I like to talk to the common people, I don’t like politics.”
Mae Azango sits on the edge of her bed in her old home that is wedged in a rocky enclave between the gray United States embassy and the modern apartments occupied by expatriate workers in Mamba Point, the poshest part of Monrovia, Liberia. Azango’s larger-than-life personality fills every inch of the dim, cramped, lemon-colored room where she lives with her 11-year-old daughter, Madasi. Within five minutes Azango has hijacked the interview and is yelling out the story of how she came to be one of the best-known female journalists in Liberia. Without a hint of irony, Azango refers to herself in the third person, claims to be a household name and universally feared by Liberia’s political establishment; then announces to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf that she will never compromise herself by taking a job from her.
Some might say Azango likes to bluff or show off, but the 41-year-old single mother is one of a new generation of headstrong female journalists, who are not afraid to compete with their male counterparts or reel off lists of their achievements.
“This breed is more aggressive than what we had before,” says Elizabeth Hoff, who was the first female managing editor of a Liberian newspaper and the first woman to be elected president of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL).
Hoff, who now serves as deputy information minister, remained an editor throughout the heat of Liberia’s 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. She says a lot has changed since she worked in journalism, when many women left the profession out of fear for their safety. Those who stayed on fought sexism and struggled to win respect from their male colleagues.
Azango is one of a handful of female journalists in Liberia who have not only earned respect from their male colleagues, but also international recognition. She is part of New Narratives, an organization that supports independent media in Liberia. Founded and headed by Prue Clarke, an Australian foreign correspondent who reported in Africa for a number of years, the organization was set up in 2010, with funding from a Goldman Sachs partner. New Narratives teamed up the muckraking daily newspaper FrontPage Africa, for which Azango and the other fellows work.
These reporters have driven much of the hard-hitting reporting on violence against women and girls in Liberia, ranging from stories on child rape, teen prostitution, maternal health, corruption and education, for which they have won domestic and international accolades.
Azango received the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) International Press Freedom award in 2012 for her controversial reporting on female circumcision, a practice that takes place in the traditional Sande societies that exist within 10 of Liberia’s 16 tribes. She says she received death threats and was forced into hiding, moving from house to house and avoiding the newspaper office for a month. Mohamed Keita, the advocacy coordinator for CPJ’s Africa Program, described Azango as “outspoken”, “fearless”, and “persistent.”
But this was not the first time Azango had experienced threats of violence. Like her other female colleagues who are part of New Narratives, Azango’s experiences of coming of age during the war compelled her to become a journalist and report on the struggles of women and girls.
Azango recounts, in vivid detail, a memory from the early days of the war, when she was 18-years-old and pregnant with her first child, Victor, who is now 22. She says the pregnancy saved her from being forcibly taken as a girlfriend by a rebel.
Charles Taylor’s forces had closed in on Monrovia and Azango was picking potatoes around her home. She kept crossing a checkpoint that was controlled by a fierce commander.
“‘Why am I keep seeing a pregnant woman?’ he yelled. ‘I am looking for a young girl and she is spoiled, why is she in front of me? At the count of five if you don’t disappear I will spray you.’ I was running like a cut, dead dog,” says Azango.
With a father who was an associate Supreme Court justice and a mother who was a teacher, Azango initially aspired to be a hotel manager. But after 10 years of war in her homeland, Azango’s memories of a privileged childhood were replaced with raw experiences of being a poor refugee in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire.
When she returned from exile in 2000, Azango studied journalism at the University of Liberia and has never looked back. Unlike most journalists who focus on the sensational stories surrounding the political establishment, Azango writes about the masses, the ordinary Liberians who live on less than a dollar a day.
“I like to talk to the common people, I don’t like politics,” Azango tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA. “Why? Because I feel politics come and go.”
But she is committed to journalism that delivers political change. Her reporting attracted so much international attention that the government called for an end to female genital mutilation, although Azango says it continues. Azango’s report on the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl by a police officer who walked free for over three months, led to the his arrest.
While the horrific violence perpetrated against women during Liberia’s civil war has come to an end, many Liberian women and girls continue to struggle with sexism and abuse and it doesn’t stop in the workplace. One renowned journalist and editor, who died recently, even had a policy of not hiring female reporters.
Wade Williams, 31, is one of two female newsroom chiefs in Liberia, also a New Narratives fellow and Azango’s colleague and friend. Her past three years at FrontPage Africa have proved challenging, with some of her male colleagues hesitant to accept her leading role. But after three years in the job, the reporters have grown to respect her and women have taken a leading role in the newspaper headed by journalist and editor Rodney Sieh.
Last year Williams became the second Liberian woman to win Journalist of the Year at the PUL awards, since the press union was established in 1964.
For Clarke, these achievements have led to a major shift in how female journalists are perceived in Liberia.
“The sheer fact that women, who were once considered worthy of being nothing more than anchors and doing entertainment, are now breaking the most important stories in Liberia and are among the most credible journalists in Liberia has revolutionized everything,” Clarke tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
Back in Azango’s room we discuss the future of her career. She is uncertain as to whether she wants to continue being a journalist or become an activist working with abused women. The line between activism and journalism has always been a thin one for Azango.
As we leave her house she stands on the stoop and yells, “thank you for taking up my whole day,” in a sarcastic tone, pretending not to have enjoyed telling her story. Dressed in leggings, a bright red t-shirt and floral hair tie, Azango is surrounded by children and women with white knuckles rubbing wet clothes against washing racks. She flashes her broad smile and flips out a nonchalant wave. Perhaps she has reason to bluff.
What Will It Take To Close The Funding Gap For Black Female Founders?
If you’ve heard the statistics once, you’ve probably heard them a thousand times: Of the nearly $100 billion in venture funding that goes to entrepreneurs in America, less than 3% goes to female founders and just 0.2% goes to black female founders.
There’s a growing consensus that venture capital’s race problem needs to be fixed.What’s less clear is precisely how to start closing the massive gulf. And at the inaugural Black Women Raise conference in Manhattan on Friday, a gathering of some 80 black female founders, a series of candid conversations laid bare the frustrations around the lack of an obvious path forward. In several raw moments of interchange, however, some answers started to emerge.
Investors “could ask different questions,” Charles Hudson, founder and managing partner of Precursor Ventures, said during a panel conversation with BBG’s Susan Lyne, First Round Capital’s Hayley Barna, and Female Founder’s Fund Sutian Dong. “There are all these questions—‘Well, do you think she can recruit? Do you think she can hire?’—I know what’s behind that question.
It’s ‘Do you think she can get people to work for her because she’s a black woman?’ And people ask these, what on the surface sound like innocent enough legitimate questions about investments, but they’re not innocent. They’re loaded. And you learn a lot by the questions people ask.”
Despite the existence (and, arguably, preponderance) of these loaded questions, Hudson and the others cautioned the entrepreneurs in the room against becoming disillusioned with the traditional venture capital community. Instead, they said, minority founders should prioritize investors who have a track record of investing in entrepreneurs who look like them.
“Vet investors up front. Don’t let them waste your time only to give you a half-ass answer after you spend an hour with them or even two weeks later,” said Barna, who started her venture capital career after successfully cofounding e-commerce darling Birch Box. “Just ask, ‘Is this in your sweet spot?’”
Dong noted that investors should be self-monitoring for where they’re over- and under-indexing, too. “We’ve said we don’t like the ratio of founders in our portfolio. About half are nonwhite, but only two are African-American. So we asked our network who we should be talking to,” she said.
It can be hard, in an open and on-the-record forum, to ask the hard questions about investing in underrepresented founders—much less to receive forthright answers to those questions—but to the credit of the Black Women Raise attendees, no one shied away from speaking about the reality of her experience as a founder of color.
“Everyone talks about the ‘friends and family round.’ I raised $63,000; I am the friends and family round,” quipped Star Cunningham, founder and CEO of health management platform 4D Healthware. But underpinning her self-funding, Cunningham continued, was a lack of capital access. “I have debt, because I had to get it, because no one wanted to give me any money. So what are you, as investors, going to do to look at our companies differently?”
Barna’s reply: Don’t be afraid to talk about your distance traveled. “The same stories about people getting straight A’s from Ivy League schools isn’t what gets us fired up; it’s instead hearing about how someone put themselves through med school from driving an ambulance,” she said. “You might think that you’re not supposed to talk about your life story, but I think it’s an important data point in helping [investors] make the right decision.”
This isn’t to say that a little bit of information and clever storytelling will fix the funding gap for founders of color. Viola Llewellyn, cofounder of African fintech platform Ovamba, pointed out as much, saying that many of the investors she’s come across don’t seem interested in asking the questions that lead to the sorts of decisions Barna is referencing.
“Here’s the problem: No one gets punished intellectually, emotionally, or financially for saying no to black women or to Africans. You will instead be congratulated if you don’t make the ‘foolish mistake’ of investing in something that doesn’t fit into the preconceived ideas of what success is,” Llewellyn said to Hudson, Lyne, Barna and Dong.
“At what point do we find a way to tell the story of the fool that said no?” she continued, to applause from the room.
Hudson waited a beat, and responded with empathy.
“There’s a million reasons [for investors] to say no, but until we have more success stories, I think there’s always an easy out for people to say, ‘No one has proven to me that investing in this way and this type of person works out.’ It’s intellectually lazy and it’s wrong,” he said. “You have every right to be angry.”
Angry, yes, but also motivated. Among the clearest takeaways from the conversation is that one of the best ways to change the system is to start from within. In Silicon Valley and Arlan Hamilton parlance, fight pattern-matching with pattern-matching.
