Favorite quote: “The world needs strong women. Women who will lift and build others, who will love and be loved. Women who live bravely, both tender and fierce. Women of indomitable will.” – Amy Tenney
What is your story (tell us about yourself)?
I, like many other young girls had never thought about a career in tech when growing up, it wasn’t even something I thought was possible, sure I had Mxit throughout high school (way before Facebook ) but it never occurred to me that someone was creating these amazing technologies that suddenly allowed me to communicate instantaneously with people from all over South Africa.
In 2013, I started my journey into the tech world as an intern at the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering through the CoachLab program, now because I wasn’t studying computer science or engineering I didn’t really know much about being a software developer or what that entails, however the program had a stipend of R6500 and of course as a student I wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to earn money. To be quite honest, At the time I didn’t have much interest in tech, but through the program I discovered my passion to create truly amazing and life changing solutions using code. Looking back, I am so grateful that Prof Barry Dwaladzki gave me the opportunity to be a part of the program.
Of course now that my passion for technology had been ignited I opted to apply for jobs in the tech space. In 2014 I started working at a tech company. That’s when I started attending a lot of tech events and hackathons only to get there and be either the only or one of very few women in the room. This was extremely disheartening and so I set to out to see if there were other women in tech. I asked my then Manager if we could host a women only hackathon at the company, which he readily agreed to do and that was the beginning of GirlCode.
When did you start your first business and what inspired you to start?
GirlCode is a registered Non-Profit Organisation (158-642) aimed at empowering young girls and women through technology. Established in 2014 initially as a hackathon and later grew to have various initiatives such as weekend coding classes.
What inspired me to start it was seeing the lack of gender representation in the Tech industry and having a desire to do something about it.
What is the Key Objective(s) and Vision of your business? (Has it changed overtime, or has it always been this, since you first started?)
We are on a mission to upskill 10 million young women in South and Southern Africa by 2030 to use technology to generate employment and empowerment opportunities.
Our vision is to create a network of women who are highly skilled technologists with leadership skills to be able to contribute towards an inclusive and innovative technology industry.
This has been the same since I started the organisation.
What challenges did you face in your journey? What’s the biggest obstacle you had to overcome (are still overcoming)?
I would say funding and infrastructure. With regards to funding, I think as a nonprofit organisation, dependency on donations and sponsorship has hindered our growth over the years. Even though we have had a tremendous amount of support from the private sector. I believe we could have been able to reach more beneficiaries if we had a self sustaining model, hence the transition to becoming a Social enterprise. Of course 2020 was both a blessing and a course for us in that CSI funds were reduced if not suspended for the rest of the financial year and this in turn, impacted on our deliverables, however the acceleration of technology adoption also proved what we have been saying all along, we need to start upskilling at a young age for the future of work.
Secondly, because we work with public schools to deliver our programs most of our beneficiaries do not have personal computers at home and data is expensive so as much as eLearning is great, in our context, it has actually affected our ability to reach more young girls. This is something we are working on by looking at how we can form partnerships with Telecos to zero-rate our platform and also partnering with corporates to donate second hand laptops.
How did you manage to navigate your company(ies) through this period of Covid-19 pandemic? (What business strategies/operational adjustments have you made over this period and how has it impacted your business model?)
I think for the most part we were fortunate, being in the technology industry that we were able to pivot from inContact to online programs swiftly, although this also came with a plethora of its own challenges. As we know, in S.A many people do not have access to internet and personal laptops – so whilst in theory, online education makes sense, when you take into consideration our socio-economic issues it becomes difficult to reach the masses. However, we decided that we would teach those that are able to do online and looking for long term sustainable solutions that will allow even the poorest to access our programs.
How do you approach networking and building partnerships in your industry?
I believe that you have to connect with people on an individual level. So I connect with people via LinkedIn, start engaging with them and building a long term relationship as opposed to just showing up and wanting funding. What is also important is for people to see what Value you can bring to their organisations, so again, social media plays a big part as we use that to amplify our impact stories as well as our partners who have supported us over the years.
Do you have (or ever had) a mentor in your journey, and do you believe it helped (if yes, in what way)?
Yes, when I first started my journey in 2014, I was lucky enough to have my Manager’s wife; Charmaine Houvet come up to me and actually offer to take me under her wings as her mentee… She has become more than a mentor to me and I attribute 100% of my success to the influence she has had in my life.
She goes beyond being a mentor. I don’t think there is a person who has met Charmaine and hasn’t heard about GirlCode, she has always advocated for our course not only because she believes in us but because she believes in our mission and that girls and women deserve equal opportunities in tech.
What is your perspective on the South African entrepreneurial landscape before and after Covid-19 pandemic? (Would you say the “new normal” context drives more or less opportunities for entrepreneurs in your industry?)
I think the opportunities have long been there, especially in the technology industry but now due to COVID-19, I believe more people are becoming aware which is a great thing because this is the perfect playground for an entrepreneur.
As said by Winston Churchill, never waste a good crisis. I tech we will being seeing the tech startup grow as a result and more entrepreneurs stepping into this space and creating amazing innovations looking into health, education and finance.
In your opinion, what are the secrets to being a successful entrepreneur?
There is no secret, its hard work and perseverance. I cant even count how many times I wanted to give up, but I always remind myself why I started in the first place and sometimes that means taking some time out to clear your head and come back, sometimes it also means knowing when to pivot or walking away from a certain path.
As an entrepreneur you can’t be afraid of rejection because you are going to get a lot of ‘Nos’ you just have to keep knocking on those doors until you get a ‘Yes’ and that also comes with you knowing what value you bring to the table.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?
To not be afraid to make the tough decisions. As we all know, 2020 threw everyone a curve ball and I realised that I had to make some difficult decision to keep the organisation going and one of those decisions was to reduce salaries because of lockdown implications. The second was to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations, my team and I had to learn to adapt fast, find new ways of providing our services and make it work. Lastly, I believe that when you have a strong “Why” and clear Vision then it will pull you through even the toughest of times, so know why you are getting into a business and what kind of world you want to create.