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Women in Tech: Interview With Ellen Fischat, Founder Story Room and Inspiring Fifty SA Ambassador

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Ellen Fischat is the Founder Story Room (Pty Ltd)

On inclusive digital transformation, effective business networking, women empowerment and diversity in tech

Ellen Fischat is the Founder Story Room (Pty Ltd) , a boutique innovation consultancy. She was the first managing director for The Silicon Cape Initiative and has previously held positions which include Business manager for Propella Business Incubator, the NMU Incubator in Nelson Mandela Bay and the Enterprise Development Manager for the SEDA NMB ICT Incubator. Ellen has a focus on social enterprises and technology and is involved in the mentorship of technology start-ups and volunteers in various community outreach programmes that focus on personal development, digital literacy and increasing employability of marginalized young women through STEM initiatives. Here are excerpts from an exclusive interview with Heath Muchena of Business Africa Online.

Heath: You are an advocate for the advancement of women in tech; what advice would you give to women looking to break into a predominantly male field?

Ellen: I would encourage women to not over think their desire to work in any male dominated field. It’s important that they find allies or mentors to help them navigate a male dominated environment, if they feel uncomfortable or not seen or treated as an equal. The highest paying jobs are the ones in male dominated environments and we should not allow our fear to take those opportunities away from us.

I’m not saying it’s an easy task, but we sometimes don’t realise how many other women are watching us, in support and admiration. Sometimes you just have to be your own hero.

Heath: As a speaker at the upcoming Women in Tech Conference in Cape Town on the importance of building a business network. Can you please share a few key takeaways?

Ellen: Building a successful venture is essentially about the ability to build strong, loyal and reciprocal relationships. Building a strong network is key to having access to information and opportunities. And when we are informed, we are able to make the right business decisions. The workshop will focus on sharing some of the lessons I have learned on how to establish these relationships and how to maintain them but also nurture them. No woman is an island.

And it’s not only about who you know, but actually who knows you. So, the more your name and work is raised in discussions in a positive light, the more credibility and trust you accumulate.

Heath: Has networking played a role in you achieving your career objectives?

Ellen: I have spent years networking full time. There was so much I needed and wanted to learn about business. That I made sure I was present wherever the networking happened. I also wanted to understand what the cool kids had that I didn’t. I also learned that when people see you on a regular basis, you establish rapport, then the networks start viewing you as “one of them”. It is more likely then, that they assume that you are trustworthy and are willing to engage with you. It doesn’t always mean that your presence leads to true collaboration, but it’s also a process to discover who you want to be associated with and work with.

I am a natural connector. I always see the benefit of connecting people with each other. So networking is a very important part of my business, but more importantly I focus on making deposits into my network, as opposed to only making withdrawals. Most people hate networking and it really is hard work investing in the people around you not knowing what the return will be. But practice makes the skill and art of networking easier. In fact I now prefer to attend networking sessions on my own, so that I am forced to engage with others, than stick to the people I already know.

Heath: What is that one advice for tech companies getting started with diversity and inclusion?

Ellen: That they need to accelerate the process that’s if they have even given the matter serious consideration. I would encourage senior executives and managers to speak to their existing minority groups of “diverse” staff and take their lead from them, as to how the company could execute more effective actions to recruit more diverse talent.

Diversity and inclusion should not be a negative and begrudged process in any 21st century organization. Rather it should be a welcomed and intentional execution of organisational strategy.

Heath: What would help women in tech become not only successful business leaders but effective motivators and change leaders?

Ellen: I think that female leaders have these aforementioned traits or represent them. But I do believe that we need to make these successful business leaders and effective motivators more visible and be more intentional about celebrating their successes. People can’t be what they can’t see. We need more visible role models. And women need to stop questioning their value and seeking external validation. It’s a recipe for disaster, rejection and becomes a negative self-fulfilling prophecy.

Heath: What influences your leadership style and what values are important to you?

Ellen: An intrinsic belief that we are honored to be viewed and acknowledged as leaders. It’s a huge responsibility that should not be taken lightly. And as leaders, the onus is on us, to serve the people we lead and are responsible for. I personally strive to surround myself with people that know more than I do, so that I am always learning from them and not the other way around.

