Afua Osei, MBA’13, MPP’13, cofounder of She Leads Africa

Afua Osei, MBA’13, MPP’13, cofounder of She Leads Africa. (Photo courtesy Osei)

She leads

With She Leads Africa, Afua Osei is supporting talented businesswomen in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

Africa has some of the highest rates of female entrepreneurship in the world—in countries like Nigeria and Zambia, 40 percent of women are in the process of starting a new business or are owners of new enterprises.

She Leads Africa, cofounded by Afua Osei, MBA’13, MPP’13, is focused on identifying, training, and investing in talented female entrepreneurs and businesswomen in Africa and the diaspora. SLA provides mentorship, classes, and direct funding as well as business connections. Pitch competitions held in 2014 and 2015 gave selected start-ups the chance to impress international investors and win funding from SLA. Now it has transitioned into an accelerator program for female-led start-ups, hosted in partnership with financial-technology platform Venture Capital for Africa.

This year SLA’s traveling professional bootcamp, SheHive, is hitting cities from Nairobi to London, and the SLA website and e-newsletters aim to provide business guidance and inspiration. Osei wants SLA to become the top resource for #MotherlandMoguls, the young, ambitious African women she sees as a powerful force in this emerging economy. Osei’s answers have been edited and condensed.

What inspired She Leads Africa?

While I was at UChicago I spent a summer in Lagos, Nigeria, working at a mobile technology firm. I was speaking to one of my female colleagues and asked her, if you wanted professional development, or career guidance, or all that stuff that you get at Booth, where do you go? And she’s like, well, we don’t really have that.

So I started a small start-up that focused on career women and helping them do better in the workplace. During my final year at Booth, I took it through the John Edwardson, MBA’72, Social New Venture Challenge, and in spending more time with these African women, I realized that in Africa everyone has a side business. Even if you have a full-time corporate job—people just naturally have an entrepreneurial spirit and hustle.

What do you mean by “social enterprise” when describing SLA?

One of the reasons that we focus on high-growth women-led start-ups is that when a lot of people think of African entrepreneurs, they’re thinking of subsistence entrepreneurs. Women who have a small roadside stand. A woman who has a farm. And a lot of the language out there about women entrepreneurs in Africa is not inspiring or encouraging. It’s always, let’s help these women have their small plot of land, or their goat. And we say, no, there are lots of young women with aspirations to build global start-ups.

They’re talented, they have great ideas, they have traction, and those are the kinds of women that we want to work with.

Can you share a success story?

A first-place pitch competition winner [Cherae Robinson, founder of consulting firm Rare Customs and travel company Tastemakers Africa] went on to raise $300,000 in a seed round, and 50 percent of that money came from introductions through She Leads Africa. DigitalUndivided, which is all about improving the rates of women founders of color, found that on average black women only raise about $36,000 for their start-ups.

We’re building a community and a movement of confident and inspired young women, so we’re excited to have more than 50,000 in our network across more than 25 countries. These are young women who are able to learn from each other, make relevant business connections, and know that they are not on this journey alone.

What is your vision for SLA?

Our goal is to become the No. 1 digital destination for smart and ambitious young African women. When we look across the African media landscape we know there is an opportunity to inspire, advise, and support young women in achieving their professional dreams. We hope to reach more than one million of them across the continent and diaspora.

Why is SLA important to you personally?

I spent a lot of time going to start-up and investment events, and it was really discouraging not to see anyone who looked like me. It’s discouraging if you don’t see anyone who represents the life that you live, showing you that it’s possible. So I wanted to go find other people who had the same aspirations that I do, and to build something global and impactful.

I also wanted to make sure young women in broader communities in Africa see that there’s a different way to build out this model.

We don’t have to follow what’s happening in the West in terms of only having 20 percent or 30 percent female engagement in entrepreneurship. We can create our own culture here. We can create innovation ecosystems that are inclusive and diverse from day one, and we can make sure that all people have the ability to create a life and a business that works for them.