The future is female: why we back local change

The future is female: why we back local change - Kaitlin Tait

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 SHE – 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 SHE program, Lucy has access to entrepreneurship training, ongoing 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 SHE 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 Roofis 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 Instituteis 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, Catalystexists 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 our programs, we aim to get women there faster, helping them grow better businesses that create a better world for women and girls. Join us at YGAP. The Future is female.


How social entrepreneurs are tackling poverty in Kenya

How social entrepreneurs are tackling poverty in Kenya - Carol Kimari

With all of the studies available regarding Africa and Kenya in particular, one would think there is absolutely no hope of alleviating poverty and its related social ills. However, this is not the case. In the midst of bitter resentment, complaints and darkness portrayed by a misinformed, self-serving media, there are pockets of justice and good being propagated by individuals who refuse to live a world devoid of hope. These are the everyday heroes we should look to celebrate as they work tirelessly to bring Kenya out of dire straights.

Having been a social entrepreneur, I have experienced the many hurdles anyone working in business faces when trying to tackle poverty-related issues. It is a long, lonely road. Anyone willing to invest time, energy or resources into a business wants to see a significant return within three to five years. But this is not necessarily the case, or the target, for entrepreneurs seeking change in their communities. Rather than a return, they may be looking to provide employment for youth, alleviate disease, improve access to healthcare services or provide better living conditions in low socio-economic areas.

These are the reasons I have dedicated my life to helping my fellow Kenyans, through any means possible. It is not common for people looking to change lives to do so while also making money. Changing lives has always been associated with non-profit and NGO organisations. I believed otherwise, but I didn’t know how to go about it. Luckily, I came across Spark – who later merged with YGAP – and together, we are showing hundreds of passionate social entrepreneurs that they don’t have to die trying to save the world.

What does this mean for the economy? Suddenly, youth who were unemployed can find work and avoid spiralling into a life of crime, people are economically empowered and disease is radically reduced.

When some of these passionate entrepreneurs decide to tackle education-related injustices, be it female genital mutilation, a lack of sanitary education, or shortage of teachers, libraries or books, they work from the ground up. By improving access to education, they create sustainable ways of raising our children to become powerful levers for change.

We always say Kenya has a rich farming background, yet farmers remain some of our poorest members of society. Why? Because they lack markets, information and even the knowledge to produce globally acceptable crops. When our farmers are supported, we see phenomenal growth. Not only can they grow world-class crops, they can send their children to school and create jobs for the unemployed.

It is a well-rounded trip, the support of Social entrepreneurs and our dedication to supporting this group of powerful people will yield tangible results. In the end, people will realise it is the most effective way to alleviate poverty, over and above the standard, vanilla and socially accepted methods.


Fear of starting a business

Fear of starting a business - By Palesa Mabidilala  - YGAP Country Director, South Africa

When people think about starting a business, a number of thoughts come to mind. Freedom to do my own thing, freedom to own my time, no more crazy bosses. But not all thoughts are positive. There are thoughts of being broke, losing assets, changing lifestyle, failure and the list goes on. We have been fed ideas by the media or people we know who have ventured into business and it can all of a sudden become a very overwhelming experience.

I have worked with numerous entrepreneurs and all of these thoughts are valid, because most entrepreneurs have experienced them in one way or another. And yet they are still in it. They still do it. They still push forward. Because there is something incredible about living your dreams and fulfilling your destiny.

It’s difficult to take the plunge and uncomfortable to face uncertainty. We start to create excuses for ourselves to justify our inability to act. If you are holding back on doing something for yourself, then these excuses will be very familiar to you.

   1    My idea isn’t good enough

We are always waiting for the next great thing, the next ‘innovation’. The word, innovation itself has become synonymous with a new product, a new invention, but this is a misconception. To innovate is to do things differently. Whether it’s doing something faster, better, cheaper, it’s doing it differently and telling everyone why your product or service is better, because you did it differently. Some of the most successful companies are based on refining earlier ideas and innovations.

   2    I’m too scared 

I hate to break it to you, but you will never stop being afraid. Of course we have fears – we are not psychopaths. Fears guide us, but they can also cripple us and hold us back. Don’t try and kill your fears, they will just be replaced with new fears and you will be in a constant battle with yourself.

The key is to act in spite of fear. Acknowledge your fears and act anyway, because our actions are the only things we can control, not the ‘what ifs’.

   3    I’m not good enough – don’t have the right skills, contacts etc.

You don’t need a degree to become an entrepreneur, as evidenced by numerous and successful entrepreneurs including Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Ray Kroc, Coco Chanel – the list goes on. Everything you need is within reach. To do your job well, you had to learn a skill. To run a household, you had to learn a skill. There is absolutely nothing that you do today that you didn’t have to learn to do at some point in your life. If you need to learn a skill, you can find someone to teach you. Read, intern, volunteer – do something! We learn by doing, so get up and start learning. The more you do it, the better you become and the better you become, the more attractive you become to other people and start building the right contacts to help you do more of it. Just do it!

   4    I need funding to start.

As an ex-financier, this was something I heard too many times – “I can’t do anything without money.”  I can assure you, you are unlikely to get funding if you have nothing to show for it. If you can’t show that you are willing to do whatever it takes to prove how great your product can be, then you are not worth the investment. To be an entrepreneur, you need to master the art of making the most of what you have. Start small to prove that your product or service can work. That will at least show the funder potential, and money will follow.

   5    I don’t have the time.

Really? The truth my friend is that you don’t know how to prioritise. You make a choice about how you want to spend your time. You choose to do the things you do with your time. If you need more time, then you are going to need to start prioritising.

