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Women blazing the trail in technology

Three women in the vibrant technology industry tell FAITH AJAYI about their careers

I use fintech to drive inclusion for women – Solape Akinpelu

As the founder of a women-focused fintech company, what is the story behind your decision to start your company?

When we founded HerVest, it was to get Nigerian women involved in the multilayered aspects of financial services; to show that they had more options than owning a bank account and savings. Having spent over a decade marketing financial brands, I was surprised and sad that women were not targeted recipients of wealth-building initiatives. If the financial messaging were simplified, with products and services that catered to their unique needs, women would invest and explore various possibilities for economic growth. This is a common yearning of women all over the world. So we stepped in to fill the gap by taking a holistic approach that leaves no woman behind. From the farmlands to the boardroom, the company was built with every woman in mind.

You studied Mass Communication. Why did you decide to venture into fintech?

While doing my Master’s degree in Communications at the University of Lagos, my favorite course was ‘Development Communications’. Fast forward to my career in advertising, marketing financial brands, I had observed that women were not targeted recipients of financial companies. I noticed same in a large wealth management firm I worked in; so, I probed further. We were losing out on opportunities, and after in-depth research, I discovered that women were willing to participate in higher level of financial services, if they had a brand that mirrored their needs and spoke to them in a language they understood. It was a communication problem. HerVest exists to not only financially elevate African women but also to drive an inclusive representation in financial services.

What birthed this passion for women’s inclusion in fintech?

My passion for women’s inclusion in fintech industry was born out of my experiences as a woman in tech. I have experienced firsthand the challenges that women face in this industry, and I believe that fintech has the potential to drive economic change, but it can only achieve its full potential if it is inclusive of all genders.

According to research by Enhancing Financial Innovation and Access, and the Central Bank of Nigeria in 2019, 36 per cent of Nigerian women are financially excluded from formal financial services. This is due to a number of factors, including gender discrimination, lack of access to technology, and lack of financial literacy.

It is also worth mentioning that women constitute over 65 per cent of Nigeria’s agri-labour force. Yet, women receive less than 10 per cent of the income that comes into the agricultural sector; with access to credit being their major hindrance. By digitising financial services, fintech companies can make them more accessible to women. They can also provide financial education and training to help women understand and use financial services. Our vision is to provide inclusive digital financial services for the advancement of African women.

I am passionate about using fintech to drive financial inclusion for women. I believe it is one of the most important ways to empower women and improve their lives.

As the founder and CEO of Hervest, what are your roles?

My role is multifaceted. I am responsible for setting the company’s strategic direction, overseeing its operations, leading its culture, and communicating with stakeholders.

What are some of the challenges you have had to face in the course of doing your job?

That would be fundraising. For a start-up like ours to supercharge our growth, we usually rely on external funding, which is about the toughest part of the job, because we constantly have to seek funding, which is a full-time job in itself.

Initially, it was also a challenge finding the right people to make up the team, but that got easier along the way, as the brand was able to attract the right people who are impact oriented.

How were you able to overcome those challenges?

We are yet to overcome the funding challenge. We are still in the learning phase.

You authored a book, which you said was written to inspire African women to move past their barriers and create wealth. How do you think Nigerian women can achieve that?

The first step to creating generational wealth and living a purposeful life starts with having the right identity. For so long, women have been made to think they are undeserving or that they lack the ability to build wealth. These harmful cultural constructs have left many women with unrealised potentials, financially dependent, weak and vulnerable. If we are to change the economic narrative, then we should change our cultural mindsets about women and wealth. The mindset has to shift from both women and society.

Also, women should avail themselves of the financial opportunities to create wealth. Nobody built wealth on just saving alone. They should access different investment vehicles in accordance to their risk tolerance to grow wealth. They should also spend wisely and have multiple streams of income. There are many free digital training opportunities.

Importantly, while we attain financial stability, we should leave a legacy for our family to prosper too. One must ensure continuity while one is gone. Those are the major steps to implement in wealth building.

The gender gap has existed for a long time. How can this be dealt with effectively?

Some of the ways we can address this is by challenging social norms and stereotypes that limit women’s opportunities and participation. Also, supporting women’s organisations that advance women’s rights and equality can make a huge difference; as well as investing in education and healthcare for women and girls.

Finally, encouraging women to participate in politics and other decision-making bodies, so that our voices are heard and our concerns are addressed. Closing the gender gap will require a concerted effort from all sectors of society.

In the course of your career, what has been your experience with gender inequality?

