Timilehin Odusina (CEO), Boluwa Olojo (CMO) and Henry Ajisegiri (CCO) of Versecom.
Based in Lagos – Nigeria and co-founded by Timilehin Odusina, Henry Ajisegiri, Emmanuel Marchie, Abraham Ben-Obaje and Boluwa Olojo. Versecom Limited is a technology services company incorporated in 2016 with a vision to provide free wi-fi infrastructure at public locations and monetize the free service via advertisements visible on each user’s PC, Tablet or mobile phone. In order to adequately monetize the free wi-fi infrastructure we also built a programmatic ad network called “GO Ads” that exclusively serves ads to the users of the service (based on advertisers’ demographic parameters). In this interview with Alaba Ayinuola of Business Africa Online, Boluwa Olojo, Co-Founder & CMO at Versecom, a marketing guru with a passion for her company’s brand and the way they are disrupting the traditional above-the-line channels using with their hybrid ad network ‘Go Ads’ and pushing ads on every screen in Africa. Excerpt.
Alaba: Kindly tell us about Go Ads Africa and the gap it’s filling.
Boluwa: A hybrid ad network that serves both digital and traditional media with a granular pricing model. Clients view reports of all channels from a single portal which makes it easy to assess campaign performance. A big issue with LED boards is inability to get accurate analytics, at Go Ads Africa we can monitor the amount of people who view your boards.
The granular pricing model brings campaign flexibility for brands and makes advertising more affordable for lower tier brands.
Alaba: What was your startup capital and how were you able to raise it?
Boluwa: $500,000 which was raised in Nigeria, but it took about a year and the half to close out the raise.
Alaba: As a startup, what are the challenges and how are you overcoming them?
Boluwa: Building the technology was difficult because of the scale at which we were going about it, it hadn’t been done before so there was a serious expensive learning curve.
Relationship management was very tricky because we had a model that was business to business and business to consumers. What that meant for us, what that we had to simultaneously learn how to manage both traditional users (Individuals) and Client users (Business).
Regulations, when we started there were very few/zero regulation in our space, as a socially responsible organization we had to come up with those rules for ourselves but as we grew and opened the space regulations came in. Some we were already compliant, the others we had to immediately evolve and follow.
Monetizing our platforms was another major challenge. To overcome this, we launched our marketing and sales unit. This enables us to tell the story of the company while also selling the products.
Alaba: How’s your brand unique and different from other digital OOH brands?
Boluwa: We don’t run just OOH; our aim is to push ads to every screen in Africa. However, what sets us apart is the Go Ads hybrid network and that we can offer analytics for the Ads we setup.
Alaba: With the evolution of digital advertising, can we say the conventional advertising platforms are gradually going redundant?
Boluwa: LED boards are also digital forms of advertising, in developed tech cities like Japan and New York, Out-of-Home Advertising (OOH) is a big part of advertising, with the inclusion of Analytics, we are certain that conventional platforms will continue to get better.
Alaba: How can African government best support Startups and SMEs in Africa?
Boluwa: Lagos government does a lot to help startups and we are totally grateful for that, something that will really help in Africa is for the government to build more incubators/hubs for startups. This will be exemplary in terms of showing how conducive the market is for innovations and investment, by part taking in various portions of the value chain.
Alaba: What’s the future for Go Ads Africa and what steps are you taking in achieving them?
Boluwa: To become the first self-serve platform where people can buy both digital and traditional media. This will democratize access to all types of advertising channels.
Alaba: How do you and partners feel as an African entrepreneur?
Boluwa: We feel an enormous sense of responsibility to get as many Africans to the path of prosperity by giving them the opportunity help themselves and a responsibility to show the rest of the world the value and ingenuity of the African spirit.
Alaba: What advice would you give prospecting entrepreneurs who intend to start a business or invest in Africa?
Boluwa: Timing is extremely important and see larger organizations as assets and not competitors.
Alaba: How do you and partners relax and what books do you read?
