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!