Meet Kimberly Ofori: Her journey, businesses, and why she is mentoring female entrepreneurs during COVID-19 

Meet Kimberly Ofori: Her journey, businesses, and why she is mentoring female entrepreneurs during COVID-19 

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! 

An interview with FEM-START Africa Co-founder Leticia Browne 

An interview with FEM-START Africa Co-founder Leticia Browne 

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!