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The Right Connections

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“The world needs a lot of help,” sighs Lilian Ajayi-Ore at the other end of the line in New York the Friday evening we speak to her from Johannesburg.

“If we are being completely candid, we have to sacrifice personal moments to do some of the things we all want to,” says Ajayi-Ore, founder of the Global Connections for Women Foundation (GC4W), a recipient of the Best of Manhattan Charity award for three years.

As she speaks, you can hear Ajayi-Ore’s year-old son Alexander Emmanuel in the background.

“As a mom, you never get an off day,” she laughs. “But he is the youngest of all the people I support.”

READ MORE: Highly Adaptable And Totally Indestructible

You can sense the adulation in her voice, both for her son and her other “priorities” – the young people she trains and the women and girls she creates opportunities for through her foundation, which has a reach of 3.5 million people worldwide.

“I am a women and girls global advocate, who believes in the importance of creating programs that provide a unique opportunity to assist them in succeeding in life. I am also a believer in partnerships and collaborations that will essentially create more open doors for women and girls to succeed,” says the 34-year-old go-getter from New York, originally from Nigeria.

The reason for these belief-systems could be her upbringing by a strong mother who was a single parent. She says her mother, Chief Temitope Ajayi – and her contributions to her community – was the inspiration for GC4W.

“She is also known as ‘Mama Diaspora’,” says Ajayi-Ore on her mother, who connects and creates job opportunities for the youth in Nigeria. “I could go on and on about her.”

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Currently pursuing a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, Ajayi-Ore is also a Harvard graduate and professor at New York University, School of Professional Studies.

More recently, she says she created and designed “the very first ‘Teach Gender Equality’ course and ‘Planet 50/50’ project on Microsoft”.

“This is to enable a global collaboration that fosters an environment where students can play a role in creating solutions for promoting gender equality and women empowerment,” states Ajayi-Ore.

She previously worked at the United Nations (UN) in New York, representing the Mission of Nigeria. She also spoke to people in the NGO space to see where she fit in.

That’s when she had an epiphany and decided to create a global connection and work to create solutions where inequalities lay. Ajayi-Ore visits Nigeria twice a year and also has plans for programs in Africa.

More Africans In The Diaspora

Iman is a supermodel and entrepreneur from Somalia. One of her country’s most famous exports, when she first arrived in America, people assumed she was “African royalty”. She also started her own line of cosmetics. The combination of her successful business and modeling career has made her very famous and respected.

Lupita Nyong’o is a multi-talented actress best known for her role in the Hollywood hit 12 Years a Slave. Born in Mexico, she was eventually able to move to Kenya. Early in her career, Nyong’o hit lead roles in film productions and movies, taking several awards home, including an Oscar. She is also a film director, having written and produced several of her own works.

Eunice Cofie is an entrepreneur, originally from Ghana, who combines the use of traditional African medicine with modern science to create a brand of products. Using her knowledge in chemistry/molecular biology, and her wits, she founded Nuekie, an innovative health and beauty company for people of color. She was the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leader in 2012.

Rebecca Enonchong is a technology entrepreneur who founded the company AppsTech. Originally from Cameroon, she moved to the US in her youth. Her career grew quickly. In 1999, she founded AppsTech serving over 40 countries.

Adiat Disu, honoree of the 20 Youngest Power Women In Africa 2014 on forbes.com, is an entrepreneur and fashion designer born in Nigeria. Also the founder of Africa Fashion Week New York, as a brand strategist, one of Disu’s goals is to spread and promote African brands and culture to the world. Disu believes helping other entrepreneurs achieve their own dreams is just as important as reaching her own.

 – Compiled by Arvind K Pillai

Entrepreneurs

Make The Colleges Pay: How This Entrepreneur Helps Companies Offer Education Benefits That Employees Will Actually Use

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Most edtech startups are idealistic outfits with little revenue and low valuations, but Rachel Romer Carlson’s Guild Education is worth $1 billion and is on track to book $100 million in sales. Her secret? Connecting workers who have tuition benefits to colleges that will gladly pay to meet them.

