Here’s what it’s like being a woman in SA’s tech startup ecosystem

Featured image: WOCinTechChat via Flickr (CC BY 2,0)
Featured image: WOCinTechChat via Flickr (CC BY 2,0)

Tomorrow (9 August) South Africa will celebrate Women’s Day. But what does it mean to be a woman in South Africa’s traditionally male-dominated tech startup scene?

To celebrate Women’s Day, Ventureburn caught up with five women who have founded or are running tech startups in the country to find out what it’s like being a woman in this country’s tech scene and what hurdles women face when entering the tech sector.

The five — iMed Tech CEO Nneile Nkholise, Piehole.TV founder Priscilla Kennedy, Wala CEO Tricia Martinez, Momsays founder Shaney Vijendranath and Jumpin Rides co-founder Pauline du Paty — also share advice for fellow women entrepreneurs.

‘Be patient with the journey of entrepreneurship’

Featured image: iMed Tech founder and CEO Nneile Nkholise (Supplied)iMed Tech founder and CEO Nneile Nkholise (Supplied)

Nneile Nkholise, CEO and founder of iMed Tech, says working in South Africa’s tech startup ecosystem is a “challenging and great journey”. Nkholise believes she’s become part of a generation who will prove that women can play an impactful role in driving tech development in the country.

Her award winning medtech startup, which she founded in 2015, produces and supplies medical specialists with medical prosthesis, bio-implants, dental aligners and custom made surgical planning models.

Her company is in the process of raising its first round of funding and recently concluded distributor agreements with an undisclosed company around its breast prosthesis products. This deal, she says, will assist iMed Tech to scale its production capacity and maximise sales targets.

Read more: Difficult, lonely being a black woman in sector, says iMed Tech founder

“Women who are currently in the tech sector need to realise that they are filling the blank pages and creating new stories of women’s critical role in tech. Those stories will be passed on from generations to come, to inspire more women to actively participate in technologies that will positively impact the country and global community,” says Nkholise.

She says it is crucial that an environment where women are inspired to “learn, test, fail and start all over again” be created.

“I believe that we have made failure seem like the worst experience so much that many young women are afraid of being involved in tech because of the realities of failure,” she explains.

“We need investors that truly understand the value of women as entrepreneurs and technical people and are empathetic to the challenges that women face to remain committed and persistent in the tech industry,” adds Nkholise.

Her advice to other women entrepreneurs? “Be patient with the journey of entrepreneurship; it takes time to achieve your set goals and sometimes reality may not meet your expectations. Stay grounded in your passion and goals to turn your ideas into great products and services”.

‘Set extravagant goals’

priscillah-5Piehole.TV founder Priscilla Kennedy (Supplied)

Priscilla Kennedy is the founder of explainer video startup Piehole.TV which recently launched a social initiative called Nerd Academy. Her startup is based in Somerset East in the Eastern Cape.

“We train unemployed people in rural South Africa digital skills and show them how to pitch for foreign business on Upwork and other job sites. We’ve been ‘earning dollars, spending rands’ for years, so we’re starting to teach people in the community how to do the same,” she explains.

Read more: Karoo Tech Hub’s Nerd Academy to train community for the gig economy

As a woman, Kennedy believes working in South Africa’s tech ecosystem is the same as it is for any man in the space — fraught with excitement, uncertainty, panic and fun.

“We are based in the middle of the Karoo, so we don’t really have access to a specific ecosystem or startup community. We work away, doing our own thing. Pitching for biz, and delivering value,” she says.

She says that although the tech industry worldwide is “quite macho”, the majority of her team are made up of women.

She believes that if women were exposed to more female success stories and if companies had more balance in their leadership teams then more women would be inspired to enter the industry and feel that there’s potential for them to build their careers.

Her advice to women tech entrepreneurs today? “Set extravagant goals.”

‘Grit, You need to have it if you want  to survive’

Wala ceo-tricia-martinezWala CEO and founder Tricia Martinez (Supplied)

Tricia Martinez is the CEO and founder of Cape Town based fintech startup Wala. The startup uses the blockchain to tackle financial exclusion with its zero-fee financial services app aimed at emerging markets.

Wala recently launched in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Uganda, where Martinez says the company has seen “viral growth and adoption” having processed over 2.5-million crypto-transactions from over 100 000 users.

Martinez, who is from the US, says as an “outsider who has transplanted” into South Africa’s startup ecosystem, she has been in “awe” at the growth, opportunity, and inclusiveness of the space.

