My sister died in Nigeria because she was at the wrong place at the wrong time —Olakunrin
Dr Ola Brown-Olakunrin, is the face behind the mask of Flying Doctors Nigeria, the nation’s leading air ambulance company. He spoke about her life and business with SEGUN KASALI and SYLVESTER OKORUWA.
PEOPLE know your organisation, Flying Doctors, but they hardly know the creative mind behind it. Who is Dr Ola Brown and how did Flying Doctors start?
I am Dr. Ola Brown, a medical physician, an entrepreneur and also an investor. I started my company, the Air Ambulance Company, almost 10 years ago. Now it seems like such a short time. But it’s actually a long, long time ago. More recently, about four years ago, I also, along with some of my colleagues and partners, started an investment firm. The firm invests in early stage businesses.
Where did you have your early years?
I grew up in England with a lot of Nigerians. I grew up, always looking forward to either living in Nigeria or doing some kind of projects in the country. My growing up was pretty normal. I guess when I was growing up, I was always attracted to African things. Even though I didn’t know what I was going to do in Africa, I knew I wanted to do something.
Any indelible experience in elementary school?
I think my real memories started when I got into medical school. Wanting to be a doctor has been something constant in my life and getting into medical school was something that was sort of a big achievement for me. The journey of getting in first of all, and then being able to finance my way through, I think, were super important for me. While on the programme, I did a lot of part-time jobs. At a point, I sold shoes. At another time, I was cleaning kitchens. At one time, I worked for a pharmaceutical company. At some point, I taught [in schools].
How young were you when the “doctor” dream began?
I can only remember that it started when I was a child. I think I’m old enough now to have forgotten most of those things. But I always had seen, as a child, my sister falling ill quite a lot because she had sickle cell and was going to the hospital a lot. I guess that’s why I got the idea of being a doctor. You know, as a young person, seeing the way that the teams worked and seeing the efficiency of the healthcare system impressed me.
It wasn’t easy balancing work and school.
I knew that I needed to work to make money to go to school. So it was really important for me to be excellent in my work as well, and I think that was where I first learned about selling, about the way business works, which got me thinking about business. Because a lot of doctors don’t get that opportunity, I felt lucky to be exposed to several business lines and studies. I sold shoes for Timberland; I learnt a bit about sales; I went through different sales trainings and I learnt a bit about pricing. So that was really my first exposure to business which obviously helped me when I graduated.
There must be unforgettable experiences in your university days?
While in the university, I really appreciate the kind of relationships that we were able to build. I think it was a deputy Dean of Medicine at the time when my sister died who got all others to rally round me, even asking if I needed any delay in my exams. That level of personal support was something that I won’t forget.
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What is it about Flying Doctors?
The idea came up during my university days. My younger sister eventually died when I was at university and she was on holiday in Nigeria at the time. We were just trying to rally around to try and find a way to sort of fly her even into Abuja to see a specialist there. We were ready to fly her there, but we couldn’t and she was too sick to be taken all that way by road. I think a lot of people in Nigeria usually find themselves in that situation: Maiduguri to Abuja by road, Maiduguri to Lagos by road, Kano to Lagos by road. It’s very difficult, if you’re critically ill to spend hours on the road. Even if the person is on oxygen, he might consume one bottle of oxygen per hour. So you know, you need to take about 20 bottles of oxygen in one ambulance to do that journey with the road and the traffic. It is actually very, very difficult. And a lot of people die, not because help isn’t available anywhere or the specialist that they need to meet isn’t available anywhere, but simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And my sister died because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. So I started thinking about the problem more and more and in the UK, there are actually very few major hospitals with level one trauma centres. where anybody that has a major accident goes to. In the whole of London, I think there are only maybe three because the investment needed to put up the centres with all the specialists is very high. But what they do have are ambulance services. In the UK alone, I think that there are probably close to 100 operational air ambulance services. Some are for premature babies; some for adults, and they are in every region to make sure that nobody dies because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The same with countries like Switzerland. For instance, they have an air ambulance based in every part of the country, making sure that nobody is 15 minutes away from a major trauma centre at any point in time. So the more I started thinking about these problems and seeing air ambulances landing in the accident and emergency unit of where I worked, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
Did your parents buy into the idea of investing in Nigeria straightaway?
I think obviously, my parents, like any other parents, had double minds about it. I had already gotten a very good job in the UK, and I was earning well, even for my first job. So the first thought was that I was throwing away an opportunity. Again, they were worried about how I was going to live and cope with the level of insecurity in Nigeria. They were worried about whether I would be able to still come back and have my training number to continue in UK, in case I failed in Nigeria. And I think it was a difficult decision for them. They were also worried about their ability to finance it, because they didn’t have money to give me for support. They didn’t really know so much about business, especially business in Nigeria. But ultimately, they gave their blessing and I just bought a one-way ticket to be here.
Did you ever have any low moment that are you still thanking God for?
I was once involved in a car crash on Uyo-Calabar road. I was supposed to be working in Calabar the next day and the driver left with the car and the one I drove was about to explode and my leg was stuck. So I really thought I was going to die, but luckily, for me, people on the side of the road managed to get me out of the car. So, I still got to Calabar the next day, but that was the most frightening time, of my life.
How did you meet ‘Daddy’?
(Laughs) His father was very ill. So, he contacted the company to fly him from Canada and when he came to the office, our doctors were already with him. But I gave him my card. So, he called to say “thank you”. A few months later, he asked me out for a dinner just to review his father’s condition and I obliged him (laughs). I obliged [to have dinner with him] just to review and then… he just kept on calling me after that (laughs). Actually, I wasn’t sure what he was getting at. I just thought he was very worried about his dad and very concerned and very appreciative about what we did. And then I started realising that it was a bit more than that. I was surprised. I didn’t expect it. I think I realised quite late because a lot of clients actually keep in touch with us. It’s a life-saving service and a lot of people want to appreciate us. So I just thought he was one of them, but he just seemed a bit more persistent than a regular client. I’m very passionate about [my work] and he seemed really comfortable with that and I think that was a major thing that made our friendship developed.
There must be that particular thing he wants you to stop doing…
Hmm! What has David changed about me? I think the best thing for me about being married is that it has made me accountable. I have had a partner before, but not somebody that I lived with. David holds me accountable to all of my goals – business goals, personal goals – and keeps me on track in a more personal way. We got to self-development as well, which is really important to me.
Do you have ‘must haves’ in your wardrobes?
Wardrobes? Nothing. I’m not attached to anything in my wardrobe. I probably have maybe two or three pairs of shoes. So, I don’t care about this at all. And in terms of clothing, I will mix the same thing every day. To be honest, you would never see me wearing something, say, glamorous.