By Azaina Shaikh and Paola Hasbun

Kimberly Ofori is a wonder-woman who defies convention and goes after what she wants. Started as an insurance advisor at a tender age of 16, Kimberly is a consultant at ScaleUp Company, Business Mentor at Founder Institute, and now, a FEMpreneurHulp mentor who is helping female entrepreneurs navigate the challenges of COVID-19 using the lessons she’s learned along her extraordinary journey. We spoke with Kimberly to talk about her story, business endeavors, and FEMpreneurHulp.

What inspired you to volunteer as a mentor in FEMpreneurhulp? 

In my journey, I have seen that some of the unsuccessful endeavors happened because I did not have access to the right information, resources and people. I do not wish that upon anyone. I believe that if your business is going to fail it should be because there was no product market fit or the market was not ready. It should not happen because you did not know how to do something. My motivation to do this is the women who have found the sweet spot of having a good product and found a market vision, but are not able to come out of a situation because of a certain circumstance, maybe the pandemic or they were in trouble a long time ago. I find it immensely rewarding to help those women grow their business or keep their business, especially in times of crisis.

What are the main struggles you see in female entrepreneurs face during COVID’19? 

A lot of entrepreneurs struggle with deciding whether to pivot or not. There are several stages in entrepreneurship that will make you doubt whether to continue or not, but the pandemic has really exposed all the imperfections within your business that you should’ve fixed a long time ago. In this climate, a lot of entrepreneurs are debating whether to invest again in something new, or pivot in a different direction. I think this has to do with stepping out and being bold in your decisions. If you are an entrepreneur, you are intrinsically motivated by risk-taking. At times, these entrepreneurs need to hear that their idea is valid and they just need that external validation from a mentor. There is a lot of volatility in the market right now. Businesses are moving online. It is a conscious decision that you have to make- and it can be very scary.

You mention in your blog that women often struggle with positioning themselves, or tend to undervalue themselves. How do you suggest women can boost their confidence?

It is hard- I still struggle with it every day. It is something that is deeply rooted in our society, that women are expected to be humble and not voice our opinion- it is seen as being aggressive. It starts with yourself. Every time I feel like that I ask myself if I am going to get what I want the way I am approaching it, if the answer is no, then I have to do a mindset shift. I am going to do what is necessary to get there. Sometimes that means disagreeing with the rest of the team.

What do you do to keep balance and mental health in these times of crisis?

Every day I prioritize. I schedule every hour in my calendar, meticulously. I know what I am doing every hour and why I am doing it that way. I hardly deviate from my schedule, I have a very demanding private life as well, so I can not afford to “go with the flow”. Preparation and planning ahead helps me keep sane. Give yourself some room to breathe. As women, we think we must be present for everybody, every time; you can not pour from an empty cup. To rest and refuel is a must.

It is amazing all the wonderful things you have achieved in your career. Do you want to share something about yourself that not too many people know? 

Thank you very much! Naturally, I am an introvert. When people see me, they are surprised to find out that I am shy. That is because I really trained myself to get out of my shell, but before, I was struggling with a lot of things. I think a lot of people don’t see how much effort was put into getting where I am right now in my career.

I was born and raised in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, to my Surinamese mother and Ghanian father. When I was 16, my mother had lost her job during the crisis. I quit school and worked for an insurance Company because I felt it was my responsibility to help my family financially. I was the youngest insurance advisor at the firm: in the interview I convinced them to hire me in spite of my age, I had removed my age from the resume. It was the first bold step that I took. That experience opened my eyes to the numerous possibilities that come with stepping out of one’s comfort zone and simply asking for what you want.

People have that one defining moment in their lives, which shapes them into the person they are. What was that moment for you? 

Years ago, I gave up everything I had in the Netherlands to move to Dubai for a job as a business manager at a Global Company. On the first day, my manager informed me that they were not opening the Dubai branch anymore and handed me an envelope with one month’s salary and wished me good luck.

I made the decision to stay back and make it work. After a long six months of job hunting, it occurred to me that the reason why I am unable to find a  job is that as an introvert- it is hard for me to ask for help. Nobody knew I was struggling; I was keeping up appearances. That moment really pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and start reaching out to people on different platforms, until I found a job at a prominent talent management company.

During my time at this company, I was fortunate to work with great companies like Shell and Emirates Airlines as a consultant on their HR planning and strategic mapping. That was probably one of the best experiences in my career, including the six months of searching, which really built and shaped the things I do now, in terms of perseverance and not giving up. In addition, working at high profile positions despite not meeting the job description, really helped me understand that what I am capable of is more important and the skills I have to offer are equally as valuable as the credentials stated in job descriptions.

You say that you are an entrepreneur at heart, having founded a number of brands and companies. What inspired you to venture into these businesses after working in the corporate world? 

After working in Dubai, I moved to Spain, and I could not get a job because I am not proficient in Spanish. Instead, I started three online platforms: one was a job recruitment portal that did not do so well, a fashion platform called Doll House,  and Fab Lane where I sold hair extensions. Both Fab Lane and Doll House grew into successful businesses. During that period, I was constantly teaching myself everything: how to set up and grow an online business, and building a community. After reaching a certain level of revenue, I sold them.

After a while I became very interested in learning about the business climate in Ghana. There were  many businesses and start-ups being set up, but there was a lack of the right platform to grow these businesses, and that is how Aprenuer came into being. Unable to sleep one night, I decided to teach myself how to code a little bit on CodeAcademy. Using that knowledge, I started building the Apreneur website, it was a cross between Linkedin and Facebook. I envisioned it to be a space for African founders to connect with each other. It would provide them with opportunities to learn from each other and collaborate. I remember when the website went live, it crashed because there were 6000 applications and that was too much traffic for the web host, which I had poorly built myself. That is how the journey began.

What is your motivation for starting a new project? 

I am still trying to figure it out myself! I feel like I have been through certain things in life that have pushed me to see what is out there, what is possible. I have seen my mother come out of certain struggles, which removed the limitation of things from my mind. I aspire to be as strong as her. My mother went back to school because she had us when she was a teenager and got married at 18. She got her bachelor’s degree at 48. That was such an inspiration for me. She went out there and chased her dreams, which is what every woman should do.

Thank you very much for this wonderful interview, Kimberly!