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The biggest thing getting in the way of Africa’s female founders

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I believe in the rule of three. They say once is luck, twice is coincidence, and three times is a pattern.

Here is the story of luck. Back in 2008 I wrote a book called Africa’s Greatest Entrepreneurs. It featured the stories of 16 of the continent’s greatest entrepreneurs. There was not a single woman featured. It wasn’t from lack of trying on my part. The few women I had managed to track down all declined to participate for various reasons.

My comeback to interviewers who pushed me on this during the launch was not politically correct by today’s standards. I would talk about the dedicated focus and drive of the men in the book. I would say that until women had wives, they simply didn’t have the luxury of the focused attention it took to build a business. I only partly believed that.

Here is the coincidence story. Some years later, a business school I was working with on another localized version of the entrepreneurship book started what was probably the first entrepreneurship MBA in the world. It opened to great fanfare, but it didn’t take long to realize that women were not applying.  After doing some research, it turned out that women didn’t label themselves as entrepreneurs, therefore they didn’t feel they would get a place on the course, and just didn’t apply.

And here is the third story—the one that proves the pattern.  I am part of a group of women angel investors called Dazzle who support women-owned and led tech start-ups in South Africa, so I often sit in on funding pitches. One of them stuck—it was a husband-and-wife team.  The wife was shy, and during the pitch she made the introductions and then fell silent.  The husband was domineering. He eloquently presented the business and went on to answer most of the questions.

At the end of the pitch, we were all convinced that the wife was merely a front that allowed him to meet our gender investment criteria.  In the end we turned them down, but she wrote to me after and said she realized that she should have spoken more. Her excuse? She felt she was a terrible presenter and her husband was much better at it than she was, even though it was her business and her idea.

A game-changing attitude for women-led startups

The pattern that links these three anecdotes together can be summarized with one word: confidence—or lack of it.  It’s the reason why men apply for more jobs than women even when they are less qualified.  It’s why women don’t put their hands up for promotions. It’s why imposter syndrome affects women more than it does men, and women of color in particular.  It’s also why many women founders remain under the radar.

Staying in the shadows, simply doing the work, and not necessarily taking the credit for it, is a role that many women appear to prefer.  We turn down opportunities to speak on global platforms because we are scared that we don’t know enough about the subject. We turn down interviews on our work because we don’t feel we have done enough. We turn down travel or networking opportunities because we don’t have the time to spare.  We are often our own worst enemies.

I once had a boss who used to arrive in the office to great fanfare every day. She would frequently and loudly share her successes and challenges with the team. She lived out loud in the office and like her or not, she was noticed and went far. And that’s what I want more women to do—to live out loud, be brave and as Nike says…just do it.

This year is my year of saying yes.  Not just to the dress, but to the webinar, the interview, the pitch, the conference, the meetings…because that’s how we collectively change the narrative about women not being ready to start, grow or lead businesses.  We are. And we’re coming.

This article is part of Quartz Africa Innovators 2021, the sixth edition of a series that identifies some of the most ambitious and imaginative minds on the continent. The more than two dozen women representing 18 countries and a diverse range of sectors represent the dynamism, entrepreneurial drive and resilience of millions on the continent. Their innovations show the potential that can be unleashed when women with bold ideas and decisive actions take the lead.

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