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I am not a do-gooder. I am a business woman.

Divya Vasant.jpg

I am not a do-gooder. I am a business woman.

By Divya Vasant, Founder of Amazi Beauty

I suppose at first glance this is a bit of a weird distinction to make let alone to feel strongly about. But I feel strongly that success should be about meritocracy rather than inherited advantage, and creating platforms that address this is not charitable.

It’s not the work of a do-gooder. That makes it sound like its something that’s just a nice thing to do or a feel-good-side project. It’s not. It’s the way things should be.

The structure of the South African economy was created to support a drastic asymmetry where the majority of the population were used to extract value for a minority. This structure was established in colonialism and entrenched during apartheid.

The provision of infrastructure, education, employment opportunities, ability to own land and assets, wealth creation were all built in favour of a minority, not the majority.

It seems my wanting to pioneer a business founded on the principles of inclusivity makes me a “do-gooder” and not “a serious business person”. 

The thing is, I’m not a do-gooder! I really am not. Most “serious business people” have not had to interrogate the asymmetry in access to opportunity and wealth because they’ve been on the side that receives. Interrogating it doesn’t make me do-gooder.

The construct of our economy is fundamentally skewed. 10% of the South African population own 90-95% of our country’s asset base. 40% of the population own the remaining 5-10%. 50% of the population have no meaningful assets, no measurable wealth and no means to create wealth.

If we had to hold industry accountable for the inherited benefit created by the entrenched socio-economic asymmetry, are we questioning capitalism and tampering with market forces?

Capitalism isn’t necessarily about unfair benefit.

If everyone has the same starting point then capitalism says that intrinsic strength, intelligence, work ethic, dedication etc. determine merit and in turn the allocation of additional gains is merit-based. However, if starting points differ then gains are not distributed according to merit but on extrinsic pre-conditions such as wealth (accumulated advantage).

I believe that inclusivity is not about charity. It is not a nice thing to do on the side. It is not a feel-good project.  Labelling it that is an attempt to diminish its importance in our economic narrative.

I am the founder of Amazi Beauty, a nail and beauty brand crafted on the principles of inclusivity which we cultivate through two distinct arms: a non-profit and a for-profit.

Our non-profit arm, through a partnership with The Clothing Bank (a global leader in Enterprise Development), founded a training academy that recruits young women that have been deemed “unemployable” and guides them through a carefully crafted 4-6 month training journey.

The goal of this academy is to begin to address the lack of opportunity that has set the starting point for so many women so far back that the do not have the ability to be competitive in the formal economy, have a successful career and create wealth for themselves and their families.

The heart of the training journey is the restoration of self-belief in women who have otherwise been forgotten by our economy. A combination of counselling, coaching, soft skill development and positive reinforcement in parallel with the technical training holistically develop and ready our trainees for a successful career as a professional.

Only the graduates of our Academy are offered employment in our Amazi nail and beauty salons (we do not want to recycle already existing employment but create new employment opportunities).

Our nail and beauty salons are housed in our for-profit arm. The business is exposed to the same dynamics that challenge any service-based business. Our technicians’ performance is industry competitive and importantly their career development is based on merit. We continue our soft-skill development, coaching and mentoring in our stores because we understand that the restoration of self-belief is not something accomplished in 4-6 months. It is also pivotal to underpinning the technician’s progression within the brand.

Amazi offers a platform of opportunities to grow our technicians into future store managers, future educators and trainers, future store owners and ultimately equity holders within the brand. Our belief is that a lack of opportunity does not mean there is a lack of talent – merely a starting point that is further back than it should have been.

At its heart, the brand was founded and structured to be inclusive. It’s inclusive in creating employment, progression and wealth for its employees.

Importantly, it is also inclusive in catering quality product and service that is affordable to the majority of South Africans.

Product and service provision in South African has been carefully crafted over decades to thoughtfully provide to the minority of the population because the construct of our economy makes it easy to.

