Edutech remains uncharted territory for African women and the US-returned Tosin Durotoye has a solution.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was a moment of reckoning for millions around the world, particularly for those living in the United States (US).
For Tosin Durotoye, it meant the time had finally come to relocate to Nigeria.
It had been a good run in the land of milk and honey where she had lived most of her formative years.
This was, however, a far cry from where Durotoye grew up in Ife, Osun State, Nigeria, where she spent her early childhood, learning taekwondo on the campus of Obafemi Awolowo University where her dad was a professor.
After accepting a teaching appointment in North Carolina during the turbulent Sani Abacha regime, Durotoye, along with her younger brother and sister, migrated to the US. As she held on to her three-month-old resignation letter, waiting for an eureka moment, she began the slow journey down memory lane.
“I have always been into impact work. I have always had this idea of doing well and doing good at the same time. I had a job that I ended up keeping for 18 years and that was working for the Red Cross. I absolutely loved it and that is when I knew what I found joy in was helping people and making an impact. I started at 16 teaching CPR and first aid, and I got certified to do life-saving practices,” says Durotoye.
She majored in political science and after stumbling on urban planning through a friend, Durotoye enrolled for the city planning graduate program at New York University where she focused on economic development, community development and housing development.
“The minute I saw what urban planning was, I said this was what I wanted to do. It was [a means to plan] the city in ways that consider the people first. We always talk about how people come first, so you consider things like where the school [is built], and where there is underdevelopment and where hospitals need to be. So I thought this was perfect because it allowed me to think about policy and allowed me to use my creative side as well and I felt like I would be impacting lives by being a city-planner,” says Durotoye.
Immediately after graduate school, she joined an organization called Circle Point where she worked on projects in the Washington DC area. The bulk of the work focused on communication and project management.
The organization served as an intermediary between government and the private sector. Then came a stint with NeighborWorks America, where Durotoye honed her professional skills wearing several hats, including project management and several leadership responsibilities. The organization had the goal of creating opportunities for low and moderate-income communities.
“They are federally funded and they also had their own business they are running, so it was both an NGO and private entity. So, I went into affordable housing and home ownership, and I ended up managing millions of dollars’ worth of brands on behalf of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development,” says Durotoye.
Before she knew it, eight years had flown by. She needed a sign. The appointment of Trump was surely a prophecy that her time in the US had come to an end. This was preceded by a job offer in the edutech space, which was flexible enough to allow her to work remotely from Lagos in Nigeria.
“I thought it looked like Trump was going to win and I think I had been in the US for long enough and I thought I had done a lot here but I had not looked back home. I thought to myself, ‘you want to impact people, yet you have not looked back to your home’.”
It was time to commit. The ability to work in the fast-paced edutech sector presented a new challenge Durotoye was happy to embrace, but what sold her on the new role was the fact that she would also be able to be on the ground in Lagos while earning foreign currency. After working for about a year, Durotoye decided to quit her job, this time without a safety net. The impact she wanted to make still eluded her.
I created a vision board and it focused on a number of intentions about women, making an impact and providing women with opportunities.
According to a 2017 report by the BBC, 40% of Nigerian women are entrepreneurs, a number that is higher than anywhere else in the world.
“One of the things I admired the most about being in Nigeria is that the women motivated me. Everybody has a side hustle and in America, you do your nine-to-five and you do it well and go home. But in Nigeria, there were multiple jobs that women were doing at the same time. And I said this is exactly what I wanted to do. I want to impact women and that is the space I want to be in.”
She began by working with an organization called GreenHouse Lab, the first female-focused tech accelerator program in Nigeria. The program is a three-month accelerator focused solely on early stage, women-led technology startups in sub-Saharan Africa. For Durotoye, the convergence of women in tech was a perfect marriage. The idea here is simple, women are not getting funding. Durotoye wants to offer them a seat at the table.
“Women are trending at the moment but one of the things that is also a danger is that there is a tendency for people to jump on women trends. We wanted to be able to ensure that this serious issue is looked at,” says Durotoye.
And there is a lot of work to be done. Women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in Nigeria and all over the world.
Diversity has become a hot topic in recent years.
But while issues around diversity in the west usually relate to anyone who is not a Caucasian male, in Africa, that term is about more women in the workforce. It is still very much a man’s world. According to the International Labour Organization, about 74% of women in sub-Saharan Africa are more likely to be employed in lower-paying, informal jobs.
Durotoye wants to build innovative women-led companies by equipping entrepreneurs with the right skills, resources and support to rapidly grow their business. The project was launched in partnership with Google.
“The GreenHouse Lab project was a confirmation of what I need to be doing. I am in the space that I want to make an impact in. That was my intention in coming to Nigeria, but I did not know what that would look like until now.”
Her next project is Bloom Africa, which launches in December 2018. The idea is to harness the collective power of women through intimate engagements and high impact series of events throughout the year that are focused on areas women really need support in. The platform will also bridge the gap between Nigeria and the diaspora.
“The question is how do we transition women into a tech-enabled environment? If you have women as economic drivers and you know that your economy is weakened when they are not invested in, then it is a no-brainer. How do we not invest in women in tech if we are trying to grow as an economy and a country? This is where I think the investment needs to be,” she says.
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