Tosin Durotoye: Nigeria and Africa needs women to move forward
Tosin Durotoye sits at the helm of GreenHouse Lab, the first female-focused tech accelerator program in Nigeria. The first of its kind in the country, GreenHouse Lab is a three-month accelerator focused solely on early-stage, women-led technology start-ups in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as African run start-ups domiciled in the US or UK with products that are scalable in African markets. Durotoye, a political scientist turned financial expert, aims to build world class, women-led technology companies by equipping entrepreneurs with the skills, resources and support needed to rapidly grow and scale their companies in emerging African markets. Committed to championing women in technology and business, Greenhouse Lab is the first accelerator in Africa to be powered by Google, connecting it to an elite group of the world’s top accelerators. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks about her impact-driven journey, focusing on female-led startups and the need to draw young women into STEM.
Tell us a bit about your growing up years and education
I was born and partly raised in Nigeria, Ile-Ife to be specific.
My father worked as a Professor at Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) for many years so I lived an idyllic life on campus.
I grew up going to Taekwondo lessons, swimming at the staff club, singing in happiness club (my Ife people from those days know) and riding my bicycle to visit friends.
I treasure my childhood memories till this day. I attended Staff School and later, Moremi High School, both in Ife.
My father later got an appointment at a University in the U.S., so we ended up moving to North Carolina where I spent most of my formative years.
I went on to attend Wake Forest University where I received my B.A. in Political Science.
I later moved to New York City where I received my M.A. in City Planning from New York University (NYU).
How easy or difficult was it moving back to Nigeria?
The decision to move to Nigeria was sudden but the process was not.
I remember waking up one day after Trump had been elected into office and I thought, “What am I doing here?”
By that time, I’d lived in the U.S. for almost 24 years and I felt there was more I needed to do.
At that moment, I knew I had to move back home and find a way to contribute in some way. Moving back was a gradual process for me.
I initially tested the waters by relocating to Nigeria for three months in 2016.
I still had my job back in the U.S. so I knew if things didn’t work out, I could always go back.
After the three months, I went back to the U.S. with a lot to think about.
Along the way, I received another job offer and I was able to negotiate the option to work remotely from Lagos although the company was based in Boston.
I felt that the job would give me a “soft landing” in Nigeria but I also wasn’t sure if I even wanted to move back for good and, if so, when that would be.
I’m obsessed with travel so whenever I need to process, reset, or make a critical decision, I buy a plane ticket.
This time, I bought five. I ended up traveling solo through Hanoi, Siem Reap, Bali, Tokyo and Shanghai for a month.
When I returned, I knew what I had to do.
A few months later in late 2016, I was on a plane with seven suitcases heading back home to Nigeria.
Tell us about Greenhouse Lab; what is the inspiration behind starting it?
GreenHouse Lab is a brainchild of Nichole Yembra, the CFO at Venture Garden Group and a Managing Partner at GreenHouse Capital.
Nichole and VGG as a whole has been committed to gender diversity as well as programming targeted at women.
An example is the All-Female Hackathon that they’ve held for the past two years.
Nichole approached me with the idea for GreenHouse Lab because she knows my professional background, but, most importantly, she knows how passionate I am about women and elevating them in all spaces including technology.
How do you source female-led startups?
We opened the application for the 2018 GreenHouse Lab Cohort in July for three weeks.
By the time we closed, we had received over 100 applications from eight different countries (including the U.S.) in 16 different sectors.
The response we received told us one thing, there’s a strong pipeline of women-led ventures not just in Nigeria, but across Africa and beyond.
Greenhouse Lab was recently announced as the first accelerator here to be powered by Google. How did that make you feel?
Partnering with Google Developers Launchpad has been a huge win for us at GreenHouse Lab.
We are the only accelerator programme in all of Africa with this distinction and I believe it signals that we are committed to accelerating the ventures in our cohort into world-class companies.
The partnership with Google means GreenHouse Lab is connected to an elite group of the world’s top accelerators, allowing it to share information and leverage resources.
GreenHouse Lab will also have access to Google’s global network, insights from the company’s Silicon Valley-based startup programs, and 20 years worth of Google research and best practice insights on building businesses, products and teams at massive scale.
Why did you choose to focus on women in particular?
GreenHouse Capital had launched a previous accelerator program in 2013 named Garden Institute Business Enterprise (GIBE) that discovered companies such as Cash Envoy, Sure Gifts, PrepClass and Riby.
Following the success of GIBE, GreenHouse Capital continued to explore different ways to build and explore various ways to support and invest in startup companies.
