by Francesca Uriri
For Mary Olushoga, Founder of the African Women Power Network (AWPN), the voices of African women matter, and that is what she does through her organization. More importantly she shares the stories of female, African entrepreneurs and equips them with resources to build sustainable businesses. She is the Leading Lady Africa for the week. Be inspired!
You are founder of the African Women Power (AWP) Network; what does the AWP Network do?
The AWP Network powers small business success for African entrepreneurs through training and support. We focus on the development, growth, and sustainability of African owned small businesses.
I launched the AWP Network as a solution to the unemployment issue facing Africa particularly in Nigeria as the most populous country on the continent. The idea is that if we provide a supportive community to African entrepreneurs to grow their businesses, they will be sustainable and in turn create jobs and hire, thereby reducing unemployment. At the AWP Network, we see entrepreneurship as a solution. This idea came after a number of years working in the economic development space. I saw firsthand how the resources provided, helped entrepreneurs become more successful in their endeavours. I saw how better access to business resources, education, and financing helped to transform the lives of entrepreneurs. I launched AWP shortly after a BBC interview in 2012.
What We Do:
• Share the startup stories of African entrepreneurs,
• Organize learning events and seminars (we’ve organized AWP Lagos, AWP New York ),
• Create award-winning media profiles and opportunities to be featured (we have featured on BBC World News, Black Enterprise, iwantherjob.com, AFK Insider, Applause Africa, BET Networks, Innov8tiv Magazine, G.E Ideas Lab, The Huffington post),
• Create opportunities to connect with business experts (we have connected entrepreneurs to mobile tech, branding, marketing, HR, and PR experts),
• Organize small business clinics,
• Agribusiness training for women farmers
Why do you think it is important to share the start-up stories of other women entrepreneurs?
I find it important to share the stories of women entrepreneurs because the voices of African women matter. These stories are important because they include conversations on failures, challenges, and lessons. Sharing I believe fosters a culture of collaboration. I truly believe that the collaborative consumption model works.
Some are of the opinion that organizations such as yours are too many in number; and therefore, not as effective. What’s your opinion on that?
You can be as effective or as ineffective as you would like your organization to be. I also imagine that each organization has their own mission, vision statement, and agenda. Therefore, we technically can’t all do the same thing. For one to survive, you must have a competitive edge.
What were you doing before you founded AWP?
Prior to AWP, I worked in New York as a small business development consultant.
What do you think are some of the challenges women face as entrepreneurs?
I do not believe any of these challenges are unique to women entrepreneurs. In my article for G.E. Ideas Lab, I highlight some of the issues entrepreneurs face:
• The need for tax credits and incentives to support small businesses,
• Reliable electricity and broadband Internet connections,
• Lower and competitive interest rates on loan products,
• More skilled workers,
• Support system for entrepreneurs,
To name a few… for more information on what I think, here’s a link to the article.
What is your take on mentorship? Is it really as important as people say it is?
Serving as a mentor and finding a mentor is very important. Mentoring is critical because as a mentor, you get to teach and talk with others about your personal and professional journey and experiences; as a mentee, you also have an opportunity to learn from those who have gone before you. Mentoring (either as a mentee or mentor) is very vital to personal development and growth.
In her book “Lean in” Sheryl Sandberg encourages women to sit at the table instead of pulling back, do you agree with this?
Of course, if you are not at the table you are on the menu, but what disturbs me particularly is that many African women do not want to sit at the table. They don’t want to be on the menu but they also don’t want to be at the table. They’d rather be married at home with their children. Indeed, we all have a choice and there’s nothing wrong with this but this is quite common in the Nigerian community. Therefore, if not enough women are at the table, who gets to speak for women?
What projects has AWP done in Nigeria, and how do you measure impact?
The AWP Network is a startup – we have a long way to go but in the short amount of time we’ve been around, we have accomplished a lot. For example, we have organized learning events and seminars in New York and Lagos as well as organized a training program for women farmers in Taraba State. For the training program, I am happy to announce that we just received major sponsorship from the Planet Earth Institute to expand to major farming hubs throughout Nigeria.
There seems to be a rise in the number of female entrepreneurs, cutting across various sectors of the economy, what do you think is responsible for that?
There has always been a good number of female entrepreneurs across the continent. African women are extremely entrepreneurial. The adage says “when you support a woman, you feed the whole village.” So it is unfair to say that the rise in the number of female entrepreneurs is new because it is not. I will say that we need more entrepreneurs, both male and female with high-growth companies.
When asked about their role models, people often list members of the same sex; do you have any male role models?
“Role model” is too strong a word here because we are all human and everyone makes mistakes. I don’t think I have “role models” per se, but I do have both male and female mentors and friends. I don’t discriminate when it comes to learning. Without going on an endless naming rampage, I will say that I have ‘godfathers’ who are extremely supportive of my work and always go out of their way to help.
I know that you are involved in the process of developing an online curriculum that helps young African girls launch e-commerce businesses; how exactly do you intend to do this?
This project has evolved. We have a lot planned for 2015. The AWP network will launch the Dream Project and the goal will be to teach 100 secondary school girls how to write business plans. We plan to work with the Hope center at Covenant University; they will serve as our partners on this initiative.
A lot of women have challenges transitioning professionally; in your opinion, what is the best way to move from one job to another?
It is not enough to move from one job to another, you need to know what it is you want to do and how you want to make an impact. A job will never make you happy, it is the value and skill that you bring to the job that will.
My advice is that before moving from one job to the other, take the time to figure out who you are, what it is you want, how you would like to make a difference or change in this world, and what you are going to do to achieve those goals that you have set for yourself. This takes time, and introspection is required.
So here’s what I have to say: Be fearless, be bold, do your research, ask questions when you don’t know, and more importantly, don’t forget to live your own life. Don’t sweat the small things, forgive, let go, and move on. Last but not least: Dream Big.
What 3 books would you recommend we read?
I hate to be cliché but I recommend reading your holy book, for me it’s the Bible.
How to win friends and influence people – Dale Carnegie
Also any book by Malcolm Gladwell
If you could, what would you tell your younger self?
I will say to myself, “be more patient, have fun, make more mistakes, learn from them and move on.” Life is easy and simple you know? We are the ones who make it complicated for no reason.
What are your personal and professional goals for the next 10 years?
My goal is to continue to grow AWP into a global brand. Although we have plans for the future, we try as much as possible to live in the present.
Last words for upcoming female entrepreneurs?
Visit the awpnetwork.com -lots of advice there.
Follow Mary on: Instagram, Twitter and Facebook
The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series that focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.
It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa; an initiative that seeks to effectively mentor and inspire women, with particular emphasis on the African continent.
Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to [email protected] and we just might feature her.