   6    I don’t know what business to start

This is a big one for most people. Whenever I host workshops on starting a business, this question seems to come up a lot. What business should I start? Where am I likely to be most successful? My advice? Choose something you love, something you are committed to, something that you would do even if you weren’t paid to do it. That is always the best business, because you will do it even when times are tough.

   7    It’s too risky.

As an entrepreneur, I can only say to you, if it isn’t risky, it would be boring and that just isn’t worth it. This is an uncertain journey; you just need to trust that you have the grit to get through all that life throws at you.

   8    I need everything to be ready before I do it

One of my favourite lessons was delivered by T Harv Eker when he said “Sloppy success is better than perfect mediocrity.” I had my ‘aha’ moment because I realised I was waiting for things to be perfect before I could make my move. Now I understand that perfection is only achieved by doing, because as you do more, you do better. You can never achieve perfection waiting to offer your product or service. The market determines that. You need to have a version of your product or service that is good enough for the market to test and give you solid feedback on – then you keep perfecting it. I don’t know a single successful entrepreneur who started out perfectly. Each one of them had to learn by doing, that is just the way it works. So don’t sit on it because it isn’t perfect. Remember, sloppy success!

   9    It will be too embarrassing if I fail.

Failure can be really embarrassing. I mean cringe-worthy stuff. At times you just want to jump into a hole and bury yourself over an embarrassing moment. From every failure though, I have learned great things about myself. For me, failure has become my greatest asset, because failure is feedback. I wouldn’t know as much as I do if it weren’t for all of my failures. So keep failing, keep learning and keep growing. iI only makes you more great.

I wish to leave you with one last thought. We have to be willing to live the lives we wish to live. We have to be willing to fail, to succeed, to learn, and to grow. We have to be willing to make tough decisions and to step out of our comfort zones.

Ask yourself – could I live my entire life never knowing what could have been? 

Take action and live!


The next generation of hope

The next generation of hope - by Becky Lim, year 10 MLC work experience student

As students come to the pointy end of school, where grades actually start to matter and afternoons are spent studying instead of watching Modern Family reruns, we find ourselves faced with a question. A question students struggle with, generation after generation. Where am I going? Not to get overly philosophical but we’ve just spent majority of our lives sitting in classrooms, listening to teachers, moving when the bells tell us to and being wherever our timetable tells us to be. Suddenly, people expect us to make choices that seem like they’re about to determine the rest of our lives. A choice that sees me sitting at a desk day in day out for about 60 years, before I retire and ultimately die. Considering that I have only just started to drive, I can’t legally drink alcohol or be called an adult, this is a daunting choice and seems unfairly important. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to change the world. I had no idea what shape or form this would present itself in but whether it be stopping climate change, fighting poverty, gender stereotypes, human rights or animal rights, I knew it had to change and I wasn’t going to sit around waiting for it to happen.

When my school’s work experience week was announced, I realised that I had to figure out what form, ‘changing the world,’ would take when it came to an actual job in the workplace. After multiple google searches of, ‘jobs that change the world,’ I decided that charities and not-for-profits were probably my best bet. I searched and called and searched and called but I was faced only with rejection each time. As the deadline loomed before me and as my friends found placements after a single call, I became less and less hopeful for the perfect placement. Eventually, I fell into the world of YGAP, and at last I had found my knight in shining armour.

As I combed through the YGAP website, I could have laughed at how perfect it seemed to be. I saw that it was a group of young and passionate people who were trying to change the world, one entrepreneur at a time. It seems important to note now that while my father is a doctor he is a business man at heart. From a young age, we watched Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank together, I read autobiographies of famous entrepreneurs and I was always, always reminded that the, ‘Lim way,’ was, “not I can’t but how can I?” As far as inspiring mottos go, I’m aware that it’s pretty lame, but it has driven me to find a way to do whatever I wanted to do, no matter how hard it seemed or how long it took. YGAP was young, passion-filled, entrepreneurial and, best of all, it was pioneering sustainable change.

As a student, I can confirm that the word sustainable is one of those big words that have been thrown around a lot recently, just like respect and leadership, without people really understanding the full extent of its meaning. To me, to be sustainable is to have a practice that you can continue or sustain, for years or for society to practice for thousands of years. Unfortunately, we are a fundamentally unsustainable society, the way we live our lives and the practices we have are not something we can continue for much longer. Cutting sleep in order to finish work every night isn’t sustainable, extreme dieting practices aren’t sustainable, our fashion industry isn’t sustainable and of course, the way we interact with the environment isn’t sustainable. More and more, we are seeing people moving towards sustainable practices in order to alleviate poverty, looking towards education and grass root organisations. Just like they say, give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime. Over my time with YGAP, I have realised that this is one of the most unique aspects of their model, empowering the potential within other maybe less privileged change makers and allowing them to create permanent solutions to local problems, all across the globe.

At the moment the world is coming to a breaking point as we realise that there is only so far we can fall before you stop seeing the way out. People under the age of 30 make up over 50% of the world’s population, we are an invaluable resource that society continues to discard. This is why we need companies like YGAP more than ever. They are showing that being young does not equate being clueless or naïve but means that they have no shortage of passion and hope and determination and a vision for a better world. A vision where every child wakes up and has breakfast, and they all go to school with a packed lunch in their bags. They come home and play outside with their friends because they’re happy and free and safe. A vision where there is no place you go where you can hear the cries of hungry children and the silent weeping of mothers who give up their and the hard work of fathers who do not get paid enough for a bed to sleep in when they come home. I may be young, people may say I don’t understand or that I am only a dreamer, but I know that this is a world in which I believe, a world that I will fight for. So, do not worry, it is not only Y-generation against poverty.