By Azaina Shaikh and Paola Hasbun
The COVID-19 pandemic brought about an array of challenges for businesses worldwide, disproportionately affecting women-led businesses. From working remotely to losing revenue, running a business during a pandemic has not been easy for women. To support them, FEM-START launched its latest initiative, FEMpreneurhulp, an online platform offering mentoring and community network to female entrepreneurs in the Netherlands. We spoke with Sandra van de Pal, the co-founder of FEMpreneurhulp to discuss how this platform is helping women weather the unpredictable obstacles of COVID-19.
You went to Utrecht University and studied Public Policy and Administration. Between graduating and co-founding FEMpreneurhulp, you have been working in the entrepreneurial scene. Did you always picture yourself doing this?
No, I did not! As a child, I do not recall thinking: this is what I want to do. However, I was always driven by the idea of making the world a better place, and I often found myself organizing events for my friends and family, constantly trying to bring people together, connecting and helping them.
After high school, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a school in Ghana for three months. During my time there, I wondered: how much do these type of initiatives actually help? The school had teachers, but sometimes they did not feel like teaching and let the volunteers teach instead. I came to the understanding that some development projects are quite futile as they do not really focus on what people need, and the impact of the initiative is often not measured.
After this experience, I decided to study Public Administration and Organizational Science because I was distinctly interested in making policies that actually help people and achieve the impact desired. I focused on International Development and realized that I wanted to combine a business way of working with reaching development goals. That is why I leaned toward the start-up world. I really like the energy, and the lean start-up methodology of ‘build, measure and learn’ is my motto.
The city of Amsterdam conducted a survey in April 2020, which focused on the impact of COVID-19 on female entrepreneurship and women in tech. According to the survey, women face challenges while juggling both professional and personal demands. In your experience, what are the challenges female entrepreneurs face during the pandemic?
Maybe women in general do more things next to their work, often women have more household commitments like taking care of their parents or their children. But also, in general, men have more access to money and funding than women, which is also part of the bias. Men reach higher positions in big companies than women, they earn more, and almost all Dutch VCs are white males. Another problem is a lack of representation of women in start-ups; there are not a lot of female role model figures, for example. Now with the pandemic, many businesses are struggling to move their business online; to keep up the sales, and to manage teams working from home. I think it is really important to build a strong community of women to support each other.
Along with Marian Spier, you co-founded FEMpreneurhulp, an initiative by women for women providing support during this pandemic. How did the idea of FEMpreneurhulp come to you?
Initially, we worked together on FEM-START NL which is going to be a physical hub, where women-led startups can grow in the accelerator. However, due to COVID-19, the physical hub cannot happen yet.
When we were hit with the pandemic, Marian and I started to discuss the ways we could offer help to female entrepreneurs who were reaching out to Marian asking for advice regarding their business. Likewise, in my close circle, I saw my friends and family were struggling with their businesses. A majority of businesses have a hard time moving their business online; and the new circumstances can be very tough also mentally. FEMpreneurhulp was born from the very need to offer help by matching entrepreneurs in need with our network of successful women and experienced mentors.
We know that FEMpreneurhulp is providing a mentoring service and a community in the form of a network. Could you comment on this?
In our mentoring service, female entrepreneurs can sign up online and get three free mentoring sessions to deal with certain business and mental related difficulties they might be facing due to COVID-19. Next to that, we want to build a community. We ask the entrepreneurs to share their story and their experience with other women. We want women to know that they are not alone and that they have a community to lean on. Moreover, in September 2020 we will host an in-person FEMpreneurhulp event. Of course, in accordance with the COVID-19 measures.
What are your plans for FEMpreneurhulp after COVID-19?
The plan is to continue to help women entrepreneurs who could benefit from this program. FEMpreneurhulp is focused on all female entrepreneurs, including those who have already built their businesses. We are also working hard to build FEM-START NL which is more focused on start-ups. The target groups are different. We intend on keeping the two next to each other as we want women to continue to benefit from the mentoring and to belong to a larger community of entrepreneurs.
Thank you very much for talking about FEMpreneurhulp!