Why apply deep thinking to how to cater for the majority of the population when the simplest solution would be to take the product or service crafted for the minority, strip out a few expensive bits and voila – a cheap product or service that the majority can now afford. Problem solved, no need to question the fundamental flaw in our economy.

Amazi takes the opposite view. We’re building an offering that brings quality beauty products and services to as wide a market as possible by making what we do affordable and accessible. That means we’re really putting in thought into building a value chain that thinks about affordability without compromising on quality.

We’re only at the beginning of exploring what it means to build an inclusive business but I know what we learn, build and think about are important contributions to the economic narrative that we simply cannot afford not to have in this country.

Embracing Female Energy

Embracing Female Energy

By Wawira Njiru, Founder and Executive Director,
Food for Education

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the most brilliant women. My organisation, Food for Education, provides meals to 500 girls of the 1200 school children we work with each day and 85% of our 15 member team is female. I’ve sat with 12 year old girls, discussing school, boys and their hopes for the future. I’ve sat with our staff, some of whom are in their late 30s, discussing marriage, motherhood and what the future is for women in Kenya. I am mentored by the two brilliant women, one of whom is the former Chief Financial Officer of Apple and the other the Senior Global Development Executive at Hewlett Packard. I am blessed with incredible girlfriends and women in my family who continually inspire and push me to be better but it was not always like this.

Popular media often pits women against each other, pushing the narrative that there is only space for one or two women, either in politics, leadership of various positions of power. Women are portrayed as being canning, untrustworthy and always having ‘an agenda’. I have 2 sisters, went to an all girls high school and have always been ambitious. For many years, I struggled to reconcile what I saw in majority of movies, read in books with my reality. My grandmother and mother who continue to be the strongest female forces in my life have an incredible bond of love, mutual respect and a deep friendship. I’ve been blessed to share in this love and have them as some of my best friends. They’ve always encouraged me to excel in whatever I put my mind to, and my grandmother, a single mother of four and successful business woman who worked for years to bring herself and her family out of poverty has always pushed me to believe in my limitless potential.

There’s space for more than one woman. Women are often pitted against each other as if in competition because we are often made to believe that it is not possible for us to share in each other’s success. I see a lot of women, younger especially, deny the comfort and strength that comes with female friendships and instead spend time fighting and competing with each other. The older I get, the more I appreciate the wonderful females I get to share life with. For every challenge that I am faced with, a woman in my life has overcome it and they are always there to offer insight and encouragement when I need it most.

The women in my life have also taught me how to embrace my style of leadership. When I started out, I wanted to lead like my father who is respected in his community and offers leadership to many people. I thought that to lead I must be tough, no-nonsense and basically, lead like a man. My mother and grandmother however continue to teach me how instead of thinking ‘be a man’ in a difficult situation, think, ‘be a woman’. They’ve taught me that I do not have to be loud, tall and sturdy to lead but rather be firm, seek wisdom and treat people with respect.

Women lead differently to men and that is something we should learn to embrace and love about ourselves. In many situations, I’ve been looked down upon because I am young, female and speak with a soft voice- not what many people expect a boss to look like. This can be disheartening and frustrating and as women, we are often tempted to change our leadership style to suit a patriarchal society that embraces male leadership and refers to it as the standard.

I’ve learnt how to demand respect even with a soft voice, how to share in my staff’s life stories because I am interested in them as people not just as employees. I have learnt that it’s okay to cry when you fail, to not always have the answers and to embrace this. I’ve learnt this from the women in my life and those I look up to and as I grow older, I’m more thankful for the female energy around me.

Women are strong and resilient. The world will be a better place with more of us in leadership positions and for this, I embrace and cheer on any woman who is aspiring to lead in whatever field. There is space for all of us, space for all our female energy and the world is a much better place because we exist and continue to push boundaries of what we can achieve.

Helping Women Thrive

Helping Women Thrive

By Sheree Rubinstein
Cofounder and CEO of One Roof

Lately an interesting and recurring thought has been popping up for me.

