Black Space App Founder and CEO, April Jefferson
In this age of digital disruption, the tourism industry globally has embraced new technologies and changed the way we travel. And these new technology advancements promises to deliver an improved, even more interactive and user experiences. Alaba Ayinuola of Business Africa Online interviewed April Jefferson, CEO of Black Space App as she shares her thoughts on entrepreneurship, how are her brand is using technologies to fine-tune travel experiences, connecting black travelers across the globe to their culture and the development of Africa’s travel industry. Excerpts.
Alaba: Tell us about Black Space App and the gap its filling?
April: Black Space App is the Ultimate Black Travelers Guide, connecting you to the culture no matter where you are. Our mission is to provide Black travelers with cultural safe, educational, and enjoyable travel experiences. Black travelers are looking to experience people, and places that are culturally relevant as they experience comfort and familiarity within these spaces. Not only that but we are in a time where racial discrimination has become prominent, hate crimes have increased every year for the last four years. Our vision is to become the one stop shop for Black travelers providing them with all they need to plan, navigate and share their travels. As we curate this community, we are keeping Black travelers safe, informed, entertained, and creating memorable travel experiences.
Alaba: What is your startup capital and how were you able to raise it?
April: I have not raised any money to date, we are one hundred percent bootstrapped. We may fund raise in the near future.
Alaba: What are the major challenges, competition and how are you overcoming them?
April: The major challenge right now is funding. We are growing quickly, at a demand where it is becoming harder for us to keep up. With limited funding we are only able to travel so much, and or purchase the needed equipment to capture the sites, people and places we’d like. However, we have been very innovative, and resourceful with what we have been afforded. Our Nikon’s and Kodak’s have allowed us to capture the culture through our eyes, to share with our users.
Recently there’s been competition in this sector, as the Black community is beginning to learn that the only barrier to seeing the world is ourselves. Has there been major competition? I am yet to find any company providing the full scope of the Black travel experience including booking, streaming, etc. that we are providing to Black travelers.
So, we are confident in that we are fulfilling a major gap and breaking into the travel industry in a more innovative, holistic way.
Alaba: How is your App connecting black across the globe to their culture and heritage?
April: Our app was created to connect our users to the culture, creating a sense of home no matter where they are. Black travelers are looking to experience people, places and things that are of their culture, as research shows they show familiarity and comfort within these spaces. Our app provides them with the local cultural experience; so that no matter where they are, they are able to find events, places and people that they are able to connect to. We also will be educating them on local African history and culture as they travel.
Currently we are collecting research on the Green Book and the communities it obtains, documenting and sharing Black historical sites as well as present day institutions that educate and celebrate the African heritage. We will document our experiences, and guide travelers through these spaces encouraging them to experience them during their travels. When we say that we are connecting travelers to the culture, we truly mean in every aspect. Our near future plan is to add these sites to the app in the form of Augmented Reality, to truly transport travelers through these experiences of African history, and culture. We hope to take this feature into Educational Institutions, introducing them to the guide utilizing technology to innovatively educate, and connect communities to the African culture that surrounds them.
Alaba: What’s your view on the development of the travel and tourism in Africa?
April: We have been following the development and are aware that tourism plays a vital part in the economic development of Africa. Black travelers are traveling to Africa at an increasing rate, and they are looking to learn more about the history, culture and how they can be a positive reinforcement when visiting. However, with their being a true disconnect to what is truly happening in Africa; tourists are not able to fully experience the culture and contribute to the Economics. We want to provide them with the experience and educate them on how they can visit and be an asset to the country, as well as how they can continue to support outside of their travels, is how we plan to bridge the gap.
Through technology, through our app, we can connect travelers to the businesses in Africa for them to patronize the events in Africa they need to support and even initiatives that assist in other areas of development. We also plan to educate on the history of Africa and offer tours on the ground providing jobs to locals. Africans inhabit every inch of the planet; therefore, Black Space is looking to be in every city, and country worldwide contributing to develop education as it pertains to African culture, and economics as it pertains to Black and African communities.
Alaba: What’s the future for your brand and what steps are you taking towards it?