Our role as leaders is not to shine in our own light, but to be the bearers of light, so that others in turn can shine, grow, thrive and become leaders in their own right. I consider mutual respect, integrity, empowerment and honest communication as the most critical values required for any successful environment and culture.

Heath: What institutional and societal changes need to be made in order to empower business women in South Africa?

Ellen: Statistically, as far as employment of women in senior government positions is concerned, we aren’t doing half bad in comparison to other continents. So that box is ticked. We do however fail dismally as a society when it comes to cultural rights of women and their physical safety and emotional wellbeing. South African women are subjected to high degrees of domestic trauma and are often the sole financial providers for their families and children. As long as the personal, physical safety and wellbeing of women is not drastically improved, then one has to wonder what the influence and impact is of women in a business environment. It’s hard to imagine that cultural and societal beliefs are left at home, when people go to work.

So, I have little faith that we are seen as equals in a business environment, if we are not recognized as such in our personal environments. The safety and influence of women will only be truly effective if we are acknowledged as equals in all areas of society and business.

Heath: How can we encourage more women and young girls to consider careers in tech?

Ellen: I think women and girls need to be more exposed to the wonderful and important work female business leaders are doing. They should be stimulated to maintain their curious minds and to contribute towards discussions and solutions, without fear of being professionally and sometimes socially ostracized for this. We should raise our girls to be confident in their abilities and encourage their leadership and not taint them as being “bossy” and “unfeminine”.

We should encourage our boys and men to treat girls and their female colleagues as they would want their mothers and sisters to be treated. And that’s why I believe that the mission of Inspiring Fifty SA is so important and should receive greater support. We aim to make female role models in tech more visible and celebrated because “if she can see it, she can be it”.

Also Read: Interview: Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy For Girls Executive Director, Gugulethu Ndebele On Girls And Leadership

Visit: Ellen Fischat

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Rhoda Aguonigho: Building a Fashion Hub for African Creatives to Create, Connect and Collaborate

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Rhoda Aguonigho is a Fashion entrepreneur and cultural & creative industry advocate who is very passionate about the Creative industry in Africa. As a consultant, she has worked with several fashion entrepreneurs, teaching them how to launch their businesses and achieve their brand goals. As a project manager she has worked on some of Africa’s top fashion events and programs like Lagos Fashion Week, Lagos Fashion Awards, The Leap Project and many more.  Rhoda is the Founder of Lhaude Fashion network an organization that creates opportunities for emerging Fashion Talents and the Creative Director of Rholabel. In this interview with Alaba Ayinuola, she speaks on her journey as a fashion entrepreneur and her passion for the creative and fashion industry. Excerpts.

 

Alaba: Could you briefly tell me about yourself and your brand, Lhaude? 

Rhoda: My name is Rhoda Aguonigho and I am a fashion entrepreneur. My work in the fashion industry includes consulting, project management and also running a couple of fashion businesses. I am currently the founder of Lhaude Fashion Network. A fashion organization that creates opportunities for emerging fashion startups and creatives across Nigeria and Africa to thrive and grow. We do this via our various initiatives and our digital community platform. We run a digital hub that is currently home to over two hundred creatives across Nigeria and we are spreading that to Africa in the next couple of months.

Alaba: What attracted you to the fashion industry and what do you intend to achieve? 

Rhoda: Honestly, I don’t think there was a major thing for me except that when I was pretty much young, I just watched a lot of lifestyles and my interest in the fashion industry was more of wanting to design outfits. Then, I started styling, writing and then grew into becoming a magazine fashion editor, I started to do project management, working at fashion events, etc, and that is how I have grown in the industry.

I intend to achieve an ecosystem in Africa where the fashion business is sustainable and profitable, a system where creatives get constant opportunities to grow and thrive, where there is no gap between the emerging creatives and the top professionals.

Alaba: What were your initial challenges starting off?

Rhoda: I would say the first challenge was access. At the time I started, I was in school, and not in Lagos which is the fashion capital. I was running a fashion organization and needed fashion experts. But things started to get better as I finished school and was able to get into the fashion industry fully with a job.

Another challenge would be funding. You don’t have a lot of organisations giving grants or funds to fashion businesses or initiatives. Being an organization putting together events, initiatives, and needed funds to execute them. There was no amount that we could charge the participants that would cover the cost.

Alaba: How have you attracted members and grown the organisation from the start? 

