How ‘Under 40 CEOs’ And Forbes Africa Create Stories Around Women Entrepreneurs And Their Success Pathways…
In 2020, Nigerian women owned 41% of micro businesses. Despite that they had less access to social protection, finance/bank accounts, education and the ‘digital world’, they did not let themselves be held back and have proven their capacity to persist and resist, which actually may be a recurring trend. According to three researchers from Brunel University and Northumbria University, female Nigerian entrepreneurs were tendentially found to ‘slip’ into the world of entrepreneurship in the same way, respectively by similar means. Based on a study of the Nigerian TV show ‘Under 40 CEOs’, Sarpong, Nyuur and Torbor analyzed individual life stories and timelines in relation to entrepreneurship success. Thereby, the following four themes reappeared: “‘observing and playing business’”, going on the ‘“path less travelled’”, a ‘knowledge quest journey’ and “‘[g]race under pressure’ in decision-making”.
To explain further, successful women entrepreneurs were found to often have founded a small business or engaged in business activities prior to even graduating or during university. Later, these women actively sought to understand what kind of business would actually make a difference learning to focus and analyze, where opportunities arise as well as being well aware of the fact that a successful business needs to be distinctive. Thereafter, they engaged themselves to learn more about “starting, growing and managing ventures” and, finally, they were shown to have made particular efforts and/or sacrifices to keep on the business pathway and build up resilience to succeed in life and business. This article will explore whether and how this ‘narrative’ might reappear within some of the most recent portraits of successful African women entrepreneurs on Forbes Africa. In addition, it will provide a few alternative recurring themes and remarks on the harmful narrative of the entrepreneur as ‘heroic’.
The Representation African Women Entrepreneurs on Forbes Africa
Compared With Research Findings
- The Story of Feven and Helena Yohannes, Co-Founders of 241 Cosmetics
In June 2022, Forbes Africa uploaded an article about Feven and Helena Yohannes with the headline “Two’s Company: The Eritrean Twins Shaping The Beauty Industry”. As the below findings suggest, almost all the themes – which were identified by the above-mentioned researchers, also appeared within this article. However, one theme that did not appear within this portrait was ‘steering on the knowledge quest journey’. Rather than narrating the success story of Feven and Helena Yohannes through the lens of educational achievements, respectively any efforts to gain knowledge about entrepreneurship or their respective area,
|1. Observing And Playing Business||“From trying different entrepreneurial pursuits, ranging from a failed wedding app to a fledgling fashion and lifestyle blog, it seems the Yohannes twins have now finally found their calling”|
No specific age indication mentioned
|2. Opting For The Path Less Travelled||“[…] the power of believing enough in yourself to self-fund your own ideas”|
“When you look at the beauty landscape, we outspend by nine times more than non-black women but yet we are overlooked and overshadowed and that is ridiculous”
|3. Steering On The Knowledge Quest Journey||Not applicable|
|4. Practicing To Preserve Grace Under Pressure Throughout Difficult Decisions||“‘The company was building up and gaining momentum. There was no PR team, it was just the two of us. Then, March 2020 and Covid hit’”|
their success is backed up through the overarching narrative of their background as refugees – of two baby girls, who were born into a world with little chances for survival right in a refugee camp and often treated as if they were one and the same person rather than two distinct, talented individuals. Whereas the author of this article has put some emphasis on the fact that Feven and Helena Yohannes have had previous experience with being entrepreneurs, namely through the creation of a wedding app and a fashion and lifestyle blog, there is no indication as to when this happened. This is different from the stories, which were analyzed by the researchers, as one recurring narration, which they identified, related to early childhood to adulthood ‘play’ with ‘making business’.