April: We are a social impact company, who wishes to take the travel industry by storm and become a one-stop shop for Black travelers. Our vision is to be the only resource needed for them to book their travel, find out what’s happening locally and purchase tickets, stream music during travels and connect to other like-minded travelers. All of these features are already available through our app, and we are working on expounding on what is already integrated. Through our app, we hope to put Black travelers mind at ease when planning their trip knowing that they will be safe, accepted and have an enjoyable travel experience.
In addition, we have a mission to preserve, and allow users to interact with Black history throughout the World empowering and uplifting African culture throughout the Diaspora. Currently we are working to add, and enhance this component of the app. This component we are looking to bring into educational institutions and to city governments to create diverse tourism experiences geared toward Black communities promoting economic development in underserved communities.
Alaba: How do you feel as an African entrepreneur?
April: Underrepresented, and severely underserved. Black women receive the least amount of funding within the tech space, making it that much more difficult. I often feel as if what I’m doing is important, innovative, ground-breaking but, many times within this space it’s severely reduced and I can easily feel like I’m not making any leeway. However, I also feel that this makes me stronger and smarter in every aspect. I’ve learned to use my challenges, and differences to my advantage in all that I’m doing. I believe there’s power in being able to say: “I’ve had to figure most of this out on my own, and I’m still standing” and I definitely don’t plan on lying down any time soon. What I’m doing is important to not just me, but my culture if we don’t tell our story, who else will?
Alaba: What’s your advice for prospecting entrepreneurs and investors looking towards the tourism and travel sector?
April: The travel, and tourism sector has been the same for a long time. It has been advertised to the same people, and locations. It is time to include more innovation, and incorporation of various cultures. I think that it is important that those entering into this sector understand the importance of the need for the shift in the industry. Not only that but realize that travel connects us to communities across the globe therefore, it is important to create a positive impact in those communities as we come in contact with them through our companies.
Alaba: How do you relax and what books do you read?
April: I love to go to the beach; I love the water which is one of the reasons I relocated to Virginia on the coast. I also read to relax. I can tuck away and read all day. I usually read articles I enjoy biographies as well. I recently finished Nina Simone’s biography. I often watch the documentaries and read the stories I am a very inquisitive person, so I love to look at things from every aspect.
Alaba: What are your favorite local dish and your favourite local holiday spot?
April: Well I was born and raised in St. Louis, MO and we are known for some of the BEST foods. My favorite local food from my hometown is the Chinese Food; no one in the World makes Chinese food like St. Louis makes Chinese food! I’m not a huge Holiday person; I’m more into creating new, individual experiences.
April Jefferson was born and raised in St. Louis, MO the heart of the Midwest. As the oldest of four, she often held the responsibility to nurture and care for those around her, including those in her community. Her parents afforded her many opportunities enrolling her in private schools, where she excelled and encouraged her to take Leadership roles in many community programs, such as the Drill Team, African American Role Model Association, etc. Therefore, her interest and love for Black Culture, and Community was instilled at a young age.
Graduating High School with honors, she was accepted into Saint Louis University—one of the most prestigious schools in the Country. However, after two years at the University and experience culture shock being on of the few Black students on campus she transferred to a Public University. She studied Psychology, until she gave birth to her first son in 2009. She planned to give birth and return back to school immediately however her son was diagnosed with several complications at birth and spent his first month of life in the NICU, with his Mother right by his side. From there she worked in Design picking up contracts with St. Louis Public Schools and several small businesses, and Education working in several capacities from tutor, to registrar.
After the uprising in Ferguson, she created a professional organization, Black Businesswomen of St. Louis, where she connected, educated, and elevated hundreds of women in Business. She also hosted Community Events, for several small black businesses, owned by black men and women alike assisting them in connecting with the Community, and increasing revenue. She also hosted a radio show on fergusonhottalkradio.com, acquiring listeners from across the Globe and bringing awareness to issues within Ferguson.
She published her first book “Allowed to be Me,” a book she calls an “Ode to my Sista’s”. A self-help book for Black Women and went on tour to promote the book—landing in Hampton Roads, VA where she currently resides. In 2018 after settling in and processing her tour she created the Black Space App for Black travelers, with all the features she felt she looked for during her travels.
Currently she has participated in Black Enterprises TCX Fellow Program, Founder Gym, and won the Ulule Social Impact Pitch Competition.
