Interview with Aina Abiodun, entrepreneur, digital culture pioneer, and first woman of color to lead a venture-backed company as a CEO in Germany.
Guest Profile: Aina Abiodun is a passionate advocate for female empowerment, diversity and inclusion. Entrepreneur and former CEO of the global health and fitness app 8fit, Aina is one of the first women of color to attain such a position in Germany. During the interview, Aina gets candid about her history as a survivor and as a storyteller, on lessons learned from failure and from being an outsider. She advises the readers on the ingredients to craft great stories and make a brand for yourself, as well as what it takes to launch a startup.
Bonus gifts: read until the end to find Aina’s personal toolbox of resources and recommendation.
It’s difficult to capture Aina Abiodun’s energy on paper, such is her passion and charisma. It’s a tangible thing, this energy of hers, it’s like receiving an injection of optimism and grit directly in your veins that you can barely contain. After talking with her, you have the feeling of being a gladiator ready to face the arena and everything that stands between you and the life you want to have.
Aina is an expert on this, as she has lived many lives. Born from a Nigerian family and educated in the US, Aina starts out as a filmmaker, becomes a pioneer in the digital and immersive advertising, ends up launching her own start-ups and becomes the CEO of the global health and fitness app 8fit.
Sounds like the modern version of the girl-boss Cinderella to you? Well in this story we have run out of Fairy Godmothers.
In fact, there are two things you should know about Aina: the first is that she is a gifted storyteller who has managed to build a career out of this incredible talent of hers, and the second is that she is a survivor by nature.
“I tell stories about falling down and getting back up. The problem with the time that we live in, is that we don’t really share the struggles. What we share instead are the results of the struggles, but this gives a false impression. On the surface, it appears that everyone else’s life is amazingly easy and you are left wondering why instead it’s so hard for you. Instead, I like to talk about what is real, about surviving and the work that I do in business.”
Q: Aina you are a gifted storyteller. As such, what are the ingredients that make the backbone of a good story? What does it take to create a brand for yourself and for your product?
A: First off, you need a good character. Great characters are always engaged in a deep quest for something, they have a burning need to understand or resolve a question that affects them deeply and with all their (often serious) flaws, quirks, and gifts embark on a journey that fascinates other humans and makes us want to watch/hear/read about them. As in every good story, a great character needs a mission. You need something that you are focused on and that you’re going after. A mission can be goal-oriented, but to me, the mission is really about how can you achieve your values as a person, because that’s a never-ending quest. No matter whether you rescue the person from the top of the building, you come back down and you still have to live and express your values. You also need some tools just like any good character would in a film. Finally, you need to have a supporting cast of people around you. Nobody’s a solo hero on a journey. Everyone has help. Everyone has support.
So those are the ingredients that you need to tell a great story: good character, a mission which is about manifesting your values, effective tools and the support of the people around you.
Q: Let’s zoom in on the tools. What are the tools that helped you push through when things got tough?
A: When I look back at the last 10 years of my life, the first tool that helped me was my commitment to go to therapy, something that in my family was not really accepted. People still fear the labeling and the stigma that comes from admitting to seeing a therapist. I didn’t care, I was suffering from anxiety and depression and I wanted to get out of that. I also discovered something called epigenetics, which explains how our previous generation’s traumas impact the next generation, and as my family went through a lot of persecution, I inherited this strong flight or fight mode without me even being aware of it. Therapy is about self-reflection and giving you the space to explore why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling, and what are the obstacles that you’re going through, with the guidance of a specialist.
Another tool that has been of great help is stoicism. I’ve been a student of stoicism for a number of years, it’s a really interesting practice that is often misunderstood. Being a stoic doesn’t mean being emotionless, rather it’s a philosophy about finding a way to deal with adversities and living a life that’s free of the anxieties that are born from always wanting for something else.
This goes very much hand in hand with mindfulness. My entry into it was actually through dynamic movement, thanks to yoga.
Those are the tools that helped me find who I am and my role and way in the world, freeing me from this anxiety and pressure to show myself in some magnificent way. Ironically, the more I worked on myself and on my values, the more I achieved professional success.
Q: Speaking of success, what would you say is the most important investment that you have made in the last 5 years that really impacted and changed your life?
A: One of my core values is to keep learning and growing as a person, therefore I would say that one of my biggest investments has been in expanding my literature and philosophical knowledge. This knowledge has rarely been related to my business, although it has had a huge impact on the way I conducted it. However, if we are talking about what really changed my life, then I would say my son. Being a mother has taught me so many things, it has been like discovering the world again through the eyes of my child. Watching how a person’s mind develops and grows, it’s an incredible gift.
Q: We talked about failure. Do you have a favorite failure, one that despite the odds, in the end, set you up for success?
