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‘Women don’t have any issues with leadership, the rest of the world does’

By Tobi Awodipe
21 September 2019   |   4:20 am
Afua Osei is a media entrepreneur, investor and co-founder of She Leads Africa, a leading media brand for millennial African women.

Afua Osei

Afua Osei is a media entrepreneur, investor and co-founder of She Leads Africa, a leading media brand for millennial African women. An expert in creating digital content and live experiences that impact and connect with a new generation of smart, ambitious African women, Afua built a global career previously serving as a Fulbright Scholar in Malaysia, working in the office of former First Lady, Michelle Obama and on over six different political campaigns as a communications consultant. She moved to Nigeria in 2013 to serve as a Strategy Consultant at McKinsey & Company, advising large corporations and multinationals across Africa. Born and bred in the U.S, Afua spent her formative years in Prince George’s County, Maryland and graduated cum laude from Allegheny College with degrees in Political Science. A graduate of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Harris School of Public Policy Studies with a Master of Business Administration and Master of Public Policy. In 2014, Osei co-founded She Leads Africa with Yasmin Belo-Osagie, providing women across 35 countries with business and career advice. In this interview, she spoke about moving to Nigeria, founding and maintaining a business in this tough clime, challenges entrepreneurs face and the upcoming SLAY festival amongst other issues.

Kindly take us through your career journey before co- founding SLA?
Before starting She Leads Africa, I was a management consultant, a Fulbright Scholar in Malaysia, and communications staffer in the White House for First Lady Michelle Obama.

What inspired you to move to Nigeria?
In 2012, after my first year in business school, I secured a summer associate position through the Tony Elumelu Foundation’s African Markets Internship Programme. It was a professional development programme that placed MBA students from prominent business schools in America and Europe in startups and private equity firms across Africa.

During that summer I interned with the innovative mobile marketing firm, Twinpine. While I was there, I had a great time meeting and connecting with other young Africans who were passionate about using technology to solve local problems. Ultimately I decided that these were the type of people I wanted to build a career with.

How is SLA empowering Nigerian women?
She Leads Africa is a digital media platform that believes in the power of young African women to build amazing careers and businesses. We produce events and online content to give young women the skills and resources they need to achieve their professional goals.

What does your role as co-founder entail?
When everything is working in harmony, I spend most of my time focused on the sales, partnerships and marketing functions of the business. We have very ambitious plans for how we grow our community and, in order to make that happen, we need to reach more people and continue to work with bigger brands. That is typically what I’m doing during good days, however, it’s still a startup working on its processes so other days, you may find me editing videos for social media or taking out the trash if the cleaner is sick. At the end of the day, the work needs to get done and our goals need to be achieved. I’m always happy to step in wherever that needs to be and in whatever capacity.

How did you and your co-founder conceive the idea for SLA?
My partner, Yasmin Belo-Osagie and I actually met while we were working together at a consulting firm. Believe it or not, the vision began over drinks at a hotel. We both noticed that most of the organisations that focused on African women tended to focus on women at the base of the pyramid. There was a lot of discussion about micro-business, micro- entrepreneurship, micro-loans and so on. We saw that there was a gap in the market for organisations that focused on women who were highly aspirational, women who wanted to be CEOs and build million dollar companies. We also saw a gap in the market for organisations that focused on young women, that spoke their language, that understood their needs and that catered to their desires.

Where did the vision for SLAY Festival come from?
When we thought about organising a festival, we wanted to create a professional development event that wasn’t boring. When most people think about a conference, it’s people sitting down in a large room and being spoken to but why does it have to be that way? Our vision is to create a learning and networking experience where everyone is an active participant in their own growth and development. Every person can choose the most relevant sessions for them and design an experience that aligns with their goals and what they want to achieve. Whether it’s developing a career map to guide your next move or learning how to better manage your money or the latest apps to create better online content, the festival is designed so that everyone will have something that supports them along their journey. We also love a good time as well, so we wanted to make sure that the arts, music and culture were well integrated as well.