Meet Seipati Mokhuoa – CEO Southern African Women In Leadership (SAWIL)
Seipati Mokhuoa – CEO Southern African Women In Leadership (SAWIL), Gender Equality Advocate and Strategist. She believes Self-leadership is the foundation of excellence. Her organisation supports and enables seasoned female professionals to realise their true potential irrespective of age, race, religion, background, etc. In this interview with Alaba Ayinuola, Seipati talks about her entrepreneurship journey and how she’s leading the transformation and gender equality initiatives across Southern Africa with SAWIL. Excerpt.
Alaba: Could you tell us about South African Women in Leadership (SAWIL) and the gap its filling?
Seipati: SAWIL is an organisation established in 2014 for women in leadership as well as aspirant leaders. The membership composition is made up of supervisory, management, senior leadership and executive roles within the Southern African Leadership framework. We’ve spent the past 5 years doing research and understanding some of the underlying influences, legacy issues and overall lack of appetite to address the vast and incessant gap which exists in terms of skills retention, leadership development, executive coaching, gender parity and equality in the workplace. A global phenomenon we feel we are more than equipped to address through our campaign #SAWILVision2030.
We support and enable seasoned professionals (women) to realise their true potential irrespective of age, race, religion, background – each woman’s contribution still remains critical to the relevance of our ‘present-day’ society and the advancement of the African economy.We also have golf days, where the social (and therapeutic) aspects of golf is discovered. This pastime is a wonderful tool to encourage networking and opens the pathways to endless opportunities.
Alaba: Have you always been entrepreneurial? What sparked your interest into founding SAWIL?
Seipati: Yes, definitely! My late dad was an entrepreneur. I remember back in High school I used to negotiate with him to take some of the stock from his businesses to sell at school and he profusely repudiated no matter how many times I tried. His argument was that it would distract me from my school work. However, in Grade 10 – two of my favorite teachers (Business Management and Biblical Studies) put money together and bought boxes of “champions” sweets and sent me on my entrepreneurial journey. The agreement was that it would be our little secret because they saw and understood the entrepreneurial hunger in me. We did this until Grade 12 (Final Year of High School) – and oh, I passed both subjects with distinctions.
The birth of SAWIL was a mere response to the challenges I faced as a young Woman in Leadership in one of the most untransformed regions of our country post-Apartheid. My first leadership role was at the age of twenty four, 10 years ago. I think it’s safe to say I was one of the Guinea pigs of Leadership transformation in the organization, more specifically in our division. The top performers, even to this date – are white males. Seeing the lack of women in boardrooms as I climbed the corporate ladder opened my eyes to a sad reality with reference to gender parity and equality in the workplace. So, I began my research. As a result, the solutions we offer at SAWIL are both research based and lived experiences.
Alaba: Recently SAWIL Golf was confirmed as the official host of the international women’s golf day representing Africa. How do you feel and can you share more on this?
Seipati: I am obviously ecstatic about this amazing opportunity to showcase and represent our beautiful continent but due to the unfortunate Coronavirus outbreak, we might have to postpone to a later date. The #WomensGolfDay is a global event where women from all walks of life come together to play golf on the same date at over 900 locations worldwide. SAWIL Golf applied to be the Africa host and as God would have it, we were approved.
What makes it even more significant is that the event is usually hosted by Golf clubs. We don’t own a golf course, however, we are the fasted growing women’s social golf club in SA and that makes us stand out. So if there are any investors out there keen on funding Africa’s first female owned golf course – call me?! I have the perfect spot! (Giggles)
Alaba: If any, what challenges have you experienced as a woman in business?
Seipati: To be honest, I haven’t really had it as tough as most African entrepreneurs do. I only left my job in late 2018 and was smart enough to make some good investments which basically take care of my month to month needs. I do however fully understand some of the biggest challenges most entrepreneurs in the continent face such as access to funding and markets hence, we as SAWIL, are in the process of launching a fund to assist women entrepreneurs in the continent to take advantage of the level playing field that is 4IR.
Alaba: What are some of your biggest achievements since you launched SAWIL?
Seipati: Our decision to expand to South African Development Community (SADC) and the warm reception thus far. SAWIL Golf was launched in 2018 but has become a great pillar of the organization. The launch of our research based solution under #SAWILVision2030 and the inaugural launch of Southern African Women In Leadership Top 30 rising stars.