By Azaina Shaikh and Paola Hasbun
We spoke with Ebere Akadiri, a social entrepreneur and visionary leader, whose zeal for gender inclusivity and leadership development amongst women is inspirational. With over 20 years of business experience, Ebere is a successful business and leadership development strategist, business mentor, author, and keynote speaker. She founded Rise and Lead Women, Rise and Lead Summit and, recently, co-founded FEM-START Africa in her home country, Nigeria.
You moved to The Netherlands a couple of years ago. Before moving here, you had a successful business in Nigeria. How was your experience relocating to The Netherlands?
I moved from Nigeria to The Netherlands in 2013 with my family. Before relocating here, I had a well-established restaurant business in Nigeria with two branches and seven sales outlets. In addition, we had a large catering operation with several companies and were working on opening a bakery- it was a growing business. When my husband found out that he was being transferred to The Netherlands, I refused initially because the move meant letting go of the business and the community I had worked very hard to build over the years. When it comes to being a woman and a mother, your priorities tend to be different. And my priorities are my children, my husband, and my family; I always consider them first. Hence, later I changed my mind and we moved to The Netherlands.
You founded Ataro Foods and Spices in 2015. What motivated you to start a new business in a new country?
When I moved here, I just wanted to be an expat wife, which I saw a lot of women doing. After trying it for a few months, I came to the realization that it was not for me; I had started to lose myself, and I was constantly thinking about ways of going back to my old self, which meant brainstorming about new business ideas.
After a while, I started to look into launching a business here in The Netherlands, which obviously was not easy; it came with its own set of challenges. Somehow I knew I had to start. The tiny voice in my head kept saying, “teach what you know.” And I chose to start teaching how to cook West African food to children at schools, and to their mothers. The cooking lessons gradually grew in popularity and I was able to introduce them outside the schools, which helped me attract the local Dutch audience, and I began giving cooking workshops for almost 100 people. This is how I built the brand “Ataro Foods and Spices”. Later, we found a physical location in The Hague where I led cooking workshops, and ever so often took restaurant orders. Eventually, we sold the shop and I moved Ataro Foods and Spices online, where we sell spice mixes and offer cooking videos on demand.
What challenges did you face as a female entrepreneur when you first launched Ataro Foods and Spices? How did you overcome them?
Despite the inevitable operational challenges of starting a new business, cultural differences added to the challenges I faced. I could not speak Dutch at that time, which meant I could only market to the expatriates, which is a rather small community. I wanted to reach a much larger market.
I also dealt with my challenges by partnering up with Dutch companies, which included Dutch public relations agents. With their help, I was able to spread my message in a way that was appealing to the Dutch audience. Also, they were able to get me interviews on the Dutch newspapers. With time, I had gained an understanding of the buying behavior of the local people. When starting a business, it is imperative to study the buying habits, interests, and values of the people you want to market to, in order to properly position your product in a way that is attractive to them. Lastly, I learned Dutch, because I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the culture here for the growth of my business.
In the first Rise and Lead Summit, you mentioned the support and encouragement that your mentor provided you with when you were getting started. In what ways does a mentor help one in reaching their goals?
Having a mentor is important. I always say to people: one does not have just one mentor, but a tribe of mentors- different people you can reach out to for different things. When we choose only one person as a mentor, there are other aspects of our lives that will miss out on being mentored. Moreover, it is important to listen to yourself; do not constantly seek appraisal or validation. When in doubt, seek counsel and verify your ideas with your mentor. Mentorship is not about teaching people; it is about sharing their experiences. As a mentee, ask people who can guide you with the wisdom of their experiences.
Let us change our focus to leadership. Rise and Lead Women actively works towards more gender diversity and reducing the gender leadership gap. How can bringing men on board help achieve this vision of inclusivity?
We want men to join the conversation; to understand the essence of inclusion. We want men to understand that everyone – men and women – has different talents that we want to express. If someone withholds you from expressing your talents, it does not serve you and the world. In workplaces, our male counterparts need to recognize that we, women, have talents and skills that can help the overall success of the company. The idea is to bring men closer by inviting them to women-meetings and summits, and educating them to help getting rid of stereotypes they may have about women. This way they will start to look at women as partners, and women will start to look at them as allies. In the end, we will be able to work together towards a common goal.