It’s 9AM two days before Thanksgiving in Arkansas, and Walmart executives are dragging their suitcases around a windowless office building in search of a large conference room. They settle on an interior lunchroom with dull gray carpet, claiming one side of a long table in the corner and gesturing for their guests to sit opposite them. Ellie Bertani, Walmart’s director of workforce strategy, says she’s struggling to find qualified people to staff the company’s expanding network of 5,000 pharmacies and 3,400 vision centers. Her fellow Walmart execs are silent, but Rachel Romer Carlson, 31, cofounder and CEO of Guild Education, sees her opening. Without hesitation she says her team can work with Walmart and find a solution fast. “You guys and us,” she says, “let’s do it!”

Carlson flew to Bentonville from Guild’s Denver headquarters the day before. Dressed in a sensible navy blazer and black slacks, she hasn’t bothered with makeup. Since 7:30 that morning she’s been huddling with teams of Walmart brass, going over options to train workers for those new jobs. They range from a one-year pharmacy technician certificate program offered by a for-profit online outfit called Penn Foster to an online bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration at nonprofit Southern New Hampshire University.

Carlson’s groundbreaking idea when she launched Guild four years ago: help companies offer education benefits that employees will actually use. Many big employers will pay for their workers to go to school (it’s a tax break), but hardly any workers take advantage of the opportunity. Applying and signing up for courses can be cumbersome, and in most instances employees have to front the tuition and wait to be reimbursed. Meanwhile, many colleges are desperate for students because they have small—or nonexistent—endowments and are financially dependent on tuition. Many nonselective online programs spend more than $3,000 to attract each new student. Carlson charges schools a finder’s fee (she won’t say how much) for the students she delivers from her corporate partners.

So far Guild has signed up more than 20 companies, including Disney and Taco Bell. Guild gets paid only if students complete their coursework, so a full 150 of the company’s 415 staffers serve as coaches who help employees apply to degree programs and plan how to balance their studies with work and family. When a company like Walmart requests a customized training course, Guild solicits proposals from as many as 100 education providers (nearly all of them online) and recommends the programs it deems best. It also negotiates tuition discounts and facilitates direct payments between employers and schools, a big plus for workers who would otherwise have to wait months to be reimbursed.

Carlson, an alumna of the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list and a judge on the 2020 list, says she has already channeled $100 million in tuition benefits to workers. She expects 2019 revenue to top $50 million, and Guild investor Byron Deeter of Bessemer Venture Partners predicts 2020 revenue of more than $100 million. In mid-November Carlson closed her fifth round of financing, led by General Catalyst, bringing her total money raised to $228 million at a $1 billion valuation. In the sleepy, well-intentioned world of edtech, Guild is one of only a few startups whose values have soared, says Daniel Pianko, a New York-based edtech investor with no stake in the company. “I can see a path for Guild to be a $100 billion company,” says Paul Freedman, CEO of San Francisco venture firm Entangled Group, who has known Carlson since she was in business school and was one of Guild’s earliest investors.

When asked to detail Guild’s inner workings, like its strategy for soliciting custom courses, Carlson eschews specifics and delivers what sounds like a political stump speech: “The economy’s moving so fast,” she says. “We can’t let higher education dictate the skills and competencies that we need five to ten years from now.”

 There’s a reason she talks this way. Her grandfather Roy Romer was a three-term (1987–1999) Democratic governor of Colorado before spending six years as superintendent of Los Angeles’ public schools. Carlson started riding along on his campaign bus when she was 6 years old; occasionally she would even speak at his rallies. When her father, Chris Romer, a former Colorado state senator, ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Denver in 2011, she served as his finance director. (“The loss was devastating,” she says.)

Along with politics, the Romers were committed to increasing access to education, especially for working adults. Roy Romer helped start Salt Lake City-based Western Governors University, a pioneer in online adult education. In the wake of Chris Romer’s mayoral bid, in 2011, he cofounded American Honors, a for profit company that offered honors courses at community colleges (the company struggled, and the brand is now owned by Wellspring International, a student recruitment firm).

After graduating from Stanford undergrad and working briefly in the Obama White House, Carlson launched her first venture, Student Blueprint, while getting her M.B.A. (also at Stanford) in 2014. Student Blueprint sought to use technology to match community college students with jobs. It was a noble idea, but she decided to finish school and sold the software she had developed to Paul Freedman’s Entangled Group in 2014 for a negligible sum. In 2015, after she wrapped up her M.B.A., she pitched the idea for Guild to one of her professors, Michael Dearing, and to seed investor Aileen Lee, of Cowboy Ventures, raising $2 million.