Alaba: Why do you think it’s important that we make equality a priority and what would women bring to the table that you think the world needs now?
Seipati: Research suggests that women in executive positions and on corporate boards can have a positive impact on a company’s performance, that diverse C-suites tend to yield higher margins, bigger profits, and better total return to shareholders.
At SAWIL, we are cognizant of the new wave of leadership that is illuminating the world: they are young, bold, smart, fluid, disruptive, global citizens who have mastered the art of collaboration. As part of the #SAWILVision2030 campaign, rather than using traditional models, we invite women to be part of a new, more collaborative approach to leadership. Rakhi Voria once said “While we may be individually strong, we are collectively powerful.”
In this age of disruption, we cannot continue to sit on the side-lines and wait for someone to invite us to the table. I want to encourage women today to take their power back and start putting their money where their mouth is. There’s a generation of young women rising. They are fearless, intelligent, bold, entrepreneurial and overall global trendsetters. But even these women do not yet fully own their power.
Women continue to be discriminated against and their contributions undervalued, they work more, earn less and have fewer choices about their bodies, livelihood and future than men. But what if we realised our power and influence and used it accordingly and where it matters most?
#SAWILVision2030 is a decade long campaign calling on all women to be at the forefront of creating women empowered workplaces, where equality, diversity and inclusion are not mere conversations in boardrooms full of white males, a few men of colour and a woman here and there. We need to put our money where our mouth is. Be intentional about where you bank, buy your car, house, which medical aid you use, which insurance company you’re with, where you buy your phone(gadgets), clothes, food, which service provider you are with, schools etc.
This is a call for all women to take action. What most companies have done very well is to appoint just enough women into entry level jobs, mid management and somewhat senior management but decision making roles are locked and the glass ceiling only has a few cracks here and there. Ours is to shutter it!!! The time for women to stand together is now.
Alaba: As we celebrate the International Women’s Day 2020, what are your expectations?
Seipati: My expectations are the same as the past decade or longer. We need more women in decision making roles. Corporate or business must step up and make gender parity or equality, diversity and inclusion part of their strategy. Our economies depend on it!
Alaba: What’s the future for SAWIL and what steps are you taking towards achieving it?
Seipati: To be at the forefront of leadership transformation and gender equality initiatives across Southern Africa. We have the strategy and are ready to serve. What we need is for the private sector to open its doors. We will not stop knocking until we see change.
Alaba: How do you feel as an African entrepreneur?
Seipati: I am very excited at the prospects of the future. There is an uprising happening. Young, woke African entrepreneurs are emerging everywhere and they are ready to maximize on the opportunities the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) presents. We are no longer just beneficiaries. We are innovators, disrupters and pioneers!
Alaba: Kindly give a piece of advice for aspiring female leaders reading this.
Seipati: Self-leadership is the foundation of excellence. Take time to invest in yourself. Growth and change are constants on this journey, so practice patience and compassion at all times. Remember, no one is going to hand you anything – get up, grind and get what’s yours. We don’t get what we deserve; we get what we ask for. If there is no seat at the table, create your own table.
B I O G R A P H Y
Seipati Mokhuoa is a seasoned professional with over 10 years’ experience in the Financial Services industry. She built her way up in the banking sector as a teller, multiskilled consultant and builds her way up. And later transitioned to the Insurance sector where the vast majority of her responsibilities involved providing leadership and strategy in terms of the execution of the larger organization’s strategy, sales and productivity, budget control, people management, stakeholder relations (internal and external), operational support, innovation, infrastructure, HR and IT.
In 2018, she took a bold step to change careers and began to position herself to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by 4IR. A passionate strategist and innovator by nature, the digital marketing space appealed to her and presented various opportunities she believes will shape and change the face of marketing in the African continent.
Seipati is a serial and passionate social entrepreneur who believes that the “future of work” is going to unlock greater opportunities for young African entrepreneurs and innovators. Currently pursuing a Masters/Msc in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, she aims to encourage and empower more young people to take entrepreneurship seriously and take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead.