Women tend to have a harder time reaching higher positions than men. According to you, what are the reasons for this?
Women face many challenges when climbing the leadership ladder. A common reason across the board is the lack of leadership development: the lack of preparedness when presented with a leadership position. We also know that lack of equal opportunity is another factor. A self-inflicted challenge is the inability of women to negotiate and ask for what we want. As we advocate for companies to give women equal opportunities, we, as women, must continue to show up and speak up for what is important to us. Lastly, we need more mentorship between women leaders and women aspiring to rise. Women who have traversed the trails and attained leadership positions can provide insights to those aspiring to reach those positions. They are better able to understand what lies ahead of them and how they can maintain that position on the long term. It is about developing a leadership mindset through mentorship.
You have co-founded FEM-START Africa in Nigeria this year in March. Could you share with us your experience?
Due to COVID-19, we had to cancel our Rise and Lead Summit Africa, which was scheduled to take place in March 2020. Around that time I had the opportunity to interview Marian Spier, the founder of FEM-START. Her passion and knowledge about entrepreneurship made me realize that we, at Rise and Lead, need to partner with people like Marian, who understand what it means to be an entrepreneur and people who are passionate about empowering women. Then, we agreed to take FEM-START, alongside Rise and Lead to Nigeria. I see the Rise and Lead members could benefit from what FEM-START has to offer.
Also, I believe that entrepreneurship helps the economy of every nation; it brings innovation that can transform. I am passionate about Africa and Nigeria, my country. Even though I do not live there I am constantly looking for ways to support people back home. With FEM-START Africa, I believe that people with ideas holding the potential of changing the trajectory of our nation will get the right opportunities to create an impact.
And what are your plans for FEM-START Africa in the coming years?
Nigerian businesses tend to stay within the country. With the help of FEM-START Africa, I would like to help businesses that are already doing well to internationally scale up. Secondly, people with good ideas do not have equal access to financial capital. FEM-START Africa would provide more support by connecting budding businesses with investors. The need for a quick digital transformation across the continent of Africa has become apparent due to COVID-19. As a result, SMEs in Nigeria have become more interested in adopting digital ways for growing their businesses locally and internationally. Through FEM-START Africa, I would like to invite and help entrepreneurs grow into this tech ecosystem.
Any final words that you would like to share?
This is not the time to rest and relax. This is the time to pivot and find out the part(s) of your business you can take online and transform. I encourage entrepreneurs everywhere to think of ways to continue to run your business. We need to continue moving forward and impacting our communities with our businesses and ideas.
Thank you very much for sharing your story and insights on leadership!
By Azaina Shaikh and Paola Hasbun
As part of our interview series showcasing and celebrating women leading the forefronts of FEM-START, we had the pleasure of interviewing Živilė Meškauskaitė, co-founder of FEM-START Lithuania.
Živilė is dedicated to generating social and collaboration projects. She has worked with Rockstart (EU’s first start-up accelerator) and TEDxAmsterdamWomen. Her passion to connect people led her to co-found Common Threads, an initiative about slow-fashion and teaching skills to improve the longevity of clothes and she founded a book club for Lithuanians in The Netherlands called Amsterdamo knygų klubas.
It is always nice to hear directly from people about themselves. Would you please share some of the things that you have done and are proud of?
I am very proud of all the things I have done; the common thread of what I have been doing, consciously or subconsciously, has been bringing like-minded people together, enabling them to share and connect with each other. Building upon each other’s knowledge, and collaborating has been my motivation across all the projects I have worked on. That is why I have done event management; I view it as a strong knowledge exchange, which is valuable to me.
I am very proud of TEDxAmsterdamWomen, the event itself, and the team! In team meetings, we were about 30-40 women in one room working together. In particular, I am pleased of the dynamic we created; we found ways to support each other and found ways to work together.
Moreover, I am very proud of my book club for Lithuanians living in The Netherlands. Being of one culture and expatriate, I see great value in bringing us together. We talk about books, of course – it is the one thing that binds us – but it also gives us the chance to talk about our personal lives, support each other, and to network. In the same way, I see a lot of potential in FEM-START, as it has a similar community aspect. It will empower female entrepreneurs, and provide them with a global network. Additionally, it will enable them to get to know people with the same energy, which I find very important.