- The Story of Vimbai Masiyiwa, CEO of Batoka Lodges
By the end of May 2022, an article about Vimbai Masiyiwa was uploaded on Forbes Africa, carrying the title “‘A Social Business’: Uplifting Zimbabwe’s Communities A Priority For Vimbai Masiyiwa”. Similar to the latter article, this portrait does not put an emphasis on the recurring theme ‘observing and playing business’. Rather than focusing on such a narrative, this article is strongly focused on telling the story of Vimbai Masiyiwa through the lens of her family’s and her own achievements as well as her wish to make a social impact, including based on her own experiences with depression. Despite that the ‘observing and playing business’ element is not as strongly pronounced, achievements play an important role in the narration of Vimbai Masiyiwa’s success story.
|1. Observing And Playing Business||Not applicable|
|2. Opting For The Path Less Travelled||“she will be using ‘hospitality and tourism as a catalyst for social change and local economic growth’”|
“The main challenge she has experienced is running the operation with a large staff complement, as the cultural norm is not to have a young female leader”
|3. Steering On The Knowledge Quest Journey||“With a BSc in Computer Information Systems from Bryant University, and a Master’s in Entrepreneurship and Entrepreneurship studies from University College London”|
|4. Practicing To Preserve Grace Under Pressure Throughout Difficult Decisions||“‘Everybody listens to a strong male voice. So, it’s been an interesting learning curve, but I’m really enjoying it’”|
No applicable challenges mentioned beyond that
Based on her father’s background as a “billionaire businessman”, this representation might or might not make sense – which is to say, especially as Vimbai Masiyiwa might have had a strong role model, it is imaginable that she could have had the opportunity to explore the world of business from an early age. According to her LinkedIn profile, she at least is a Co-founder of another business, Sterling Culture. Failing to mention the latter in this portrait somewhat pronounces the success of her father a little more than her own. The latter is reinforced, because after the following quote of Vimbai Masiyiwa, it is not specified whether ‘we’ refers to her father and her or her and her team: ““Just before the pandemic started, we ended up making a decision that we wanted to create a new brand of lodges, which we’ve now called Batoka Lodges – really as a social business’”. The latter alongside her own comment that “‘[e]verybody listens to a strong male voice’”, which she is attempting to change, ironically presents this women entrepreneur as both ‘trapped within male patriarchy’ (i.e. father is referred to as billionaire rather than ally) and on the pathway to stand up for non-discrimination – in the domains of women entrepreneurship and mental health.
- The Story of Gwyneth Addo, CEO of The Hair Senta
The article, which tells a story about the entrepreneurial success journey of Gwyneth Addo, was uploaded on Forbes Africa in May 2022 with the title “Crowning Glory: Rooting For Ghana’s Booming Wigs And Hair Extensions Market”. Different from the latter two articles, this article pronounces each and every theme, which has been identified by the afore-mentioned researchers. Gwyneth Addo is represented as a woman entrepreneur, who learned from an early age with the support of her family, whereby her father is said to have supported her with “bag[ging] powdered milk into sachets and sell [them] to her friends”. Thereafter, it is pronounced how Gwyneth Addo has both studied philosophy, gotten an MBA and worked in banking. Rather than portraying the latter as clashing domains, the article makes a reference to Addo’s drive and skill to ‘identify gaps’ and effectively seek to fill them through her business initiative.
|1. Observing And Playing Business||“Her father was one of the first entrepreneurs to start selling media and entertainment gadgets and used goods in Ghana. And Addo started early, watching and learning. Her dad once even helped her bag powdered milk into sachets and sell to her friends”|
“‘We learned about customer service in Makola and how to deal with different customer characters’”
|2. Opting For The Path Less Travelled||“‘I majored in philosophy at the University of Ghana and then got an MBA with CEIBS (China Europe International Business School) but I found myself in banking and loved it”’|
|3. Steering On The Knowledge Quest Journey||“I realized there were a lot of people bringing in hair but nobody had sat down to brand it. So, they had no name, logos or any kind of solid branding or identity that made them easily recognizable”|
“I always talk about the gap and need philosophy. People talk about starting a business because there is a gap, but the gap and the need must align”
|4. Practicing To Preserve Grace Under Pressure Throughout Difficult Decisions||“However, she ran into issues where a lot of people were buying her products on credit and not paying back leading to serious cash flow problems”|
“When I left the bank, I was embarrassed because things didn’t work out as I thought. I had to lie to my friends to say everything was ok but deep down, I was suffering. I traveled to China to buy machines because I wanted to prove to people that I could do it in a big way”
Demonstrating that Addo has preserved her willingness and openness to learn from an early age until today, this article puts a strong emphasis on the overarching themes ‘knowledge’ and ‘learning from failures’. Both of the latter qualities are also embedded in the theme ‘family support’, which emerges from the story of her mom and her dad as ‘mentors’ on the entrepreneurial pathway. With these themes having been dominant in the other articles as well, this admittingly brief analysis found a couple of more recurring themes in the most recent stories about African women entrepreneurs on Forbes Africa.
