, but the people. He says the role of a leader is to empower and delegate, that’s why he never employs skill but rather people with a passion, because when you are passionate about what you do, you will stop at nothing. He spoke about business being like warfare. You don’t go into business to play games. When you make a promise to customers, you need to make sure that you will die before you break that promise. Most people think that business is a joke, but it is not. For example, when you employ someone, train them well enough to equip them with the skills they need to do their job, share your vision with them so they can locate themselves in the bigger picture, so that when you delegate a task to them, their acquired skill along with their passion will allow them to soar. We spoke about why some businesses fail and he said because many people are operating with a poverty mentality and have not really counted the cost of being in business. I paid special attention when he said you need to understand delayed gratification, which is one of the biggest strengths of an entrepreneur. When you make money, put the money back in the business. There is no need to go and get all these big cars, designer clothes and bling bling just to show off. Allow the business to grow to a stage where all these things just come naturally. In order to run away from the poverty mentality, this is what he emphasizes: sonship. When you are a son of the Almighty, you don’t have to prove anything to anybody but to yourself and your maker who has trusted you with the gifts He has given you and the opportunities He brings your way. When you understand this, it makes you humble… I did say that he oozes grace, right?
“A rich man has money, but a wealthy man has time. I want to have time” Joe Osawaye
Joe was patient enough to sit through my 10,000 questions, and kind enough to share a lot of his knowledge and experience with me. I’ll try to summarize these without letting you miss out on much, but still leave you with some food for thought.
Timing: Business is about timing. You can have the best business but at the wrong time, you will fail. Changing Kiza’s location from Oud Metha to DIFC meant they had to lose some clients who were not willing to move with them, those who thought Kiza’s new look might just be too posh for them. They had also positioned Kiza to be a meeting place for those who want to do business between the UAE and Africa. Nigerian businessmen used to visit Kiza a lot but when Nigeria faced a huge devaluation of currency and the fall in oil prices, business was bad over there, thus slashing off another slice of Kiza’s target market. This was a tough 2 years for them but as a business person, the attitude and efforts you keep during such times will determine the success or detriment of your business. So young people, regardless of how good you are in whatever you do, remember that it is not about you, it is about the market. Who wants what you are selling? Who is willing to pay for it? What problem are you solving? And if you are not solving a problem, you are not in business. When you can understand this, you will know what to do with your time. A very fresh tip that I got was this: no business lasts forever, so when you start a business, think of an exit strategy. You might be running a very successful firm but what if you get old and weary, and nobody has the the interest to carry that business forward, it will die. The death of it might also happen while you are working it, so knowing when to leave will save you a lot of loss.
“To quit and to quit while you are ahead are 2 different things”. I heard this in a movie.
Put everything on paper. We touched on the subject of going into business with family/friends. While this might not always be the best practice, Joe reckons it does not have to be an issue for as long as everyone understands the rules of engagement. When we are chilling and having drinks, that is friendship. But business is business, and everyone has to put on a business cap when we step into the boardroom, hence it is important to document every single thing. Now, some people may see this as lack of trust, but to Joe, that contract is proof of trust, which says ‘hey, a lot can happen, but should that be the case, here is a piece of paper that will stand in court when we have forgotten what we verbally spoke about’. Go into business with people who are mature enough to understand this. Establish the rules of engagement from the beginning, so that everybody is on the same page and knows what they are in for, from the beginning.
“The respect for friendship is documenting things”. Joe Osawaye
Expect to go crazy. Joe recalls the days when Kiza wasn’t doing so well and the place would be so empty. He would walk up to the DJ booth, look at the empty seats and instruct the DJ, “the place is full and the guests want to hear the music, play like the place is full” he’d say. The DJ would give him the ‘this guy is crazy’ kinda look and do as he’s told. Sometimes the DJ could not help but laugh and tell him that everything would be OK, encourage him that with time guests will come. But every now and then Joe would randomly give out instructions to his staff, “there is a queue of people waiting to get into Kiza, serve them well” meanwhile that was only happening in his head – this is faith at work. I was in stitches from laughter, and he says he used to laugh at the situation the same way I was because he knew exactly what was going on in these guys’ minds. But even better than that, he knew that it was up to him to see the vision, bring it to life with his imagination 1st and now look, a few years later, Kiza is one of the best places to dine and have fun in the whole of Dubai.
Read… Knowledge truly is power, but only when applied, and you would be amazed at how reading can sharpen your mind and propel you in the right direction. Joe says he reads a lot, of everything. Three of the books he’s read recently are Flashes Of Thought by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and The Secret Of Living Is Giving by Birdie Yager. He says he reads his books over and over again as repetition is the key to learning. This is a man who had studied and read a lot over the years, but his favorite book of all time is the Bible, a manual of life he calls it, that he says offers principles that can be applied to life, business and basically everything. While there are a lot of books that one can use as a point of reference, this is the one he studies, and with faith, applies its lessons to his everyday life.
“…Pay attention to detail. When you are organized, you are more productive and you don’t lose a lot of money” Joe Osawaye
Balancing family life and work. According to Joe, as an entrepreneur you get two choices: to be an entrepreneur or to get a 9-5. When you go into business, you have to understand the demands of an entrepreneur, that there is no ‘closing time’, you close when you have finished what you have to and understand how that can afford you the chance to support your family in a way that a regular job can’t. Entrepreneurship will cause you to appreciate and embrace the little time you have to spend with your family, and when done right, the family will see and understand why you cannot always be around. One always has to be mindful of the choices he makes. For Joe, family is so important.
I am so thankful for the short time I spent with Joe. I went into this meeting with my boss game on, thinking I’m a boss going to meet another boss. But I met a leader, not a boss. The amount of laughter we shared was supernumerary! Joe welcomed me with such humility and generosity. If there is one thing I took from this, it is the fact that you have to be grounded and principled to run any business, or even to keep a job and that success is available to the man or woman who is will not rest until they make it. A big shout out to Joe for making time for me. A big shout out to Kiza for providing the photos. A big shout out to you for reading this. Now go and get your life! I will close with one of the quotes that Joe applies to his way of doing things:
“Connecting Minds, Creating the Future” from the Dubai Expo 2020 theme.