What challenges did you face while being the Operational Director of TEDxAmsterdamWomen?
The biggest personal challenge that I had to overcome was trusting that I could do it. For me the challenge was seeing the reality that I can, that I am able. This is something a lot of people, especially women, can relate to. We tend to downplay how skillful we are and how we can face challenges. That was the biggest lesson. I learned I could recover from setbacks and learn from them. It made me understand that I can really do it.
You have a background in film and television production. Throughout your career, you have undertaken several successful projects as an event/project manager. How do you see your educational background influencing your current role as an event manager?
Yes, I have a bachelor’s degree in Film and Television production. Organizing teams and groups has been at the crux of what I did in my bachelor’s degree and what I do now. I like to focus on working together and doing something meaningful. While I studying film and television production, I was always in a role of helping the team move forward. It’s just that, eventually, I wanted more ‘people connection’ in addition to making digital products, so events seemed like a great next step. So to me, whatever is the project, online or offline, an event, a movie, an initiative or anything else, the skills I bring are very similar across the board.
And how would you describe your leadership style?
Leadership is something I am getting to know in myself. It’s only recently that I started to think of myself as a leader, and it even feels strange to say it now, so I have a long road ahead of me before I can describe my style. What I strongly believe in is a clear vision, authenticity and curiosity. That is what I am holding onto as I dive into the experience of leadership.
Who has inspired you to be where you are?
I am finding this quite difficult to answer because I find many pieces of inspiration everywhere, it’s not single-focused. Let’s see, what inspired me to be where I am and continues to inspire me today: my own vision of my future self; my family, boyfriend and close friends who support me and help me; my community of peers who are going through similar journeys; powerful authentic public figures (recently Anna Wintour and RuPaul); my multiple mentors, and especially Marian Spier, who has taught me a lot about making things happen for myself. I believe that one becomes what one surrounds themselves with, and all these people for me have been an inspiration and reminder to just go for it.
Let’s change our focus to Lithuania, the country’s female entrepreneurial ecosystem, and start-up landscape. How would you describe it?
Generally, the start-up ecosystem in Lithuania has been rapidly and quite intentionally growing. There is a good deal of government support and resources for people looking to start their business. Lithuania is doing very well compared to the other Baltic States, and it is rated globally as the top 20 countries to do business in. The environment is very suitable for businesses.
There are many female entrepreneurs who have great ideas and who are eager to learn. With FEM-START, I am hoping to dive into the entrepreneurial world and see what they really need. There are many initiatives supporting female entrepreneurs in Lithuania, but I think FEM-START will bring a global invitation and network that might not be present at the moment.
It seems the Lithuanian government is playing a role in creating a favorable environment for new businesses and start-ups. Could you give an example?
One such initiative is an extensive website called “startuplithuania.com”. It is a one-stop-shop for start-ups. It facilitates a national start-up ecosystem, and attracts foreign people to come and start their business.
Globally, female entrepreneurs have difficulty in accessing capital and visibility. What challenges do female entrepreneurs face in Lithuania?
From my observations, in addition to the challenges you mention, entrepreneurs who are mothers find it challenging to balance running a business and being a mother. Another aspect that resonates with women, not just in Lithuania, is how to be mentally and physically healthy and not burnout while running a business.
What sectors or industries are most attractive to women seeking to start a business in Lithuania?
Like anywhere, the tech industry is growing. There is a program called Women Go Tech, which is a mentorship program for women seeking a career in the technology sector. Marketing and media are also, popular; I would say there is diversity in the different sectors.
What are your plans for FEM-START Lithuania in 2020?
A lot of it depends on COVID-19 and how it will play out. The plan for me is to go on this journey, whether it is online or in Lithuania, meet these women and find out what they need, and what they struggle with. My vision for FEM-START in 2020 is to have a better in-depth understanding of the start-up ecosystem and the needs of the female entrepreneurs to give them access to the mentorship and global community that FEM-START can provide!
Thank you very much for joining us today!