I am being challenged to answer an important question. While it is being posed to me in different ways essentially these questions derive from the same premise:

Why do I create hubs, programs and communities that either predominantly or exclusively focus on women?

Shouldn’t men be encouraged to get involved in the conversation?

Don’t we need to help men feel more comfortable in attending spaces, programs and events that support women?

Isn’t it time we encourage women not to just spend time in “safe” environments amongst like-mindedness but actually connect them to people who will challenge their thinking, get them out of their comfort zone and connect them to new networks?

I don’t necessarily disagree with this sentiment. Men need to be involved in the conversation. The issue of gender equality and levelling the playing field for men and women in business and entrepreneurship is an issue that affects all of us, no matter who we are.

But while I take notes and absorb the feedback I can’t help but strongly believe that there is still profound merit in curating opportunities that predominantly or exclusively support women.

I am the cofounder and CEO of One Roof, Australia’s leading co-working space dedicated to women-led businesses. Much more than a co-working space One Roof is a community and an entire ecosystem of support. In fact the name ‘One Roof’ embodies the idea that we provide everything a female entrepreneur needs to thrive under one roof.  We are currently home to over 70 women-led businesses across a range of industries providing them with a suite of support including mentoring, access to experts, curated connections, networking events and business coaching.

One Roof was born out of the indisputable reality; women are universally under-represented across the entire entrepreneurial and business landscape.

If we don’t actively think about what will attract, support and retain women to co-working spaces, programs, positions of leadership etc, often they will be, and they already are and continue to be, left out.

When we say ‘women-led’ what this means to us is businesses with a female founder, cofounder or CEO. Recently, we broadened this definition to include businesses that have an equal representation of women on their boards and / or a commitment or clear mandate of gender equality within their organisation. 

We have men working at One Roof (and have recently increased these numbers), we have men hosting events, attending events, sponsoring One Roof, acting as experts, mentoring our members and, in fact, some of our greatest supporters have been men.

That said, we still predominantly see women working at One Roof and attending our events and programs. It is still overtly clear that One Roof is a space for women. 

At this point in my two and half year One Roof journey I know it is crucial to create spaces and programs that are exclusively or predominantly focused on women.

For instance this year we launched the One Roof PLUS entrepreneurial support program to support early stage female founders. This is a 3-month program designed by women for women. To design a program that thinks about the unique challenges and needs of women, that provides examples and case studies of successful women and creates a ‘safe’ space where women feel comfortable to be vulnerable, be challenged and ask questions, is truly profound. When we run programs we design them around what we know women want. We do things differently rather than trying to fit women into traditional paradigms that don’t always work for them. One example is instead of hosting a big pitch night or ‘demo day’ with judges and hundreds of people in the room, our participants pitched to an invite-only room of investors and experts and then sat down to an intimate dinner with an opportunity to network in a more comfortable setting. I witnessed firsthand just how much value the participants gained from a female-only program. Not only did I witness it. They told me.

And, of course, YHER is a prime example of a program that, at its core, supports women.  I had the pleasure and honour of volunteering as a facilitator to support Kaitlin and Katleho at the YHER accelerator program last year in Johannesburg. This program is paving the way for female impact entrepreneurs across Africa. In fact, on the 16th of August we are hosting a fundraiser at One Roof. Come along and support this incredible initiative. Details here.

Essentially, I am on a mission to close the gender gap in entrepreneurship and empower women to succeed in business. The ‘why’ is what drives me. The ‘how’ isn’t so important. In fact I anticipate the ‘how’ to change many times during the course of my pursuit for equality.

But at this point in time women are still significantly lagging behind in entrepreneurship. Hubs, networking groups and educational programs that have a strong focus on supporting women are having an important impact in shifting the dial and paving the way for women to step into the arena with the confidence, skills and networks that we need to thrive.