A: I had just graduated from one of the top film schools in LA, with very high grades and I got an interview at DreamWorks for an entry-level job. I remember sitting there and be assessed by a group of trendy girls, who seemed to have come out of the movie “Mean Girls”. I was shocked by the interview because no matter how high were my grades and how hard I was willing to work, in the end, it all was coming down whether they liked me or not, and if I would be fitting in “the club”. I remember asking myself: “Do I really want to be in this club? Even if they would accept me, do I want to be this person?” Every stereotype about the big movie business was being given to me on a platter. In the end, they rejected me and I felt humiliated in a way that I never felt before in my life. It didn’t have anything to do with me intellectually, it was just about whether or not I was cool enough to fit in.
So instead to try to fit in, in 2004 I started a small production company with some classmates from school. YouTube had just come out on the scene and I wanted to learn and take advantage of the new technology, so I wouldn’t have to end up trying again to find a job in the industry. I was an early mover in the market, creating social content for TV Networks and Studios, which at the time didn’t really believe in YouTube and in the power of social technologies to build audiences and awareness for their entertainment properties.
So the fact that I was rejected because I didn’t fit in the mainstream stereotype of the industry turned out to be a blessing. I became an early adopter and a very first mover in creating content for the social platforms, it pushed me towards the career that I’m in now. There is power in being an outsider.
Q: You are a passionate advocate of women and of female empowerment, as well as a diversity and inclusion role model. In your role as a mentor, what is the advice for all our readers that have a business idea, but don’t know where to start?
A: The first thing I always do when people have an idea is to really get under the “why”. Why are you doing this? Why are you passionate about this idea? Is what you’re pursuing lined up with your values or are you doing this because you feel somehow pressured to make something happen for external reasons? By this I mean for example doing something because your friends are doing better than you and you feel like you need to catch up with them, or because there is a market out there that seems easy to you. If those are your motives, I can tell you from experience that this has never worked and it will lead you on a journey of pain and suffering. To be frank, entrepreneurship, in general, is a journey of pain and suffering. However, if your “why” is really aligned with your values and you want to do this because you feel a burning need to, then the next step is to identify how much can you do and how far can you go with your idea without having to ask for money. You need to prove to yourself that you can do it. It’s not about the investors, it’s about you. No matter how great your idea is, if you try to pitch it and you’re not clear on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, it won’t work. As a mentor, I help people with their pitches and I give them feedback and help them by coaching. The best pitchers are delivered when people have the most clarity and conviction about why they’re doing what they’re doing, and how they are going to have an impact. The truth is that ultimately your business may or may not be successful. This is not always something under your control. For example, you might have the right idea but the timing might be wrong and the market is not ready. But if you have conviction in your idea, you will still have the integrity of what you’ve created. So as a mentor I always advise to not worry about the money in the beginning but to focus on getting the idea right and present it to the people that you think will be interested in what you have to offer. And that leads to the next phase, that is all about going out and finding fans and passionate advocates of what you’re doing.
Don’t worry about not having enough money to buy Facebook ads, find 12 people who say they can’t live without your product, and you have a business.
Q: We are now approaching the end of the interview, my last question is: what are the three things in general that according to you help you perform better at life?
A: Number one: every day, when you wake up, take a minimum of five minutes for yourself. This might not sound like a lot, but it’s incredibly hard for most people. Within those five minutes, you can do everything you want, you can spend it by doing a mindfulness practice, by reading, or even by checking in with yourself, how you’re feeling, what’s going on.
Number two: know your values. We make thousands of decisions in a day and this leads us to experience decision fatigue. You are bound to experience this less and less if you’re constantly driving your actions based on your values. So it’s important to really know what those values are.
Number three: at the end of each day run a small retrospective for yourself. Ask yourself, what did I do today? What did I do well? What did I do that wasn’t so good? For the things you did well, take time to give yourself credit for this. For the things that didn’t go so well, make a written list or an audio record on your phone and pick one that you want to improve on, to take with you to the next day. You don’t have to conquer the world. You just have to improve one thing the next day. That’s it.
And that’s it also for this interview with Aina Abiodun, entrepreneur, coach and role model for many women out there. If you are curious about what’s next for Aina, as well as where you can find her and a list of her favorite podcasts and books, then keep scrolling.
Aina Abiodun bio:
Aina Abiodun is a Nigerian-American entrepreneur, digital culture pioneer, and most recently the CEO of 8fit, a Berlin-based global mobile health and fitness startup. Over the past decade, Aina has worked as a strategic advisor and consultant to some of the world’s most recognizable brands and organizations including Facebook, Merck, Novartis, Obama Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation. Aina is as fiercely passionate about using the power of data to grow companies as she is about fostering brand and culture transparency in the modern business environment. In addition to her work building impactful brands, companies, and digital products, she’s committed to fostering ethical, inclusive and diverse workplaces.
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“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” — Epictetus, Greek Stoic philosopher