“Just like most startup communities, it is hard to find women leaders, founders, CEOs in the space. Even when you can find us, we are moving 100 miles per hour so getting a second of our time is almost impossible,” she says.

“But within the first month I was here, I was approached by a group of women CEOs who had quarterly dinners to catch up and reflect on the startup ecosystem and how we could all support one another,” adds Martinez.

This, she says, is what a community does. “And when you put driven women together who will stop at nothing, amazing things will happen. It is reasons like this that I am proud to call myself a South African despite my American nationality,” she adds.

She believes that regardless of the industry, diversity of all forms is imperative to drive truly innovative solutions forward.

“The most crucial issue is that we are designing solutions for an entire continent that is 50% women yet a very small percentage of these innovators are women,” says Martinez.

To solve problems affecting the majority of the continent requires leaders and teams that have lived these problems or experience these problems on a daily basis, she says.

“I was recently on a panel on blockchain and the opportunities in Africa and the entire panel consisted of men. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the space consist of males.

“But we can change that. Creating more inclusive work spaces and opportunities for diversity is the start, but we actively need to push for change and be conscientious of the traditional gender norms that society reinforces,” she says.

Her advice to fellow women innovators is that they have to have “grit” to survive. “Entrepreneurship is the hardest career path you can take, but it can also be the most rewarding. If you believe in yourself and the mission you have set out to accomplish you will be unstoppable.”

‘Stop doubting yourself’

shaney-vijandranathreMomsays founder Shaney Vijendranath (Supplied)

Shaney Vijendranath is the founder of conversation-driven analytics platform Momsays. Her startup helps brands engage and sell more effectively to new mothers. She recently raised an undisclosed amount in the company’s first funding round after what she says was a “very long frustrating journey”.

Earlier this year, she travelled to London to participate in this year’s cohort of the Collective Global Accelerator (CGA).

Read more: SA entrepreneur ‘thrilled’ to be selected for Collective Global Accelerator

How does  Vijendranath describes being a woman in the country’s tech startup ecosystem? “Tiring and yet invigorating.”

“It is a constant fight to be heard, a constant battle to stand up and be taken seriously – yet invigorating because I have had to fight to find my voice – to be able to take a stand and to be heard. It has been an amazing journey that I believe will allow Momsays to pave the way for the future,” she explains.

Vijendranath says for a long time South Africans have seen the tech sector as a “man’s industry only”, however she adds that over the last few years South Africans have come to realise that “women can code, build startups and raise funding too”.

“Being a woman in tech in South Africa isn’t exactly easy — especially if you are a Mompreneur — you have to fight for what you believe in every day. I always get the odd questions. But, I do think that we have come a long way from where we were,” she says, adding that there’s still more that needs to be done.

Vijendranath’s advice to women entrepreneurs is that women need to stand up for what you believe in and stop doubting themselves.

“As a female founder, I realised that sometimes you have to push back very hard to get what you want in order to be taken seriously in the tech space. I’ve become strong because of this and that is one of my reasons for wanting to create a support community for other mompreneurs”.

‘Good idea for everyone to get a co-founder’

Featured image: Jumpin Rides co-founder and managing director Pauline du Paty (Supplied)Jumpin Rides co-founder Pauline du Paty (Supplied)

Jumpin Rides co-founder Pauline du Paty says she is “proud to be a French female entrepreneur in South Africa”. Two weeks ago her carpooling startup announced it had raised R1.8-million in funding.

Read more: Cape Town carpooling platform Jumpin Rides raises R1.8-million

“Even if women entrepreneurs remain under represented among the ranks of entrepreneurs in South Africa, I strongly believe that we play a fundamental role socially, professionally and economically in the country,” she says.

Despite her startup’s recent success raising funding, she acknowledges that raising money as a female founder is more difficult.

“It’s challenging for anyone to get funding for a startup, but as a woman, it looks like there is an added degree of difficulty.

“But to be transparent with you, no matter your gender, if you are passionate about your project you will know how to convince investor to join you on board. Let’s stop underestimating women, if you want something, you don’t need to prove anything to anyone, just do it,” she says.

Du Paty’s advice to women entrepreneurs? “To make things easier, It’s a good idea for everyone to get a co-founder, male or female,” she says.

Featured image: WOCinTechChat via Flickr (CC BY 2,0)

Daniel Mpala


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