On Sunday, 3rd June 2018, Nigeria lost one of its longstanding professional heavy weights. Olutoyin Olakunri, an accountant of no small repute, passed on that day. The week after, tributes poured in from across the country’s business community. A queue of eulogies quickly formed in the press, as corporate executives and public office holders spoke of their sadness at her departure.
The lines written and spoken in Olakunri’s honor cast many minds back to the middle of the past century, an era in which women’s career options seemed rather limited. Several decades into the 1900s, most girls still expected to wind up as teachers, nurses, or traders. A number of jobs seemed out of their reach; by the 1950s, there were scarcely any female doctors, lawyers or pilots.
It was in this world of grave constraints that Olutoyin undertook to become a Chartered Accountant. She probably didn’t think of her move as game changing at the time. But thanks to her venturing into it, more women could seriously hope to become accountants without being dismissed as unrealistic dreamers.
The Road to Making History
Olutoyin Olusola Olakunri was born in Lagos in 1937. Her father, Akinola Adesigbin, was a lawyer. Her mother, Esther Ibidunni Adesigbin, also appears to have come from a middle class family; her father (Olakunri’s maternal grandfather) was a successful merchant.
Olakunri’s background was a significant factor in her journey to the accounting job she would take up a few decades later. After attending schools in Lagos and Aba, she moved to the United Kingdom at age 13, where she concluded her post primary education. At this point, her father advised her to study accounting at an institution of higher learning.
Interestingly, Olakunri’s father had a more mundane reason for suggesting that his daughter become an accountant. She had gotten married in 1957, before she could proceed to college for further studies. Mr. Adesigbin thought that she would have more time on her hands to take care of her young family if she became an accountant.
Olakunri accepted her father’s advice, and enrolled at the Bournemouth college of Commerce in the United Kingdom. In 1963, she qualified as a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales- something no sub Saharan African woman had achieved up until that point.
A Pioneering Career
At the time of her return to Nigeria, the country was still only a few years into its post-colonial existence. Many of its citizens had great hopes for its future, but there were challenges too. In the midst the lively politics and promising economic prospects of the early 1960s, Olakunri began her career.
Her first job in her home country was with Messrs Peat, Marwick, Casselton Elliot & Co, where she started off as a chartered accountant. In 1965, she moved to the National Industrial Development Bank (predecessor of today’s Bank of Industry). That year, she and a number of other professionals founded the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN). She stayed on at the NIDB until 1972, rising to the position of executive director at one of its affiliate organizations. When she departed the bank, she took up a role as manager at a stockbroking firm.
By 1978, there were enough female accountants in Nigeria to constitute a new body, the Society of Women Accountants of Nigeria (SWAN). The women wanted their voices to be heard in an industry still heavily dominated by men. In time, this movement became multi-national, culminating in the launch by SWAN of the World Body of Women Accountants in 1997. Olakunri remained a patron of the local organization for over ten years.
She was also the first female to sit on the board of the Nigerian Stock Exchange.
As her clout grew, Olakunri assumed more positions of responsibility in both the public and private sectors. She served as Director at the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) for eight years, was chairman of the Lagos State Transport Company and the Education Trust Fund (now The Tertiary Education Trust Fund, TETFUND, and was a board member at several companies.
An Outstanding Legacy
Olakunri got involved in a number of philanthropic projects later in her life. For a decade and a half, she was chair at Bloom Cancer Care and Support Center, Lagos. And in 2018, she helped set up the Akintola Williams Foundation, a tribute to Chief Akintola Williams, who was himself Africa’s first chartered accountant.
In 2002, she was conferred with the honor of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR) by President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Olakunri’s many firsts prepared the way for the stream of high achieving women currently taking their place in Nigeria’s industrial landscape. Thanks to her demonstration of skill and competence, other women were able to follow in her stead, more certain of their own ability to shatter the glass ceiling in their own spaces.
Featured image source: The Guardian Nigeria
Ikenna Nwachukwu holds a bachelor's degree in Economics from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He loves to look at the world through multiple lenses- economic, political, religious and philosophical- and to write about what he observes in a witty, yet reflective style.