Rhoda: value! People gravitate to where value is given. From the very beginning, in 2017 when we had our first event which took place in ile-ife, Osun State. We had the Style infidel and a fashion designer – Samuel Noon come down to ile-ife. It was a Lhaude network cocktail and a networking session between grassroots, emerging grassroots creatives, and fashion experts. We have various initiatives, a business incubator program, business advisory and mentorship schemes.

Alaba: What issues have proved to be the most challenging in your attempt to help support fashion designers in Nigeria? 

Rhoda: I would say a mindset problem, which comes from lack of proper fashion education. Some of these creatives you are trying to help grow are not even as invested as you are in the development of their businesses. I mean we have those with great mindsets, but to a large extent, especially local creatives who have not had the opportunity to be exposed to the fashion business properly or on a large scale. They don’t see the importance of certain things like PR, Accounting and Bookkeeping, Business models, the core business part of fashion.

Alaba: How has technology impacted the fashion industry?

Rhoda: A lot of things are changing, gone are the days when you have to travel abroad for International fashion courses. You can sit in the comfort of your room and access courses with coursemates across the world. Technology is helping to widen access to the market, improve collaboration among fashion enthusiasts, experts and make the fashion community across the world much closer.  

Another way is how technology is cutting down on waste. With 3D fashion, designers don’t have to create a physical collection to present. They can do it via 3D and clients select what they want and the designer makes the actual pieces. But in situations where people don’t like it or people don’t receive it, those samples are wasted.

Alaba: The term Fashiontech is still quite new. What is your opinion on this invention? 

Rhoda: Yes, Fashion tech is quite new and I am so excited because the possibilities are limitless.  Initially, it was just on the e-commerce level, connecting and building networks. But then it grew to 3D and now NFTs. I see innovations coming out of the fashion and tech industry and feel like there is still so much to learn and catch up with. 

I mean, Africa, Nigeria, in particular is still growing but I don’t think we are doing so badly. I think orientation is getting so better, people are getting more aware, adjusting and beginning to adapt to technology in their fashion businesses. We still need more education on FashionTech, this is one of the things Lhaude is actually looking into more for next year.

Alaba: Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the modern fashion industry? 

Rhoda: One of the things that excite me is the Fashion Tech like I mentioned in the previous question. The fact that innovation is limitless. I am so excited about the innovation, new ideas, new technology that are to come out from fashion with technology. Another thing is how as an African, there are no limitations to how you can express your creativity or culture, there are no border limitations, because of tech, we can express it to the whole world.

The third thing is building community. It is so amazing when you meet people from other cultures or countries who are interested in similar things as you. That is, as a fashion executive in Lagos, I can connect with a fashion executive or designer in London, Scotland, Australia, etc and we are building communities connected by our passion and drive for creativity, regardless of cultural differences.

Alaba: Where do you see Lhaunde Fashion Network and the Nigerian Fashion Industry in the next 5 years?

Rhoda: I see Lhaude being Africa’s foremost fashion community. The fashion hub where creatives across Africa and the globe plugin to Create, Connect and Collaborate. I definitely see Lhaude building a world-class hub for fashion creatives, where they get access to everything they need to build, to thrive, and to grow. 

I see the Nigerian Fashion industry as one of the leading fashion industries across the world. An industry that will be known for innovation, creativity, and originality. With a rich culture and creative people leading the fashion sphere across the world.

Alaba: What piece of advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs? 

Rhoda: My advice to them is, be resilient and innovative.  I would say to not give up, be resilient and do not just be comfortable with the state of your business or your business idea, constantly innovate, constantly grow. The idea for Lhaude came in 2016 and it didn’t start until 2017. At that time, I was still in college. It was quite difficult running an organization and building a career simultaneously. 

 

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Kevine Kagirimundu: The Rwandan crafting eco friendly and fashionable footwear from recycled car tyres

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Kevine Kagirimundu, CEO UZURI K&Y

UZURI K&Y is an African inspired shoe brand and manufacturer established in Rwanda since 2013. The company was founded by two women entrepreneurs (Kevine & Ysolde) who met at the University while studying Creative Designs. The two young women simply believed that it would be ideal to gather knowledge and create a common mission. In this interview, Alaba Ayinuola speaks with Kevine Kagirimundu, the Co-Founder and CEO on her entrepreneurship journey into sustainability and fashion, why she is preserving the environment, supporting community and creating jobs through her eco friendly shoe brand. Excerpts.

