“I want to solve problems, save the world, and make money while at it”- Damilola Olokesusi, Co-founder and CEO of Shuttlers
In 2015, Olokesusi and her friends — Damilola Quadry and Busola Majekodunmi — were frustrated by the stress of commuting in Lagos, Nigeria. And following some nasty experiences, they decided to start Shuttlers.
“One of my sisters got into a one-chance bus (a commercial bus used for robbing passengers), and it was a traumatic experience for me. She was taken to another destination where they were abducted and robbed. Having had our different bus experiences, we realised it was a collective pain point for us. So, we came together to solve it with our complementary skills,” she says to Techpoint Africa.
Shuttlers is a Lagos-based startup that enables users to book trips along fixed routes. It claims to offer this service at 60-80% less than other ride-hailing services do.
It helps to reduce daily commuting stress by allowing people to share rides in corporate buses. For five years, the startup has changed the way professionals and companies move their staff in Lagos and as of now, it has sold more than 500 million seats.
However, it was not easy for Olokesusi to make this happen because family pressure and being a female founder ensured that the odds were stacked against her.
In this interview, she shares her entrepreneurial journey, struggles as a female founder in Nigeria, and the opportunities that have come her way.
Why did you study chemical engineering at the university?
Right from my primary school days, I was pretty good at mathematics, especially quantitative analysis, and I loved studying patterns to solve problems. I also loved chemistry because of the changes I saw occur during physical experiments in secondary school, so I was drawn to both subjects.
I am the youngest in my family with siblings in their 40s and 50s from whom I got the impression that people who studied engineering got the oil and gas company jobs, while those who got to work in banks had studied accounting. So, being as good as I was at maths and chemistry coupled with my desire to work at Shell or Mobil, studying chemical engineering was a no-brainer if I wanted to succeed in life.
So when did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I was first exposed to entrepreneurship during a lengthy ASUU strike in 2009 while getting my bachelor’s degree in UNILAG; it was a time to learn things that were different from what I knew growing up in Ibadan, Oyo State.
Then I attended a lot of programmes and seminars during that break. Though I hardly remember what the speakers talked about, I remember a pretty young lady who told us how she was using tech to start a lot of companies. I found it fascinating because it was all new to me, especially since my parents worked at the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) — now Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) — for 35 years. All I knew was that one studied, got a good civil service job, got married, and lived happily ever after.
But I learnt that I shouldn’t be one-dimensional in how I live life. I began to question so many things happening around me and unconsciously looked for problems to solve. And though the ‘what’ and ‘how’ were unclear, I was obsessed with becoming an entrepreneur who uses tech to solve problems.
At what point did you have the idea for Shuttlers?
I first experienced the work-life in my fourth year during my internship at an oil and gas firm. After graduating, I told myself it would not be a bad idea to get a job in such a company because, from the outside looking in, entrepreneurship appeared to be very difficult.
My first job was at a safety engineering company, and it wasn’t challenging, and I didn’t see myself doing it for a long time, so I began a social media marketing hustle as a side gig. This side gig made me move from one place to another for meetings, and I had to get into a lot of danfos (yellow minibuses used for commercial transportation).
In 2014, I had the chance to go to Dubai for a week. It was a trip sponsored by one of my sisters. It was an unforgettable experience because I could now understand all the things I learnt in 2009 and spot the problems we were facing in Nigeria. One of the highlights of the trip was seeing the excellent state of their buses and trains.
Back in Nigeria, there were ride-hailing cabs, but people were not open to using them because of trust and insecurity issues. Also, they were expensive. It wasn’t something a young graduate would commute with every day. Then I thought about using the staff bus model that my company employed while I was doing my internship and making it open for smaller companies and individuals to use. And that was how the idea for Shuttlers came.
Was there pushback from your family when you started?
Oh, of course. It was even worse for me because everyone saw me as their child. So it was a battle; we had a lot of family meetings. My mum even called pastors to beg me not to waste all the efforts, money, and energy she had spent on me. It was crazy.
Even before our pilot in 2015, I had a long meeting with one of my sisters who gave me 1,001 reasons why Shuttlers wasn’t going to work: from the fact we are ladies to this is Nigeria and not Silicon Valley. Well, I didn’t listen to any of that because I had a clear conviction that Shuttlers was going to work.
