Meet Titilope Sonuga a poet, actress and Intel Ambassador pursuing her self chosen career path. From meeting Maya Angelou to her very own TEDx talk in Canada to acting in a major television series in Nigeria to performing at the inauguration ceremony of Nigeria's current president, her accomplishments are simply amazing!. Not only does she talk about how she accomplished it all and her future aspirations, she's also giving some precious advice. This interview is sure to inspire.
Please introduce yourself and tell us about your brand. What do you do?
My name is Titilope Sonuga. I'm a poet, writer, sometimes actor. I'm currently the ambassador for Intel "She Will Connect" in Nigeria (a program to bridge the online gender gap by providing training and mentorship opportunities for women and girls).
Can you share a bit about how you choose this path? What transition did you make to start working for yourself?
I studied civil engineering and practiced for a little over 5 years. I wrote a bit of poetry on the side and would share at coffee shops and open mics across my city. I found mentors along the way who believed so much in me that they held open all kinds of doors and windows of opportunity for me to jump through. Soon I was sneaking out of work to teach writing workshops at high schools, to perform in other cities and eventually other countries.
I started to test the waters of leaving my job about 2 years before I found the courage to actually do it. I took a leave of absence and moved to Cape Town, South Africa for a writers residency. What was supposed to be one month turned into four and I relished in the experience of being a full time artist. Until it was time to take my broke butt back to work.
I started putting a bit of money away each month after my SA trip. I called it my getaway fund. I didn't know where I was going, but I knew that one day I was going to leave my job to pursue my passion and I would need a financial buffer to do that.
In May 2013, I sat in my boss' office and through tears I told him I had to go. I guess I was crying because I knew that the words I was saying would knock me off the very safe path my life had been on. I gave myself one year to see if I could survive, and one year turned into two.
Do you have any special training?
No. Just a deep love for storytelling and a willingness to learn.
What are some of your biggest accomplishments being self employed?
In chronological order (some of these happened during the transition from engineer to full time artist):
- Winning an award from the Canadian Authors Association for my first, self published collection of poems. I couldn't believe something I had put together on my own would be recognized like that. I sold about a thousand copies of that book from hand to hand. I took it everywhere I went to perform. It was in that time that I started to realize that art didn't just have to be a hobby.
- Performing at the Chinua Achebe Colloquium on Africa at Brown University. A dear mentor of mine, Dr. Nduka Otiono made the opportunity possible. I got to meet the icon himself, as well as some writers and poets that I could only have dreamt of meeting in my lifetime. I also think it was the moment my parents started to trust this "poetry thing" I was doing.
- Winning a poetry contest that allowed me to meet Maya Angelou. Being in her presence was like being inside a dream. I will never forget it.
- Being invited to give a TEDx talk in Edmonton about my journey. My parents sat in the front row watching through tears. It's difficult to articulate what that moment felt like.
- Performing at the inauguration ceremony of Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari. This has to be the biggest opportunity I have had to date. This was another situation where people who believed in me opened the door and I had to find the courage to walk through it. I have an endless amount of gratitude for the angels in my life.
- Becoming the ambassador for Intel She Will Connect was such a huge validation as a poet. It's an honour to lend my voice to such a great cause.
What mistake(s) have you made? What did you learn from the experience and how did you bounce back?
It's difficult sometimes as an artist to convince yourself and others of what your work is worth. It's such a fine line between staying humble and being able to tell people exactly what you want and refusing to back down. I have done far too much free work and accepted far too little for something I pour my whole heart into.
Learning to say no is something I am still constantly struggling with, but I've learnt that if accepting an opportunity doesn't feed my spirit, doesn't offer a level of exposure that will open multiple new doors and doesn't put food on my table, then I have to walk away.
What do you consider the most important elements of running your career as a successful personal brand?
Everyday is a learning process for me, some days are harder than others. If I could break it into 5 points I would say:
1) Know exactly who you are and be consistent in that voice.
2) Drive yourself. Seek out ways to constantly get up and go, learn something new, improve on something old.
3) Ask for what you're worth. Everytime.
4) Shake off the paralysis that comes with comparing yourself to others. Run your own race.
5) Surround yourself with people who are also passionately chasing after their dreams. They will inspire you, their energy will rub off on you.
Do you have any advice you can share with women reading this who would like to follow your path?
Everyone's path is different. I don't think there is a firm set of rules you can follow that lead to instant success. I would say, don't make any decisions in a hurry. Take your time and do as much research as you can so you learn from other people's mistakes. There are going to be a lot of opinions around you, learn to listen very closely to your own instincts.
Do you have any advice on managing your finances being self employed?
Going from my job to being on my own has been a massive learning experience in managing money. I hadn't realized how lavish I was living until there wasn't a solid pay cheque coming in every 2 weeks.
The nature of being on your own is that one month there's great money coming in and the next month is quiet. You have to anticipate those quiet months and plan ahead for them in the months of plenty, while also planning for the future. It's a lot to juggle at once, but it's important to live modestly and within your means.
How do you balance work and life?
What I do is such a big part of my life that work doesn't really feel like "work" anymore. Almost anything I need to do can happen from my laptop wherever I am, so there's a lot of freedom in that. I've also had a chance to travel a lot, which I love to do anyway, so it's win win. Being in the company of other creative people is also extremely enriching. I'm learning a lot.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I'd like to be living comfortably on my art: writing, performing and public speaking. I have a passion for helping new poets find their own voices, so I want to set up a learning program for youth and adult poets. I'd like to have my 3rd or maybe even my 4th collection of poetry out. There's also a novel I've been trying to write, I'm going to be kicking myself if it isn't on the shelves in 5 years.
Please share a fun fact about yourself
Food is the quickest way to my heart. If you have Nigerian puff puff then we might as well be soul mates.
Check out Titilope's amazing TEDx talk below: