Afua Osei and Yasmin Belo-Osagie were lucky they shared the same vision when over a year ago they launched She Leads Africa, a social enterprise supporting female entrepreneurs on the continent.
They had both previously worked for women’s causes, though in different capacities. Osei, a Ghanaian, had worked with women keen on running for Congress in the United States (US), while Belo-Osagie, whose parents hail from Nigeria and Ghana, had led the women’s mentorship initiative during her tenure at management consulting firm McKinsey in Lagos.
After a year of toying with the idea, they put in motion a She Leads Africa pitch competition in Lagos, inviting over 200 sound entrepreneurial ideas from African women and assessing them to provide crucial support and financing.
“Getting involved in the technology and start-up ecosystem in Accra and Lagos showed me that the need for advice and resources [among] young women wasn’t exclusive to the corporate track. Young women looking to build companies were faced with an environment that was neither friendly nor encouraging. When I connected with Yasmin, we knew this was the right time to pursue She Leads Africa,” admits Osei.
“I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur. However, each time I asked myself, ‘Who are the women I can look up to in this quest?’ I realized there were just not that many of them,” echoes Belo-Osagie.
The first hurdle they encountered was that the women they met had great business ideas but no business education to know how to execute them, especially when it came to sourcing funding.
Other areas of concern for the founders continue to be stereotyping and networking issues. They saw that in Africa, small and medium enterprises are headed by female entrepreneurs who believe they can only go so far.
“We want people to understand that greater female participation in the economy is a good thing and it’s not just a moral argument. It’s a developmental and economic one,” says Belo-Osagie.
In their own lives, the cofounders have donned many professional hats. But all roads finally led them to Lagos.
Belo-Osagie had varying interests (law, finance, journalism) and explored them at college. She graduated cum laude in history from Princeton University in the US.
“I also had interests in non-academic work and soon made my way to Le Cordon Bleu [famous culinary school] in London and Paris, and then went off to work in Hong Kong at the Mandarin Oriental,” she says.
After that, she joined McKinsey as a business analyst in Lagos, leaving it eventually to focus on She Leads Africa.
“I am not driven by money,” says Belo-Osagie. “I am driven by the opportunity to solve interesting problems related to Africa. I would also like to get into public policy one day.”
Osei on the other hand graduated cum laude from Allegheny College in the US, and served as a political consultant providing strategy and communications expertise to political campaigns across the US.
Mid-way through the political campaigning, she also served as a Fulbright Scholar in Malaysia and worked for the US’ First Lady Michelle Obama in her research and communications teams.
She took time off to pursue a Master’s in Public Policy and Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Chicago and thereafter moved to Lagos to work for a management consulting firm.
“I am passionate about business and social innovation, its ability to empower and unite people to create value for a bigger vision,” says Osei.
They focused the pitch competition on four key groups: young entrepreneurs, investors, impact-driven foundations and high net-worth individuals, offering 10 finalists a platform to grow their existing networks and gain industry-specific knowledge.
Cherae Robinson, CEO of Rare Customs & Tastemakers Africa, who emerged competition-winner with $10,000 in support of her business, says She Leads Africa closes a critical gap for Africa-focused female entrepreneurs.
“The mentorship, the confidence, funding and continued support I have received after the competition has contributed to my fearlessness in building a multimillion dollar business,” says Robinson.
Taffi Woolward, CEO& Co-founder of Thando’s, also a finalist, says through She Leads Africa, she was invited to present her company at the Diaspora Demo Day held at the World Bank in Washington DC.
She Leads Africa has aggressive pan-African plans and for the young founders fronting it, there is no better time for it than now.