Photo: Maurice Mikkers
By: Azaina Shaikh and Paola Hasbun
We spoke with Martina Guzmán, entrepreneur and Pitch coach, whose relentless ambition to help female entrepreneurs and enthusiastic personality has made her a true inspiration for many.
Martina represents the Best3Minutes methodology in Spain and is the co-founder of FEM-START Spain. With a background in marketing and advertising, she founded the MOOI Academy and MOOI Web Design, two spaces created to help harness creativity and facilitate the transformation of ideas into real businesses.
Could you share with us your story, and what inspired you to work in the field of female entrepreneurship?
I’m from Venezuela. I arrived in Spain in 2007, following a call for adventure and some real life! A year later, I met my husband, and together we launched a start-up called Envioadomicilio, which was the first food delivery online platform in Spain.
At the beginning it was ok, but as we moved one of the operational challenges of running a business, the fact that we were alone, introducing a new concept into the Spanish market, I began to struggle a lot with self-doubt. It was the first time we were running a startup, which was mostly run by me, as my husband did not speak any Spanish.
I remember how I felt alone as a women entrepreneur. We didn’t have a good network because we both are not initially from Spain. We didn’t know the market, and on top of everything, we didn’t know anything about being entrepreneurs, pitching, or investment, and not knowing cost us many opportunities and money. In the end, we decided to sell our startup strategically, and in 2012 it was acquired by the second food delivery platform at that moment in Spain.
Next, we launched two new start-ups, and only one is still online: Bandafy, an online music platform to help musicians promote and get bookings online. I had the opportunity to participate in the only competition for women entrepreneurs that I can think of in Spain, the Lean in EU Business Women Angel from where I met Marian for the first time, as she was the winner of the competition for Europe.
After the competition, I put my start-up phase on a pause and embarked on a reinvention journey where I was able to reconnect to myself finally, and my real purpose. I took the time to build in the tools I so much needed: I learned about web design, finished a Master, and overcame self-imposed barriers and false beliefs about myself. I was finally able to take my life as my best project and design the life I wanted to live.
From then on, I have decided to work harder on myself. What inspires me every day to work and collaborate with initiatives that genuinely support and encourage other women to take ownership of their dreams and to make them happen!
We, as women, need to reinforce the belief that everything we dream we will achieve if we only take the first step to make it happen.
It took me some time, but I finally got it, and now one of my purposes is to share my experience, skills, and learning to help other women take that step for themselves.
You have had your share of ups and downs on your entrepreneurial journey; you had to sell your first start-up. Setbacks offer us lessons and an opportunity to redefine our process. What advice would you give to women starting in the entrepreneurial world?
My advice would be to build a minimal viable product when you have an idea. Make sure you validate it; be confident that there’s a need for the product in the market. Often, when people have an idea, they want to create the perfect product. So I would say: don’t fall for perfection, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, surround yourself with a like-minded network and make sure that if you lose, you stand up again.
You went from working in the corporate world to creating a start-up (which brought its challenges) to, finally, becoming a pitching coach. Which role has been the most important to you?
I have to say, pitch coaching. Seeing people gaining the confidence to give a voice to their ideas gives me a feeling of fulfillment and purpose that even as a Pitch Coach, I have no words to describe!
Building up my communication skills has opened up several opportunities. I am not only a certified pitch coach, but I have the chance to work closely with people that have been my entrepreneur heroes for so long. David Beckett, the creator of the Best3Minutes methodology, and Marian Spier, the founder of this beautiful and unique dream project, called FEM-START.
So yes, definitely, my dearest role is being able to share the skills that help other women entrepreneurs, gain the confidence to give voice to their ideas.
Your journey is awe-inspiring. Is there a particular person who inspired you to get to where you are now? Could you share a story about that?
Thank you! I think we are all role models. I have a whole list of people who inspire me every day! To mention one story, I can say the first account I started following on Instagram when I first launch MOOI Webdesign: @hellofears. It is run by a woman who talks about fears and how she was brave to face one fear every day for 100 days as part of a master project that was inspiring for me, and I’m reading her book now!
But as I say, the inspiration for me is everywhere!
How would you describe the female entrepreneurial ecosystem and start-up landscape in Spain? Have there been changes since you first started as an entrepreneur?
