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Cover Story

Just Not Sorry

Volume 15, Issue 1  | 
Published 04/07/2018
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I recently downloaded a browser extension called Just not sorry. It underlines in red, like a spell checker, words and phrases in my emails that are self-demeaning or qualifying. ‘I’m just writing to say…’ ‘I’m sorry…’ ‘I think…’ ‘I’m no expert but…’ ‘Does that make sense?’ I sometimes wish I had this plug-in in my head! When asked to write this article about being a successful female entrepreneur, my first thought was, ‘Successful?! Ha! I’m not there yet.’ I’m absurdly lucky to be surrounded by a strong community of awesome and accomplished women. We often remind ourselves of how far we’ve come and how to pull ourselves, and each other, up to think bigger, to do better, to work harder and speak louder about our achievements.

When my best friend, Marie, and I started eLimu, we were so broke. Beg, borrow and steal was our motto. We squatted in other people’s offices. When we got our first order of our education software for a school, we literally didn’t have the bandwidth to fulfill it. So we asked the lovely folks at Ushahidi in the office next door if we could come in at night to use their fast Wi-Fi speeds to download our software onto 385 tablets. We started at 7pm and worked on horribly repetitive tasks till 3am in the morning, breaking to eat instant noodles! Marie still reminds me of those ‘sweatshop nights’ as she likes to call them.

We met so many people along the way who simply didn’t believe in our ideas. Those people were great - it’s always better to hear ‘no’. It was the pats on the head (and the occasional pats on the bum) that drove us mad - how cute, two young ladies want to change the way children have been learning for the past 50 years. Investors, partners, publishers, school administrators and public servants. Men and women. We were patronized by people everywhere we looked.

The way journalists love to write articles about girls playing football in the Middle East, journalists loved using our story as the ‘colour’ in their articles: BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Economist, The Independent, I even gave a TEDx talk. I had an email template telling our story and asking for free things - we hardly paid for some of the most powerful and expensive web tools out there. We didn’t realise it at the time, but we were just show ponies, we weren’t racing to any big finish line. The bright lights make you think, ‘well this is it - we’re bound to succeed. Why else would everyone be so interested in us?’

The bright lights also distracted us from building and fixing our core product. We struggled to build a sustainable business model. Our brave company manifesto (based on Acumen’s) captured our vision:

It started by us standing with the students, kindling their spirit of enquiry, their passion to learn;

recognizing the challenges faced by teachers, schools and governments.

It demands us to fill the gaps where students are failing

and our education system has fallen short of filling.

To do so without compromising our integrity.

It thrives on our independent and innovative thinking;

our determination and ambition to creatively and effectively use

technology as a tool to make education exceptionally better.

It requires us to recognize and challenge the status quo. Always. Even within ourselves.

And work hard to change it when it isn't working.

It is the ground-breaking but simple movement to make learning engaging and fun.

We forgot to add ‘Live to see another day and keep the lights on’. What we needed in order to build a better product and get more users on our platform was money.

In the United States, female entrepreneurs receive only about 2% of all venture funding, despite owning 38% of the businesses in the country. There are no stats about Kenya, but I doubt they reflect better numbers. We still haven’t raised any investment for eLimu (but maybe that’s a good thing now!) I’m fortunate to now be the Managing Director of another tech startup that has 3 white male Co-founders who have raised millions of dollars for the company. So I’ve sat at both tables.

Research shows that ‘venture capitalists posed different types of questions to male and female entrepreneurs: They tended to ask men questions about the potential for gains and women about the potential for losses. We found evidence of this bias with both male and female VCs.’[1]

 

 

I’ve see this first hand, it is absolutely true in my experience and I have tried to learn from it. I have to constantly remind myself to speak and act from a position of power and confidence. It’s hard because it doesn’t always feel authentic - I like being a person who questions the world around me, I like learning new things about myself, and I like changing my opinions. It sometimes feels like ‘just not sorry’ is a blind and insensitive plug-into a man’s world.

Every day is navigating the best way of getting from A to B, but sometimes we need to realise that it is men who set the As and Bs. My best days are the days I redefine for myself, and the people I work with, a new set of As and Bs. My worst days are the days it feels like nothing I can say or do matter, that I have no agency for real change in the world and it would be easier to be a man.

Sometimes I say to myself, ‘c’est la vie!’ there are perks to being a woman of colour in some situations and there are perks to being a white man in others.  Other nights I lie awake seething with anger at the injustice, the unfairness, the ugly misogyny of it all. I look at my 4 month old daughter and wonder what kind of world I am bringing her into.

When I was 8 years old, an old man masturbated in front of me while my parents were in the next room. He knew I wouldn’t say anything; and I didn’t. There was a VC who called me into several meetings, shook my hand vigorously to watch my breasts jiggle and licked his lips before kissing me on both cheeks. He knew I wouldn’t say anything; and I didn’t. Thinking of both those men sends shivers down my spine and makes my blood boil. As the #metoo movement unfolds, I’m happy to think my daughter will think it absolutely absurd that I didn’t say anything about these men. Just like that, the world has changed; something has snapped and things that were tolerated are intolerable all of a sudden.

As a new working mother, I still struggle. No one prepared me for how much guilt motherhood comes with: guilt for wanting to go to work, guilt while I’m at work, guilt when I’m not at work, guilt when I want to go to the toilet, guilt when I want to have a drink, guilt, guilt, guilt! I’m still navigating my way around a healthy work-family life balance.

I don’t go a day without giving gratitude for everything I have going for me: I work with some amazingly progressive men and women; I am married to a man who truly treats me as a partner in life; I have a mother who exemplifies power; and I am surrounded by several communities of friends, women, parents, entrepreneurs and change-makers who listen and share.  My optimism tells me that my daughter will innately be just not sorry.

[1] Kane, Dana, et al. “Male and Female Entrepreneurs Get Asked Different Questions by VCs — and It Affects How Much Funding They Get.” Harvard Business Review, 27 June 2017, hbr.org/2017/06/male-and-female-entrepreneurs-get-asked-different-questions-by-vcs-and-it-affects-how-much-funding-they-get

Last modified on Friday, 13 July 2018 10:30
Nivi Sharma

Managing Director of BRCK (brck.com), the onramp for frontier market internet users, and the distribution channel for organizations to reach them. Nivi has dedicated her career to developing simple and holistic solutions providing digital access to everyone, from children to youth to adults, across the continent. She is passionate about the potential impact the internet can have on the economic and social development for the 800m Africans who are currently not connected. In 2011, Nivi co-founded eLimu (e-Limu.org), the first company to digitize the Kenyan Primary School curriculum for revision and literacy. Nivi is a 2014 East Africa Acumen fellow and a 2016 fellow of the Fast Forward leadership program.

Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat: @AmkaKenya

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