Erica Tavares: Passionate About A Greener, Better Future
Erica Tavares is an Environmentalist, Co-Founder and Executive Director at EcoAngola. A 100% bootstrapped startup increasing awareness of the civil society, local government and policy makers regarding local and world environmental problems, conservation and sustainability whilst trying to creatively find realistic solutions to tackle these problems. In this interview with Alaba Ayinuola of Business Africa Online, she shares her sojourn in to climate change advocacy, social entrepreneurship and EcoAngola journey. Excerpt.
Alaba: Could you briefly tell us about what sparked the launch of EcoAngola?
Erica: EcoAngola was founded by me and two other Angolans, Paulo Pizarro and Leonardo Pizarro. We did not know each other until the day I received a call from Paulo, days before graduating from my Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Biology. He shared their idea about launching a philanthropic project that would promote environmental conservation and sustainability in Angola, which immediately raised my interest.
He explained that they had been looking for partners for quite some time but were unsuccessful. Although some people expressed interest to join the initiative, none of them actually had the energy, time and passion to develop the idea of EcoAngola from scratch, because it was time consuming and without any immediate return. They were looking preferentially for a young and enthusiast person, with a background in biology or an environment related field, because none of them had much experience or further understanding about the subject, besides being conscious about the world ecological crisis we are currently living and the critical environmental problems in Angola.
Being born and raised in Angola, I have always been connected to nature. After concluding high school, I then decided to study biology, and that was the start of my journey through environmentalism. Studying biology and environmental science, made me extremely aware of how important initiatives such as EcoAngola are to make a positive change in developing countries.
So, EcoAngola was really the kind of organization that I have always imagined myself working with but never thought that I would be part of it so early, as Executive Director, and that it would grow so fast and become so relevant, as it is right now.
Alaba: What is the main focus of your startup and the gap it’s filling?
Erica: Angola is a resource rich country, with vast land and diverse ecosystems. However, the country faces various environmental challenges, such as deforestation, desertification, draught, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and pollution. The climate change, population growth, poverty and lack of environmental education programmes, aggravate the problem and accelerate the degradation of the ecosystems, with serious economic, social and environmental consequences.
The main focus of EcoAngola is to increase awareness of the civil society, local government and policy makers regarding local and world environmental problems, informing and educating about environmental conservation and sustainability whilst trying to creatively find realistic solutions to tackle these problems. We write articles on relevant environmental topics and publish them on our website (ecoangola.com) and social media.
We also organize events and campaigns such as beach cleanings and reforestation. We promote discussions involving experts from the public and private sector, within the Angolan community, so that we could start finding solutions that are best adapted to our reality and that could serve as a basis to develop new national environmental policies. We also noticed that there was no collaboration between existent environmental organisations, so we started supporting and collaborating with other environmental organisations and related initiatives, building bridges between all of them, and working for the common good.
Unity is very important if we want societal change to happen, particularly because the country is so big and the initiatives are so few that it is easy to assume that nothing is being done and a lot of these initiatives actually die due to insufficiency of collaboration in our society.
Alaba: How are you funding your startup?
Erica: So far, we have been mostly funded by ourselves. Human capital is actually the biggest treasure we have, and the volunteers who continue to join our organisation are the ones catalysing the fast growth of EcoAngola. There is an incredible amount of ideas that we could implement and that would have a great impact, but we have now prioritised environmental education and awareness initiatives, because they build the foundation of consciousness and drive the change of mindset and attitude.
We started recruiting volunteers, most of them young university students, who do not have much working experience, giving them some exposure and the opportunity to contribute and be part of the EcoAngola team. I usually say: “we are growing together”. Our campaigns and events are normally supported and funded byvarious organizations that collaborate with us. For example, for our first beach cleaning campaign, each partner organisation made a different contribution, from water, to gloves, bags, the trash collection and disposal.
We will soon be able to receive donations and funding for our events, campaigns and projects, but we also stand to our values, so will not accept funding from companies that consistently damage the environment and promote green washing. Financial support will help us to expand our project and have a much broader and bigger impact.
Alaba: What are the challenges and how are you overcoming them?
Erica: One of our biggest challenges is definitely funding, as this limits us on the implementation of our projects. In the short term, we are prioritizing the ideas and projects that need the least financing and that can have the greatest impact.This has worked well so far and has made EcoAngola progress and grow faster than we anticipated.
