Financial Literacy, Arese Ugwu

Thriving through high highs and low lows with Arese Ugwu

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Travelling to Nigeria on a curfew night, I met another impressive woman CEO. Each story I find, I want to do just one more! Arese grew up wanting to be a lawyer because “she talked a lot and argued a lot“. However, when she went to do her IB, she became fascinated by business and economics. Arese is the founder of the Smart Money Africa platform. She breaks down financial jargon for the African Millennial Woman – through her book, podcast, speaking, coaching and, more recently through her TV Series. After working in Finance, Arese decided to make financial literacy her mission, as she was herself going through her own financial struggles.

A Chanel Bag vs. a Stock Portfolio

Sex and the City meets financial literacy. That is how I would describe Smart Money Woman book. I could not stop reading it and went through it in 2 days. But how was it for Arese to go from financial services to write a book?

“I would never thought I would be an author. I thought it was something it was above me”

Arese Ugwu

When Arese started going through her own strategies to fix her finances, she decided to write about it. Her first article was called “A Chanel Bag vs. a Stock Portfolio“.

“I am a proud advocate of living the good life and I don’t believe in shaming people for liking the things that make them happy but there’s also no point in accumulating designer bags with no assets to match my spending. It’s not about living like a hermit but about striking a balance, knowing the difference between what you want versus what you can afford over a period of time.”

Arese Ugwu, A Chanel Bag vs. a Stock Portfolio

She kept the article for a few months and it was not until she showed it to a friend that he did not wait for her and sent it on for publication. After the much success of her articles, another friend planted a seed in her mind about writing a book. She thought a lot about it but she wanted a book she would like to read. Arese likes chic-lits or business books. So the idea was to marry both. As a reader, I think she nailed it.

Fighting procrastination

I had to ask Arese if she had tips for those (like me) that dream of writing a book. Arese had to decide the times of the day that were best for writing. She committed to sitting in front of the computer until she had 2000 words, no matter what. Some days she stared at the computer and others she went well over. But the commitment was key to fight procrastination. If she accomplished it, she would give herself treats, which included sushi or chocolate cake. As I get ready to hit newsletter #100 this coming Saturday, I know commitment is bigger than creativity.

The other way to move the book forward was to “process” her ideas with her friends. According to her, they suffer a lot during her creative process as she calls up to ensure a conversation she is writing is real.

But Arese does so much more than writing!

Now on TV!

Yes, the book is now a TV series in Nigeria. This is one of the accomplishments that Arese is most proud of, partly because it was so difficult to do. A few years ago this was an idea, and now there is a 13 episode TV series. From the original idea, Arese did a lot of research about what it would cost and how to launch it. It was hard to assess the return-on-investment on this type of project and the dynamics to make it profitable. With the support of product placement sponsors, they decided to launch.

As they wrapped up the series the pandemic kicked in. After working so hard on it there was a huge uncertainty but they had to pause the launch.  It was not until months later that the project became a reality. But it still did!

The start of the pandemic

Arese did her book launch on March 13th and suddenly realized the event she had done amidst everything was going on with Covid-19 elsewhere. She got into panic mode and took her daughter off school before the government actually declared lockdown. She also copied the hoarding and food shopping that had happened in Europe. Which means she had a few days before everyone else did the same!

The pandemic was tough on Arese to start with. She struggled with mental health. At first, she was very concerned about health but quickly went into deeper questions about life, her plan B and a reflection on how she lived her life. She put a lot of weight on, and the frustration was high. But as she worked through her mind she took control back of her life and started focused on the things she was grateful for. This turnaround was key to keep going.

The business through the pandemic

The business impact was mixed. The series had stopped as the pandemic hit and no-one knew how things would develop. On the other hand, coaching picked up as people were more focused on managing their finances and building for their long term financial goals. As to the publishing side, as Arese self-publishes, that side also suffered a but as distributing in Nigeria can be very challenging.  Overall, she finds the impact leans to the positive end. The pandemic thought her to be grateful and to continue refining the ways in which she serves her clients.

One of the key pieces of advice she helped people see-through? As we were lock down at home, many people felt like they would be saving money but indeed that was not the case. There was more food spending, part of it in the form of superfluous hoarding. She helped her clients see through these behaviours.

What changes now?

Working from home was not new to Arese. With her team, she had always worked remotely with part of them. What was new was working remotely with corporates and sponsors, who favoured in-person meetings, and ideally lots of meetings. This remote working has released a huge amount of time. So she found the team worked smoothly through the pandemic, despite the uncertainty, and was really able to pull together in such a hard time.

A look into the future

Arese continues to see opportunity in the future. She believes content is king (I hope so) and, if we do it right, content for Africa especially is going to be huge going forward. As such, it is important to find ways to produce more quality content and more platforms that can help it scale. “It can be the new oil of Africa“, Arese claims.

Another area, even if away from her, where she expects to see growth is e-commerce. The area is experiencing huge growth in Africa. People did buy online but there was a lot of distrust and now there was no option. So she finds a lot of opportunities will show up in that space.

Learnings and Reflections

Living with her daughter, there were many new things they started doing together, including rap. Arese always had a close relationship with her daughter but realized there were things she did not know about her. One of these was a hobby she picked up more during the pandemic. She wants to be a rapper so she sat down, wrote the songs, recorded them and tuned them during the pandemic. And she forced her mum to have dance parties!

Looking back, Arese would wish she would have calmed down, stopped freaking out so much and just lean into the process, recognising this was but a season. She had to work on her mind to distinguish what was an opinion and what was a fact. So she meditated 20 minutes a day. She also allowed her feelings to be present but looked into them without fear. And so she thrived through the high highs and the low lows.

Arese’s Lockdown List

  • Lockdown Book: Career Girls
  • Lockdown Sport: Boxing
  • Lockdown Technology: Zoom
  • 1 Lesson from Lockdown: Gratitude
  • 1 Word to Describe Lockdown: Manic

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