Sheree Rubinstein
Cofounder and CEO of One Roof

The Bliss of Failure – Awakening to Purpose

The Bliss of Failure – Awakening to Purpose

By Katleho Tsoku

Oprah Winfrey once said “The privilege of a lifetime is to be who you are. What I know for sure however, is that the real privilege is getting to use who you are to elevate the higher good of everyone else.” For me, it took the closure of my restaurant, Bliss and a couple of years of introspection to fully grasp that I am here to use my passions and talents to serve.

In 2009, I decided my life needed a revamp professionally. I had this deep yearning to do more with my life, I just didn’t know what. On a random Saturday, I found myself buying my first copy of Destiny Magazine. The first page it opened to was a quote that read “The secret to life is to follow your BLISS.”

That quote was the first brick laid in my foundation for entrepreneurial pursuits. In that moment, it made sense that I needed to follow my BLISS. And my BLISS was answering my entrepreneurial calling.

I put in my resignation letter at work. Diving into the unknown was scary, but somehow passion surpassed fear.

I did all that was necessary - registering my business, scouting for locations, sourcing consultants etc. But I hit a brick wall when it came to finding funding. Banks were not an option; I was 24 years old with no collateral, so I was not a suitable candidate for a loan. I approached every agency that professed to help young entrepreneurs and received either an automated response saying “we are out of funds for the year” or a straight “No, we don’t fund restaurants.”

So I’d done all this work done and had no capital. I spoke to my mom who said she would help me with what she had in the hope that as the business grew, we would be able to attract more funding. Knowing this was my mom’s hard earned money, I was even more determined to make it work. Hard-earned money that my mother, who believed in my dream and me, was willing to risk. I did not take this lightly.

October 2010, at the age of 25, I opened Bliss, a tapas and cocktail bar. I was on cloud nine! Here’s this baby of mine that started off as an idea that was now tangible. I could eat the food at Bliss, drink the cocktails at Bliss and talk to the customers at Bliss.

There is nothing comparable to the joy of realising a dream. Starting something from nothing; that is the beauty of entrepreneurship.

Weeks and months went by and that ‘honeymoon stage’ soon ended. Now I was running out of capital. The business was picking up slowly, but I had to pay staff and rent and I had to buy stock whether we had 100 customers or one. I was now face-to-face with the reality of being an entrepreneur. The reality of realising a dream and having the soul of the world test you.

I needed bums on restaurant seats; it was the only way bills would be paid. Every time I would vent to a customer, friend or family, I was told “give it time”. While indeed time was what was needed, time went hand in hand with money and that was something I did not have.

People would tell me how lucky I was to be running such a beautiful restaurant and that they wished they were me. Little did they know, being me meant missing my rent and playing hide and seek from my landlord who would eventually find me and issue a stern warning. Being me meant looking at my bank account and feeling my heart beating out of my chest for fear I would not be able to pay my staff. Being me meant crying myself to sleep at night in fear I would lose my restaurant.

Someone said to me, “you are not a real entrepreneur until you have felt like you are being dragged down a tar road naked with your skin scraping off.” I have never heard a truer description, and I believe anyone who is fighting for their dreams, can relate.

As much as there were struggles, there would be major highlights when Bliss would surprise me and I would meet my obligations and the restaurant would be crazy busy. Moments like these assured me that it was a dream worth fighting for.

Despite all of this, there came a time where I had to make a decision I dreaded. There was literally no more money to put into Bliss. My mom told me if I still wanted to fight, she didn’t know how, but she would make a plan. I owe my mom my life! A strong support structure is vital on this entrepreneurial journey; my mom was that for me.

As I was contemplating what move to make next, a patron of mine came in. She did not know I was considering closing down Bliss, yet in my random conversation with this patron she said to me “Have you ever thought maybe Bliss restaurant was not THE dream, but rather a step in the direction your true purpose, your real BLISS…”

In that moment, I knew what I needed to do.

I looked at my staff of thirteen and realised that closing down Bliss was not just about me. Closing Bliss meant people would be out of jobs and their families affected. In an industry of high staff turnover, I was lucky to have had the same team from day one, right until the very last day. I promised myself I would do everything in my power to find them alternative employment. It was the least I could do for their loyalty. And thank goodness I managed to.