“More black women need to control capital, in whatever form that may be,” Dong said. “More black women need to be controlling capital to put that into companies run by black female founders.”
Masai Ujiri’s dream of harnessing untapped African talent
The President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, on his adoration for Africa as a continent filled with unlimited potential and talent.
The tall man in sport, Masai Ujiri, is a name in professional basketball far beyond the borders of Africa and his native Nigeria.
Born in England but having grown up in Zaria in Africa’s most populous country, Ujiri’s adoration for Africa sees him on the continent often, inspiring the youth.
“Africa is no more afraid. We are not afraid of anybody anymore. The continent is bold. The people are bold,” says Ujiri, when FORBES AFRICA meets him in Johannesburg in November at the Africa Investment Forum in which he participated.
The continent has a special place in his heart.
The President of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA), also founded Giants of Africa (GOA) in 2003, as a way of harnessing budding, untapped talent.
“As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway,” he says.
Ujiri, who started playing basketball at the age of 13, travels to Africa every August to visit the GOA camps across seven countries on the continent, training young boys and girls to be leaders in both sport and everyday life.
He says he draws inspiration from each and every country in Africa, and the feeling is inexplicable.
The history and culture are a constant reminder of his years growing up in Africa.
Whether it is in Kenya, where his mother was born, or the lasting friendships in Rwanda, Senegal or Nigeria, each country holds special memories.
Apart from the numerous trips in and out of the continent, 2018 granted Ujiri a rare once-in-a-lifetime moment.
This was in July when Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, visited Kenya, and with him, Ujiri opened a basketball court in the country.
Ujiri’s outreach program GOA launched it at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resources and Vocational Centre in Alego; familiar ground for both leaders.
Managed by Auma Obama, Sauti Kuu, much like GOA, is focused on youth development.
“To spend that time with somebody that Africa means so much to, meant so much to me and so much to Auma. We are trying to inspire youth, we built a court that is going to impact the youth and that was special,” says Ujiri.
Being able to scout African talent is what is imperative for Ujiri, and it all comes down to building facilities to help the youth play basketball.
Ultimately, his dream for Africa is not only to see material wealth but for talent to go beyond what he has achieved.
“My dream is to have one of the youth become bigger than me, and bigger than everybody. People think I always dream of building this and doing that but I want one of these kids to take everything that they learn and do better in each and everything.
“I love the continent; I love the culture of different places. I am almost like Anthony Bourdain [the late American celebrity chef], that is how it really is with basketball, with the culture, the people and the food,” says Ujiri.
Staying true to his African roots, when we meet him, Ujiri speaks about his favorite yam and stew dish that he says reminds him of his childhood.
It’s such memories that see him taking the long-haul flight out of Toronto to Africa each year.
Brewing Success: Lessons From A Beer Baron
Canadian John Sleeman shares his entrepreneurial lessons with Africa.
cis not your typical textbook entrepreneur. His belief in what it takes to be an entrepreneur is so controversial that his advice is no longer welcome in MBA classes. The white-haired charismatic brewer, who re-established his family’s brewing business in 1988 as one of the most successful in Canada, offers sage advice to African entrepreneurs, although he has no plans to expand in Africa – yet.
Nonchalantly, in his automated beer manufacturing plant in Guelph, Canada, surrounded by people enjoying his craft beer, Sleeman says he believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. He argues that unless you are prepared to go bankrupt, work over 80 hours a week, lose your friends, face the prospect of divorce, put your house on mortgage and miss meeting friends for drinks on Fridays, then entrepreneurship is not for you.
He should know. This is the toll he took to restart his family business. It had lost its licence and was banned from the market for 50 years in 1933. This was for smuggling beer during the roaring 1920s by brokering deals with bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone when prohibition set in in Canada.
Passionately, the beer baron, who plans to open a micro-distillery later this year, and is considering expanding his business in either the eastern or western parts of Canada, tells FORBES AFRICA: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, be very focused on what you want to achieve and don’t let people talk you out of it. If it is a dream, pursue it until you are successful.”
He attributes his success to surrounding himself with the right people. They will make or break your business, says Sleeman. You should be ready to change your business model if the current one isn’t working, he adds.
In his own case, he did this after his colleague advised him that rather than opening up new breweries across Canada, he should buy existing ones that share Sleeman Breweries’ crazy passion for beer and authenticity.
Sleeman reckons you shouldn’t grow so big that you lose your entrepreneurial flair, first-mover advantage and risk-appetite, but you also shouldn’t remain so small that you get knocked out of business or get bought out by someone who does not see your vision and wants to dismantle you, as it almost happened to his business in 2006. If you do sell, reminisces Sleeman, sell to someone who sees your vision, like Sleeman Breweries did, when Japanese company Sapporo saved the Guelph-based firm from a hostile takeover.
But that’s history. Since then, Sapporo has helped fund research and development and training for the business, whose humble, down-to-earth founder is now taking it on its next spirited journey.
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