After relocating to her home turf in Denver, she landed her first major corporate partner the summer of 2016 when she sent a LinkedIn message to a Chipotle benefits manager that played up the fast-food chain’s “strong Denver roots and social mission.” With help from Guild, Chipotle’s $12-an-hour burrito rollers are now pursuing bachelor’s degrees from Bellevue University in Nebraska or taking computer security courses at Wilmington University in Delaware. In October 2019, Carlson persuaded Chipotle to lift its cap on tuition benefits above the $5,250 the IRS allows companies to write off.

Guild’s biggest competitor is a division of Watertown, Massachusetts-based publicly traded daycare provider Bright Horizons, which has offered tuition benefit services since 2009. It works with 210 companies including Home Depot and Goldman Sachs. Under Bright Horizons’ system, the companies—not the colleges—pay. Much of the genius of Guild’s business model is that it correctly aligns incentives: The colleges are the most financially motivated party, so they foot the bill. Another competitor, Los Angeles-based In Stride, launched in 2019 with funding from Arizona State University, and like Bright Horizons it charges the corporations.

“I see our competition as the status quo,” Carlson says. “Classically, employers have offered tuition-reimbursement programs, but no one is using those programs.”

The nonprofit Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation has done five case studies showing returns on investment as high as 140% for companies that offer tuition reimbursement programs. “We saw powerful impacts on retention,” says Lumina’s strategy director, Haley Glover.

 “Walmart and Amazon are in a death struggle,” proclaims Joseph Fuller, a professor at Harvard Business School. “If a Walmart worker can say, ‘I got an education that allowed me to get promoted,’ they’re going to be someone who speaks generously about Walmart and they are more likely be a Walmart shopper.”

Like a good politician, Carlson is working to please everyone. “We found a win-win,” she says, “where we can help companies align their objectives with helping their employees achieve their goals.”

 Alexandra Wilson and Susan Adams

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Billionaires

How To Become A Billionaire: Nigeria’s Oil Baroness Folorunso Alakija On What Makes Tomorrow’s Billionaires

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One of only two female billionaires in Africa, with a net worth of $1 billion, Nigeria’s oil baroness Folorunso Alakija elaborates on the state of African entrepreneurship today.

The 69-year-old Folorunso Alakija is vice chair of Famfa Oil, a Nigerian oil exploration company with a stake in Agbami Oilfield, a prolific offshore asset. Famfa Oil’s partners include Chevron and Petrobras. Alakija’s first company was a fashion label. The Nigerian government awarded Alakija’s company an oil prospecting license in 1993, which was later converted to an oil mining lease. The Agbami field has been operating since 2008; Famfa Oil says it will likely operate through 2024. Alakija shares her thoughts to FORBES AFRICA on what makes tomorrow’s billionaires:

What is your take on the state of African entrepreneurship today? Is enough being done for young startups?

There are a lot of business opportunities in Africa that do not exist in other parts of the world, yet Africa is seen as a poor continent. The employment constraints in the formal sector in Africa have made it impossible for it to meet the demands of the continent’s working population of which over 60% are the youth. Therefore, it is imperative we harness the potential of Africa’s youth to engage in entrepreneurship and provide adequate assistance to enable them to succeed.

Several governments have been working to provide a conducive atmosphere which will promote entrepreneurship on the continent. However, there is still a lot more to be done in ensuring that the potential of these young entrepreneurs are maximized to the fullest. Some of the challenges young startups in Africa face are as follows: lack of access to finance/insufficient capital; lack of infrastructure; bureaucratic bottlenecks and tough business regulations; inconsistent government policies; dearth of entrepreneurial knowledge and skills; lack of access to information and competition from cheaper foreign alternatives.

It is therefore imperative that governments, non-governmental agencies, and the financial sectors work together to ameliorate these challenges itemized above.

The governments of African nations should provide and strengthen its infrastructure (power, roads and telecom); they should encourage budding entrepreneurs by ensuring that finance is available to businesses with the potential for growth and also commit to further improving their business environments through sustained investment; there must also be a constant push for existing policies and legislation to be reviewed to promote business activities.