It is believed that fear of failure is the number one reason women shy away from entrepreneurship. Failure is a bitter pill to swallow. I was a complete mess following the closure of Bliss but the experience taught me many, many lessons. My most treasured lesson however, was the awakening to my purpose.

While still running Bliss, a friend of mine asked me what my purpose was and how Bliss fit into it. I was unable to answer him, but for some reason that question pulled at my core. I now know, until you are clear on your WHY, you are in big trouble. Certainly Bliss was built with love and good intentions, but I was not clear on how it served my true purpose. It certainly was however, a catalyst in awakening me to that purpose.

Celebrating women is why I exist. Seeing women thrive is my ultimate BLISS! My greatest joy is championing female entrepreneurs; that is the work that fulfills me.

Am I afraid of failure? YES! But I choose to give the fear of failure the middle finger and say yes to work I love. That is a service in itself, to my self and the sisterhood!


The Future is Female: Why We Back Local Change


The Future is Female: Why We Back Local Change

By Kaitlin Tate, YGAP General Manager, Impact

It was about a year ago and I had arrived a little early for a speaking engagement. I was sitting down to do some work, when another female speaker arrived and quietly confessed how desperate she was for a wine to take the edge off her nerves - an all too familiar feeling for me.

I’d spoken at my fair share of panels, speeches and workshops, but for years I’d struggled to kick the fear and anxiety I associated with putting myself out there. I was incredibly passionate about my work but somehow always felt that the passion and expertise that I’d crafted over the previous eight years rarely translated into confident eloquence on stage. My audiences weren’t necessarily disappointed (I was on my way to mastering the art of ‘faking it until you make it’) but I always disappointed myself - constantly comparing myself to my impressive orator of a husband and the inspiring, confident, and well-spoken people I surrounded myself with. Unfortunately, this trend extended beyond just speaking engagements and into my day-to-day work experience. 

For years, I had been navigating the rewarding yet challenging reality of starting a non-profit. In our early twenties, armed with relevant masters degrees and a healthy dose of idealism, my husband and I booked a one-way flight to Kenya, eager to ‘change the world’. We were on a mission to get the all-important on-the-ground experience most people drawn to working in International Development dream of. Nearly two years, three bouts of malaria, a curse from a witch doctor and a death threat later, we left East Africa with the realisation that true, sustainable social change is driven by local leaders with local solutions to the challenges faced by their communities. It wasn’t up to us to be Africa’s heroes. Rather, it was up to the incredible Kenyans and Tanzanians we met with great ideas and a deep understanding of their communities who simply needed the support, resources and confidence to get their ideas off the ground. And so we started Spark* International to find, accelerate and support these local leaders as they improve the lives of people living in poverty. 

Fast forward five years and we joined forces with YGAP, creating a dream team which to date has helped 287 entrepreneurs grow the impact of their ventures and improved the lives of almost 300,000 people living in poverty. Entrepreneurs like Felix Kimaru of Totohealth who is providing an innovative, low cost SMS advice service to expectant mothers from conception through the child’s 5th birthday with the goal of reducing infant and maternal mortality. In a country where only 60 per cent of women are delivering their babies in a hospital and a similar percentage of children are vaccinated, Totohealth is seeing 93 per cent of their users deliver in a hospital and 90 per cent of babies receive their vaccinations. When Totohealth first started, they were reaching 300 women. They now are reaching 30,000 parents.

But this entrepreneurial journey for me was anything but smooth. In the early days, I battled with a strong case of imposter syndrome, questioning my ability at every turn while I watched the men around me ooze confidence. And I wasn’t alone. In every accelerator program we ran, I saw many of the same tendencies in the women-led ventures we supported and this concerned me. 