Alaba: Could you briefly tell me about yourself and your entrepreneurship journey?

Kevine: My entrepreneurship journey started when I was a young girl, I used to re-sew grandma’s clothes, no money came from it, just passion. When I joined university I changed my major from “Engineering to Creative & Environmental built”, it was an important step to starting my journey, I was 19 years old and determined as I started  gathering ideas in a book, during that time I also met my co-founder Ysolde Shimwe.

Alaba: What attracted you into sustainability and fashion?

Kevine: I come from a creative family of painters, poets and writers. I loved hand making things and I thought that creating was really my passion, with that I really wanted to add a meaningful value that will bring positive change in my community; that’s why our company is part of the circular economy with a focus on waste management.

Alaba: What’s the inspiration behind your brand, UZURI K&Y and the problems it is set to address?

Kevine: UZURI K&Y is an African inspired eco friendly shoe brand with a vision to brand Africa as an origin of sustainable fashion items on the global market. It was established in Rwanda in 2013 by two university friends Ysolde shimwe & Kevine Kagirimundu with a purpose to solve the environment and unemployment issues in their community. 

The company’s core problem that it’s solving focuses on recycling the wastes of car tires where everyday in sub saharan Africa, over one million of them are dumped in landfills  and sometimes taking up space from inhabited and vulnerable neighborhoods. In addition to that, it takes up to 80 years for a rubber tire to decompose while polluting water, air and even become nurseries for mosquitoes that carry diseases. Furthermore, in Africa the youth makes  60% of the total unemployment rate and young women are more likely to be unemployed even more often than young men. 

In order to tackle these issues we craft viable solutions to recycle car tyres to make functional and fashionable footwear for conscious millennial consumers. The company is also currently running its own production facility, four retail stores and using ecommerce to reach international customers. It is also equipping the youth with practical and soft skills  to increase their potential of securing jobs or even creating small businesses. So far, 1,065 youth have been trained and among those 70% are women and 10 have started small businesses.

Alaba: How have you been able to attract customers and build the company till date?

Kevine: Our customers are women who seek shop eco products. Our strategy is to use storytelling via social media channels, we also set to offer a wonderful experience via our retail spaces.

Alaba: What challenges did you run into starting out?

Kevine: I would say there are 3 major challenges as we started: lack of skilled labour, dominated market with second hand and imports and access to finance.

Alaba: Are there other areas that UZURI K&Y is aiming to be more sustainable?

Kevine: We have confidence that we shall be able to brunch into a more diverse range of products, such as sustainable sneaker and even turning the wastes into more useful products.

Alaba: One of the things that stood out on your platform was your intense screening process for each item. Can you explain why you decided to go with this process and what it actually involves?

Kevine: We developed techniques and ways to safely produce our products and it has become our unique proposition. It is an advantage and very important to our customers.

Alaba: Is your brand gender inclusive? What is the importance of gender inclusion in the brand’s choices?

Kevine: Yes, it is important with a special focus on creating jobs for women who are often left behind in different fields.  Inclusivity is crucial for the entire world to fight gender inequality, we are proud to be part of this change.

Alaba: How do you feel as an African entrepreneur?

Kevine: I believe that entrepreneurs will be the key pioneers to changing the African continent, It feels like being part of a history book!

Alaba: Where do you see UZURI K&Y in terms of products and markets in the next 5 years?

Kevine: A household African brand, with a tremendous impact on the youth through skills transfer and entrepreneurship.

Alaba: Finally, what’s your advice to budding entrepreneurs, especially females in the sustainability and fashion industry?

Kevine: Trust yourself that you can do it! 

UZURI K&Y footwears

 

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Opeyemi Adeyemi: Addressing menstruation stigma with her invention, The Flow Game

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Opeyemi Adeyemi fondly called dryemz is a Public Health Physician and owner of the sexual health clinic which runs under O and A Medical Center Ogun State, Nigeria. She had her medical training in Sumy State University, Ukraine and MscPH from the University of South Wales. Opeyemi invented The Flow Game in an effort to address menstruation stigma and has written two books on sexual and reproductive health. Her foundation runs the Brave Boys and Girls club which travels around the South western part of Nigeria to provide sex education to children and teenagers in the effort to fight against public health issues like teenage pregnancy, STIs, HIV/AIDS and Sexual assault. In this interview with Alaba Ayinuola, she speaks on her social entrepreneurship journey, The Flow Game and why she is addressing sexual and reproductive health issues. Excerpts.