Another challenge is the difficulty to recruit and maintain volunteers motivated because there is no financial motivation and no immediate results.
To motivate our volunteers, we give credit to their work, offer certificates of appreciation and give recognition for their dedication to EcoAngola. I feel that the progress of EcoAngola itself has been a self-motivation for the entire team of volunteers working with us. We also try to constantly show some of the positive changes that are already happening as a result of the collective effort of our volunteers.
Lastly, we noticed that most people assume that EcoAngola is an enormous, well-funded organisation because of our mobilization and online presence – but we are not. We have a small executive team, a team of volunteers that help to coordinate our campaigns, events and activities, and a group of volunteers that write articles on relevant topics.
Alaba: How does your startup measure it’s impact?
Erica: We measure our impact from the feedback we receive about our articles, events and activities, through the number of people visiting our website and engaged through social media, the growing number of people that want to join our Green Movement (environmental awareness initiative), the growing number of people and organizations that want to work or partner with EcoAngola, and through the societal and governmental behaviour change we notice.
We have also noticed an increase in the amount of similar initiatives and the changes that happen with the people who join us. There is more hope and therefore, more energy that transcends society and makes us believe that we are causing a positive and material impact.
Alaba: What is the future of EcoAngola?
Erica: I am a dreamer and I consider myself to be farsighted. I imagine EcoAngola expanding to all of Angola with several environmental and social projects being developed. I believe that we can have a great impact in the future of Angola and Africa, especially when it comes to tackling pollution, poverty, biodiversity conservation and climate change.
We are starting with the foundation of development, which is education, but we aim to really influence public policy and build a more sustainable and ecological way of thinking for the entire nation. For our Green Movement, we aim to reach at least 100,000 people in the next 2 years. It will be a long process, but the hardest part is behind us already, which is to start.
Alaba: How is your business contributing to the development of Africa?
Erica: By raising environmental awareness in Angola, I strongly believe that we can give an example to other nations that sustainable development can be a reality. It is hard to do it, especially because the Angolan economy is based on oil and gas production and exports, but I believe it is feasible and realistic. We are considering expanding the EcoAngola project to other African nations, starting with the Portuguese speaking first.
We need to leave the theory and start practicing, adapt the challenges that we face with our reality, and implement creative and sustainable solutions. We have enough information and understanding about what the ecological crisis can do the life on earth and a base of sustainable actions that we can use to change that. So, we need to act, and we need to act now.
Alaba: How do you feel as an African social entrepreneur?
Erica: I feel very proud of myself for taking the first step and being bold and fearless. I really appreciate the support and trust that our volunteers have on me. I admire everyone who joins us in this wonderful project, because that means that just like me, they have hope and they do believe that we can make the world a better place. It has to start with us, otherwise, who will do it?
This is one of the questions I ask myself, when things get harder. I imagine how the future will be, if we continue to make Angola a more sustainable and fair country to live. I am actually the youngest one in the Team, I am only 22 years old and they believed in me since day one, and have given me the chance to show what I am capable of doing. This boosted my confidence and I believe in myself and I believe in us more than anything.
One of the best feelings ever is to watch change happen and this makes me believe even more in EcoAngola. It is always a good feeling when I am able to mobilize and recruit new people into volunteering, and when I can show them that we can all do better, even if there is no direct reward given to us. Little by little, step by step we can do greater things, together.
It has been a challenge to do all of this, while I am still studying far away from Angola, and also working to sustain myself.
Alaba: What is your advice for government, social entrepreneur and investors in Africa?
Erica: My advice is that we need to build solid bridges of communication and participation between government, social entrepreneurs, investors, research institutions and civil society. There is so much that needs to be done and so many things with a huge potential that could help us bring positive changes, such as ecotourism, for example. We need to leave the word ‘potential’ behind and we need to use that potential for the good, for growth, for sustainable prosperity.
Alaba: How do you relax and what books do you read?
Erica: At this moment I am studying a Master’s in Ecology and Evolution, I work part-time at a restaurant, and I am a mobilizer for ReGenesis, a platform and community for global support in local actions through art activism- so it has been really challenging to manage my time with my professional and student life with my relaxing time. But I am the type of person that believes in balance. I maintain my physical and mental health stable. I used to read more sci-fi books, but now I am more focused into motivating myself because of the challenges I face daily.