Was having an all-female founding team part of the plan?
So right now, I’m the only one left from the founding team. The first Co-founder, Damilola, left in 2016 and went back to the US. And then Busola left because she had to invest more time in her not-for-profit education startup.
But while we were together, I realised that we were an all-female cast because as women, we felt the problem more. I would say it wasn’t planned because Samuel Odeloye, Lara.ng Co-founder, was also part of the founding team, but he had to focus on Lara.ng.
At that time, Damilola Quadry just came back from the US, and she found moving around very difficult. And Busola, who was working in Deloitte, had just gotten back from LSE in the UK. You know that culture shift thing will leave you angry when trying to use public transport here. So, it was a pain point for us collectively, and we came together to solve it with our complementary skills.
Talking about financing, female-led teams still find it challenging to raise money these days. How did you manage to do so?
Well, the thing is we’ve not raised any external VC funding to date. The type of funding we have is just grants. We tried to get some funding when we were at our idea stage from an angel network, but there was some pushback because we didn’t have any traction or market validation that could convince them otherwise.
At the end of the day, I’m grateful that they didn’t give us money then because it allowed us to think of creative ways to be a sustainable business. There was no allowance to burn cash or chase growth over profit. We had to choose profitability from the get-go, and we’ve been able to turn ₦1 to ₦1 million.
It’s now we’re trying to fundraise as we’ve not actively done so. And we currently have numbers to back up what we’ve done unlike when we just started.
What challenges have you faced first as a founder and then as a female founder?
As a founder, it has to be the fact that running a business in Nigeria is extremely difficult. I wonder why everything here is a tug of war. Why can’t we have processes that run smoothly? But no, you have to be borderline crazy to run a business here. Then it is something else being in the tech and transportation space where most people I talk to are men.
I remember the first time it dawned on me that an all female-led team was going to be a problem. My co-founders and I went for a meeting with a transportation company, and every other person at that table was a guy. The MD/CEO entered, giggled, and went, “Oh, they are even ladies,” and for the rest of the meeting, we weren’t taken seriously.
However, a few people believed in us, and I’d like to think that it was because we were female founders. So as much as it has worked against us, it also worked for us in some ways.
Shuttlers has sold 500 million seats since launching five years ago. Did you think the company would ever reach these heights?
Although we founded Shuttlers in 2015, it wasn’t until October 2016 that we officially launched. What we wanted to do was celebrate our growth in four years and in calculating the number of trips we’ve done, we realised that we had sold more than 500 million seats in this period. It was mind-boggling.
I knew there was something here, but I didn’t realise how big it was. If I ask ten people if they know about Shuttlers, maybe only one of them will know about us, yet we’ve sold 500 million tickets. To be honest, it shows that we’ve not done anything as we’re just scratching the surface.
After running the business for this long, do you see yourself getting further education in engineering or working in that sector?
Honestly, the way we structure education in Nigeria is wrong. I think our approach should be that you go to school to gather information and knowledge that you apply when you finish your studies; you don’t need to get a job in that field. And I see myself doing that.
Engineering is all about efficiency, right? That’s what we’re doing with Shuttlers in the transportation space. So, I’m applying engineering in what I do and no, I’ll never go back to study anything that has to do with engineering. For what? [laughs].
Now I just want to solve problems, save the world, and make money while at it. And I am interested in anything that can help me do these three things.
By the way, do your folks still bother you as they once did?
Not anymore, we’re good now. For African parents, once you can provide for yourself, don’t disturb anyone, and you can contribute to the progress of both nuclear and extended families, you’re good to go with whatever you’re doing legitimately.
Although there was this time I told my mom about plans to write a book, and she reminded me jokingly that I hadn’t gotten my masters. Well, I’ll do it but it won’t be to seek validation but rather to gain knowledge.
What would you say has been pivotal to your growth and success so far?
It has to be a combination of many things. My upbringing and my experiences — both good and bad. It’s been God’s grace as well because other people have worked harder than I have and it didn’t work out for them.
Different people have also played their roles to get me to where I am. So it’s a combination of these things. I’m a normal Ibadan babe from an average background who has used the resources at her disposal to build what you see today.
This article was originally written by Tage Kene-Okafor for Techpoint.africa