These policies must also be enforced, and punitive measures put in place to deter offenders; government regulations should also be flexible to constantly fit the dynamics of the business environment; corruption and unethical behavior must be decisively dealt with and not treated with kid gloves. We must empower our judicial system to enable them to prosecute erring offenders with appropriate sanctions meted out. There should be no “sacred cows” or “untouchables”. The same law must be applied to all, no matter their state or position in the society; non-governmental organizations can also provide support for them through training and skills acquisition programs that will help build their capacity; they could also provide finance to grow their businesses; more mentorship programs should be encouraged, and incubators of young enterprises should be supported by public policy aimed at improving the quality of these youths and their ventures; and also, avenues should be created where young entrepreneurs will be able to connect, learn and share ideas with already successful well-established entrepreneurs.

What, according to you, are the attributes needed for tomorrow’s billionaires?

There is no overnight success. You must start by dreaming big and working towards achieving it. You must be determined to succeed despite all odds. Do not allow your setbacks or failures to stop you but rather make them your stepping stone. Develop your strengths to attain excellence and be tenacious, never give up on your dream or aspiration. Your word must be your bond. You must make strong ethical values and integrity your watchword. Always act professionally and this will enable you to build confidence in your customers and clients. 

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Brand Voice

Charmaine Mabuza Honoured With FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Social Impact Award

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Brand Voice by Zamani Holdings and ITHUBA

Group CEO of Zamani Holdings, Charmaine Mabuza was honoured with the Social Impact Award at the 2020 FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit held in Durban ICC recently.

This award recognizes Mabuza for her measurable philanthropy that has positively impacted the lives of many South Africans for the past 21 years. 

At the top of her philanthropical projects is the Eric and Charmaine Mabuza Scholarship Foundation which she founded with her husband, Advocate Eric Mabuza in 1999. The Scholarship Foundation started in Mpumalanga, where the Mabuza’s business hub is centered. Speaking to Ukhozi FM in an interview, Charmaine Mabuza said that together with her husband, they funded this foundation straight from their pockets. “Both my husband and I come from humble beginnings and we know what it’s like to not have means to study further, especially when you believe that education is your way out of poverty. So when we started making good profits from our small businesses at the time, we decided to dedicate a portion of our personal income to funding tertiary education fees of previously disadvantaged children”, said Mabuza.

Powered by Zamani Holdings, the Scholarship Foundation later expanded its reach to the rest of South Africa, supporting over 160 students countrywide, many of which have qualified as Doctors, Chartered Accountants, Engineers, Quantity Surveyors and many more. The 2020 Scholarship Foundation programme launched on 13 January, with an intake of 21 students.

Zamani holdings has empowered the rest its group of companies to roll out CSI initiatives that truly transform the lives of ordinary South Africans. At the forefront of these initiatives is ITHUBA, the South African National Lottery Operator and Zamani’s flagship company.

In July 2017, ITHUBA launched the ITHUBA Female Retailer Development programme, specially designed to empower women who own spaza shops and informal supermarkets, who currently sell National Lottery products, from all around the country. This included women from previously marginalized communities in the rural outskirts.

In collaboration with reputable institutions such as Regenesys and the University of Johannesburg, this programme has upskilled over 100 women in retail business. The latest group of 14 women graduated in October 2019 at the University of Johannesburg’s Kingsway campus, each being awarded a qualification in Advanced Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation.

Zamani’s Social Responsibility initiatives include:

  • ITHUBA Graduate Programme: An annual skills development programme for graduates within the Marketing, Finance, IT, PR, HR and Logistics fields, with intake of 13 students in 2020.
  • Youth Enterprise Development:  Eradicating youth unemployment through developing upcoming entrepreneurs and helping them build sustainable, profit making business. 
  • Housing project: A project that builds houses for employees in the lower income brackets, who have been in the employment of the company for 10 years and more.
  • A media campaign to condemn femicide and violence against women.

“I firmly believe that education is key to eradicating poverty and injustice. This is why all of our initiatives are based on imparting knowledge and skills. Through education we empower, through education we liberate” said Mabuza.

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