I have experience it a lot of times. Some people assume that a woman should not run a tech firm. Also, there are biases on the part of investors, on whether a woman has the capability to manage the funds given.

How have you dealt with gender inequality?

I do that through a multi-faceted approach. I speak when everyone expects that I should be silent. I ask for a seat at the table with value-driven inputs. Importantly, I encourage women to be intentional with their careers and finances through my company. I ensure that we organise value-driven events to empower women financially and professionally.

What role do technology, savings, and investment have to play in the fight against gender bias/inequality?

A financially independent woman is a powerful woman. Through fintech platforms, women can easily participate in savings and investment opportunities to grow their money. They can also improve their financial literacy through blogs, ed-tech platforms and webinars. With this ample knowledge, women can network with one another, collaborate, share opportunities and defy wealth building stereotypes. Through successful stories, we can reach more women, question biases and change the narratives.

These days, quite a number of women are thriving in industries that used to be male-dominated. What can be done to encourage more of this?

We need to change the work culture of companies. This includes addressing issues such as sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and unconscious bias. Companies can create a more inclusive culture by providing training on these issues, having clear policies in place, and holding employees accountable for their behaviour.

Also, seeing other women succeed in male-dominated industries can be a powerful motivation for other women. Companies can highlight the accomplishments of female employees, and sponsor events that celebrate women in STEM or other male-dominated fields.

Offering flexible work arrangements and paid parental leave is another way. Companies can also create a culture that is supportive of women who are balancing work and family responsibilities. Also, companies should ensure that women are paid equally for their work, like their male colleagues.

Throughout your career journey, what were some of the toughest decisions you had to take?

One of them is making the choice to cross from being a creative into finance; it was a challenge. The second one was leaving the corporate world to start my own business.

In what ways did your childhood shape you into the woman you are?

I come from a very humble but ‘agile’ background in Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State. I was raised by a powerful mum. I watched my mother juggle multiple streams of income. She was a teacher and a businesswoman. Later on, she founded a school in Ijebu Ode. A year ago, she added another feather to her cap with the establishment of a non-governmental organization, which provides education to indigent children, and startup funds for widows. Being raised by equally hardworking parents taught me early to be hardworking and driven.

How have you been able to balance work and family life in a way that both are not lacking your attention?

To be honest, balance is a far-reaching attainment. I am highly active and often joke that 24 hours is never enough to clear my daily tasks. I have been able to achieve that because of a strong support system, both at work and at home. I have a husband who supports me every step of the way. I have also been blessed with co-workers who step into positions when I am away. It has not been easy but I have been lucky.

Who are your biggest cheerleaders?

My husband, Oyeleke Akinpelu; my dear parents, Mr and Mrs Osisanya; and my children, who inspire me to go further.

How do you unwind?

I spend quality time with family and friends. I love making memories with the network God has blessed me with. I am also a voracious reader and traveller. I love visiting new countries and meeting new people.

I’m inspired by women who embrace STEM careers — Olatomiwa Williams

Olatomiwa Williams is the Country Manager at Microsoft. She speaks about her passion for women’s inclusion in tech

Last year, Microsoft signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal government and Lagos State. How will this partnership impact the economy?

Microsoft is taking the initiative to five million Nigerians with digital skills in phases over the next three years. The effect of the MOU thereby becomes exponential. With this effort, the company is contributing towards reducing poverty, attracting foreign investment, and creating jobs.

You have worked in Microsoft for 12 years. In what ways did your experiences over the years prepare you for your current position?

I have watched as Microsoft’s vision and leadership style transformed into what it is today. I am a product of change, and that has allowed me to understand how to be at the cusp of creating positive change within the organisation, especially in the fast-moving tech space, exploration, investment, and keeping myself up-to-date.

The various roles I have had have allowed me to develop practical empathy for the people I work with today.

The opportunity to play different roles with increasing responsibilities has been a great blessing because it gives me a diverse view of the organization, and a greater understanding of our customer and partner landscapes, which has been a great asset in my current role.

What are some of the challenges you have encountered in your current position?

Leading a business in a fast-changing industry comes with the dynamics related to the job requirements, solutions offerings and changing expectations.

How have you been able to overcome those challenges?

I believe that change is a catalyst for personal transformation. This core belief guides my response to challenging situations. However, an ideal response to challenging situations stems from a belief system that change comes with growth. Additionally, having humility to seek counsel from others who have faced similar situations and learn from their experiences has proven to be useful. This does not mean that I get it right all the time, but I have also learnt that failure is part of the learning process.

