Women of West Africa Entrepreneurship (WOWe) speaks to new advisory board member Njideka U. Harry about her work with the Youth Technology Foundation, her experiences as a young Nigerian woman seeking education through technology and later experiences as an entrepreneur.
WOWe: Why was the Youth Technology Foundation started and what work does it do?
NH: Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF) was founded in 2000. YTF is a non-profit company focused on using the power of technology to provide opportunities for people living in developing nations. YTF designs and implements business and economic development training programs for youth and women.
WOWe: Why did you decide to get involved in the issue of technology for youth development?
NH: YTF was founded based on my personal experience moving to the U.S. from Nigeria at 18 in pursuit of a college education. The challenges I faced when I moved here were not cultural or social, indeed they were mostly related to technology and its use in education. After college, I began my career first at General Electric and then at Microsoft.
I founded YTF during my career at Microsoft in the late 90’s. I was living the “Google 20 percent time” policy even before Google was founded. When you are hired at Google today, you only have to do the job you were hired for 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time, you can work on whatever you like, provided it advances Google in some way.
Well, while at Microsoft, I was in Corporate Finance. I focused on doing this work 80% of the time and the other 20% of my time, I spent on intrapreneurial projects in the company. Microsoft, at the time, was looking for a way to do business in Nigeria. I proposed moving into the country first with a corporate social responsibility initiative to establish credibility and commitment and then open an office. I convinced Microsoft’s Community Affairs group to provide seed funding for the establishment of the Owerri Digital Village, YTF’s pioneer community technology and learning center. At the same time, I provided guidance around the Nigerian market, strategy, resources and stakeholders.
WOWe: Why is the work you do with YTF so essential to development in places such as West Africa?
NH: Africa is the world’s youngest continent. We invest in youth because they have the longest productivity cycle and are co-creators of powerful solutions. We invest in women, the mothers of those youths, because they are the backbone of communities in West Africa. Women re-invest 90% of their household income in their families, their children – their health and education. It is important that we provide an enabling environment and equip them with the knowledge and resources they need to continue to sustain themselves and their communities. We know that providing women and girls with the choices and chances for education, economic opportunity, and access to health care, we know she will better her family, her community, and her society.
WOWe: What synergies made you decide to work with WOWe?
NH: Women in many ways hold the key to economic growth – the key to the future. Female entrepreneurs in Nigeria are often underestimated and overlooked. They are hindered because of cultural barriers such as gender role definitions that label women inherently inferior to men. The WOWe platform helps promote female entrepreneurship and is a channel for women to learn and share. The opportunity to be a part of such a pioneering platform of growth for women in Nigeria is very much in line with YTF’s vision.
WOWe: How do you perceive the state of play in tech for young West African women?
NH: Technology and tech-based tools can provide access to life-changing opportunities for women. Technology is not a panacea in itself; however, it is a means. West Africa’s technological revolution is driven by mobile phones. YTF recently partnered with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women on the “Nigerian Women Entrepreneurs and Mobile Value Added Services” project that is set out to train 2000 women entrepreneurs in Nigeria to use MVAS to support their businesses. West Africa will rise with the rest of the world in this age. Technology is enabling us to solve our problems in our unique ways. When a woman can pay her children’s fees via SMS, you can tell how far we have come.
WOWe: What advice do you have for budding young West African entrepreneurs? What are your 3 top empowerment tips for youth of today?
NH: Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” tips do not work for entrepreneurs. When you are a leader of your own organization or your own company, staying late and putting in the extra hours is the norm, not the exception. Be prepared to do this. In terms of empowering today’s youth I’d say find a mentor, don’t lean back, “lean in” and have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.
WOWE: Who inspired you when you were starting out and why?
NH: My dad, an educator and my mom an eduTrepreneur, a term I have coined for educator turned entrepreneur, provided a very strong foundation of giving back, paying it forward. For them service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth (Mohammed Ali). In addition, they stressed general humility. My dad always said, you have worked hard, you have a certain skill set but don’t forget two things; luck and timing. Everybody matters and to a certain degree if you don’t forget where you came from it is very easy to keep a balanced perspective.
WOWe: Have you any lessons to share from your own experiences as a young female entrepreneur?
NH: Being an entrepreneur is sometimes lonely. Being a young female entrepreneur is super lonely. But don’t get discouraged. You will make mistakes, everyone does. Don’t make the same mistake twice. Stop and learn from it the first time. You have to take calculated risks and act fast. I keep a “self-reflection” journal. As we are in constant motion and hyper-communicative mode each day, it is important to take the time to step back and ask yourself what really matters; what are your values, what are your goals? If you don’t self-reflect, you cannot know yourself well enough to lead other people. Balance is key. Take time to understand all sides of issues you are faced with. It isn’t about being right; it is about doing the right thing.
Know that your time is limited, so don’t spend it trying to be someone else. Be you. I remember one of my professors in business school teaching us to keep the number 168 in mind. It’s the number of hours we have in each week. Assuming we sleep an average of 8 hours a day, work an average of 10 hours a day, technically we have “used up” 126 hours. The difference of 42 hours, on average 6 hours a day, is what I have left in my week. I make every effort to use it wisely and spend as much of that time with my family – my husband and three young daughters. Finally, have the self confidence to know that every day you are given can be better than the day before.
WOWe: What are you most looking forward to at the WOWe conference in June?
NH: WoWe is an incredible platform to learn from some of Nigeria’s most successful women business leaders to share ideas on cultivating success in an effort to expand YTF’s network of human and social capital.
WOWe: What does the Schwab recognition mean for YTF?
NH: We are so humbled, so honored. The recognition is an opportunity for YTF to multiply our impact and reach more youth and women as we go into this next decade. It is really a stamp of credibility for the work we have so tirelessly been committed to over the last 12 years. The Schwab / World Economic Forum network is an amazing platform to liaise with some of the most incredible individuals and organizations across the public, private and civil society sectors, to share our successes and challenges with them and learn from best practices in the industry.
Want to learn more about technology and entrepreneurialism? You can meet, learn from and network with a diverse group of young women entrepreneurs at the inaugural Women of West Africa Entrepreneurs Conference, June 20-22, Lagos, Nigeria. Visit www.wowenigeria.com for more information, call +234 (0) 81 45999475 or email [email protected] For more stories, business tips and advice join our 15,000 strong WOWe Community: www.facebook.com/WOWeAfrica