I am currently reading the book ‘Originals’ by Adam Grant which was a Christmas gift – it has been an easy read because I have actually been connecting a lot with the theory shared in this book, especially the part about believing in ourselves. Because I am doing a Master’s in research, I spent most of my reading time reading research papers which I find interesting and mostly fascinating for new discoveries in the world of science, particularly ecology.
B I O G R A P H Y
Erica TavaresEnvironmental Biology graduate, currently studying a Master’s of Research in Ecology and Evolution. Passionate about people, nature and science, particularly because they provide us tools to understand the world. Using the knowledge I am gaining for fair biodiversity and human rights.
My mission is to raise awareness about environmental exploitation and degradation, promoting sustainability and environmental conservation. To accomplish that, I have co-founded and now direct EcoAngola. I am also a mobilizer for ReGenesis, a platform and community for global support in local actions through art activism.
Women in Tech: Interview With Anna Collard, Founder Popcorn Training – A KnowBe4 Company
Anna Collard is founder and Managing Director of Popcorn Training, which promotes IT and information security awareness training using innovative, story-based techniques. Collard has been working in the information security field for 15 years assisting corporates across South Africa, Europe and the US keeping their information assets safe. Collard is a Certified Information Systems professional, an ISO 27001 Implementation & Lead Auditor consultant, and a business analyst. At one time a Visa/Mastercard Qualified Security Auditor. In this interview with Heath Muchena, Collard discusses leadership, information security, challenges women face in the IT sector, and shares insights on how to establish a successful career in the tech ecosystem.
Heath: How do you balance the need for technical security solutions with the potential friction it can create for businesses?
Anna: Security’s ultimate goal is to help business stay in business and is an enabler rather than a “restrictor”. This requires security to sit at the decision maker table from day one and not just be invited as an after-thought. Many technology trends, such as mobile, cloud, AI etc will only deliver the value if the solution has been built with adequate protection. It’s a bit like the analogy of the sports-car, it can only really race fast if it has good breaks.
Where it becomes difficult is when compliance or security starts to stifle business objectives. In those cases, the business needs to make the ultimate decision, which includes taking full responsibility for and accepting any risks highlighted by the compliance or security team.
Heath: How important is it to take a business-focused view of technology in your sector? Do you recommend a business first, IT/security second approach?
Anna: I believe in applying a risk-based approach to security. This means prioritizing security controls that help protect and enable the business’s critical business processes, rather than just following a compliance drive or the latest technology trend. Sun Tzu’s Art of War “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles” is a great analogy for this.
The first step in defending against cybercrime is getting to know both the possible threats as well as the organization’s weaknesses. Understanding what specific criminal motives might drive someone targeting your organization makes it easier to defend against. Think about the value of personal information you store, what opportunities exist to commit financial fraud or to extort a ransom payment? Who is the ideal victim within your organization and which channels might work best? What would the impact be? Questions like these allow you to identify and prioritize risks related to cybercrime.
Heath: How should IT leaders align their businesses with the need for security solutions?
Anna: The first step here is to raise awareness both amongst the IT leaders themselves as well as business decision makers and other executives about potential threats impacting their business processes. This will allow for more informed decision making when weighing up security versus functionality for example.
Heath: What’s your approach to providing information security guidance to organisations? How should risks be conveyed to boards who are not necessarily security experts?
Anna: As a security awareness company, we take internal awareness seriously. Every new joiner undergoes a rigorous induction training program, which includes all our policies and a lot of security awareness. We conduct frequent phishing simulations internally – meaning every employee will get at least one random simulated phishing email per week. People who fall for any of those have to undergo remediation training. Anyone who doesn’t take their remediation training within a week gets reported all the way up to the CEO.
In other organizations where security is not necessarily on the board’s agenda yet, I assisted in giving awareness sessions to the executives as a VIP target audience. This serves two purposes: Firstly, it raises the awareness level of the executives themselves, who are attractive targets for spear-phishing attacks. Secondly, it allows the Security team to get executive buy in and if lucky, even their involvement in further awareness campaigns across the rest of the organization. Having senior support is absolutely crucial in creating effective awareness, so this is usually the first step before starting anything else.
Heath: What KPIs or metrics do you use to measure the effectiveness of an information security program?