Analysis Of Alternative Themes In The Stories Of African Women Entrepreneurs
Among the alternative recurring themes in the success stories of African women entrepreneurs are narrations based on: a ‘family role model’, ‘family support’, ‘community orientation’, ‘personal hardship’ and the willingness to ‘explore distinctive strategies’. As within the afore-mentioned researcher’s study, these themes are connected with particular “[m]eanings highlighting the becoming of successful entrepreneurial careers” respectively key entrepreneurial skills. Among these skills are, for instance, optimism, resilience, a growth mindset, team work, self-confidence, empathy, analytical skills, the skill to cope with problems and failures, and many more! The three analyzed portraits have represented African women entrepreneurs largely based on their personal histories. Rather than viewing entrepreneurship as a domain, which mainly falls into public life or the field of business, it is portrayed as an extension of an individual’s life purpose and fulfillment.
|Recurring Theme||Key Entrepreneurial Skill||Representative Data|
|1. Family Role Model||a. Trust in life and success overall|
c. Growth Perspective/ Mindset
|“Her father was one of the first entrepreneurs to start selling media and entertainment gadgets and used goods in Ghana”|
“the second eldest daughter of Zimbabwean tech tycoon and founder of Econet”
“And my father said with that bright African smile, that it’s like walking from Los Angeles to San Francisco. He said ‘[the refugee journey from Eritrea to Sudan] took us a few months, but we got there’”
|2. Family Support||a. Team Work|
c. Entrepreneur Skills
|“Most of my character traits were picked up from my mum. We learned about customer service in Makola and how to deal with different customer characters”|
“And Addo started early, watching and learning. Her dad once even helped her bag powdered milk into sachets and sell to her friends”
|3. Community Orientation||a. Client Orientation|
b. Social Orientation
d. Analytical skills and the skill to recognize business opportunities
|“Instead of making the business about what the client wanted, I was more interested in what I wanted and for five years we did not grow, until we decided to listen to our customers and then everything changed. I made the mistake of making the business about me”|
“But she also talks at length about community collaboration, women-led businesses and accessibility of mental health services”
|4. Personal Hardship||a. The skill to recognize business opportunities|
b. Resilience and Coping With Failures
c. Bravery and Risk-taking
d. Taking initiative
|“I’m very open about my own journey with mental health. And I think having experienced things such as clinical depression”|
“When I left the bank, I was embarrassed because things didn’t work out as I thought. I had to lie to my friends to say everything was ok but deep down, I was suffering”
|5. Exploring Distinctive Strategies||a. Coping with failures as a way to find a suited rather than the best strategy |
b. Patience and Willingness to Fail
|“I realized there were a lot of people bringing in hair but nobody had sat down to brand it”|
“And their past failures have taught them two invaluable lessons. First, about the power of execution. They use social media and storytelling to constantly engage with their loyal following who are growing daily. Secondly, the power of believing enough in yourself to self-fund your own ideas”
Unsurprisingly, the most prominent strength of African women entrepreneurs within these portraits is narrated as drawing lessons from their personal life and putting them into practice to create lasting impacts for particular communities, where they navigate in themselves – at least to a certain extent (i.e. a depression survivor operating a business to tackle mental health issues, two fashion aficionados creating a beauty brand etc.). Rather than portraying weaknesses and failures as aspects, which can accompany the entrepreneurship journey without possessing further importance, the analyzed articles talk about personal hardship as a direct pathway to either recognize business opportunities or become ‘suited’ for the up and down trajectory of the entrepreneurship journey, which requires risk-taking amid and beyond failures as well as resilience. Whether or not it is useful to always highlight the private circumstances and life story of women entrepreneurs could certainly be discussed.
