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Shinning the spotlight on one of our very own CEO – Elizabeth Rossiello for World Entrepreneurs’ Day, we asked her 5 questions about her entrepreneurial journey setting up AZA Finance, as both a woman and a mother of three.
Read all the way through to the end to find out what its means to not be WFIO 😉
1. What are the key driving forces on your journey to becoming an entrepreneur?
The key driving force is really causing a change in the industry. I worked for so long in finance above the equator in investment banking and then below the equator in development finance and I was just so frustrated with the way things worked – with who was in charge, who was making decisions, how they were serving their clients, and the benefits the clients were getting were so thin in comparison to all the overhead. So, when we started AZA Finance, the goal was to do it in a different way. To make money for sure, be profitable, be sustainable, but also to do it in a better way where people want to work with us, want to work for us and it’s a completely different experience.
2. What are the major obstacles you have faced on your entrepreneurial journey and how did you overcome them?
There have been so many obstacles in the last decade running AZA Finance. The first one was that I was a 30-year-old female; a working mom. Even when I started AZA Finance, there were literally zero other working moms that I knew who were doing the same – who were starting businesses, working in fintech, who were on the cutting-edge of fintech and cryptocurrency, especially in Kenya, East Africa.
When we began it was definitely an all-Kenyan boys club in the fintech sector. For me, it was powering through all these micro and macro aggressions, with questions like “why are you here?”, “who’s your husband?”, “who’s helping you?”, “who’s behind you?”, “you know you can’t possibly be alone” … and just did not let it faze me, not let it faze the team, and remembered the mission, which is to do things differently. I also kept thinking about my daughters and hoping that when they grow up, the work experience for them will be different, the way they are treated in the industry will be different, and also, for the women that I work with, that they can have a work environment that’s different.
It’s been really brutal at times, even at home with family and friends who didn’t understand. I think every entrepreneur faces times when you feel so driven but those around you don’t share that drive and they don’t understand why you take the pain of all the naysayers or all the people that exclude you from the club whether it’s based on gender; like for me or race, or other reasons.
And, I think you have to be a little crazy is what a lot of people say to push through, but I think you have to be very sane and be very focused on why you are doing something and push through all that prejudice, from sometimes even inside your own home to the rest of the world, if you want to make a change.
3. What are the important lessons being an entrepreneur taught you?
The lessons I have learned are pretty basic they are just to show up and keep going. You know that she who survives wins and, so many times along the way, it’s been tempting to give up. I’ve seen so many other people who started out with me just do that – give up, or take a shortcut, sell out quickly, and, for me, this was a big no! I told myself, I’m just going to wake up and I’m going to face whatever comes that day. If I have to fire someone who I really care about or if I have to turn down a cheque because I know that the long-term relationship with that person will not be beneficial to the company over a short-term need for cash.
You have to think constantly about focus and when everything is coming at you, how to prioritize. I think the lessons are really just get up and face whatever is there. You know you are blessed and privileged to be in the position to work for yourself; and I think to know and have the education that I have had, to be able to do this, I just take it as it comes. You could be doing a lot worse jobs along the way. Traveling across sub-Saharan Africa I have seen a lot of jobs that I don’t want to have- so I feel very blessed to be able to do this. I just try to think positively, face what I’m dealing with, and wake up the next day and try again.
4. Is there a quote or phrase that has always motivated you?
You know when you work in frontier markets, the volatility is wild. You know regulations can change overnight, currencies go all over the place, and in the crypto market, it’s in, it’s out, it’s bull, it’s bear. It’s been so hard to raise money as a female entrepreneur in Africa. It’s so hard to find funding for a young idea that is an infrastructure-based model. However, I read in a book, (and I can’t remember who wrote it), that they had this acronym WFIO which means “We’re Fudged, It’s Over” and your job as the CEO is to say “It’s not WFIO.”
With everyone running around chaotic-like saying WFIO! WFIO!, it’s over! its over! What are we going to do? Your job is to tell everyone with the calmest voice that you can, that “it’s not WFIO” and then figure out a way to make that true.
I watched the “We Work” tv show where he was kind of saying “it’s not WFIO” in a fantastical way and not having his head in reality, and that’s not what I mean. I mean your job is to stay positive and make decisions under fire that are going to lead the entire team to start the next day and the next phase. Your job is really to be able to make decisions despite the volatility, despite the chaos, and to stay calm. That requires taking a lot of responsibilities on your shoulders sometimes. I say a working mom is the best person to do that because we know what it’s like to take a ton of responsibility and to almost be like Shiva balancing so many things at once and making decisions under fire. That’s a privileged role in itself. And, sometimes, I’m thankful that I’m able to do that.
5. What advice can you give to other entrepreneurs?
I think it’s so important as an entrepreneur to find people who do support you. It could be very lonesome up there at the top making these decisions and I would often have a mentor, coach, or a peer at one stage that I then might outgrow. Maybe they were helpful in one market but they knew nothing about the next market, they were helpful at a very early stage but they didn’t know anything about fundraising at the next level. I think you need to find people at every stage of your journey, if you don’t, you’ll end up restricted with your growth with the same people and not think big enough, or maybe be discouraged because the people that you’re talking to are too far ahead of the journey for you. For me, one of the biggest tricks or the biggest learnings I’ve had is really not to be afraid to have different people along your journey help you through the next stage. Stay in contact with them, and build relationships. It’s important to have support for the stage that you are at. You know right now, AZA Finance is at a huge growth stage and the people that I’m seeking out and I’m talking to the most are very different from those that I was talking to 10 years ago. They might be outside the industry or they might be outside even the city that I live in but it’s important for me to find those people and bounce ideas off them because I think you can very easily feel alone. You can very easily get an echo chamber where you think all your decisions are great ideas or terrible ideas, and, it’s always helpful to have pretty relevant people to discuss that with.
About AZA Finance
AZA Finance is a global Payments and FX fintech. Founded in Nairobi, AZA Finance empowers companies to move money, exchange currencies, make payments and settle easily across all major African and G20 currencies (including digital currencies). AZA Finance was the first company in the world to trade digital currencies using mobile money and the first ever to make a market directly between digital currencies and African currencies. AZA Finance’s subsidiaries are licensed by the UK’s FCA and the Bank of Spain. For more information, visit www.azafinance.com.
AZA Finance has offices in the UK, Spain, USA, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, Ghana, Uganda & Nigeria