James Lawson is the Founder and Chief Information Officer at Intergreatme, a global digital identity platform that can be integrated into a wide range of businesses in less than a day to bring identity verification and secure multi-factor authentication in seconds. In this exclusive interview with Heath Muchena of Business Africa Online, Lawson shares insights into his approach to leadership as CIO of a technology company, scaling a digital business, and overcoming operational challenges in the Know-Your-Customer (KYC) and ID verification space. Excerpt.
Heath: CIO roles in today’s IT environment are quite dynamic. What do you enjoy most about your role?
James: Each day is completely different from the next. I try and plan what I can in the morning, and then spend the rest of my day engaging with executives, development team, support agents, and with our clients.We have a dynamic business, and being a start-up means we are constantly dealing with resource constraints – which isn’t a bad thing, it forces you to focus on the most important tasks at hand.
I enjoy the freedom that I have around exploring new technologies, looking at existing products and looking at how we can optimise not only the code we have, but the products and services we use to run the business.I am also analytical and detail oriented. I build my own reports, interrogate the data, and use it to build data-driven decisions to help optimise the business. This helps to provide recommendations to our customers as to how they can optimise processes where our technology plays a role in their onboarding process, especially where they can achieve greater savings by implementing quick-win solutions.
Heath: Describe your leadership style? How do you lead through change?
James: My main leadership style is through servant leadership. As such, I believe that the technology side of the business is most effective when employees are given the opportunities to make their own choices, and for me to support them in those choices (unless I can see there is an obvious issue with the decision-making process). This also gives each individual a high degree of autonomy, and we have really worked hard to try and build self-managing teams.
This is also really reflected in my attitude towards servicing our customers. That does not mean to say that I am a “yes man” and will implement every product feature that a customer asks for, but that I will hear our customers out, and advise them on the best route forward – and sometimes decision that involves persuading them to cut out a feature, though proven experience in our product domain.
Heath: Can you explain the most difficult part of being a leader?
James: The most difficult part of being a leader is dealing with the decisions no one else is prepared to make. Sometimes, those decisions are not the popular ones. But at the end of the day, the decisions I make in the business are always focused towards the betterment of the company, and the people working inside of it.
Heath: To what do you attribute your success? How has it impacted your enterprise digital goals?
James: I consider myself fortunate that I have been able to move between different industries. I have worked in several non-technical jobs in banking and finance; have lectured at several universities, worked as a journalist, as well as in tech-and-management roles. While some might consider this a more… checked past, I see this as a valuable attribution to my collective knowledge and experience in the workplace.
One of the more innovative solutions I helped design was for a training institute, where we digitised the manual process of getting classroom labs set-up into an automated one. Before setting up a lab, a technician is required to manually copy each image across to the computer, often a symmetric process of copying the image across one-computer at a time. Working with the internal development team I managed (along with 3 other departments), we incorporated BitTorrent into the classrooms and built a Web-UI classroom management solution.
This meant the technician could now do his work remotely, increased the speed at which classroom labs could be setup, but more importantly, if a student had an issue with their lab, a new instance could be deployed in seconds vs. minutes or hours to manually find the correct image on a server and copy it across.
The impact was massive in terms of time and money saved, as well as customer satisfaction.
Heath: Where do you see your business in two years?
James: Intergreatme has two products, an app where people can upload and manage their identity with form-completing services, like renewing their car licence disc; and our Know Your Customer (Self-KYC) solution that handles the remote collection, validation, and verification of personal information to help businesses comply with their regulatory requirements, such as FICA and RICA.
I believe in the next two years that we will see a shift to our coresolution as corporate South Africa comes to grips with regulations like therisk-based KYC approach and the eventual implementation of Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI).
Heath: What are some of the challenges you face from a day-to-day operational perspective?
James: I would say my biggest operational challenge is keeping the focus in the company on the route forward – the identity space can be disrupted in so many ways! It is easy for someone to come up with an idea that is entirely feasible, and easy to implement; but knowing when to show restraint and say no, is one of my biggest daily challenges.
It can also be very tough to motivate the various teams, especially when we are under pressure to deliver product. I am proud to say I was able to refine our internal development process to reduce the stress levels of everyone in the dev. team, while also keeping stakeholders happy. We moved from break-neck development with long hours, and tight deadlines, to a more sensible flow.
Understanding policy, especially from a local regulatory stance. Our business is built around identity, and trust, and ensuring that we not only build a product around these regulations, but also that we employ a best-effort approach to securing our services.
Shaun Duvet on The Unit Group and the Impact of COVID-19
Shaun Duvet, Founder and CEO at The Unit Group (Source: Unit Group website)
The impact of Covid-19 is changing the way organisations operate and do business about the world. The entertainment industry is not exempted as it’s adjudged the second affected industry after the aviation, travel and hospitality industry. In this interview with Alaba Ayinuola, Shaun Duvet the Founder and CEO of The Unit Group shares his brand story and the Impact of Covid-19. Excerpt.
