Seyi Oluyole is the founder of Dream Catchers Academy, a non-profit based in Ikorodu, Lagos. Recently, she spoke with us about her dreams for her establishment, her initial challenges and how an American star helped her non-profit raise millions online.
Why did you start Dream Catchers Academy?
I had always wanted an academy like this since I was 11 years old. It didn’t actually exist when I was younger, and I felt that it needed to. It was initially a dance group, but it grew into a school. I wanted to create that thing that nobody thought to create.
How was it like growing up? Where did you live?
I grew up in Lagos. First in Mile 2 Estate and then Ebute Meta and Ikorodu. I went to Covenant University to study English and Literary Studies. I wanted to study Theatre Arts, but my parents were not going to pay for that.
Typical Naija story. But what did they have against it?
My dad thought I was just going to play.
He didn’t want to pay money for you to be playing.
I remember my mum waking me up one night to say I had to go with Mass Communication because my dad was complaining. She has always been supportive of my artistic tendencies, so she said this to me in a pacifying way.
Mass Comm? Not Law or Engineering or something else from the Nigerian parent’s ‘Legitimate Degree’ handbook?
I was always in love with the arts, so there was no engineering choice. And I was not interested in Law.
So how did you end up studying English and Literary Studies?
We agreed on Mass Communications, but when the admission came it was for English and Literary Studies. So, I kind of got my way a bit.
What happened after school?
I have always taught children how to dance, so I continued doing that while waiting for NYSC. Then I got a scholarship for a master’s degree in Human Services in the US. But the head of the company that was sponsoring me died and there was no succession plan.
So I hustled for a bit in the US and ended up working in a school for underserved kids. After a while, however, I started to feel a disconnect. The kids in the schools were different from the ones I knew in Nigeria.
What was the difference?
It was like a private school in Nigeria. They would have computer time and the toilets were clean and they would eat lunch and breakfast and even an after-school meal. It was always balanced diet, too, with fruits and chocolate or strawberry milk.
You were like, “That is not how Nigerian schools for underserved areas are like.”
Exactly. And they were complaining. I was like, “Hey God!” I did that for two years and came back in 2014. When I was coming back, my older siblings were telling me that I have chosen suffering, but I had made up my mind.
I had planned to do my non-profit, and I was using the name Nurture My Future, but it was never a registered organisation. When I was returning, I was older and had a bit more direction, so I created the website myself and worked extra hard to have enough savings. When I got back, I got a job.
In Surulere, and I was living in Ikorodu. It was crazy especially for someone just coming back from America!
Yes. I would wake by 4 AM and take a bus. After a month or two, I quit. This was after I suggested remote work and they refused.
This was back in those days.
Yes. You know it was the pandemic that made people more agreeable to remote working.
True. What happened next? How were you making a living?
I was doing some ghost-writing. Then, I applied for a screenwriting job for Tinsel, the Africa Magic TV show. That was more money, so things were easier. I started living with the kids. This was still in Ikorodu.
So how long were you there? I know that Tinsel has refused to end. It’s a forever living product.
[Laughs] Tinsel will not end. It is for generation after generation. I worked on it and some other Africa Magic projects until 2020. From February 2015. I took a break because I wanted to focus on the non-profit.
But Tinsel was your major source of income?
Yes, but I wrote other scripts. Some I sold without caring for credits.
How much were you earning at your Surulere place?
How much of a bump was Tinsel?
About 200%. It depends on how many scripts you write per month, and we have a paid writers’ workshop. So maybe in a month it would come to around the ₦200,000 mark. My expenses also increased. We have about 30 kids now. At the time, I was living with about 12 kids.
Wow. What were the expenses?
Feeding and schooling; sometimes healthcare.
When did it become official? When did you register Dream Catchers Academy?
That was in 2016.
After becoming an official non-profit, how were you getting funding?
It was mostly from social media, even if social media wasn’t exactly strong at the time. I also took the kids to churches to perform. I think two kids got their school fees paid through such church performances.
Then my boss at Tinsel put up a post on her Facebook, like look at what this 24-year-old is doing. People donated to us and it gave us some much-needed awareness. People donated money and some household items.