Anna: Measuring effectiveness of an overall security program should include different metrics for different audiences; as for example management may not necessarily understand the context of technical metrics such as vulnerabilities found, whereas they may be of value to the IT team. The metrics I’ve seen used in practice include:
- Heatmapof current threats and how the Security rates their confidence to defend against these (i.e. DDOS attacks, Advanced Persistent Threats etc.);
- Risks identified vs remediated;
- Audit findings % complete;
- Security standards assessments and health checks (i.e. against ISO 27001 standards or ISF framework or similar);
- Security Incidents and time to resolve / mitigate;
- Technical metrics, such as phishing, spam and malware blocked (in numbers), vulnerabilities found;
- Human behavior metrics.
Heath: How do you keep up with the latest security issues and methods?
Anna: I subscribe to cyber security blogs by experts such as Brian Krebs, Stu Sjouerman, and Bruce Schneier. I also follow many interesting thought leaders on LinkedIn. I’m also fortunate enough to be part of a few industry WhatsApp groups where latest news or incidents are shared. As part of our content creation process I need to research latest scams, threats or technology trends.
Heath: Is Africa ready for the exponential nature of the change and impact of the 4IR? How should ICT leaders foster this change and ready their organisations and consumers for the fast-paced change presented by technologies?
Anna: The KnowBe4 African Cyber Security Survey 2019 has shown that African’s are not prepared for cyber threats. Since security is a prerequisite for any of the new technologies that will take us into the 4IR, more work needs to be done to not just address the security skill shortage on the continent (we only have about 10000 security professionals across the whole of Africa) but to also educate the public on the potential pitfalls and risks they are exposed to, ranging from sharing too much information to being aware of mobile malware and social engineering attacks.
Heath: Women in the technology ecosystem are definitely in the minority, so why did you decide to pursue a career in tech?
Anna: I got into the cybersecurity field coincidentally, I was lucky to get a student-job at Siemens while I studied economics in Munich, Germany. They paid better than waitressing and I enjoyed the diversity and learning opportunity. Siemens also allowed me to write my thesis on the importance of information security from a business perspective back in 2001, when security was still very much a nice area.
I generally love learning new things and security requires you to learn every day as the landscape changes all the time. It’s such a fascinating field as security touches literally all the technology domains as well as the physical and human factors. There are many exciting opportunities for women in cybersecurity because of its overarching applicability.
Heath: What are some of the biggest challenges that women who want to venture in the world of technology face today?
Anna: Women sometimes tend to be less assertive as well as doubt themselves more than men do. I see this often in interviews, women too quickly highlight their shortcomings, whereas male counterparts display more confidence in tackling new challenges, even if they are not qualified yet.
As employers, we need to be aware of these subtle differences and encourage women more to take risks and trust their abilities. I always tell women who have self-doubts that if they mastered how to apply a smoky eye from watching it on YouTube, they can learn anything. Security might be complex, but it’s not rocket science and there are many areas in the field that are really interesting.
Heath: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about working in the tech sector as a woman today?
Anna: That it is a male dominated industry. I know many successful women in the tech sector and it’s an exciting field to get into for young girls and boys alike. Women, especially mums, are generally great jugglers- a skill that is needed in a demanding industry. This is a bit of a generalization, but a lot of women have great communication and creative skills, something that is absolutely key in running security awareness programs, project or change management programs.
Empathy and listening skills, another typical female trait comes in handy when trying to communicate technology or security to end users, upper level management or executives.
Heath: What influences your leadership style and what values are important to you?
Anna: I love learning, research and innovation and I’m not a typical people’s person. This makes me a more distanced leader as I leave my team to do what they do best. I strongly believe in hiring great people and giving them the freedom to become high performers by providing the vision and some guidance but not interfering in the way they do things. Unless they need assistance of course.
Heath: Who are your role models for women in tech?
Anna: I once was lucky enough to sit next to Cathy Smith, CEO of SAP Africa on a flight. She really inspired me to remain authentic. We don’t have to be highly extroverted and loud alpha type personalities to be good leaders. Being soft-spoken, calm and relying on our female intuition is an often-underestimated superpower. Cathy reminded me of that, it was a very inspiring conversation for which I’m very grateful for.
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