Even more concerning was the reality faced by most women who pursued entrepreneurship or positions of leadership. In the startup world, there are around 131 corporate run accelerators, and a staggering 87 per cent of these are run by men. Y-Combinator - one of the world’s leading startup accelerators - has invested in more than 700 startups, but just 13 per cent of these are led by women. When it comes to venture capital, women receive only 3 – 5 per cent of the funding available and less than 5 per cent of venture capital firms are led by women. In Australia, just 20 per cent of startups are female founded and less than 30 per cent of tech roles are filled by women. 

When we look at women in leadership more generally, the statistics are equally concerning. Women hold just 12 per cent of the world’s board seats and only 4.6 per cent of Fortune 500 CEO roles. Across the workforce, women are earning today what men were earning 10 years ago. 

It’s clear the cards are often stacked against women as they venture into entrepreneurship, and we wanted to do something about it. So we developed YHER (Formally SHE by Spark*)– an accelerator program aimed at finding and supporting women-led businesses improving the lives of women and girls living in poverty. A program designed by women to specifically address the unique challenges women face when trying to step up and lead in a decidedly male dominated field. A program supporting women like Lucy. 

Lucy is a Kenyan entrepreneur and in Kenya, girls miss 3.5 million learning days per month due to lack of access to sanitary products. This contributes to high dropout rates in schools with serious social and economic consequences. Many communities also lack clean water, which leads to hygiene related illnesses. As a result, many young women do not always have access to clean underwear, let alone sanitary products. In response, Lucy developed SanPad - an innovative 70 per cent bio degradable two-in-one pad-pantie. The product is affordable, hygienic and disposable, negating the need for soap and water. Through our YHER program, Lucy has access to entrepreneurship training, support and funding to help her keep more young women healthy and in school. 

Does it make a difference? Absolutely. The women we’ve worked with report huge benefits. In an all women forum they feel more willing to open up with honesty and vulnerability about the difficulties they face navigating gender discrimination or the daunting realities of pitching to an all male boardroom. They share techniques for approaching these situations, encouraging each other to use their feminine approach to their advantage, rather than feeling the need to emulate the men around them. They discuss the challenge of balancing work and family, drawing on the strength of other women in the room who are walking the same journey and facing the same barriers. Most importantly, we see a shift in mindset around what they are capable of. They see other women who’ve done it, and realise ‘if she can, I can’, feeling the power of a whole new tribe of women who have their back. 

This year, we want to take YHER across the African continent to reach many more Lucy’s, but we are not the only cause for celebration. There are incredible groups right here in Australia and around the world working to balance the scales: 

  • One Roof is a fantastic female centric co-working space in Melbourne giving women-led businesses access to a feminine space, events, entrepreneurship support and expert advice.
  • The Criterion Institute is pioneering gender lens investing, encouraging companies and organisations to see investments they make and how they make them as a tool for creating a more equitable world for women. 
  • Through global research, tools and services, events and other programs, Catalyst exists to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion.
  • And there are other legends like SpringboardScale Investors, and She Starts, doing incredible work here in Australia to ensure female founders are getting the support and funding they need to grow.

To go back to that night when a fellow female speaker was reaching for the alcohol to calm the nerves, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t. I was calm, collected and confident. How did I get there? It has most definitely been through the vulnerability, honesty, and support of countless other women who have given me strength. Who have reminded me time and time again of what is possible, and that I have something unique and valuable to offer.

Now, as I plan to start a family and bring new life into this world, I still have cause for concern. Concern that my future daughter will not be afforded the same opportunities as my future son. That, like the many women who have come before her, she may be a minority around the boardroom table, in her STEM classes, and in the startup world.

And yet, I have cause for celebration, because I do believe that things will be better for her, thanks to the incredible groups who are tirelessly fighting to give women and girls an equal chance at success. Groups who are going beyond just counting the women at the table and are instead attempting to truly understand what women need to thrive. Groups providing the environment, policies and procedures, financial capital and social support to do so. 

It took me a good five years to find my feet and confidence as an entrepreneur. Through YHER, we aim to get women there faster, helping them grow better businesses that create a better world for women and girls. Join us at YHER. The future is female.