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Gender. Fintech. Africa / The Gender Gaps In African Fintech

In 2013, I founded a company with two other women in Nairobi, Kenya.  All three of us were non-Kenyan and stood out among the all-male Kenyan fintech founders who had dominated the space.

When it came to traveling to the US to raise funds or speaking internationally, being American was an advantage, and so the challenges of being one of the lone females in the industry were mostly sidelined. The intersection between race and gender is complex and was hard for the tiny emerging sector of blockchain and fintech to digest.

A few years later, when I was asked to apply for the prestigious Endeavor Entrepreneur program, I stood before a nearly all-male panel of board members and experts to defend my application.

I mentioned being female as a challenge and was told it “was not a real problem.” I mentioned the fact that it was intimidating to enter a room of 55 Entrepreneur Candidates as the only female CEO (the only other woman present was a co-founder accompanied by her male counterpart.)

At the reception afterward, a young female assistant approached me to say how it inspired her to see a woman CEO. Her male colleague laughed at us, saying, “gender does not matter anymore.”

After a day of being told I was “so aggressive” by men on the judging panels, despite the fact that the male candidates acted in an equally or even more direct way, I detached from the conversation and left early.

Ultimately, I won a place as an Endeavor Entrepreneur that year, but I left the program as I never truly found it a welcoming space. This was considered a dramatic action – but being the only female in the room can be exhausting.  In finding success over nine years as a fintech CEO, I choose to save my energy for my team and my company’s growth.

Nine years on, there is an established conversation on the dearth of female leadership in the fintech industry. However, few people offer concrete solutions beyond saying, “it’s time for a change.” Fintech is consistently touted as an area of innovation that will transform lives and promote inclusiveness – but women-led fintech still lags in support and growth.  Bizarrely, I repeatedly have the same conversation where I bring up the weird and difficult ways women are treated in comparison to men and am told (often by men) that “this could not still be happening” and “those things don’t occur in 2022.”  Well, actually, yes, they do!

In fact, as I was writing this article, I received a call from another female African fintech founder. She had a long list of questions for me.  “How did you manage to ​get more female Board members who understood your challenges?”  “Did you need to hide your pregnancy too?” (Unfortunate answer: Yes!) “How did you make sure more women were hired when there was pressure to hire and grow quickly?” “How did you manage the investor who was harassing you?” These are just a few of the many concerns of female executives in this space that remain misunderstood by the wider community.

I founded AZA Finance (then Bitpesa) because I was fed up working as a woman in finance in terrible working conditions.  My female co-founders and I would meet weekly before starting the company to complain about all the things that kept happening to us in contrast to the experiences of our male friends in the space.  We started the company to create a new type of workplace that was truly supportive of hiring, growing, and promoting high-performing women alongside their male colleagues.  We knew it was up to women to build the solutions (and work cultures) that would support us and truly carry our best interests at heart.

Growing AZA Finance to its current global status was not easy. It has been difficult as a female founder to raise money and expand the business. Throughout my journey, I often pitched to rooms full of suit-clad men – some of whom even questioned my ability to lead the company as a mother to young children. I was asked constantly whether I had a husband, what he did, and if he supported my work.  I have repeatedly had stakeholders ask what my partner earned and the things his income covered, with the conversation then turning to how my compensation should be lower because he would “pay for these things for me.”

Compensation should be based on industry standards and performance, not whether a woman has a partner with an income or not.

My private life is still discussed in a work setting in a way that is not only wildly inappropriate but very different from the way the private lives of my male counterparts are discussed at this level. Despite all my campaigning and work to bring equality, there is still so much more distance to cover. The last few years have been banner years for AZA Finance. And as a result, we were able to launch the African Women’s Leadership Program with Naaw by Beautiful Soul. This program specifically supports women looking to start or further their careers in the fintech industry. We had an overwhelming response to our call for applications. The message was clear: thousands of women are ready to crush their goals, bring new ideas to the table and drive successful careers in this sector.

The leadership program is giving them the guidance they need to make their visions a reality. Now that I am in a place to mentor founders and CEOs of earlier stage fintech, I am asking the questions that should have been requested from the very beginning stages of all fintech companies: Are the managers at your company treating women differently than their male colleagues?  Are there overt or hidden biases apparent inside teams?  Do your companies’ leave policies reflect the expectations of modern women to be mothers, household managers, and employees?

Are highly qualified, ambitious women receiving interviews at your business? Are you making sure that there are people from different backgrounds conducting interviews? Do you have a robust mentorship program to help your employees grow? My daughters and the incredible women alongside me at AZA Finance are why I get out of bed in the morning ready to make a change. We have a lot of young women in the company who inspire me with their perseverance and grit every day.  We also have a lot of men who are supportive colleagues that are also relieved to work in a more positive, less toxic work environment. It is inspiring to see our male teammates actively vocal about wanting to be part of the change in the industry and supporting our somewhat radical actions to create a more equal workspace that can be women-led.  I feel so lucky to hear their stories and play a small role in supporting their career.

Through my work growing AZA Finance, I have seen incredible women grow with and within the company, from entry-level employees to senior-level management. This is a path open to every African woman – especially if other fintech starts taking the gender gap as seriously as we do.

We can’t go back and right the industry’s early wrongs, but we can work together to build a brighter, united, and women-led future.

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