You’ve been hosting this festival for a couple of years now, what’s going to be different about this year’s edition?
Every year, our goal is to create a positive and enriching experience for our attendees to learn and benefit from. After each event, we listen to the feedback and think about how we can continue to improve and add more value to our community. Based on all of the feedback we’ve received there are two major improvements that attendees will see this year, more Pan-African connections, as we want our community to think bigger, do more and have a global impact. That’s why this year you will see more speakers, attendees and brands from across the continent with over 300 attendees coming from outside Lagos. Our hope is that with more connections come more opportunities to help people expand their careers or take their businesses into a new market. The second is more learning and coaching opportunities. We know that master classes have consistently been some of the favourite parts of the festival so we have doubled the number of classes this year. Attendees will have the opportunity for more direct learning opportunities from their favourite experts and coaches.

Sourcing for funds is a major issue founders face when starting out. How are you funding SLA as well as the festival?
Creating sustainable value and generating consistent revenue are the two most important things a business can do. From the beginning of our business, we’ve always focused on identifying those who value our platform and a community of young African women and how can we create mutually beneficial partnerships that enable both sides to grow. Aside from generating revenue, smart money management also includes being strategic with your spending. Events are expensive and require significant infrastructure to execute successfully. We have a long-term mindset of where we want to grow the festival to, but in order to get there, we have to be strategic about our spending and not be in a rush to grow faster than we can at this point.

As an entrepreneur, what are some of the key issues startups face here in Nigeria?
As your business evolves, the challenges you face will evolve with it as well. If asked this question three years ago, I would have mentioned brand credibility and setting up internal processes as major challenges but thankfully, we have moved beyond that point. As we think about successfully growing and scaling our community to hopefully millions of members across countries and speak to more founders at this level, we’ve seen a particular set of challenges emerge including lack of transparency with government regulations and requirements. For most young entrepreneurs, they want to follow all government regulations so they can run their business freely but getting that information and understanding the requirements is very challenging unless you have a solid legal and accounting team.

As soon as you get up to three employees, you can have multiple liabilities to the government without even realising it. This takes away valuable management time or a significant investment in external help to try and unravel what is required of you as a growing startup. Also, finding talent with the skills and expertise to get you to that next level of growth. For many entrepreneurs building tech-enabled businesses in Africa, you’re building the talent pipeline you need to be able to effectively run your company. While job candidates may be passionate and excited about your business, unfortunately many of them are not coming from universities or other roles where they learned tangible skills that can drive business impact. Innovative human capital and talent development companies are stepping up to fill this gap but the full impact of their efforts may not truly be felt in the market for another five to 10 years. Finally, I’d say easily accepting payments across markets. While the growth of fintech startups are very exciting, it is still challenging for many digital businesses to accept payments from multiple markets across Africa consistently and reliably. With a community spread across more than 30 countries, this is still a significant barrier that we face in accessing the full potential of our market and delivering quality services regardless of where people live.

Can you describe a trying time in your professional life where you wanted to give up and how you managed to overcome it?
Building a business is hard work. It can be challenging, frustrating and confusing every single day with no breaks. If you’re trying to create something that has never existed before the way you envision it, every single day you may feel as if you want to give up. Those feelings are normal and shared by all of us. Anyone running a business and truly trying to keep it together is going through the same thing as everyone else. There are good moments and difficult moments and many times all of these things can happen in the same day. Recently I’ve been viewing fewer things as failures and more as opportunities to do better next time. I know there is plenty of growing and development waiting to happen for me as an individual and as a leader, so all of these moments of disappointment are hopefully leading to bigger things.

As a guide, coach, role model, entrepreneur amongst many other caps you wear, how do you create time for yourself and keep yourself grounded amidst all the hype?
I’m always so grateful when anyone recognises the work that we do or shares a supportive message about how SLA impacted them. It is the encouragement we need when days are rough and things aren’t working. However, I learned early on in my career that external applause or the lack thereof should not drive how you view yourself, your work and your worth. With that in mind, any hype around our work is nice but it doesn’t help me wash my hair any faster, cook my dinner any quicker or have me spending less time in traffic, so it doesn’t actually impact my day-to-day life.

