Rosemond Phil-Othihiwa is an astuteCorporate and Commercial Attorney who has garnered experience in providing legal advisory services to business owners and corporate clients for close to a decade. She is an alumnus of the University of Benin, She practiced as an Associate in the Lawfirm of Olatunde Adejuyigbe SAN & Co before joining the firm of Debo AkandeLLP as Partner.
Due to her passion for mentorship and continuous legal Education and professional development, Rosemond is the current Secretary of the Corporate Governance and Compliance committee of the NBA- Section on Business Law.
She was past Chairperson of the Continuing Legal Education Young Lawyers Forum, Nigerian Bar Association Ikeja and hosts her Mentorship programme for Young Lawyers which has hosted global thought leaders.
In this interview with, ipledge2nigeria webteam in Lagos, Phil-Othihiwa talks about her transition from law to tech, why tech start-ups need to get the necessary license from the government, how Nigerian laws provide coverage for startups, opportunities for females in the tech industry and other issues
To a layperson on the street, what is the service you provide for tech start ups?
I am a lawyer that provides legal services for tech start ups. When they are building products, I provide the necessary legal documentations they need to consider. For instance, what are the regulations, and what are the licenses they need to get? What are some of the ways they need to understand their negotiations with their investors, and with their shareholders? What is the structure of the company they are building? Are they building following what is recognized legally? What are their challenges? are they trying to raise funds, to launch into a new market? What are the laws that govern that new market? So basically, anything that has to do with corporate governance and the ability for them to truly use the laws to their advantage. That’s where people like us come in.
Where was the transition from law to tech?
I came out of law school in 2014, and like a typical person who comes out of law school, I was very confused, but two things were clear, I wanted to serve and learn under somebody who had the knowledge, expertise and competence of what truly a good lawyer looks like and I found that person. He was a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, his name was Olatunde Adejuyigbe SAN. I served in his chambers for four years. He was an insolvency practitioner but he was so good in litigation. Insolvency is an area of law that deals with companies that are trying to restructure. So he was good at that, but he was good at almost everything. Criminal law, corporate law, business law, environmental law, real estate, everything. So I had a solid foundation, I was there from 2016 till 2020.
When COVID came in, I knew I needed to transition but I told myself that I wanted to learn for that period. So, for four years, I got grounded in commercial law, and I did a lot of things. It wasn’t just commercial law, I was going to court, I was going to magistrate court, High Court, Federal High Court. So, I had that experience. But, when my transition started, I had a friend of mine who reached out to me in September 2019. He had an idea, and he wanted us to collaborate. We had our first meeting in February 2020. We got someone who built a software application for us that enabled people to draft their contracts without stress. To be able to do a change of name. People could log in to the platform, fill in their information and then we take it over, on the backend are lawyers, and on the frontend are the clients. The name of the app is Sealed and everything was successful. Unfortunately, he died but we had built something together and I couldn’t just throw that away. So I thought, what can I do to keep that vision going? I realized that I needed to learn about the business environment. Yes, I’m a lawyer, I understand the laws but I needed to go into the world of business owners. I needed to think the way an entrepreneur would think because it is a different ball game when you are a lawyer and when you are an entrepreneur. Because as an entrepreneur, you are in charge of HR, you are in charge of the people, you are in charge of the process, you are in charge of the operations, you’re trying to learn how to put everything together. So literally, you’re doing people management, tech management, platform management, stakeholder management, you are a shareholder in a company, you are a director. You are not just a legal adviser, you are playing the game.
So, while I was mourning and grieving, I ferociously applied for learning programs, so I came across the PAN African Women Empowerment Programme which was a three months course teaching people the basics of entrepreneurship, especially women. So I was part of that course. Faith Foundation also had an Incubator Programme for like three months where we just learned the principles and the basics of entrepreneurship and people building, people management, and understanding your target market. There were so many terminologies and because I was in tech, it was very easy for me to understand what they were talking about. I already had the basics so at a point of those training, I successfully graduated from them and something incredible happened.
In June, there was an announcement, one of the bodies that regulates us is the Nigerian Bar Association. That year in 2021, they called out that they wanted to give grants to tech-driven businesses in Nigeria. So I applied and also among several tech startups in Nigeria and I came out top three. I had the privilege to pitch the idea before a whole room of judges talking about what sealed app was. It was obvious that I came from a place of experience. We won two thousand and five hundred dollars grants and that was a very inspiring moment for me.
It has been a long journey since then because, like I always say, nobody can drive a company like a visioner. It was easy for me to manage my affairs as a partner in a firm and to also manage the relationship and commitment I had in the startup community. I was consulting for them, always attending their events. Many times, other countries reach out to me to do TikTok for them on legal compliance. So I was kind of like the designated legal expert for Nigeria in some very international tech startups that were trying to do all of the things.
Usually, they always invite me to come and train most of the time. So it transitioned from just the building aspect, I could
Now I merge my knowledge as an entrepreneur and my knowledge as a lawyer, bring them together and consult for tech startups. So far so good, I have consulted for about a hundred to a hundred and fifty startups and still counting. I am also privileged to be a part of some very high level tech communities. One of which is Eternal, which was called Talent City. It is run by one of the co-founders of Flutterwave. I have plugged in literally into high tech startup communities but I am coming as a tech lawyer.