As the Country Manager, you oversee the company’s operations in Nigeria and Ghana. How has your experience been so far, especially being a male-dominated profession?

The company creates an enabling environment for women to be successful. Being a woman in a male dominated industry, there are tendencies to face discrimination, but I don’t allow that to get in the way of doing my job. I have a positive disposition working as a woman in a male dominated field. I don’t expect to be treated differently from my male colleagues, and I apply myself to the job in a way that enables me to add value to my organisation, colleagues and other stakeholders.

I am constantly inspired by other women who have embraced STEM careers, and I’m always happy to listen to their stories; as well as share my experiences with them.

Why do you think females are not more in the corporate world, especially in Africa?

While there has been progress in recent years, women are 30 per cent less likely to have the same opportunities as men. From a global perspective, men’s participation in the labour force is just over 70 per cent, while women’s participation is still below 50 per cent.

Gender-biased beliefs hamper women’s prospects in the sphere of business.  Opportunities for women are often restricted by conscious and unconscious biases, societal norms, and cultural expectations. The higher the position, the fewer the number of women one will see occupying such positions. Therefore, there are limited role models to inspire women to take on leadership positions.

To set women up for success, mentoring and a strong support network is critical.  Peer mentorship and support are critical tools to ensuring that women have lifelong models to look up to while also giving them access to lifelong support structures that can help provide guidance, learning and career growth opportunities.

I equally have passion for women in managerial positions, which is the reason for my newly established foundation— Uzemi Technology Empowerment Initiative, whose goal is to bridge gender inequality in senior roles within the tech industry.

You have a strong passion for women thriving in the information technology field. Why is that?

Growing up, I witnessed women experience negativity for having more girls in the family, as the boy child is highly regarded in my culture. This inspired me to take a bold step in the world of technology and make a meaningful impact to inspire more African girls.

I would like to encourage more young girls to embrace STEM careers and women to embrace digital skills, as this would subsequently enhance economic development in our country.

Having spent over 20 years in the IT sector, what do you think still needs to be done to bring about digital transformation in Nigeria and Africa?

One major thing is affordable access to Internet connectivity for everyone. We need to ensure our young people find it easy to connect to resources that can transform their lives without spending a fortune, irrespective of their background.

Africa has the youngest population in the world. Having the youngest population in the digital age is a good recipe for accelerated digital innovation and growth. But, this can only be achieved with a digitally empowered populace. A lot still needs to be done to ensure our schools have the right curriculum to prepare young Africans for the work of the future, as most of the jobs we have today will no longer be relevant in the next few years.

We need a digitally empowered populace for Africa to achieve sustainable development across different industries.

What do you have to say to young women aspiring to venture into the Information Technology sector?

I can’t wait for you to get started. There is so much space here for everyone. There are so many niches that are flexible enough to contain their creativity. You cannot do everything. Take time to decide what path you want to take and when you are double sure about that path, stay on it and focus. There is always light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t jump from course to course, or path to path.

Above all, don’t walk the journey alone. You will be amazed at the amount of support out there available for you, and as you grow, do your best to develop others. I believe that the more successful women we have around, the more women succeed and the entire society benefits.

What inspired your choice of career?

During my secondary school days, I overheard a passionate conversation between two men who were convinced that computers were going to change the world for good. So, I developed an interest and wanted to be part of that revolution. That interest ended up tailoring a lot of experiences and choices I made in my life. These choices and decisions have brought me to where I am.

How do you balance work and family life?

I balance work and family life by hard work across both. I ensure that I am not giving excuses for non-performance at home because of work, and non-performance at work because of home.

I hold time management very close to my heart. Anything that can maximise productivity at work and time with my family is something I take advantage of.

I am intentional about work-life balance, and I continue to show by example that one does not have to sacrifice family life on the altar of a career, and vice versa. The two can work in tandem but one must put in the work.

What is your favourite meal?

Plantain in any form— boiled, roasted or fried.

Govt should do more to attract, retain talents – Adenike Macaulay

The Chief Executive Officer of an online travel company, Wakanow, Adenike Macaulay, speaks on how she got into the travel industry

What influenced your decision to go into the travel industry?

I would not say there was any influence. My first job in the travel industry was with Lufthansa, a German airline, as a business analyst in 2009. I had no prior experience in travel or as a business analyst before joining Lufthansa, and I was at a point in my career when I was exploring opportunities. I saw a vacancy with Lufthansa, and that was my pathway into the travel industry.