What’s the hardest thing about your/this life that people don’t know?
Surprisingly people are surprised that I am naturally an introvert. As an introvert, being around large groups of people can take away energy from me. This surprises people because they see me on Instagram or events and they believe that energy is always happening. I promise you it is not. Certain roles require us to step up and deliver what is needed at that time. Our business is all about building community, sharing resources and facilitating connections, so sometimes I have to serve as an example of that ethos and put myself out there. I’m happy to serve in that role, but I do much better in small group settings and with significant periods of quiet time to be able to think, strategise and execute ideas successfully.

Looking back, would you say you have any regrets and wish to change anything or do things differently?
If someone had asked me five years ago if I would still be living in Nigeria and running a company, I would have walked away immediately. Living, working and building a business in Nigeria was never part of the plan. However, when I look back on my journey, my most interesting, exciting and transformative experiences were never part of the plan. Every single step of the journey has brought me to where I am today and I am incredibly grateful and blessed. Besides saving more money when I was working and eating more vegetables, there is absolutely nothing I would do differently.

In your opinion, how can we guide more women into becoming leaders of industry?
I personally believe that women don’t have an issue with leadership, the rest of the world does. Women are currently leaders and innovators in every single aspect of our lives but in the public sphere, their accomplishments and contributions are consistently diminished and hidden. Instead of placing the burden and responsibility on women, I’m actually interested in how those who are currently leaders of industry can remove the barriers that have been created that have kept women from entering the spaces they should be in.

This year’s SLAY Festival edition is coming up, give us a sneak peek into which speakers to expect?
We are grateful to consistently be able to bring together some of the most prominent innovators, creatives, leaders and entrepreneurs from across Africa to share their insights at the event. This year is no different as we have more than 50 different speakers committed to connecting, sharing and supporting this year’s attendees. Some of the speakers who will be contributing to SLAY Festival this year include the Managing Director/CEO of Siemens Nigeria, Onyeche Tifase who will be sharing her lessons on Leading From The Highest Levels in an exclusive fireside chat, the CEO/CCO of X3M Ideas Group, Steve Babaeko who will be sharing how creatives can think and act like business managers.

Others are Bukky Karibi-Whyte who will be teaching how to create a marketing campaign that sets your business apart, Brand Strategist Ernest Danjuma Enebi who will be leading the discussion on what it means to be a millennial African man, Tosin Olaseinde will teach attendees how to stop living paycheck to paycheck and start building long term wealth and actors, Osas Ighodaro, Juliet Ibrahim and Deyemi Okanlawon will speak on how to make strides in the Nigerian entertainment scene. Maya Horgan Famodu will teach entrepreneurs what investors are looking for on the Getting Investment Ready panel and there will be meet and greets with Ayoola Ayoola, Daniel Etim Effiong, Efa Iwara, Baaj Adebule, blogger and vlogger Dimma Umeh and actress and producer, Jemima Osunde.

What guiding principles do you live by?
Live free and let others do the same. That’s it, honestly.

Describe your personal style, what do you enjoy wearing and what would you never be caught in?
Instagram may make it seem like I’m a fashion babe but my day-to-day uniform at the office is a black shirt and black jeans. I wear the same look every single day to keep it simple and easy. When it’s time to get fancy, I’m pretty open to suggestions and fun looks from my favourite designers like CP Woman Lagos. All I ask when looking at new clothes is, does it have pockets? Will my mother shout at me? If the answers make sense, then I’m always down to try it.

What last words do you want to leave with young women that look up to you and have been inspired by you?
I’d love to see more young African women living free with the ability to decide for themselves how they want to live their lives without the constraints and roadblocks that keep people small and limited. Every single person has so much to offer the world and I hope we all do our best to help more people get to share theirs.