Upon understanding the challenges women in technology face, GIBE evolved into what is now GreenHouse Lab – the first female-focused tech accelerator in Nigeria.
A few factors influenced the decision to pivot into an accelerator focused on women-led companies.
For example, in 2017, women-led companies received just 2.2 per cent of all available venture capital dollars.
This is the global percentage and it’s clearly dismal and almost insignificant.
In addition, women make up just 25 per cent of the technology workforce.
Of this, only 11 per cent are executives. Furthermore, nearly 50 per cent of women report a lack of mentorship and training support.
At GreenHouse Lab, our mission is to address every single one of these challenges.
Ventures that complete our three-month accelerator program and meet key milestones and benchmarks are eligible to receive an investment minimum of $100, 000.
This is exclusive of additional investment they may receive from our investor partners.
In terms of visibility, we hope that by elevating and supporting these women-led ventures, we’ll encourage other women – especially young women – to consider a career in technology.
In Nigeria, and Africa as a whole, we need to have a diverse and engaged technology workforce in order to move towards a technology-driven future. Without women at the tech table, we’ll fail to tap into the vast brainpower and opportunity for innovation necessary to propel Nigeria and Africa forward.
In terms of mentorship and training, GreenHouse Lab currently has a mentor network of nearly 90 individuals (mostly women) who are leaders in technology, entrepreneurs and executives.
Lastly, our three-month training program focuses on key content to get the ventures investment ready.
Our modules include training on topics such as market research and strategy development, financial modeling and valuation, marketing and customer acquisition, investments and deals, implicit bias (we know this greatly impacts women-led ventures) and human capital and company culture, just to name a few.
Why do you think women are under-represented in entrepreneurship?
We actually know that 40 per cent of Nigerian women are entrepreneurs, so they are actually strong players in the marketplace.
However, when it comes to technology, that’s where we see the gap.
As I previously stated, women only account for 25 per cent of the global technology workforce and we can probably make a determination that the numbers are even more dismal in Nigeria and Africa as a whole.
There are many factors for this but one significant one is related to the lack of focus on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) as it relates to young women.
If young women are not exposed to these promising options, then we’ll continue to see under-representation when it comes to their participation in tech entrepreneurship.
What advice would you give female founders and entrepreneurs?
A recent study by Boston Consulting Group confirmed one thing we know to be true at GreenHouse Lab, women in tech are held to higher scrutiny than their male counterparts.
For example, when they approach investors, they’re given the third degree and we also know implicit biases come into play that impact how many are able to receive investment and support to accelerate their ventures.
For female tech founders and entrepreneurs, it is imperative that they go through all steps to validate and refine their ventures and the accompanying strategies.
They must know their businesses inside and out. All T’s must be crossed and all I’s must be dotted.
We know the playing field is uneven and it might take some time to balance this out, but in the meantime, women-led ventures need to be 100% focused on being so good and so thorough that they simply can’t be ignored or passed over.
Above all, women must not question their place at the tech table.
Instead, they must approach it confidently and with the determination to win.
Tell us something that has influenced your career positively today?
I’m inspired daily by the teams in GreenHouse Lab’s 2018 cohort.
The women who lead these companies are exceptional, brilliant and committed.
The men in our cohort are also all of these things but they are also particularly impressive because they steadfastly support the women leaders on their teams and are just as prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure that their ventures rise to the top.
Do you think today’s millennial woman has managed to break the ‘glass ceiling’ and what would you tell a woman that wants a seat at the table?
I believe millennial women are reaping the rewards of the many generations of women who came before them.
There was a time when women were relegated to administrative roles and support roles but there have been women who have worked tirelessly to ensure that women who come behind them don’t necessarily have to fight the same battles they did.
An example is Ibukun Awosika, the Chairman of First Bank Nigeria.
I believe it’s fair to say she has shattered the glass ceiling and continues to do so.
It is because of women like her, that millennial Nigerian women can see themselves at the very top without limitations.
What inspires you and keeps you going?
Purpose and passion. Everything I engage in is something I’m purposeful and passionate about.
From GreenHouse Lab to traveling to other side projects I work on.
Everything runs on a personal purpose and passion. Without purpose, I would lose my way.
Without passion, I would not be inspired to keep going.
What do you do to relax? What is your guilty pleasure?
My guilty pleasure is watching crime shows. I can spend hours watching these shows and find them so fascinating.
I think it’s probably because I truly find human behaviours and motivations intriguing.
For relaxation, I honestly love staying at home with no pressure to go anywhere.
Spending quality time alone with a book or my favourite shows is my favourite way to recharge.