Boluwa: We socialize a lot; we go dancing and we also visit food fairs. We mostly read articles and when we read book or listen to audio books; they are usually about product management and people management.
Alaba: Please teach us one word in your home language and your favorite local dish?
Abraham: Ajaà is an Igala word that means Marketplace. Pounded yam and Egusi soup bangs different, that’s my fav.
Boluwa: ọmọis a Yoruba word that means Child. My favorite local dish is Amala with Ewedu and Gbegiri.
Emmanuel: Nbò means hardworking in Igbo and Abacha is my favorite local dish.
Henry: Ile-Eko is Yoruba word that means School. My favorite local dish is Iyan [Pounded Yam] and Efo-riro [Vegetable Soup].
Timilehin: Opomulero is a Yoruba word that means Pillar. Lafu and Ila is my favorite local dish.
Versecom is a technology services company incorporated in 2016 with a vision to provide free wi-fi infrastructure at public locations and monetize the free service via advertisements visible on each user’s PC, Tablet or mobile phone. In January 2017 we were awarded the contract to provide free public wi-fi on BRT Terminals by Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority. We are now able to provide free internet access to 100,000 users per day from April 2017 when we successfully built the largest public wi-fi network in Africa; a 15km continuous mesh network on one of the busiest roads in Lagos (serving more than 1.5 million users per day).
In order to adequately monetize the free wi-fi infrastructure we also built a programmatic ad network called “GO Ads” that exclusively serves ads to the users of the service (based on advertisers’ demographic parameters). Building the wi-fi mesh network opened us to other business opportunities like ‘Infrastructure as a Service’ with products like wi-fi offload and CCTV as a Service; these products share the same wi-fi infrastructure but are targeted at Telcos and surveillance-based businesses respectively.
Similar to the extension of the Free Wifi into the “Infrastructure as a Service”, we have also pioneered a new ad model that disrupts the traditional above-the-line channels using our ‘Go Ads’ Ad network by partnering with owners of other advert channels to sell their inventory on a granular basis.
Timilehin Odusina (CEO) is an Innovative Product/Business developer with an eye for Social-Economic Patterns, working on various product and project across various industries. He has done most of his work in Tech-Start Ups (worked with Sharphire Global, Meditel, Intellectric, Hirefreehand e.t.c…) and Techno-Advertising industry. Currently on the board of KUBADI (Hirefreehand – Syracuse), Discreet Labs and is the Team Lead of the Public Access project in Versecom.
Henry Ajisegiri (CCO) is a Product Manager and Data Analyst whose core interests are in product development, performance insights and optimization. He is the head of commercials and partnerships for the company and has a mandate to drive all products to generate sustainable revenue. He is also a trained project management professional and business analyst who consults for early stage startups.
Emmanuel Marchie (COO) is a Covenant university graduate who studied Building Technology. He is the head of Operations at Versecom Limited; he ensures the stability of Versecom’s infrastructure and network on and off site. He has also worked with a few other startups on their product (MoluePro, Intelectric e.t.c). When Emmanuel isn’t working very hard to ensure the company is operating at its best, he is watching Arsenal play entertainment football.
Abraham Ben-Obaje (CTO)is the Lead Engineer on GO Ads Africa. He has successfully designed the City Connect Wifi and developed the GO access. He is a Technological Enthusiast with a passion in Data Analysis and Pattern Recognition. He also enjoys playing a lot of sports for body development and recreational purposes. He believes in equilibrium and numbers.
Boluwa Olojo (CMO) is a Mass communication graduate from Babcock University. Boluwa started working when she was 17 years old and this exposed her to various people and organizations. The last two years of her life was spent working at a digital agency and working with some prominent Nigerian Brands, which is where she picked up fantastic client management and sales skills. Joining the founding team as the first woman on the team, Boluwa is ready to take on the task of telling the Go Ads Africa story and ensuring the 250 million naira target for 2019 is met. When she isn’t working on getting more clients for the business, Boluwa spends her time sprinkling black girl magic around the world, doing Yoga, travelling and writing articles on medium.
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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