When Bibian Chinenye Pius-Urum stepped into the gates of the Lagos Campus of the Nigerian Law School in November 2016, she had no inkling that at any point in her life, she would be navigating a fledgling career in Tech. Bibian, 22 years old at the time, had only graduated with a law degree from Ebonyi State University (EBSU) Abakaliki a few months prior, she hadn’t traveled much, and her short-term ambition was to be the first lawyer in a family of eight sisters.
Bibian’s professional trajectory, however, has unfolded in whirlwind fashion. Upon graduating with honors from the Nigerian Law School in 2017, she was employed by Aina Blankson LP, one of Nigeria’s leading boutique law firms, and in a few months she moved from the Abuja office to the firm’s headquarters in Lagos. But she made a shocking decision when, during the heat of the global pandemic in early 2020, she handed in her letter of resignation while the rest of the world panicked from being forced indoors, and branched out to start her practice, which she named Bibian Urum Law (BUL).
In late 2021, a little over 18 months into her budding solo run, Bibian decided to re-engineer her fate once again when she successfully applied to study Applied AI and Data Analytics at the University of Bradford, England. In the final months of her M.Sc pursuit, she enrolled in the Cisco incubator program as one of 40 participants from 17 countries, and early this year, after over 230 unsuccessful applications to several firms, she scaled through a long recruitment process to get into the Generative Artificial Intelligence team at one of the world’s biggest financial institutions. She’s now committed to mentoring young Nigerian women looking to transition into tech.
In this interview with Ventures Africa, Bibian opens up on her journey as a young female lawyer in Nigeria, switching to a new career, and building her portfolio as a woman of color in the United Kingdom.
What spurred the bold decision to leave the thriving law firm you were working at?
I think I wanted something different for myself. Working in a city like Lagos did not give me a lot of time to do other things. Considering that I was working very closely with the managing partner of the firm, it meant I had to work around the clock. I barely had time for anything else, and because I was working from home, it was assumed that I had nothing else to do.
Also, I wanted to try branching out, and I saw an opportunity when it arose. I used to think that law firms had to be brick-and-mortar; you set up an office, there have to be senior lawyers who are at least 10 years post-call, and then you have employees. But the pandemic showed me that you could do everything from home, and I figured that since I already had a large social media following, I could just leverage that and start my own thing. In the beginning, all I had was an address for service. I started with just my laptop and two people.
Things subsequently picked up and I showed myself that you can practice law from anywhere, even in a society like Nigeria that is not used to unconventional styles of legal practice. It was also an opportunity for me to attend to small businesses. I created a platform where small businesses can get access to legal services without really having to spend a large amount of money consulting big law firms.
Switching from Law to Applied AI is a major pivot. What was that watershed moment that influenced your decision? Were there any guiding lights? What motivated you in your leap of faith?
I’m a bit of a restless person, and I struggle when I get too comfortable. Things were going well at my law firm, and it was all just getting to this point where I got bored because everything I wanted to do already had a precedent for it, and I wasn’t learning very much. So I thought about doing something in an area that would be more challenging.
There’s also the matter of Law being very limiting by way of being jurisdictional in practice. As a lawyer in Nigeria, I can’t just open a law firm in the UK without passing qualifying exams here. But as a data analyst, you can apply those hard skills anywhere in the world. If I decide to move to Australia or Canada, I don’t want to have to go through the process of qualifying to practice law in those places. People talk about the fact that tech pays a lot of money, but it has never been about money for me. I just wanted something that would be more fun, and so far I’ve been getting that.
You got into the Cisco Incubator, amidst stiff competition. What was your biggest takeaway, and how intense was the program?
It was quite intense. It was a four-month program where they taught you everything about computer networking, among other things, and at the end of the program, you had to interview to get a job. Getting in was quite tough. I had three stages of interviews within six months and the final interview was a three-stage process that had me making a presentation, motivational and strength-based interview, and role play.
The program involved a lot of technical learning, and I was combining it with study. But I enjoyed the process and my biggest lesson is the importance of learning what you are cut out for and what simply doesn’t work for you. During the program, I delved into AI, Data Analytics, Computer Networking, and Cloud solutions, so I was just everywhere at the same time, and I spread myself way too thin.
You got a job at one of the world’s biggest banks after several rejections. What makes recruitment in the UK different from the process back home?
I made over 230 applications and got over 120 direct rejections. My friend taught me that it was a game of numbers; I needed to take several shots if I wanted my dream job. Recruitment in the UK is different because I didn’t get to face some of the biases I would have faced if I were in Nigeria. I’m 29, and I have over six years of experience as a lawyer, so there’s a chance that most companies in Nigeria would not have hired me because I’m older than 26, which I think is the maximum cap for graduate roles.
I was also applying for very technical roles with absolutely no technical background. Even though I have a master’s degree, I don’t have any technical experience, so companies were willing to listen to me, see what I had to offer, and learn how I would fit in. The company I currently work with attaches value to
distinctiveness and I’m different in so many ways: I’m a black woman, I have a law degree, and I have gained experience working in another continent, so I was bringing a fresh perspective to the team. So that was what I tried to sell to the companies that I interviewed with.
I will always prefer the UK recruitment process because here, it looks like they are trying to help you get the job. They would send you details of what your next interview is going to look like and provide links to prepare for them. They even tell you those who are going to interview you so you can go check them out.
How has it been, coming from a law background, being a “Tech Sis” and woman of color in the UK?
I work with a wonderful team, and my line manager is always willing to help. I think the only thing I’ve noticed is that my team is kind of very white, and then sometimes when I’m working around the floor people see me and turn. I don’t see a lot of black people around, and I know that representation is very important. However, I know that I’m not just a ‘diversity hire’, I am here because I have something to offer. In any case, I always try to put my best foot forward so that whenever any other black woman shows up, they would be considered too, especially when the organization sees that I’ve done well enough to make them create more seats at the table.
You have been trying to pay it forward, offering mentorship to Nigerian women looking to dive into tech. What would you say can be improved concerning opportunities and pathways for Nigerian talent?
I created a WhatsApp group where young Nigerian women looking to get into tech discuss their challenges, and then I give them tips on the right steps to take. I do this because when I was interviewing, I wished I had someone who taught me the ropes. In terms of opportunities for emerging talents, I think we should have more communities of Nigerians who are willing to help push people to be the best that they can be. If you plug someone in, that’s one person’s life you’ve made better. There are people here who don’t even believe that white-collar jobs are for us, and then I tell them that I got three job offers before I graduated from Bradford. There needs to be a bit of a mindset shift among Nigerians, especially those who are migrating to first-world countries; people need to understand that these things are possible. If you put in the work, with a little bit of luck, you’re going to get whatever it is you want. Just know that there are more than enough opportunities to go around for everyone