On the one hand, the latter can lead to representing the potential which members of specific minority groups have and lead to inspire the latter to not get discouraged themselves. On the other hand, we cannot assume that personal stories always and fully align with entrepreneurial success, which is to say not all aspects of our life might actually help us to become an entrepreneur, even if our choices, ideas and behaviour are fundamentally based on what we have experienced and come to be. A potentially unpopular suggestion might be to also talk about these aspects of a story, which make no sense – not particularly in the case of BIPOC* women entrepreneurs, but in general.
Portraying entrepreneurs as “‘heroic figurehead of capitalism’”, as was pointed out by Johnson and Sørensen in their 2016 article ‘Traversing the fantasy of the heroic entrepreneur’, means to ascribe entrepreneurs personal qualities and characteristics based on temporary success and the grand narrative of entrepreneurship. This narrative, which may include “‘freedom of spirit, creativity, vision, zeal’” among other characteristics, has been argued to reinforce harmful power relations, which benefit the already powerful in society and the domain of entrepreneurship – and especially, the “‘masculine’ white male [which is showcased to] possess[es] ‘super-normal qualities’” as an entrepreneur.
What the latter, together with the outcomes of this article, may indicate, is that telling the ‘powerful’ story of BIPOC* women entrepreneur is a necessary act of resistance. As long as it is still the case that the story of the ‘white, middle-aged and male’ entrepreneur is showcased with grandiosity, it cannot be the case that the stories of black women entrepreneurs are told with any less praise. However, the middle way should actually be to deglorify the image of the entrepreneur overall. Entrepreneurs, respectively each and everything they do, cannot always be ‘productive’. However, showcasing them as ‘heroic’ suggests that each and every step of them is part of the pathway to success.
This myth does not only put entrepreneurship in a bad light, when it comes to representing women and minority groups, it also leads to underline ‘the worst’ of capitalist hegemony. As Colin C. Williams and Sara J. Nadin argue in their 2013 article ‘Beyond the entrepreneur as a heroic figurehead of capitalism: re-representing the lived practices of entrepreneurs’, it has long been understood that entrepreneurship does not always have to be profit-driven. In addition, there is not one particular type of ‘entrepreneur’, even when the media may praise particular achievements over others. Rather than increasing publicity mainly for those entrepreneurs, who operate within the avenues of the formal economy, the successes of entrepreneurs in the informal economy have also to be celebrated and measured in relation to their particular social goals. However, the latter is not to say that a dichotomous portrayal of ‘commercial and social entrepreneurs’ still works, especially nowadays, where ESG and human rights due diligence plays an ever more important role.
Following Williams and Nadin, what matters is to explore the “lived practices of entrepreneurship”, attempting to show where capitalism and entrepreneurship (can) no longer meet. Whereas Williams and Nadin’s study focused on entrepreneurs in the West of England, applying their methodology to the afore-mentioned three African women entrepreneurship portraits would mean to analyze, where the ‘commercial and social entrepreneurship dichotomy’ blurs. And in the story of Gwyneth Addo, this could be – where the entrepreneur admits that “[w]hen [she] left the bank, [she] was embarrassed because things didn’t work out as [she] thought”. Having to lie to her friends about her own suffering and business failure, Addo desperately traveled to China to buy new equipment, later realizing that her brand lacked a ‘face’, which would effectively speak to customers’ needs.
Whereas Addo sure had a commercial interest, the solution to combat her business failure was to care about people’s needs rather than her own purpose or dream. Only within this framework, it was that her dream began to thrive. To conclude, telling entrepreneurship stories about ‘vulnerability and impact’ more widely may lead to opening the door for women and minority entrepreneurs, because everyone can make an impact within a particular domain – but speaking about entrepreneurial success is sometimes elusive, when it has to be pursued in the same way as happiness.
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