Guest post by IdaRose Sylvester, Cultural Mentor
As a startup mentor, I have coached companies throughout the world on how to present themselves. I figured this worldwide experience informed me well and gave me the courage I needed to mentor any group. “Worldwide” never included Africa until the TechWomen delegation trip to South Africa, and specifically didn’t include the Khayelistsha township in Cape Town.
We arrived one morning in Khayelistsha to our workshop building, a sleek, modern facility and part of the well-known Bandwidth Barn accelerator, with a mix of high school girls, women in business attire, and women in more traditional African clothing present. I soon realized that the pitching workshop I was about to host might have a diverse audience. I was curious to found out which attendees had some kind of startup business I might recognize: an app, a consulting service, or maybe even a “cottage” business.
When we broke into different discussion sessions, nobody came to mine at first, but I returned a few moments later to at least 50 women formed in a big circle. I started to talk about a pitch and quickly realized that the concept was new to many of the women. Switching gears, I decided to give a summary of what a pitch is and asked if anyone wanted to try it. At some point, I asked who in the room had or wanted to start a business, and a lot of hands went up. One woman, looking a bit shy but rather determined, stood up and began telling about a new financial services product. Another woman talked about a low cost perfume company, another about local crafts, a couple others about travel and other services. While just a few women took a stab at pitching, I got the room talking about business, and this conversation was the most edifying part of the day.
I learned that very few of the township women had regular Internet access, and most had never used online stores or payments; they did not know how to reach customers. In the township, as everywhere, business goes back to basics: developing and selling a product your market needs and will pay for and establishing a way to get the product to said market. One woman wanted to tell her story of why she started a business. She was turned down from job after job, told she was “too fat” or “too female” to do work. An able-bodied woman, she simply wanted to feed her family. So, being an avid cook, she set up shop in her yard (at low expense) selling the local delicacy of roasted sheep heads as her “beachhead” product before expanding her product line. She’s already doing pretty well; she is empowered and is ready to stand up to anybody who tries to tell her no again.
In the countless pitches I’ve heard and startups I’ve mentored, sheep heads were a first for me. But I was able to focus on her passion and on the power of learning to reject “no” and flip the power in your life. Taking Silicon Valley aside, I talked about the basics: making revenues, developing new products, and expanding her geographic reach. As distant as our worlds were, the basics made perfect sense to the both of us.
After the group wrapped, many women came up to me to tell their stories privately and ask for help and encouragement directly. Later, I learned that in the township people don’t feel comfortable sharing innovative ideas, fearing that their ideas will be stolen. Those who spoke publically were truly brave, maybe even brazen.
I won’t soon forget sheep heads, and here’s why: Whether women’s empowerment and security is supported by mobile apps, founding the next up-and-coming startup, or roasting meat, halfway around the world, women’s entrepreneurship knows no boundaries.
IdaRose Sylvester is the founder of Silicon Valley Link, a consultancy providing mentorship and hands on business support to high velocity companies expanding into new markets, both geographic and commercial. She has supported hundreds of entrepreneurs from over 20 countries in Europe, LATAM, North America and Asia. She focuses in the B2B and B2B2C space, and has worked in SaaS, enterprise SW, video and communications hardware, semiconductors, clean tech, mobile apps, services and other sectors. Living in the Silicon Valley for almost 20 years, IdaRose brings the wisdom of many business cycles and product revolutions to her clients, along with an extensive network encompassing the entire Valley ecosystem. She values friendship, loves meeting new people, and loves to cook, read, hike, travel, play with her dogs on the beach and attend any and all cultural events.