That must have been nice. At what stage did it feel like Dreamcatchers Academy would survive?
I think that was in 2018, when we had a viral moment.
What’s the behind-the-scenes story behind that video?
It was not an easy time, so sometimes the kids would eat twice a day. We were on another day of two meals, but I wanted them to eat what we had in the evening, so I was looking for a way to distract them.
At the time, we would dance to newly released songs hoping to get invited to maybe a music video or something. That was my strategy then. To distract the kids, I said we should dance to “Nowo,” the Wizkid and DJ Spinall song, which had been released the day before.
I said we should do a dance video first and then we’ll eat. I didn’t even like the video, but I posted it the next day and then it started to go round and round and round. [The video was also shared by Rihanna on her Instagram.]
Wow. Did the video have a donate button or something? How did it help?
The video brought attention to our page and when people get to our page, they see that we are a non-profit. And then some donate.
Can you recall how much you guys were able to raise?
Maybe around ₦5 to ₦6 million.
Great. How long did the virality continue to help your fundraising?
Around six months. You know Naomi Campbell came visiting. She gave us $1,000 and donated food. That food lasted us for a whole year!
Fantastic. Since then how has it been?
It has been good. One thing I will say is that I was young. If that viral thing happened now, I would handle it differently. Now we have a school, so imagine Naomi Campbell coming and seeing a school rather than a young woman living with kids in her house. But it really helped.
It increased our followership and now there are non-profits recreating our style by using dancing to get attention. Sometimes people see us and say, “You guys were the ones that went viral in 2018, right?” So, it helped us build a foundation.
How were you able to build a school? That’s super remarkable.
Thank you. It was something we wanted to do even though the heavy attention is on tech. We want to give formal education and also get people into the arts. So, raising funds for it was very difficult. But we had a GoFundMe and our international audience was more understanding than Nigerians regarding our vision for the arts.
During the pandemic we recreated a Lady Gaga video and she donated her Instagram Stories to us for a full day. From that, we were able to raise almost $10,000.
Woosh! That must have helped a lot.
Yes! We were just at foundation level at the time and didn’t know when next we’d be able to do something. That money made sure we were able to show other people a structure on ground and develop trust.
Great. What are you and your team up to these days?
We just commissioned the school, so we are taking a breather. We actually want to build a home for 100 homeless girls. We have a property; we just need to build.
We got a grant for International Women’s Day to build a tech centre, where we’ll teach animation and similar things — because I don’t think it’s right to separate these things into tech and art. They feed into each other one way or the other.
Indeed. How much did you raise from the GoFundMe?
If that was to come in today, how would it be split for operations?
Because of inflation, it would be about 55% for feeding and welfare. 20% for allowance and consultancy. Staffing would take about 20%. The school operates as an actual school and fees are being paid by people sponsoring kids. The rest of the money we might plough back into other things for the Academy.
One challenge is that people would rather pay for school than for housing, so we have to explain that while education is necessary, the kids can’t live in school. We have everything broken down. And even then, our staff render their services at a discount. But we give incentives to staff to appreciate their work.
Speaking of percentages, in terms of your dreams for these kids, how much have you achieved?
[Laughs] I would say 50%.
More to do.
What would you advise anyone currently setting up a non-profit?
First: You need to register your establishment. For the first six months, people kept saying they couldn’t support us because we weren’t registered.
Second: Hire people that understand and are passionate about the work.
Lastly: Let there be a potential to scale for every programme you do, to get bigger and be able to be recreated elsewhere.
How about for you personally? What would you do differently if you were starting today?
Intervention scaling. Every programme that we do, I would make sure that the opportunity and potential for scaling is clearly stated. When we had our viral moment, we were just living in my house, so it was difficult for people to trust that their money would not be squandered.
We now have that settled. We are accountable. We have an auditor and we have an accountant. Everything is just right. Also, we would be able to send you a document describing what your donation will be used for.
It took us a while to get around to doing that, but we do that very well now.
So what happens in the future?
Once the school is successful and standing on its own, we will scale it to other states and even outside Nigeria.