The past two years have seen a sharp increase in women’s empowerment initiatives around the world. Global Icons in entertainment, the arts and business such as Chimamanda Adichie, Beyoncé and Sheryl Sandberg have helped push the cause into mainstream media and consciousness. Some may regard it as a trend or a fad but only time will tell. The truth remains that these initiatives are needed. There is still immense gender inequality globally and Sub Saharan Africa is not different. There have been some significant advancement for women’s equality but there is vast room for growth. The non-government organisation (NGO) She Leads Africa (SLA) has an ambitious mission to empower female leaders, particularly entrepreneurs operating large-scale enterprises. SLA has been in operation for only one year and yet they are beginning to make an impact. The founders Yasmin Belo-Osagie and Afua Osei, two capable individuals give insight to the intricacies, difficulties and triumphs in running She Leads Africa
The second pitch competition is underway, what unique qualities will you be looking for from applicants?
Our pitch competition is looking for Africa’s most talented and exciting women led start-ups. In order to make it to the finals we want to see applicants who are actually solving critical problems for consumers, not just nice to have side projects. We also look for businesses that can be scaled to other African and global markets and founders who have a long-term vision. Finally, businesses don’t build themselves so we also want to see a strong team that will be able to execute on the business idea.
Are there any success stories you want to share from the former SLA finalists or winners?
Most definitely. Our last winner recently closed her seed round and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars (we are not able to release specifics yet). A portion of these funds were given to her by investors that SLA introduced her to. She was also accepted into the African Leadership Network’s accelerator program.
For our third place winner, Thando’s Shoes, we connected her with an African fashion e-commerce website in the US. Now she is not only able to sell her gorgeous foldable ballet flats in Nigeria but also in the US where they can be sold for a premium.
It is important for us to continue supporting the entrepreneurs not only as they prepare for the competition but after they finish the competition and are looking to take the lessons they learned and put them into practice.
Are there any female entrepreneurs on the continent that you admire?
I admire different female entrepreneurs for different reasons. To give a few examples: Carmen Tal, the Moroccan entrepreneur who founded Moroccan Oil is an example of someone who used local materials to create a great product that is now sold at salons around the world. Divine Ndhlukuka, who founded an e-Security firm is a great example of someone who built a strong business in a male dominated firm. Her business now has revenues of over $13 million and employs over 3,400 people. Adenike Ogunlesi, founder of Ruff n Tumble, is a great example of someone who has been resilient and has built a company that has withstood the test of time
SLA has been in operation for about 1 year, what have been the key lessons so far (these can be triumphs or setbacks)?
The key lesson we’ve learnt is around the importance of process and structure. As a startup, its very easy to get lax and stay informal. However we found success in creating processes that ensured we consistently delivered value to our community but were still flexible enough to bring in new ideas and quickly change.
On your website you state that one of the disadvantages African women entrepreneurs experience is ‘constraining cultural stereotypes’, how does SLA plan to combat this?
The proof is in the pudding! The easiest way to combat stereotypes is to show that they are simply not true. With our website series Entrepreneur’s Spotlight and our instagram series, Behind The Scenes we show first hand the diversity of young female entrepreneurs who are building innovative businesses across the continent.
By giving these young women a platform to share their stories and an avenue to connect with a broader audience, we are able to demonstrate that young women are more than capable of building successful businesses. This type of publicity also serves to inspire the younger generation so that when they hear statements about women not being able to build serious businesses they will know that is simply not true because they have seen otherwise.
SLA is a pan-African organization, is that not too ambitious? Would it not be more practical to focus on West Africa, which is experiencing the most rapid economic growth?
We tell our entrepreneurs to be ambitious and dream big. We wouldn’t be authentic if we didn’t follow our own advice. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being ambitious. In fact one of the problems we’ve seen is that African women are not ambitious enough. We grow our business until they are small or medium and then we get comfortable. That’s why you see very few large industry titans built by women.
If a young college kid can build Facebook – a global business that has hundreds of millions of users, why should we not set ourselves the goal of building a pan African business? He only has one head and so do we!
I would disagree with your statement about West Africa. Based on an IMF report that came out this year, the 4 fastest growing economies in Africa will be Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Ivory Coast – only 1 of these is west Africa. To give another example, Kenya is actually growing faster than Nigeria. Even if you look at the absolute size of the economies there’s no reason to believe that West Africa is above the rest of the regions. Of the 10 largest economies in Africa only 1 is West African. South Africa, Egypt, Algeria, Angola, Kenya are all huge economies that cannot be ignored.
We believe there is significant value that can be gained from supporting more cross-continent collaborations and helping young women gain access to broader markets beyond their immediate areas. There are also lessons to be learned from many emerging markets and we shouldn’t only look to the West to advise on how to do things. We want to encourage our network to see Africa as their land of opportunity and source of knowledge.
In the SLA survey, less than 5% of applicants received funding from the government and banks. This is a problem for all entrepreneurs. Are there future plans to engage financial institutions and government stakeholders to create better solutions for women entrepreneurs?
Gaining access to finance is definitely a challenge for most young entrepreneurs and unfortunately, young women struggle even more. While much of the focus in the startup world is on venture capital we know that is not a viable option for all entrepreneurs and that banks and government backed programs are another good source of funding. We are currently working on developing programs with financial institutions to help them identify strong and capable entrepreneurs.
Plenty of banks want to lend to SMEs and startups. However, banks consistently complain that it is very difficult to identify lendable entrepreneurs. This is often because entrepreneurs do not know how to package themselves such that they become lendable. Over the next couple of months we will be working with these organisations to educate entrepreneurs so that they know how to effectively access funding.
Apart from SLA’s signature Pitch Competition, what else can we expect to see in the next 3 years from SLA?
We will continue to develop our online presence so that we become the go-to destination for young African female entrepreneurs. We have a great editorial team that creates fun yet educational and inspirational articles for young women. We’ve also created a weekly newsletter that has tips and tricks for young women on how to build their businesses.
Building a sense of community is especially important to us so we just launched a chat forum where young women can discuss and debate issues that are relevant to them. Who knows maybe you can find your next business partner on our chat forum! Your readers can go to www.sheleadsafrica.org to get all these free resources!
Finally, we are working on developing a financing vehicle that allows us to fund strong businesses that we find on the continent.