As Africa’s middle class starts to emerge, propelled by growth and urbanisation, many diaspora Africans are choosing to return to the continent.
Many of these returnees, known as ‘repats’, are highly educated and skilled, and while they choose to take a chance on new opportunities back ‘home’, the process of adjusting to mentalities and business practices can be brutal.
When I met 28-year-old Afua Osei after we both spoke at an African business conference held at Cambridge University in May, I told her that her name kept coming up at most of my straw polls on young women who are changing the game on the African entrepreneurship scene. I was intrigued by her decision to move to Lagos, after her MBA, to launch a social enterprise called She Leads Africa but she told me that moving to Nigeria was never part of the plan.
Afua was at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, looking to work on data analytics after graduation. She was looking at solutions for affordable housing in underserved urban communities in the US, cities like Baltimore, where she’d worked as a fellow in the Mayor’s office. One of her classmates was always talking about moving to Ghana, where Afua’s parents are from. One day, her classmate told Afua that some of her social impact solutions could be applied to African problems, as well.
In 2012, after her first year in business school, she secured a summer associate position in the Tony Elumelu Foundation’s African Markets Internship Programme. It was a professional development programme that placed MBA students from prominent business schools in America and Europe in startups and private equity firms across Africa.
‘I was working in Lagos for the first time,’ she recalled during a Skype interview last week. ‘While I was there, I had a great time, and I met people who were creating and building things. I got to know people in the McKinsey Lagos office, and I remember thinking to myself that these were the kinds of people I’d like to work with.’
Having grown up in the Washington DC area, this was her first experience living and working in Africa. Because she didn’t know her parents’ continent that well, she decided to travel, over a three-month period, to Abuja, Accra, Nairobi and Johannesburg. She continued to advise clients while in business school, and by the time she graduated in June 2013, she was back in Lagos, working in the McKinsey office.
While in business school, she had come up with a new venture idea. What if she created a platform to help young African women with their careers? She imagined a place where all kinds of smart and ambitious young women could come to learn and connect around cool new projects. She had big dreams, but real life soon took over, and her platform idea went by the wayside.
Her consultant position at McKinsey allowed her privileged access.
By the time she settled in Lagos, her consultant position at McKinsey allowed her privileged access to the Lagos startup ecosystem. She start going to pitch events, but she noticed that there were never any women on stage. ‘I knew that these smart and ambitious women had to be somewhere, so I made it my mission to find young women who had great business ideas or were launching early stage startups.’
Within a few months, she had built up a small team, as an attempt to kickstart a new version of her platform idea. One day, she ran into a McKinsey colleague at an event where she was volunteering. They started discussing the idea of a pitch competition that would be entirely focused on African female entrepreneurs. Her colleague, Yasmin Belo-Osagie, joined the small team shortly after their chance encounter, and the two women found that they got along very well.
‘Pretty soon, we became co-founders of the company’.
‘Yasmin added a lot of value to the team,’ Afua told me. ‘Pretty soon, we became co-founders of the company that would become She Leads Africa.’ She Leads Africa describes itself as a ‘social enterprise ensuring women are part of Africa’s growth story.’ The idea is to provide business-related information, mentorship, as well as access to a series of networking events. Afua says that the best projects have been able to secure startup capital for scaling.
When they first started, the problem was that the two co-founders were both still working at McKinsey. And not too long after they started, Yasmin left, in order to prepare for graduate school. Still, they stuck with the business, and at the end of 2015, they decided to turn their venture into a real company tackling some of Africa’s challenges through a real pitch competition.
Earlier this year, they launched the She Leads Africa Accelerator, which is supported by Guaranty Trust Bank and a few other non-profits dedicated to youth employment and entrepreneurship in Africa. In an article published on LinkedIn last month, Afua wrote that the accelerator ‘is focused on inclusiveness and access for entrepreneurs who want to grow and scale their businesses but don’t fit the standard mold.’
I asked her about the challenges that come with living and working in Lagos. She said the first challenge is what she calls ‘the perception gap.’ ‘When you look at the tech standouts or stars, nine out of ten of these companies are going to be run by men. And when we start talking about empowering women, the assumption is that it’s going to be small-scale businesses, lifestyle-focused companies that can never scale. Meanwhile, one of the startup founders we had on stage last year had more than US$2 million in annual revenue.’
When Afua and Yasmin were pitching She Lead Africa for support, many people felt that it was a nice, small event that wouldn’t really go anywhere. ‘It was hard to find people who got it,’ Afua recalls. But looking back, the early signs of success were there. In their first cycle for the pitch competition, there were around 400 applicants from more than 25 countries.
There were plenty of African women who wanted to benefit from the support.
The process of collecting all those applications over a six-week period enabled the small team to validate the fact that there was a need for something like this, that there were plenty of African women who wanted to benefit from the support, network and mentorship that She Leads Africa was promising.
Looking back, Afua says the bureaucracy was the single biggest challenge she faced as a young entrepreneur trying to make things happen in Nigeria. ‘It took us one year to do the paperwork that led to formally registering our company,’ she remembers. ‘And then, it took us four months to open a bank account.’
Check out more at sheleadsafrica.org