It has become more open and welcoming, as there are more initiatives created to support women. However, we still have many challenges to overcome. Over the years, I have seen an increase in spaces created by women for women, but I have yet to see a real stage that gives women visibility, specifically within male-dominated events. The number of female attendees at business, tech, and other networking events remains low compared to the number of male attendees. I believe we, as women, should take up space. Men are not taking up our space, we are just not showing up, and that’s what we need to work on!
What are the common challenges faced by women entrepreneurs in Spain?
Specifically, for female entrepreneurs and start-ups, there are not enough female-only competitions. There are plenty of competitors, but the amount of female participants remains low. My opinion is that women think they are not prepared enough, and we overthink before going out there, this is something you often don’t see in men entrepreneurs.
And how would you define an entrepreneur?
I feel these days; we are often presented with a very limiting definition of an entrepreneur. For me, an entrepreneur is anyone courageous enough to own their future, define what they want, and make it happen.
What sectors or industries are most attractive to women entrepreneurs in Spain?
I think of technology. I have met many women working on unique tech-related projects here, but due to lack of visibility, they just tend to stay under the radar. Retail is also attractive, and recently the health sector is gaining space as well.
What is your vision for FEM-START Spain?
My vision for FEM-START Spain is to give female entrepreneurs a stage where they can gain the confidence to share their ideas. The impact they are making on society, their value to the market, and have access to capital to help make their business grow. FEM-START Spain will also provide female entrepreneurs with training, coaching, and the possibility to be part of an international, multicultural, and supporting network.
FEM-START is a dream come true for any female entrepreneurs out there!
By Azaina Shaikh and Paola Hasbun
As part of our series about the awe-inspiring women leading the forefront of FEM-START, we had the pleasure of interviewing Leticia Browne. We discussed investment, Ghana’s growing economy, and the inauguration of FEM-START Africa.
Leticia Browne leads Intelligent Capital, an entrepreneurship development organization that helps foster business opportunities for early-stage entrepreneurs through a multifaceted approach. Throughout her career, Leticia has focused on investment, entrepreneurship, and business management and development. She is the CEO of the Advisory Group on SDGs to the President of Ghana.
How did you become interested in entrepreneurship?
I ran into entrepreneurship when my daughter was very young and I wanted to spend more time at home with her it was then that I realized the opportunity that entrepreneurship can provide you with. The ability to change your economic circumstances and to support your immediate family and your community; I see it as a tool. It can also help with the realization of one’s goals and desires as it sends you on a journey of self-discovery. Through my entrepreneurship support organization, I like to think that I am assisting in the transformation of people’s lives and their development to their full potential.
Did you have a role model when you started off in the world of entrepreneurship, someone that you looked up to for inspiration?
Unfortunately no, I did not. I think that the concept of mentorship was never really introduced to me at a young age, and that is something I try to incorporate in what I do. Having a role model or mentor provides you with the benefit of experience and wisdom. It can really help you to shape your ideas and provide clarity. I always wanted to do something that was beyond what I saw around me, but I did not have any idea how to get there. I believe that, if I had had a mentor much earlier on in life, I could have gotten some insight on how to progress towards my goals, who knows maybe I would have traveled a different road. Not to say that I have regrets, but I definitely feel that mentorship helps you to accelerate and helps you to focus, so I have probably taken a longer journey to get where I am.
Do you provide mentorship opportunities for entrepreneurs at Intelligent Capital?
Yes, but it is organic; it is not a service offering. It is something that inadvertently happens when you are interacting with entrepreneurs and as a result of bringing people into your team who you feel you connect with, and to whom you have some value to add.
Talking about interactions, we understand that as the Director of Intelligent Capital, you help to facilitate the interaction between entrepreneurs and investors. How do you build trust and credibility between these two groups?
I believe in being authentic in everything that you do. Authenticity always helps to build trust. And that means that if I do not believe in something, I never try to sell it. I never try to pitch something because I think it is trendy. I pitch ideas and work with people that I genuinely believe in. And it’s the same for both sides: the entrepreneur and the investor. I work with people who I feel align with my own values and with whom I have some kind of synergy in terms of what we are trying to achieve. That naturally allows connections to be developed. And over time, people get to see that there is some kind of consistency in the way that you approach things, so they know what to expect from you.