Alaba: Could you tell us about the Unit Group and the gap it’s filling since you launched?
Shaun: The Unit Group was established in 2017 as the holding company for my various business interests which include: COCO, GoldBar and Souk (my venues), Ultra South Africa, Corona Sunsets Festivals, Anything Goes, AG Virtual, Bella Bookings, Salute, Jet Black & Paradise Springs. These businesses cover all functions of entertainment marketing, management, hospitality, sponsorship and eventing from design, to staffing and artist booking, to production and everything in between.
The gap we launched The Unit Group to fill was that of a true understanding of marketing in the entertainment space. So many brands want to play in this space because the audiences are so receptive and the engagement so high, yet so few of them truly understand it. We felt that we had the marketing know-how, and a deep love and knowledge of not only this space, but the global players within it.
Alaba: What services does your company offer?
Shaun: The services offered range from throwing small corporate events to festivals for 50, 000 pax; to sponsorship strategies, virtual events; to full spectrum design, photography, videography; artist, model and staff bookings; marketing, and PR strategies and much, much more.
Alaba: How has the market responded to your offerings?
Shaun: We have seen a huge uptake in clients that previously came to us just to make the party happen, now asking for marketing, creative and strategic advice. AG Virtual, which launched this year, has also seen the likes of AFI (African Fashion Week) approach us to do their full virtual production.
Alaba: The steady rise of South Africa’s entertainment industry has increased competition in the country. What’s your company’s advantage?
Shaun: My 20+ years of experience and my years behind the decks. I live and breathe music and entertainment which enables me to understand what the market wants and keep abreast of global trends. I also have incredible teams in place that keep our work fresh and relevant, and the machine in constant motion.
Alaba: Kindly share some of the challenges faced, especially in this dire time and how you overcoming them?
Shaun: The challenge of this year is obvious – no events, no DJ’s, no dancing! That’s our life blood. We have managed though to stay busy by diversifying what we offer and working more strategically. Helping brands activate within the highly connected urban youth market in an authentic and resonant manner. Some of our venues are also still operational, and the festivals and events teams are taking some much-needed down time before the parties start again, which we know they will do with a renewed energy when we’re out of the current COVID crisis.
Alaba: Technology is disrupting the entertainment industry across the globe. How’s your company adapting to the use of technology?
Shaun: As mentioned, we have launched AG Virtual which is doing well. But we have always been at the forefront of event and entertainment technology in our work. Our audience demands it.
Alaba: How does your company contribute and set new standards in the South African entertainment industry?
Shaun: I regularly write and speak on industry channels and give back to the industry that way. We also ensure that we are constantly raising the bar with the work that we do, meaning that more people around the world sit up and take notice which will ultimately benefit the whole industry.
Alaba: What’s the future for the Unit Group and are you post COVID-19 ready?
Shaun: We cannot wait for life to return to “normal”. Down time was nice, but we’re rested now and it’s time to work!
Alaba: How do you relax and what keeps you going?
Shaun: I have 3 young kids so relaxation is scarce, but they certainly keep me going
Alaba: What advice would you give to entrepreneurs and investors coming to South Africa?
Shaun: Come! Don’t be afraid. There is risk, yes, but the rewards are also so great. We live in such a special place and I really believe in the future of this country.
B I O G R A P H Y
Shaun Duvet, CEO and Founder of The Unit, South Africa’s leading entertainment-based holding company, a combination of enterprises, individually built to make brands better. Shaun is also the CEO and Founder of Anything Goes, the branded entertainment agency, aligning campaigns, properties and music tours with international brands and artists across the continent.
He is the co-Founder and Director of ULTRA South Africa, which brings 50,000 dance-music revellers together every year to see some biggest names in eEectronic Music. He is the partner and producer for Corona Sunsets Festival South Africa, which over the last 5 years has seen over 40,000 fans join together across three cities to celebrate the sunset.
He is a co-owner and operator for COCO, one of SA’s premiere nightclubs, think celebrities, Ibiza-style go-go dancers, Hip Hop MCs, and a parade of sparkler-topped bottles, this alongside it’s sister GoldBar, an elegant bar annex to COCO.
Shaun Duvet is a board member and proud supporter of Bridges For Music, a non-profit organization that utilises the power of music to uplift communities through creative education. Recently, partnering with Defected Records on a new imprint Sondela Records all of whose profits will channel back directly into the charity.
Viola Labi: The multi-hyphenate creative strategist building an eco-luxury fashion brand in Africa
Viola Labi is a multi-hyphenate creative, premium retail Strategist and Founder of WOVEN, a design-led fashion enterprise.
With over a decade of experience and a proven track record in the global luxury retail space, Viola has worked with renowned international brands such as Burberry, ZARA, Loewe, CELINE and Valentino and has caught the attention of media powerhouses such as Vogue Business, Essence, Forbes, BBC and CNN International, as one to watch.