 

Alaba: Could you briefly tell us about yourself and your social entrepreneurship journey?

Opeyemi: I am a public health physician who is passionate about sexual and reproductive health. I am also the creator of the FLOW GAME which is West Africa’s first board game that teaches menstrual health. My journey started in 2017 during my NYSC program where I met with the impact of misinformation and lack of access to youth friendly sexual clinics had on teenagers and young people. This led me to the start of The Brave Boys and Girls Club tour around secondary schools where students are given age specific sexuality education free of discrimination and judgment. From touring, it gave birth to menstruation workshops, consent workshops and now creation of board games that are afrocentric and youth friendly.

 

Alaba: What inspired you to launch O & A Medical Center and The Menstrual Flow Game?

Opeyemi: The Sexual Health Clinic is under O and A Medical Center in Asero, Abeokuta where anybody regardless of your background, gender, sexual orientation or any other status can get care for sexual and reproductive health issues. We offer a wide range of services that are cost friendly for the average Nigerian. The Flow game was created because during the tour, I realized the power of menstruation stigma, so decided to involve the team of expertise and the girls from the club in the creation.

 

Alaba: What is the core issue you are addressing with the Flow Game?

Opeyemi: Menstruation is a subject that still has a great level of shame attached to it. Some cultures still see menstrual blood as dirty blood. Some girls use harmful products to collect their menstrual blood. The Flow Game is a fun way to teach menstrual health and hygiene. The game covers four main areas: the female reproductive system, menstruation and menstrual related health issues, menstrual products, pregnancy and contraception. Other issues touched on include sexual assault, consent and sexually transmitted infections.

 

Alaba: How have you attracted users and grown the platform from the start?

Opeyemi: The platform is currently being reviewed as the plan is to take it digital; decided to start with a board game as it is easier with the tours, besides an average Nigerian teenager might not have the resources to play the game online and did not want to miss out on these sets of people. The buzz around the game is increasing, the game was recognized on Menstrual Hygiene Day 2021 by the African Coalition for Menstrual Health Hygiene and the Indian Commissioner of Women Affairs during a conference held in Bangladesh.

 

Alaba: Data protection is a concern for users of health platforms. Could you explain your data protection policy?

Opeyemi: Right now we are are currently working on our policy but I can assure users that they would be protected besides the data page in design would require nickname, age, sex and email address.

 

Alaba: Would you expand in the direction of male health (fertility, contraception, etc)?

Opeyemi: Yes, in June, 2021. In a bid of getting a project with an international organization, the Play It Safe board game was created and it is currently being tested in the school tours. The game is for both genders and covers safe sex practices.

 

Alaba: As a social entrepreneur, what has been your biggest challenge up until now?

Opeyemi: The field I chose is still faced with a lot of stigma, so a lot of sensitization is involved, changing mindsets and cultures associated with it. The second I would say is finances, balancing the cost of production and the ability of the target community to afford the services rendered.

 

Alaba: The term Femtech is still quite new. What is your opinion of the state of Femtech industry and its growth? 

Opeyemi: Femtech has had a massive impact on female health, so many innovative ideas that are gender specific. A good example are period tracking apps which have allowed women to track the menstrual cycle, have a better understanding of their cycle and make informed decision about fertility. I am happy to be in the industry and I know there is still so much more to be done especially in Nigeria.

 

Alaba: Where do you see the Flow Game and sexual wellness in the next 5 years?

Opeyemi: This is one question I keep asking myself every day, I desire to go beyond the Flow Game. Very few innovations on sexual and reproductive health tailored to the African woman. I would like to be one of the women creating sexual health innovations that are Afrocentric in the next five years.

 

Alaba: As an inspiring social entrepreneur, what piece of advice would you give to fellow female entrepreneurs?

Opeyemi: Invest in knowledge; learn from those who have done things in your desired field. Also understand that gender is nothing more than a social construct it does not define YOU, whatever you want to achieve is not tied to gender. Dream big and take steps to turn the dreams into realities. 

 

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