And what are the values that are important to you?
I believe in transparency, collaboration, and doing things for the greater good. These values are at the center of the way that we interact with our business partners, my staff, and even in my personal life. I think these three things guide me.
Let us shift our focus to Ghana’s landscape in terms of entrepreneurial ecosystems and start-ups. Ghana was having one of the fastest-growing economies in the world prior to COVID-19. What markets or sectors are rapidly growing?
As in most of Africa, we are definitely seeing a lot of activity in Fintech. There is also a focus on climate resilience; entrepreneurs are developing green solutions. But I think these trends are not necessarily specifically related to Ghana, they are a reflection of where money is flowing to. As there is a demand for Fintech solutions and investors have capital to deploy in this sector, many entrepreneurs are trying to get into this space. We are definitely seeing the ripple effects of what is happening across the continent.
Which markets are investors interested in?
A lot of investors, especially angel investors, are quite interested in tech because the investment lifecycle has been clearly articulated. It really comes down to exit opportunities, the exit strategy for technology companies is clearer, as opposed to more traditional businesses.
Are female entrepreneurs in Ghana also interested in technology, or do you see women starting businesses in other fields?
I see women gravitating towards what they feel comfortable with and what they are passionate about, which is typically fashion, beauty, food, and events. There have been quite a few programs to support women into tech, but I think this is a global push and a global issue. I do not think Ghana is any different to anywhere else.
What challenges do women face when they start a business? Do they face any more challenges compared to their male counterparts?
In Ghana around 48% of the entrepreneurs are women. Ghana is quite a progressive country in terms of gender. Our president is actually the gender champion for the African Union. I would say that access to finance is can be difficult for women, securing a loan from the bank, for instance, as the collateral is often in the name of their husbands. But once again I think that this is a global issue not a specific Ghanaian challenge.
Usually, the investors are men, which plays a part in this challenge. What do you think we could do to counteract this?
I am a realist in the sense that, I think for years to come we are still going to see far more men in the investment space than we see women. Although we are trying to accelerate this process, I think that real systematic change takes time. I believe that positive discrimination can only take us so far. In the meanwhile I think we need to focus on how we ensure that more capital is given to women? It is by educating men. We have to include them in what we are doing, gender lens financing and specific initiatives. Goldman Sachs recently announced their objectives regarding diversity on the boards of companies that they invest in. I think that is a step in the right direction. Let us make more inclusive investment decisions.
You co-founded FEM-START Africa in Ghana a couple of months before the onset of COVID-19. Could you share with us your experience? What are your plans for FEM-START Africa in the coming years?
The objective of introducing FEM-START to Ghana is to provide female entrepreneurs with information, services, and a program that is designed specifically for them; we want to provide this program in a way that women are ready to receive it. Thus, we are trying to provide a cultural context that does not exclude women from participating in order to get the help they need to develop themselves as entrepreneurs. We want to be able to provide programs that meet women where they are and that gives them the flexibility to engage without taking away from their other commitments. If these programs are not well thought out, you lose participants, and the idea is to bridge the gap in opportunities.
Thank you for joining us and sharing your inspiring view on entrepreneurship!
By Azaina Shaikh and Paola Hasbun
A visionary leader, Marian has worked with a diverse clientele across the world, coaching, consulting and advising them on a myriad of topics, involving tech, communication, diversity, and inclusion. She is a leading social entrepreneur in the Netherlands, a recipient of Inspiring Fifty for three years (2013, 2017 and 2019), and winner of the EU Business Angel award for her work with TEDxAmsterdamWomen Start-Up Awards.
As COVID-19 swept the globe and confined us to the safety of our homes, the writers at FEM-START spoke with the founder of FEM-START, Marian Spier, via a conference call. We talked about some of the ramifications of the pandemic on female business owners and the efforts of FEM-START in remedying them, the reality and myths of entrepreneurship, and the importance of mental well-being.
Could you briefly share with us your journey into the social entrepreneurship space?
