The vitality and savvy displayed by the panelists at "Taking the Helm—Women Stepping to the Forefront of Enterprise in Africa" showed why determined women in Africa are spearheading important changes in the business and social environments in their countries.
HBS Assistant Professor Regina Abrami launched the discussion, held March 8 at the 5th Annual Africa Business Conference at Harvard Business School, by asking the women to compare the developments in their own careers over the last ten years to developments in their countries.
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, vice president and executive secretary at the World Bank, said the stories of African countries that are succeeding—Mozambique and Botswana as two examples—do mirror personal success stories. She said vision, self-confidence, a willingness to take risks, and a balance between the personal or cultural and professional aims are critical to individuals and developing nations.
"If you don't have a belief in yourself, you cannot move forward," Okonjo-Iweala said.
|Africa encourages you to be a generalist, and you put on many hats, you play many roles.|
— Toyosi Kolawole,|
Integrated Business Strategies
Toyosi Kolawole, founder of Integrated Business Strategies in Lagos, Nigeria, said she and a partner founded their consultancy in 2000 because entrepreneurism was flourishing in Nigeria but many business owners lacked the skills and knowledge to run world-class operations. She felt she could put her experience as a consultant in the financial institutions group at A.T. Kearney to good use assisting growing enterprises.
"The experiences we've had have been very different from the experience you would have here," she said. "Africa encourages you to be a generalist, and you put on many hats, you play many roles." She said her consulting business is growing with its clients, adding new expertise as it needs to.
Common sense for small business
Panelist Judith Aidoo is chief executive officer in two enterprises, one a radio broadcasting company in Charleston, S.C., the other the Aidoo Group Ltd., a Wall Street Investment bank with an African affiliate, Capital Alliance Company Ltd., with offices in six African nations. The child of an American mother and Guinean father, Aidoo moved to Ghana with her parents when she was twelve. In Ghana, her mother operated a bakery where Aidoo says she developed her business acumen at an early age. She also learned appreciation for the common sense of small businesspeople.
"My mother made more money with the bakery in Ghana than my father did as a surgeon," she said. "It taught me the power of capital." Aidoo's recognition of the primacy of cash prompted her to keep all her earnings from her first job in investment banking at Goldman Sachs in cash. That nest egg helped launch an investing career.
"If you have money you can make things happen. If you don't have money, you have nothing to talk about," she said. Aidoo, who earned a degree from Harvard Law School in 1987, never practiced as a lawyer. She told the audience she has no background in broadcasting, her current focus.
"I have never done anything I've known how to do," she said. She also advised the audience, composed largely of young African women, that they should not be afraid to take on challenges they haven't formally prepared for. She told them to consider "what do you need to be happy for real."
"My goal is to make as much money as I can in as many fun ways as I can and meaningful ways as I can and then I get to decide how to allocate it," she said.
The meaning of success
The panelists agreed that individual success is only meaningful if their nations' level of success rises as well. According to Okonjo-Iweala, if someone lives in a beautiful home and "you open your gate and there are hundreds of thousands of poor people living there, you haven't been successful."
"You can never be truly successful unless your country is successful," Okonjo-Iweala said. "When we look at flows of capital, we're not seeing them go to Africa, we're seeing them go to Asia."
|You can never be truly successful unless your country is successful.|
— Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala,|
Aidoo said that those who would attract capital to Africa are going to have to learn how to effectively assess and overcome the risks there. "The truth is, Africa is extremely risky. Your job is to assess that risk," she said. "How are you going to package that risk that is Nigeria?"
Peju Adebanjom (HBS MBA '93), head of brand management for the United Bank for Africa in Lagos, Nigeria, told the audience they needed to be prepared to make personal sacrifices if they want to convince outsiders to join them in taking business risks. "If you have to sell your car, mortgage your flat or sell the clothes off your back, you have to do that," she said.
The course of change
One audience member asked how the women were working to translate their own success into success for more African women.
"Even those who are privileged face enormous challenges," acknowledged Okonjo-Iweala. "To change things, those of us who are privileged have to find [ourselves] somehow in leadership positions on the continent." She said the challenge is clear, when only about 15 percent of legislative positions in Africa are filled by women. In the legislatures of many countries there are no women at all.
Other audience members asked about the challenge of raising families while trying to affect such enormous change. "This is the challenge that one faces every single day, and I'm sorry to say it is never solved," said Okonjo-Iweala, who has four children. "You have to make tradeoffs." She said her children helped her keep a healthy perspective in what could have been an all-consuming career. "Pursuing that side of my life enabled me to have some perspective and balance," she said.