How many years did this happen?
It happened for three years, to be honest, 2020 – 2023. The melting point was in 2021 when I was able to have clarity and it has just been ongoing from there. I have worked as the legal compliance officer for several tech startups. I look at the companies and I am like, you guys need to put A, B, C, and D together. I draft a strategy, we execute the strategy and they get from A to wherever they want to be. It’s like a passion of mine, it is like I am fulfilling my purpose. That’s exactly what it’s been for me.
Tech is male dominated. What do you think can be done to encourage more women to get into tech?
Yes, it is male dominated. I do not have the specific facts and percentage now but I know that there’s a lot of work right now that is being done by a lot of non-governmental organisations to bring more women. For example, there is a tech program by the PAN African Women Empowerment Network. They have a cluster of about ten thousand persons within their network alone and they are focusing majorly on women empowerment in tech. What they do is skill management and skill training. Many of them may not be able to code, but they can be product managers, software designers, and backend or frontend engineers. I have a lot of women that I know personally that are in that space. So, yes, the data is quite low on the side of the women but tech is not a gender-specific industry. As long as you have the skill, the competence and you can deliver. Whether you’re a man or woman doesn’t matter. We all talk about gender equality, diversity and inclusion when it comes to trying to earn as much as your Male counterpart. So, that is a conversation that will always keep happening, it’s not going to go away anytime soon. But I can tell you that we have a better chance in the technology-driven space as women because it depends on skillfulness. If you are good at what you do and can deliver, people will refer to you.
However, women must know how to position themselves as a brand because one of the things that women are perceived to be is that they are not as confident as their male counterparts. So that confidence comes from exposure and experience and that’s one of the things that a lot of organisations are trying to solve. Bring more women in, encourage more women, and have more women sponsored to get programs.
My advice would be that women need to brand themselves better than their male counterparts. We can’t be shy about saying we are ready and available for opportunities but we must also have the skill to deliver because as a woman, we need to prove that we know what you are doing. Because no one is going to use emotions to reward you. But I will say that tech brings a level playing field if you are good at what you do. That’s my experience so far.
I look at you, a very young person, full of so much energy. And I’m imagining, this person is so full of knowledge, how did this just happen?
As I said, the pain was one of my triggers. I am just very passionate about development. I love money too, there’s money in tech, so that’s a very huge motivation. I have been privileged to sit on the investor side of negotiations where I have to be competent. I love to commit a hundred and fifty per cent to anything. So, if I am working with you on this project, my energy has to match what I am saying and what I am going to deliver. And I am glad that I have a few companies that I have worked with to testify that they endorsed my work. It’s one of the things that I’m passionate about. The money is there, yes, the exposure is there, and the passion to learn is there but I will say that the commitment I have to ensuring that businesses get it right is one of my biggest drivers. It has been quite an interesting journey.
With your experience, do you think that Nigerian laws provide enough coverage for startups?
I think so, this was not the case four years ago, but presently it has gotten better. Let me tell you why, on October 19, 2022, we had this startup act that was signed into law by President Buhari. That act put us on the same pedestal as international countries. Tunisia signed their startup act in 2018, so they were far ahead of us but now, our laws are the best compared to Tunisia and other countries.
How does this law empower startups?
First of all, one of the things that the Nigerian startup act does is that it makes the legal environment very accessible for the startup by providing benefits for startups that are labelled under the startup act. The startup act brings all tech start-ups together. If you are a fintech for example and you’re trying to get a license from CBN, you have to go from one stage to another. What that act does is unify all these government agencies together which takes care of major bottlenecks. The startup act establishes something that is called the Wall Stop Shop Centre which is like a website or platform where you can have access to all these regulators and then you can get your license approved faster. You can get grants because one of the things the startup act has also done is establish a National Sovereign Investment Authority which is like a commission that gives grants regularly.
There are many things the law says, the act is about twenty-eight pages, and it is not a long legislation but when you read it, you can see that the government is now making an effort to think like a startup founder. What do you guys need in terms of how we can make you do business in Nigeria better? That’s just one, I can count about four legislations that’s just happened in this year alone. February 13, we had the signing into law of the business facilitation act, what that law does is, it amended over twenty-one legislations alone in Nigeria. One of which is the company and aligned matters, the export trade promotion Act, there are so many acts. The Act is about six pages long. It’s not a lot but they amended some critical things there. The Copyright Act is for creatives, musicians, artists, and people that do some of these things. We have a new law now, so there are so many new things coming up in terms of legislation, the Copyright Act was signed into law on March 17, and data protection, we have the Nigerian data protection bill. It passed the third reading on the 2nd of May. It didn’t get to the final stage because of course, we have a new change, we have a new President.
But the last gift that President Buhari gave to us was the Arbitration and Mediation Act. It was signed into law on the 23rd.
What does that act do?
A typical example of the Arbitration and Mediation Act, the legislation put us at par with international countries and the way they resolve disputes.