Megan Foo, Editorial Assistant and Regular Contributor of The NextWomen Business Magazine, sits down with Yasmin Belo-Osagie and Afua Osei, Co-Founders of She Leads Africa, to talk about how women can be part of Africa’s growth story through entrepreneurship, innovation and business. She Leads Africa is a Nigeria-based social enterprise that equips female entrepreneurs in Africa with the knowledge, network, and financing needed to build and scale strong businesses.
What inspired you to start She Leads Africa?
We started She Leads Africa in June 2014, after meeting while working together at McKinsey & Company. Our names are Yasmin Belo-Osagie (recent Princeton alum) and Afua Osei (recent University of Chicago alum). The idea sprung from our recurring conversations about the large need for access to knowledge, networks, and financing for female entrepreneurs in Africa. Business of the continent still functions like an “old boys club.” We realized was prohibiting women from building and scaling strong businesses.
The story of Africa’s growth is not a new one. Entrepreneurship will be the broad based driver of economic growth for Africa with the potential to create jobs for the more than 200 million young Africans between ages 15 and 24. However, whilst Sub Saharan Africa has the highest rate of female entrepreneurship across the world (27%), the typical business profile is a consumer-oriented, one-woman enterprise with no employees and low expectations for future growth.
There are numerous NGO and skill building programs focused on micro and small businesses, but limited attention has been paid to investing in high growth female entrepreneurs who have the greatest potential to create large enterprises. It is these women who have the power to become global leaders and effect change on a mass scale.
We started She Leads Africa to curate groups of the most talented female entrepreneurs across the continent and diaspora.
As young Africans, our goal is to jumpstart female entrepreneurs from SMEs to pan-African industry leaders.
How does She Leads Africa plan to make women part of Africa’s growth story?
She Leads Africa has outlined 4 strategic initiatives:
- Events: Engage community (schools as well as professionals) through interactive events with peer entrepreneurs and business leaders. Partner with corporate organizations to host targeted workshops as part of their Africa outreach.
- Online Content: Curate and create online content (articles, videos) written by successful African entrepreneurs for people who are looking to do business on the continent.
- Investment Fund and Strategic Advisory Scheme: Provide low interest rate loans. All dispersal of funds accompanied with hand on support from SLA team and network Strategic advisor scheme leverages SLA volunteer network.
- Annual Pitch Competition: After wrangling sponsorship from the likes of Google, Forbes, and other major companies, we gave away over $55,000 in cash and services including financial and strategic advisory services as well as legal resources, to these special women to help get their businesses off the ground. Here are the finalists. The winner was Brooklyn-based Cherae Robinson, founder of Rare Customs.
What were the biggest challenges you faced when founding She Leads Africa?
She Leads Africa is a startup just like any other venture so we experienced the same ups and downs that any other new venture faced. One of the most significant challenges we faced was in convincing entrepreneurs to apply to our first pitch competition. We had a hypothesis that there were talented female entrepreneurs looking for a community and for exposure for their startup.
We convinced our investors and early supporters that we would be able to identify these entrepreneurs and ensure that they were investment ready. With only two weeks until the application deadline and after heavily promoting the competition and trying to recruit entrepreneurs we had less than 60 applicants.
That moment was extremely nerve wracking for us as we knew we had to have a larger pool of entrepreneurs to ensure we got the best of the best. We immediately had an all hands on deck meeting where everyone on our team from intern to co-founder came up with creative solutions to increase the number of applicants. At the end of the 6 week application cycle, we had nearly 400 applications.
During many phases of a startup, your original plan will not work. Instead of sticking to what you wrote down months ago we learned that you have to be ready to pivot and shift and think creatively about how you want to achieve your goal.
What were some key takeaways for you when founding She Leads Africa?
Here are four pieces of advice we have for female entrepreneurs, based on our experience launching our own project:
- Learn how to speak the language of investors: When engaging with investors all start ups need to have a basic understanding of key financial concepts including ROI, Cash Flow, Income Statements, Balance Sheets. This financial literacy will make you more appealing to investors. Contrary to popular belief there is a lot of venture capital floating around Africa. Start-ups need to learn how to present themselves as real businesses rather than “cool ideas”. It is this business savvy that will attract investors.
- Set a date and make it happen: People spend a lot of time thinking about and “planning” out their businessess. Yet though some initial thought and planning is needed, its also important to set a very clear launch date and stick to that timeline. It’s very easy to over plan and over think when you don’t have the pressure of a launch date to give you clarity. Always remember that being an entrepreneurs is not just about your ability to plan it’s about your ability to react and solve problems.
- Think bold and dream big: When we initially started She Leads Africa we thought it would be a one off pitch contest. In essence we limited our own dreams. After a period of self reflection and many long conversations with mentors we were encouraged to think bold and dream big. Our ambition is to become a household name amongst African female entrepreneurs who see us as their one stop shop support system as well as shrewd investors who are looking for lucrative and exciting investment opportunities on the continent.
- Teamwork is key: We’re very used to the Big Man culture in Africa. We see Dangote as the force behind the Dangote group, Tony Elumelu as the force behind Heir Holdings. However at She Leads Africa we believe that our team, not any one individual, is what drives our success. Each member of our team brought a unique set of experience and capabilities to the organization; this diversity was critical to our success.
How do you envision She Leads Africa’s future?
We envision She Leads Africa as becoming the ultimate resource for female entrepreneurs on the continent giving them access to networks, education, sponsors and finance that they need to jump start their businesses.
We aim to become a staple of the African investment community, providing investors with access to the best and brightest African entrepreneurs.
It is important to understand that She Leads Africa is not anti-male; many of our products will be useful for male as well as female entrepreneurs. We took care to build a team that included both men and women.
We believe diversity and gender inclusion. We exist because we have seen that there are a number of unique problems that female entrepreneurs on the continent face: problems that need to be faced if we are to reach true gender equality – a goal which will ultimately benefit African society as a whole.
Megan Foo is a Year 13 student at Chinese International School in Hong Kong. She has written often about issues in gender and education on online platforms like Girls’ Globe and VolunTEEN Nation. As well as being a regular contributor for The Next Women, she has recently joined the team as Editorial Assistant.
Having been involved with many initiatives including raising funds for family violence intervention training for adolescent girls in Guatemala, Megan is the Chief Content Officer of Givology, an online giving marketplace that leverages dollar donations to grassroots education projects in the developing world through a crowdfunding philanthropy business model.
Megan is also the President of the Hong Kong Chapter of Women LEAD, a peer-led, creativity-focused nonprofit that provides women’s leadership development training and advocacy in Nepal. When not volunteering, Megan enjoys running cross country, travelling, and reading about issues in STEM and economics.