S.I Ohumu got her first job straight out of secondary school and she has been on the move ever since, crafting a multi-disciplinary career that encompasses governance, tech, media and advocacy. But as she tells us on this week’s #MCNWorkLife, at the core of all the jobs she’s done and all the positions she’s held is a passion to storytelling and a commitment to ethical representation of the people and organisations whose stories she is entrusted with either telling or disseminating.
S.I is a fascinating person, and her work life, an example of how far a person can get when they have a clear understanding of their purpose.
Please introduce yourself?
Hey, my name is S.I Ohumu. I like to read, climb trees and tell stories.
What did you want to be growing up?
Nothing. I didn’t fantasise about working while growing up. How weird is that?
What career path are you on now?
I currently help companies and business executives meet their goals through tech-enabled storytelling. It’s communication management using data, AI and other technologies.
How long have you been working in your current field?
The AI bit, about a year. The storytelling and comms bit, 13 years
How did you get into this field?
I have 13 years of work experience as a storyteller and a masters degree in Artificial Intelligence and Data Science. Those two converged beautifully and the current trajectory is a manifestation of that.
What was your first real job?
When I was 16 I got a job as a broadcast journalist for Silverbird Communications. I was hosting and producing radio shows while at uni.
You’ve had a number of pivots since that first job to what you are doing now. Would you mind doing a little deep dive of your career since then till now?
How much time have we got? Lol. The thing to bear in mind as I do a quick recap is that all I have ever done is tell stories. The job titles, industries, locations, etc change but the one connecting thread is storytelling.
Now that’s out of the way… Upon graduating from uni I worked with the British Council as a digital communications manager. Then a brief stint with TechCabal as a technology writer before joining the Edo State government as a communications manager. Next was the work with the BBC as an investigative journalist and producer. Then Radio Now, a media startup in Lagos where I led product, digital and special projects. My last stop before the masters was fintech giant Moniepoint as Editorial Content Manager.
I’m particularly interested in your time working for the Edo State government. How did you go from working in the media to working for a government agency?
I was on a career break at the time and resting in Benin City, where I’m from. I went to the Edo State government house to have lunch with a friend who was then a photographer for the governor. A Special Adviser to the governor walked in to talk with my friend about a problem they were having with a particular project and after eavesdropping for a while I suggested their problem was one a bit of storytelling could fix and gave them an action plan on how they might approach the solution. I guess it worked because I got asked a lot to come work there and I said yes at some point.
The Nigerian government has a notoriously bad reputation for bureaucracy within its agencies and institutions. Did you face any of this during your time at the agency?
The experience was…fascinating. I like to build in the real world – it’s messy and complicated, but impactful. Working for that particular administration was a blend of efficiency and the old guard. I saw in real time the struggles you’ve alluded to, but I also saw an army of brilliant executors from whom I learned a great deal, with whom we were able to do some very impactful work, and who continue to be mentors today.
You went from working in a government agency to working at the BBC of all places, did you experience any culture shock when you transitioned?
Oddly, not really. Maybe it’s how the transition happened but it was essentially going from one very real-world maze to another. My first project with the BBC was Sex for Grades which required research, talking to a lot of people, and crafting a story towards tangible impact and policy changes. Not that different.
The one big thing though was that since my British Council days I hadn’t worked in a multicultural team, so sieving through the peculiarities of such a diverse team took a bit of getting used to.
You have been nominated twice for an Emmy award for your work as a BBC assistant producer on two documentaries, Sex For Grades and Black Axe. What was it like working on these projects?
Tough. These are not easy subjects to work with, and helping to make a documentary at that scale requires an immersion that isn’t easy on the senses. The most enjoyable bits of those projects and others I have done since then with the BBC are the people I get to work with. Truly a stellar class of old and new friends. Every day was a learning experience with a surprising amount of laughter and warmth.
As a producer, you are more behind the scenes than front of house, so not many people know of these accomplishments. Did getting nominated for a prestigious award like that affect your career trajectory?
Maybe it might have if I talk about it a lot. I do not. See, my secondary school had a radio and TV program. As early as 13 I was a regular on TV’s across my city and got a small taste of being audience-facing. By end of uni it was very clear that I do not enjoy having the spotlight on me. I’m a backend guy. Trying to do better with telling these stories though as they matter. When I do talk about them though, the atmosphere in the room shifts a bit and people already amenable to working with me get a bit more enthusiastic, lol.
Another significant milestone in your career as a journalist was winning the Future Awards Africa Prize for Journalism. Did it feel different to be acknowledged on the continent by peers as an individual for your contributions to journalism?
The Future Awards was a fun surprise. It did feel different, more personal. It’s really good company to be in and the idea of the awards is so cool. Being thought to be part of a new guard hopefully making the country and continent better is high praise.
Apart from your professional work, you have also been a strong advocate for climate awareness, especially with your non-profit, Space Benin. How did Space Benin come about and what did you hope to achieve with it?
I care very deeply mainly about three things: climate action, gender equity, and mental wellness. Space Benin was an attempt to build a community of artistically inclined youth who would build capacity and a network to innovate around those three areas. It is some of the most fulfilling work I have done. The memories of our in-person community meets still feel like a warm hug.
In 2022 you left your decorated career as a journalist and moved continents to start a master’s degree. What inspired this decision and what did you decide to study?
