“Don’t wait until you’re a leader”: Saadiya Aminu on female empowerment and running a successful real estate business in Nigeria

Q&A with Saadiya Aminu, MD Urban Shelter Nigeria

Altair is committed to sharing the successes and learnings we observe in our work with clients. As part of the “Women in the Housing Business: Inspiring International Leaders you should know about” series, our research and insights lead Cassidy Curls sits down with international female leaders from across the housing sector to learn about and share their experiences.

Saadiya Aliyu, MD at Urban Shelter Nigeria

The first interview in the series is with Saadiya Aliyu, MD at Urban Shelter Nigeria, one of Nigeria’s oldest and largest real estate companies. Saadiya joined Urban Shelter from a finance and development role in Nigerian government in 2009, rising to Chief Operating Officer and eventually MD / Chief Executive Officer in 2018.

Nigeria is a rapidly growing economy with a range of housing-related challenges. Of these include a near 20 million home backlog, and within this a need for truly affordable housing. With over 20% interest rates and tight lending terms, Nigeria lacks affordable finance options for developers and purchasers. Many developers rely on expensive imports for materials and constantly struggle with changes in foreign exchange rates. Land is also hard to secure, with all land transactions subject to approval by the Governor, the highest in office, of the state.

From international development to real estate

Most of Saadiya’s youth was spent in the UK in boarding schools. When she was home with family in Nigeria, the common dinner topic was the family business – real estate. Saadiya’s father formed Urban Shelter, one of Nigeria’s largest and oldest real estate companies, in 1991. “We always discussed real estate trends”, she said “We lived and breathed it, even if we as children didn’t have a particular interest in it”.

Saadiya didn’t always see herself in a career in real estate. After she finished her studies in Economics, Finance and Development at SOAS University of London, she moved back to Nigeria to work in finance and international development. There she worked on financial sustainability and national debt with the Director General of the Debt Management Office Nigeria. At the time, debt sustainability was a large part of Nigeria’s wider economic development goals.

During the earlier part of her career, Saadiya lost two siblings in a short period of time. “It made me re-evaluate what I wanted to do and how I wanted to contribute to our family”, she said. After this, Saadiya pivoted her career to focus on the family business – applying for her first job as an Assistant at Urban Shelter in 2008. 

A family run business

“You’d think because it is a family run business it would have been a shoe in, but no, I received a lot of blank stares at first”, said Saadiya about first applying to work at Urban Shelter. Securing her place through family support alone wasn’t enough. Saadiya had to convince more senior, male colleagues of what value she brought to the business. She did so by focussing not on development initially, but starting with her strengths – corporate strategy, finance and business structure. Through this, she earned her colleagues’ trust, and with her on the team the business continued to grow and expand.

Now in a leadership position, she notices that it is not her being a woman that surprises people. “It’s the fact that I don’t have an engineering or architecture degree more than anything”. Saadiya shared how important it is to learn from those around her, particularly in technical areas. “I’m not afraid to ask questions”, she said, and encourages others to do the same.

“Even on the worst day, it’s my best job.” The range of work Saadiya does on an everyday basis includes corporate structure and finance, affordable housing, luxury housing, corporate social responsibility, planning and construction.

Visioning is not a once a year thing here

Saadiya’s strengths in corporate finance and strategy mean that her role is firstly strategic. At least once a week, Saadiya and the executive team have visioning meetings. These may include looking at a map of Nigeria and discussing critically emerging opportunities in different operating areas. This is in part due to Nigeria being a dynamic environment, but also in part due to Urban Shelter’s continuous efforts to grow, pivot and change.

Visioning is also about thinking of the wider picture of the work Urban Shelter is doing in the sectors it operates in. Saadiya is a real believer in the role housing plays as providing stability to society and in green sustainability. She also wishes for Urban Shelter to be a “go to” partner in Nigeria for global information exchange and sharing on international housing and real estate related issues. This means Saadiya speaks with new people regularly and plays a key role in Urban Shelter’s external communications work.

Corporate social responsibility is not a tick box exercise at Urban Shelter but a way of operating. Urban Shelter sponsors 30 young adults in their education, some of whom join Urban Shelter after university. “The future of Africa is the youth”, she said. Outreach activities also include sanitation projects and school improvements near real estate developments as well as mentoring young girls. Saadiya also uses her voice as a female leader to promote gender equality. “For Nigeria to achieve its potential, we need participation from everyone in the economy”, she said.

Advice for women in housing

When it comes to applying for jobs, Saadiya notices women are more likely than men to exclude themselves as not being qualified. Her advice to women wanting to succeed “don’t be afraid of failure. Sometimes you build success from failure.  It may be a ‘no’ but so what? At least you tried”.

Where possible, Saadiya recommends all women have someone who is a personal champion holding up a mirror to them, encouraging them and supporting them. It can be a partner, or a friend or a mentor.

Saadiya sees leadership as occurring at all levels. “Leadership is equated to ambition, but do not wait until you are in a leadership position to be an example”, she said. “Believe it or not at every step in life you have someone looking up to you wondering how you do it. Be their example.”

On the balance of career and family, Saadiya actively works to ensure being a mother is no barrier to success. She is a mother of four and sees parental leave and flexible working benefits as really important tools for recruiting and retaining talent at Urban Shelter.

“Some women think they can’t do both”, she said, “I sometimes see women who get pregnant looking very sad, and to this I say ‘You are pregnant, not dying. You have eight or so months to keep working, and after the office will work with you to ensure you have the time you need’”.

One thing that has worked well at Urban Shelter is having a dedicated space in the office for new mothers. Urban Shelter also works to combat gender pay gaps through clear employment levels and structured pay systems.

About Urban Shelter

Urban Shelter builds affordable and high-end homes for sale in Abuja, Lagos, Kaduna and Niger State. Its focus is primarily on a range of low, mid-market and above housing, but it ‘s. affordable options include at the bottom end a c. $8k apartment in Abuja. Under Saadiya’s leadership, Urban Shelter has undertaken projects using innovative, locally produced sustainable materials to drive down build costs to deliver affordable housing as well explored more sophisticated projects such as retail and commercial developments.

For more information visit Urban Shelter’s website at: https://www.urbanshelternigeria.com/