Interestingly, my dad was an aviator. He was the first flight engineer in Nigeria, so he worked and retired as a flight engineer with Nigeria Airways. Basically, I was born into aviation, but I had no real plans of finding myself here.

What is your career trajectory?

I studied Systems Engineering. I actually wanted to study Computer Engineering, but at that time, there was no computer engineering at the University of Lagos, and I was offered Systems Engineering. After school, coming out with a course such as system engineering, where there were not many opportunities with artificial intelligence so, we always defaulted to IT. I found myself in an IT firm where I served and was retained after my service as a research and strategy analyst. I found myself at Lufthansa Group in 2009 till I joined Wakanow in 2021.

Prior to your appointment as the CEO of Wakanow, you were the Chief Commercial Officer of the company. In what ways did that office prepare you for your current position?

It gave me a deep understanding of the business and the interdependencies between the different units that I was managing as the Chief Commercial Officer. It gave me a good understanding of the processes and the ways that the different units should work together. My role now is pretty much just scaled up from what I was doing before. Now, I have total responsibility for the organisation. It is more of management, and everything works together, but on a broader scale.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you initially joined Wakanow?

Coming from Lufthansa, they like to do things in certain ways, such as keeping things almost perfect, which would mean that there would be standard processes that one had to follow to do certain things. On the flip side, that might mean it would not be as agile as a Wakanow; and I think that was the first thing that ‘hit’ me. The pace of the business that we do here and the pace of the speed to markets is very different from obtains in Lufthansa.

I always say that in my journey with Wakanow, I had to take a crash course in agility. If one does not review what has worked and what has been done before, one will continue reinventing the wheel of doing things that don’t deliver the results that one wants. Knowing that one has to make some decisions, sometimes blindly, but just trusting one’s guts and trusting the experience that one has, to knowing what one should do at a particular time.

How were you able to overcome those challenges?

For me, it was a balance of both. One needs a level of guidance and expectancy in what should be done to get to where one wants to get to. A couple of things I did was to put some processes in place to ensure that some departments that probably were not speaking to each other before now align in thoughts and objectives. I also had to learn that sometimes, those processes have to be dynamic. Finding that balance between bringing some of my experience with process orientation in but also learning the agile way of not always waiting for a process and data to be 100 per cent before actually going to market.

What are your roles as the CEO of Wakanow?

I call myself the ‘chief caretaker’. The three parties that I see as critical for me to take care of are— my customers, my people (staff), and my travel suppliers. If we do not take care of the customer, I cannot take care of my people, and I need my people to take care of customers.

Our value proposition is that we have the customers, we have the travel suppliers and we link the travel services and bring them up to the customers on a simple portal that advertises the options for our customers. So, my role is to take care of those three parties, and manage relationships with them to ensure that the interdependencies between the three of them are prioritised.

With the rate at which people are leaving the country in search of greener pasture, how do you think it will affect the aviation industry?

I think it will have more of an impact on the economy than on the aviation industry. It is worrisome, because a lot of strong professionals are leaving. There are opportunities for them to go and contribute to another economy that those countries have tactically designed to attract them.

I look at it from an economic perspective of the government having to also ensure that there are enough opportunities for us to attract and retain our talents, and our human capacity. The average Nigerian is more educated than the average Westerner, which is why you see that there is this brain drain now because they are attracting the best of our talents. What is the government doing to ensure that they create an economy that is more encouraging for people to stay and thrive?

From the aviation perspective, there are still immense opportunities to get people in the skies. How do we grow the businesses and the percentage of people that actually move around via air travel, internationally and domestically? Also, considering insecurity and things that are happening now with travelling by road, it is important that air traffic becomes more accessible for all.

How would you describe your childhood?

I come from a family of high achievers, so the bar was always high. It was almost like not succeeding was not an option. If I think about it, those are some of the principles that were ingrained in me from childhood that I have carried to my career because anywhere I find myself, failure is not an option. My parents always ensured that we had everything; it was an enabling environment. My stay-at-home mum ensured that we had everything we needed to succeed, and also contributed towards that success. Like I said, my dad was a flight engineer, so he was always flying. But, I had my sisters to look up to.

What other areas of interest do you have?

I like fashion. I like to dress up, and I like dancing too.

How do you like to dress?

I am not a trendy person. I have my own style, which is comfortable and it has evolved. Before I got married and had children, I would have told you ‘fashion is pain’, but now I won’t make myself uncomfortable, but still I like fashion.

How do you unwind?

I like music. My choice of music is very wide, but music is one thing that I always default to, not as a distraction, but if I’m trying to shift modes. I like to dance as well.