Bolu Essien; The Corporate Marketing Guru, Actress, and Filmmaker Who Dominated the Netflix Charts

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Faith Abdullah

When you have a deep passion for something, you do it with your whole heart. You don’t mind quitting jobs, losing money, or even doing jobs for free just to live your passion and see it succeed. What if I told you that you could have multiple contrasting passions and still be successful at all of them? Well, that just happens to be the success story of Bolu Essien.

There are many words to describe this phenomenal young woman, but one particular word describes her entirety – Creativity. Essien’s extraordinary creative nature has enabled her to combine her passions in corporate marketing and filmmaking as well as acting into an enviable success story one aspires to have. “For me, at the helm of both is that I am telling stories. One is strictly human stories, and the other is  brand stories”, Essien tells Culture Custodian in a video call interview. “The love for both worlds or let me say, the love for storytelling makes it easier for me to exist and excel”. 

Essien’s love for storytelling has pushed her to become a versatile expert in her corporate and artistic career with a decade-long span of experiences working in multinational companies, and the recent hit Netflix-released series Becoming Abi to show for it. “In my career, I have grown to the point where I have proven myself. How creative and dedicated I am to the business and everything I do”.

As she progressively grows in her artistic journey, she still recollects her days of humble beginnings, starting from when she would act in school plays at a young age. However, it wasn’t until right after leaving high school, that Essien became conscious of her creative interests, prompting her to become more involved in church drama productions, as well as directing some short student films in her former alma mater Bowen University as a Mass Communication major.                                                      

While she might have pursued a degree in something different from her artistic interests during her undergraduate studies, it didn’t deter Essien from persevering in her quest to become an actor and storyteller, even if she wasn’t entirely sure if she would get the support she needed. “Although my family was supportive of my artistic interests, I wouldn’t have fully known if they would be supportive if I chose to pursue acting full time. I was acting either in church or school, and the good thing at that time was my grades weren’t failing. So by the time I got into acting full time, I had already built my corporate career.”

Essien’s determined nature eventually saw her pursue her acting career in 2012 when she started featuring in Mount Zion Films, before embarking on a corporate career in marketing that would not only prove to be an integral part of her acting and film making career, but also a way to fuel the burning passion she had for storytelling. “With me, what you see is what you get”, Essien laughs. “I call myself a creative and that’s because I have interests in multiple things- acting, writing, directing, and producing but acting comes top of the list. Acting is where I find purpose. Film making in general, these are the kinds of jobs I can do without getting paid.”

A quest for excellence and expertise further pushed her to attend one of England’s most notable drama schools, The Identity School of Acting. She notes that it was the school’s name that spoke to her “It is all about finding oneself, as an excelling marketing professional, I have taken certifications and courses. I am aware of the importance of all these training sessions. So if I want to excel as an actor, I need to sharpen my gifts and skills.”

The Drama school also afforded the time and space to enable her to combine acting classes with her 9-5, “Identity allowed me to do night classes. So after a long day of work, I come back home, take a nap for an hour or so, then rehearse my monologues and scripts then start attending classes from like 10 till 12 midnight which wasn’t easy but worthwhile.”

With an impressive portfolio of successful Hollywood actors, including John Boyega and Letitia Wright, The Identity School of Acting gave Essien the confidence she needed to thrive in a cut-throat industry like Nollywood. This is evidently seen in her hit Netflix-released series Becoming Abi — a workplace dramedy that loosely chronicles Bolu’s journey as a young professional climbing up the ladder in the corporate world while navigating workplace friendships, romance, and conflicts. “The Idea for Becoming Abi came to me in June last year, it just dawned on me to tell my story of a millennial climbing the corporate ladder in a country like Nigeria”. “There was no way I could tell that story other than through my own experiences, so the next morning I started planning and drafting the direction, how the scenes would be like, and the characters involved till it all came together. Basically, we had to ensure all the crucial elements were put in place. Then last year October during my leave we shot the series and it came out this year.”

The series was a huge success on Netflix as it topped the Top 10 Nigeria charts a few days after its release thereby cementing Essien’s presence as a game-changer in Nollywood, thanks to her production company Evolving Lights Studios, which she’s created to tell dynamic stories the best way she knows how. “Becoming Abi is quite relatable to everyone, especially those in the corporate world. I was very happy when the series was in the top 10 for about 3 weeks. It shows I am on the right path and track to achieving the goals I want to achieve in the industry and the kind of stories I want to tell. I am grateful to Netflix as well as our distributors because you know it’s one thing for you to create a film that people don’t know exists and it’s another thing for it to exist and the world to see it, so Netflix has been instrumental in pushing Becoming Abi to a global audience, which so far has been successful”.

Despite her success, she maintains a humble appeal and making sure she is not distracted by the electrifying ides of fame and success, using her strong belief in God as a medium to hold herself accountable. “The moment I lose my faith, I worry about my creativity. My faith is the foundation of my creativity- most of my ideas are gotten through my interaction with God. So I am quite intentional in the stories I tell, be it as an actor or filmmaker as there are certain things I firmly resolved not to do, things like kissing another man or making films with nudity. As a Christian, I can make movies that can be romantic and deliver the message without being too explicit.”

As her faith is an integral part of her identity and creative prowess, she desires to use her gifts in combination with her faith-based values to create a safe space for young people navigating their artistic journey, another major reason she attributes to creating her own production company early on in her career. “For me, when something is evolving, it means there’s a continuous improvement or progress. At Evolving Light studios, we want our projects to help people to see themselves and the world around them. It can also be a safe haven through our creative, insightful, relatable, and thrilling projects, where we get to impact young people of faith, who may have artistic interests but also want to be firmly rooted in their faith, so they can say if Bolu could do it, then I can too.”

As Nollywood grows bigger thanks to the investment of streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Showmax who have helped expose the industry to a global audience, the competition is at an all-time high. However, Bolu is not fazed by the tough competition but rather hopes for a better Nollywood in a couple of years to come. “Nollywood has come a long way thanks to the Influx of cinemas, global streaming platforms, and the commitment and dedication actors are putting into their work.” “Though the competition may be high, I am fully confident in my work and skills. I am a trained actor and professional, and my years in marketing and working with brands have enabled me to prepare to the point I am today, so I try not to put myself under pressure and do the best I can with the help of God, leaving no room for self-doubt nor comparison and enjoying the journey as I go. With this in mind, I am quite excited for the future”.

As she continues to progressively explore both her corporate and artistic trajectory, it is safe to say that she is finding fulfillment in the paths she has chosen, “I think I would say I am finding fulfillment in telling impactful stories, be it brand stories or films. I am not where I used to be and I am grateful to God for that. I believe there is always room for more, I love my journey and the path I’ve chosen, trusting God for greater things ahead.

One thing she did wish for young people was to take risks and learn as the journey is not an easy one. “The journey is not an easy one, I remember maxing out my accounts in shooting Becoming Abi just for the love of storytelling and to tell young people that no matter the challenges, you can always come out of it on the other side with your head held high. Also to live with a sense of urgency, not rushing because you know life happens, so maximize every moment you’ve got”, she advised.

As she smiles during a brief moment of reflection, it is certain her younger self would be happy with what she has accomplished and this is only the beginning as there are more exciting projects to come.

Faith Abdullah is a multifaceted Nigerian writer and journalist, who explores the intersectionality between culture, music, arts, fashion and film.

When she isn’t spending time writing or sending pitches to publications, she’s reading non-fiction novels and watching sci-fi movies.

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