Born in Canada with Ghanaian parentage, Viola is culturally plural and holds reverence to fashion’s interaction with humanity; asserting that it permits people, irrespective of their cultural and social affiliations to unite. It is this fundamental belief and her relocation to Ghana that inspired WOVEN, a ground breaking brand which seeks to herald a new direction for eco-luxury retail on the African continent.
Viola said, WOVEN was birthed from a personal journey to Northern Ghana. “I witnessed my own reunification to elements of rich Ghanaian culture through textile creation at the diligent hand skilled Artisans. Despite language barriers and unfamiliar grounds, I felt at home. I spent more time with women creating textiles and found myself being stitched together in areas I didn’t know needed mending, areas like self-identity and purpose.”
“Looking back, I guess you can say we weaved symbolic exchanges of knowledge and cultural practices and this inspired me to creative WOVEN. Although the entire assortment of products are literally woven, the company name speaks to a higher purpose of coming together as Humanity.” She said.
The Brand’s mission is to actively work towards uniting the fashion value chain into a cohesive whole by showcasing the creative talent that pervades throughout the African continent; while emanating the diversity of culture, history and skill, much like yarn being formed into a unique tapestry.
WOVEN has the honour of partnering with 150 esteemed Artisan weavers in Ghana to create sustainable, functional, home furnishing products. It’s design principles and execution promote inclusion and seek to disrupt fear-based stereotypes by creating products, made in Africa, that are par with those of global standards.
Emalohi Iruobe, An Attorney and Founder of Tribe XX Lab Empowering Female-led Startups
Emalohi L. Iruobe Esq. is an attorney, adjunct professor and social entrepreneur. She is the founder of Tribe XX Lab, the first and only co-working, wellness and incubator space exclusively for female entrepreneurs and female led startups and companies in Lagos. Tribe XX Lab offers an open-plan office, private offices, events, networking, yoga, a nap room, conference room, reference library, pop up restaurants and wellness retail.
The fundamental idea is to create a place where women are able to present a professional front for their business as well as network, get training, access to funding opportunities and help each other. With a general focus on self-care and balance, the space also partners with brands that retail wellness and selfcare products in order to meet the other often overlooked core need of women in business-wholeness.
Prior to founding Tribe XX Lab, Emalohi was an adjunct professor of Business Law, Business Research Methods and Legal Analysis and Writing at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, USA for several years before moving to teach Business Law and Data Management at LIM College in Manhattan, New York. Afterwards she taught Expository Writing at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA before founding Aimanosi Lingerie; a dynamic brand focused on promoting body positivity and selflove in African women. She has a Bsc. in Finance and Banking from Lincoln University, PA and a Juris Doctor from Villanova University.
Before delving into full time entrepreneurship, she practiced law in Pennsylvania and New
Jersey working in Commercial litigation, as well as working as the Manager of Project Implementation in the Kwara State Public Private Partnership office in 2013. She comes with over a decade experience in entrepreneurship, law, education and business.
About Tribe XX Lab
Tribe XX Lab is a civic space for complex conversations, critical contemplation, learning and action to prevent all forms of violence and oppression against women and girls. The goal of their work is to change the perceptions of women and their role in society as well as lead conversations and interventions that PREVENT violence against women and girls in the first place. They do this through the use of digital and social media, conversations, XX-CEED Virtual festival, game theory and art.
Through their work, they are particularly looking to provide support to survivors of Gender-based violence, promote greater public engagement in preventing violence against women, increase public awareness of the intersectionality of oppression women face, create social projects that encourage the extermination of rape culture.
Since inception, they have successfully carried out several survival supports programs, prevention panels and have received a grant to prevent gender-based violence against women and girls in universities in Nigeria as well as provide psychological support to victims of GBV in institutions of higher education from Oxfam/Voice.
Emalohi also launched ‘I GO TALK’ a Nigerian Pidgin phrase which simply means I will not be silent, I will tell on you. It came in as a crucial response to the sexual violence that female students in Nigerian Universities face. This is a clarion call from victims, survivors, and women in general to the perpetrators of sexual abuse and to the general public, that they’re here to XXterminate, silence and provide support to victims. This is a motivation for victims of sexual abuse and harassment amongst University students to speak up and also a mode to create awareness for students on their rights in line with the recently signedd Sexual Harassment bill.
After the BBC Documentary, Sex for Grades rocked the whole of Nigeria in October 2019, the long cloaked truth about the oppression that young women face in the hands of university lecturers started to come to light. For the longest time, young women seeking higher education have been preyed upon by several academicians high in power and have been oppressed, victimized, and helpless.
Starting from the 25th of October to the 31st of October, they are kicking off the first edition of I GO TALK Youth Summit, the largest gathering of university students across the country to build collective power and voice in the fight to end Sex4grades and sexual harassment in Nigerian Universities.
Tribe XX Lab is laser focused on promoting gender equality, deliberate living, transformative leadership and community development through the design and delivery of trainings, workshops, seminars, collaborative partnerships and data gathering.