‘As women, we must confidently own our spaces, sell our vision’
Tomi Otudeko is Head of Innovation and Sustainability at the Honeywell Group. She is also Director of Itanna, a four-months training program for tech-enabled Nigerian startups. Startups accepted into the accelerator receive major funding from the Honeywell Group. Selected startups also need to demonstrate traction through customer growth or partnerships with customer acquisition enablers. Participants need to have a clear vision, technical capability, sector knowledge and the desire to scale. In this interview, Otudeko meets with Mary Olushoga, Founder of AWP Network to discuss what inspired her company to launch this accelerator program and plans for the future.
What do women entrepreneurs need to know about finding investors and securing investment deals?
Women entrepreneurs like all entrepreneurs need to solve real problems. Investors will invest in businesses they believe have a high chance of success. As entrepreneurs pitch for investors, they need to be knowledgeable about their business and be confident as they pitch. It is not enough to know about your business, entrepreneurs should also be knowledgeable about their industry, their competition, and their numbers. Women in Nigeria are encouraged to be modest and demure, but when it comes to pitching for investments, we cannot afford to revert to stereotypes. We must confidently own our space and sell our vision.
Who inspired you to start? Could you explain why Honeywell Group chose to invest in tech startups?
For us at Honeywell Group, Itanna was the next logical step. As a Group with many “traditional” businesses, we had thought about the future of our businesses and the ultimate question became how do we ensure that we are sustainable for generations to come. When the opportunity to create Itanna came about, it was clear that investing in and helping to develop the businesses of the future was not just an option, but a key imperative for the Group.
How did you come up with your business name?
Itanna (i-tah-nah) is derived (although not pronounced the same way) from the Yoruba word Ìtanná, which means to light up or to ignite. My team and I struggled to come up with a name that adequately captured what we were trying to achieve. So I reached out to my father about the name and he took the time to think about it and came up with a few options. As soon as I heard the word ‘Itanna,’ I knew that it was right. At Itanna, we are focused on igniting businesses that can help to ‘light up’ change in Nigeria and the continent as a whole, which is why I feel ‘Itanna’ is apt.
Who is your target market?
We are looking to help tech and tech-enabled businesses in Lagos. The businesses we want to invest in do not have to be purely technology startups but startups that use technology to disrupt the sector they are in. We are interested in startups that solve problems and believe that these businesses will impact the society and the economy.
In selecting the businesses to invest in, we ensure that we are clear on our selection criteria and that we invest in people that are not only solving real problems but have already taken the risk to create a product or service. The businesses we look at must have made some traction and we believe our investment in such a company would help to catalyze their growth.
What is your competitive edge?
As a corporate-backed venture capital fund and accelerator, Itanna has the unique position of being able to leverage on Honeywell Group’s 45 years of experience, building and scaling businesses across different sectors. To the extent that we can, we are able to tap into Honeywell Group’s extensive network of entrepreneurs and mentors to impart their knowledge and industry experience to the businesses that are part of our accelerator program. We also use our networks to open doors and to assist our investee companies to build their businesses.
What is the long-term plan for Itanna?
To be a proactive member of the local tech ecosystem and support in growing businesses solving real problems. We would like to have a portfolio of companies that are innovative and have grown over time into businesses that are competing both locally and globally.
What key things have you learned since starting this idea?
. Never stop learning. The entire process of this business has been a learning experience and I have learned so many new things in the past few years.
. Know what you stand for and what you want to achieve but be flexible on how you get there. The process has been a series of pivots and changes, as we have had to adjust how we get to the end.
. Accountability. Strong corporate governance is critical for growth and success. The progress we have made at Itanna has been due to the fact that we are accountable to our steering committee. As I continue to engage with startups, I observe that the more successful startups have strong boards of directors and advisers they are accountable to.
. Your Team Matters. It is a team effort and we have been most successful when we partner with others. There is no single person whose work is more important than the other. Everyone’s expertise is necessary to make this a successful venture not only for those of us who work at Itanna, but also for the startups who are part of our cohort.
. Do not give up on your goals. The process of getting Itanna off the ground was a lengthy one for our team. But as shared earlier, knowing what you stand for and what you want to achieve is important in keeping you focused and reminds you of what you are working towards. We always knew the end goal and kept working towards that regardless of the challenges we faced and here we are, still standing.
What advice do you have for youths looking to start an idea but say ‘there is no money’?
“I don’t have the capital,” “Nobody wants to give me capital,” “Where will I get money to execute my idea.” These are common reasons people give for not starting or putting their ideas into action. Yes, access to capital is one of the biggest threats to entrepreneurs around the world and every year, thousands of passionate people – especially in Africa – give up on their business ideas, projects and dreams just because they cannot access capital.
In my opinion, a lack of capital is not the real problem. The problem is that many do not know where to look for it. A lack of awareness about where and how to raise capital is the real dream killer. According to Quartz Africa Reports, more capital has been flowing into Africa. In 2015, the continent received up to $276.5 million in startup funding and in 2016, the number rose to $366.8 million (Quartz Africa, 2017). These numbers are just for tech startups alone. There are a lot of Incubators and Accelerators like Itanna, CC Hub, etc. who not only provide funding but help in accelerating and mentoring businesses to achieve their goals.
In summary, the lack of capital should not be an issue to execute one’s ideas. Young people must work at getting the information. There is money out there; you just need to know where to look. As long as you have a good idea, work hard and have a bit of luck, you will succeed.
Some examples of young people with ideas but not enough funding are: Jason Njoku, CEO and Founder of iROKOtv (mobile entertainment and internet TV platform for African movies); Bethlehem Alemu, Founder of soleRebels (Africa’s popular and faster growing footwear brand), etc. These entrepreneurs made it against all the financial odds because they knew where to look.
How can we support and improve innovation in Africa?
To support and improve innovation in Africa, it is essential that the ecosystem is effectively developed. This requires the right input into the system to ensure there is an enabling environment. Education is key and the curiosity for innovation needs to start early, across all levels of the educational system, and STEM education needs to be a focus. We also need to develop people that think differently and are learning for understanding and not just for recollection or regurgitation. More importantly, government and businesses must also work at funding research projects to encourage and develop these ideas.
In terms of business environment, there should be more emphasis on making the process of establishing and running enterprises easier with a focus on transparency and lowering the costs of financial & legal regulations and compliance.
Lastly, we all know how difficult it is to do business in Africa, and infrastructure is a major inhibitor. It is difficult to innovate when you are struggling with the basics such as power, transportation, and basic connectivity. Government has a key role to play in ensuring the ease of doing business in Africa and freeing up the players to innovate. The responsibility is for all players in the ecosystem to help build the innovative Africa we truly want to see.
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