Sometime in early 2022 I received my product management certification and having worked increasingly on the business side of journalism, I was frustrated by how inefficient the current business model is. So I made the switch to fintech as a thought experiment: what might we learn about how to run successful media companies from the industry most concerned with money? Moniepoint is a very well-run, profitable business so I learned what was expected, but I also discovered something else, data-driven insight is like steroids for stories.
Around the time of this epiphany, I started reading AI 2041 by KaiFu Lee and Chen Quifan. My mother whom I had moved back to Benin to be closer to had just moved to the UK, which coincidentally is a world leader in AI and data research. So it felt like a good time to dive in. I applied to a few schools and got a scholarship to study for a masters in Artificial Intelligence and Data Science.
Was this from media to tech difficult for you?
Yes because it was a lot of newness. Even though I had a STEM background from my bachelors, I had spent most of my career in the humanities, thinking about policy, business, social change, impact, things like that. My first two modules at uni were Mathematics for Artificial Intelligence, and Programming with Python. The deep end, immediately. Haha. But there is storytelling in maths.
My professor comes into class one day and says “Imagine a vector moving through the n dimension. In 2d it’s a line on a graph, by 5d it’s a colour.” How is that different from creative writing, please? When you clock that everything, and I mean everything is a story, the world suddenly gets very infinitely navigable.
Why A.I particularly?
It’s like electricity. The use cases are nearly infinite. In my thinking, it is a powerful tool to understand for what comes next for me. And diverse representation in the field is absolutely atrocious. A black African woman with experience in the humanities and technical skills is a necessity for today’s and tomorrow’s world.
What’s a typical day in your work life like now?
It starts with a meeting which is not a fun thing to say. I speak with a client to understand what the business problem or goal is and establish context. Then I do an inordinate amount of research and ideating on how best to solve that problem. Next up is a plan of action. And then usually some coding of some sort, or leveraging existing tools towards the solution.
I am currently building a natural language processing solution to help a children’s book publisher audit manuscripts for suitability.
What is the thing you like the most about working with Artificial intelligence?
That it heightens my appreciation of the natural world and draws me towards more human-sized storytelling. Take natural language understanding for example. You and I do it without much fanfare, but it has taken many brilliant people, many decades to get it to a workable point like ChatGPT. And when most of the text in the world is a prompt away you realise that the way to cut through the noise is to dig deeper into what it is to be human. How do you take Python code, large language models, MLOps, and use it to make the person experiencing the story feel more human? That question excites me.
What is the thing you like the least?
The hype. I’m hype agnostic by default, and all of the noise right now mildly annoys me. I also worry about the lack of representation, dangers re increasing inequity across the world, environmental impact of large compute, things like that.
What do you think is the biggest barrier preventing more women from taking on the challenge of shaping the next wave of innovation in artificial intelligence and machine learning?
Across board, we need more women in STEM. A blend of cultural challenges, systemic conditioning and such erects a barrier to participation for women in this space. Women with the necessary skills are also less likely to be perceived as competent compared to their male counterparts. It’s the same story you know across other industries.
How, in your opinion, can this barrier be addressed and hopefully overcome at an institutional level?
Nuanced solutions are needed. Increasing participation of women and girls in STEM study, cultural changes, deliberate efforts to reduce bias in hiring and promotion.
If you had the chance to correct one stereotype about women who work in AI, what would it be?
There seems to be a notion that women in AI talk a lot about ethics and inclusion but do not have technical expertise in the building of the technology. That’s flawed. There are women in the space with strong technical expertise, we just happen to be underrepresented. Raising access to STEM education and awareness about STEM careers is necessary to broaden participation.
You’ve always held multiple roles in several organisations concurrently. Was there ever any friction between the roles and how did you manage to do so much with so little time?
I have competence in quite a few verticals, when I work more than one job at a time they typically aren’t exercising the same muscle, and the time commitments tend to differ. For example, I continue to work for the BBC on a freelance basis, helping produce podcasts and such. These are three-week stretches typically with ample space in between.
The cardinal rule is to communicate honestly and efficiently with everyone involved. Don’t break contracts, manage expectations, don’t overextend yourself, and say no a lot.
Overall I find that employers are more than happy to “share” once they understand how much benefit comes from the extensive network this creates. Within reason of course.
You have been very vocal over the course of your career about dealing with mental health struggles. Have your employers over the years been supportive of this and the significant challenge it presents for you as a driven and disciplined professional?
Yes. I have been exceedingly lucky in that regard and I remain grateful for that.
Are there any ways you believe employers can better support their employees who struggle with mental health?
Adding a mental health plan to the health insurance offered. Therapy and other mental health interventions can get quite expensive. And access to quality care is tough.
Do you believe in work buddies?
Yes. Some of my closest friends have been made at work.
Can you give us a tip you swear by for successfully managing a work/life balance?
Self-awareness, focus, communication. Know who you are, how you do your best work, and what your life needs are. Communicate to optimise your work life for efficiency based on that knowledge of self and real-world constraints. While working, no distractions. That way you manage expectations, work in a manner that is more in line with your predisposition, and the focus means you maximise your time. That way when you close for the day you get right back to doing what replenishes you, meeting your life needs.
Do you have any advice for younger women who are at the start of their career and unsure of how to make the most of the opportunities that exist out there?
Learn how to learn, ideate, and execute. Nothing is out of reach if you like to learn, can think, and most importantly, can get things done. Magic happens for innovative thinkers who do.
Also maintain relationships with peers and mentors who will challenge you, collaborate with you, and advocate for you. This is important as well.
Wishing you all the success in the world babes.