I worked in education at the University of Applied Sciences Amsterdam and started to discover more about social impact and how by doing good you can create a better world. It also happened because of TED Talks. I started listening to them, went to the conferences and also organized TEDxAmsterdamWomen. That is how it started. This led me to make social entrepreneurship a primary focus while starting off my business.
In the beginning, I struggled and thought: what am I doing? Social entrepreneurship was not as popular when I first started. Talking to people helped me gain a better understanding of exactly what it meant to be a social entrepreneur, and through many interviews, I discovered my voice. This gave me focus. Focus helped a lot – focusing on not doing everything, but on doing what I was good at. Also, finding a team of people who were better in other areas compared to me played an important role in my journey.
How did you become the leader you are today?
Reading a lot and listening a lot. You learn from other people. Listen to people who know more than you in a certain field. And write everything down and read back! Lastly, I would say build a strong relationship with people and your clients; do not be entirely focused on what you can attain from the person. You reap what you sow. I am reaping a lot because I sowed a lot.
The spectrum of social entrepreneurship is vast, ranging from technology to sustainability. What areas have you been interested in?
My main focus is on inclusion for women and youth with a focus on entrepreneurship. As an entrepreneur, you must always look for places to add value. I found that I could add value to the female entrepreneurship ecosystem.
What challenges do female entrepreneurs face?
Women usually start a business because they identify a need or a lack of something. The problem they inadvertently run into is in scaling up their businesses. Hence, they stay as small-medium enterprises and people view female entrepreneurship at a micro-financing level. I believe that investing in women-led businesses and helping to scale up will bring about more of a change! I once heard that women “have rights, but do not have the same opportunities.” Indeed, this is a global phenomenon, even in The Netherlands. The inherent bias against women and the lack of confidence in presenting their company are a few challenges faced by women entrepreneurs and they stem from the lack of accessibility to relevant knowledge.
How do you overcome these obstacles?
An entrepreneur must be prepared for whatever may happen to them and their business including a global health crisis. It is important to build a network of mentors, sponsors, and, very importantly, a tribe: people you can talk to about your problems and people who willcontinuously challenge you. Another important ingredient is your mental health. It is imperative because you need the positivity and mental stamina to push forward and come up with creative solutions to solve the problems you may be facing.
The implications of the current pandemic on all facets of society are innumerable; its effects on the female entrepreneurship ecosystem can be anticipated. How is FEM-START going to help mitigate these effects?
In these times of crisis, we will be focusing on women entrepreneurs as they will be amongst the largest group to be affected in business. When things begin to settle down, nobody will have the time to think about the minorities; one of those groups is also women of color.
FEM-START is building a platform both online and offline for female entrepreneurs who are going through the crisis. At the moment we are creating online chapters in Africa and Europe. Traditionally, we are based on events and face-to-face coaching. Now, we are making our services available online. Femprenerhelp.nl, soon to be launched, is going to serve as a coaching platform to help female entrepreneurs navigate through all the necessary information and really cater to their needs. We intend on making information and help accessible to female entrepreneurs in need. People have leaned towards the Internet to help alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that we all experience these days. Social media has been an outlet of self-expression for creatives and a platform for growing entrepreneurs.
What role do you think social media plays in business?
Social media plays a huge role. You can make an Instagram account and start a business for free. You can gain global interaction very fast. People of color entrepreneurs have been using social media to start and expand their business. One such example is Huda Kattan,who founded her cosmetics line, Huda Beauty.
Unfortunately, there is a dark side to social media, as well. It romanticizes the culture of a start-up. It creates a false image of success and people think it is instant. You may see someone on Instagram one day and the next day they may be successful. However, it does not show you that it takes years of hard work and going through some tough times to be a successful entrepreneur. It also depends on your mindset.
What practices do you engage in to keep up a positive attitude and a strong mindset?
I meditate and I pray. I take my time in the morning to be thankful and happy that I am alive. Mental health and well-being is a huge part of self-care for me. Your surroundings need to be good, or else you cannot function. As I always say, you need to relax. Take this time to relax and think. Go for a walk, listen to relaxing music and do breathing exercises.
If you are stressed, you cannot solve the problem. Now is the time to be creative!
Photographer Jurre Rompa