Let passion drive resilience


Welcome back to Leader Talk! In episode 40, we had the pleasure of speaking to Irene Ochem, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Africa Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF) a not-for-profit and pan-African women empowerment organisation that works to promote and support women’s enterprises and innovations across Africa.

Irene’s interest is focused on gender economic equity and social inclusion. She has over 25 years of experience spanning the geographies of Africa and Europe. Her work at the strategic leadership of AWIEF is focused on driving female entrepreneurship and promoting women-owned enterprises and innovations across the African continent.

In this chat we spoke about the challenges faced in entrepreneurship, how to start, and the importance of networking. 

Want to learn more? You can read or listen to our chat with Irene Ochem on YouTubeSpotifyListen Notes, or Player FM. It’s also available anywhere you listen to your favourite podcasts via Buzzsprout.

Authored by Irene Ochem, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Africa Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF).

The road to entrepreneurship is paved with adversity. The road to entrepreneurship for women? Even more so. Starting a business may be far from easy, but it is also not impossible.

In the course of my lifetime, I have encountered thousands of different start-ups created by men and women, across multiple continents and countries, and each and every one of them have faced almost daily obstacles since they started. The one thing that is consistent among all entrepreneurs has been the ability to bounce back from the inevitable hardships; to be resilient.

Challenges faced in entrepreneurship
Despite our world being more connected than ever, not all entrepreneurs experience the same hardships around the world. There is, of course, a difference in the state of the economies. Business owners in my birthplace of Africa, for example, would face certain barriers to conducting business that entrepreneurs in Europe, Australia or the US would not. There is less developed infrastructure along with differences in government incentives and the corporate sector, all of which hinge on business success in the region.

Entrepreneurs, in general, usually face challenges accessing four things: finance, market, skills and network. In developing countries such as those in Africa, these four factors are often aggravated. Africa has the youngest population in the world. The burgeoning youth has all the drive, hunger and ideas there, but lacks the support system and economic opportunities to empower them. 

The same occurs for women around the world. Through pre-existing systems and cultural aspects, women have even less access to those four factors. In many countries, even in the developed world, there are cultural and social barriers that women have to overcome. Women are still expected to multi-task as leaders of their businesses and leaders of their households. They have to worry about everything else on top of the workforce and without proper support systems (which many countries still lack), so many women struggle to become self-sustaining entrepreneurs. 

However, regardless of the kinds of hardships faced (and there will always be hardships wherever you set up a business), the one trait every successful entrepreneur embodies is the passion and drive to keep going.

I was raised by a widowed mother in Nigeria as the only daughter of the family. I saw my mother make countless sacrifices to feed and educate her children. My experiences with this taught me, at a young age, the value of women being economically empowered. When I started the Africa Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF), all I could think of was setting up a platform that would empower women, and bring African women together so that they could see these other women as role models and find that drive to keep going.  

That is what AWIEF works so hard to secure – a support system for women entrepreneurs to fulfil their potential and foster their economic inclusion and advancement. This is all to say that, yes, starting a business is far from easy – I have not seen anything more difficult than entrepreneurship, but I also have not seen anything more gratifying.

Start by moving stones
As the proverb goes, “if you wish to move mountains tomorrow, you must start by lifting stones today”. Most likely, if you’re a successful business owner, it’s because you started with a dream, a passion, or something you are good at. If you are simply starting a business just to start a business, you’re not going to get far.

To succeed in entrepreneurialism, you need to find something that makes you jump out of bed every morning without thinking, “ugh, I have to go to work again”. If you start with something you’re passionate about, the roadblocks that can and will come your way will look like exciting opportunities. The difference between an opportunity and an obstacle is your mindset. There’s an opportunity to every obstacle, you just have to have a passion in order to see it.

Network, network, network
Once you have found your driving force, look to your proximity. As a person with a business, it is imperative that you keep asking for help. This is where networking comes into play. As an entrepreneur, you are selling yourself first before selling your idea. Passion again comes into play here. People buy into who you are, so if you are not passionate about what you do, you will struggle to grow in the market. If you love what you do and spread that throughout a network, sooner or later someone will buy into that. 

Networking will not only provide you with business opportunities, but it will also give you learning opportunities. Learning from your peers and sharing experiences, challenges and ideas is a fundamental tool for entrepreneurialism. I say this because I’m in my own networks and the exchanges I get from them are so powerful. As an African woman who faces those barriers I previously touched on, I have the support systems and partnerships I need because of these networks.

These days, you don’t have to “fake it until you make it”. It’s okay to lean on networks and ask for help. There will be people who have been through it before and have overcome those same challenges you are facing. They are more than willing to share how they’ve made it, but if you don’t ask the question, you won’t know the answer. 

Entrepreneurship is driven by innovation. Innovation is driven by diversity of thought, so if you are not asking around and utilising your network, you are not feeding your innovation. It’s not enough for me to say it once; network, network, network.

Be open-minded
Our minds are like parachutes – they function only when they’re open. When you have an open mindset and are not only willing but actively seeking to learn new things, then you can really thrive as a business and entrepreneur. I have lived in many different regions of the world and have engaged with many different people and multinationals. If I did not have an open mind, I’d have missed out on many business and life lessons.

One thing AWIEF teaches is leadership skills because in business, your team is your greatest asset. Don’t take your team for granted. To be a successful entrepreneur you have to be a good leader and part of being a leader is not just teaching or training your team, but learning from your team as well. We don’t just learn from experts, we also learn from the people we hire. After all, you bring them into your team because they have skills you don’t have, right? 

We, as entrepreneurs like to think we can do it all, but we can’t. You start alone as a one-man show and you do everything – marketing, finance, and even cleaning. Eventually, as you grow, you need other people to help you. When you are a good leader with an open mind and an ear for listening, your team will share your passions and visions and work with you towards building resilience and adaptability to any challenges you face. You can never really build a business alone. 

With many of my clients, I emphasise being mindful of self-care. There needs to be a balance of work and self-care – this includes asking for help. When you look after this balance, you stay focused and motivated. You start to see obstacles as feedback, not failure and you have the mental strength to pick yourself back up. 

These are the kind of things we teach at AWIEF and all of our clients are stories of success. They go into the training not knowing where to start or how to finance their business but come out of it seeing their products on the shelf. They’ve all struggled and they will keep struggling, but they have grown resilience built off of their passions and they have made it to where they want to be. 

Even though entrepreneurship is undoubtedly difficult for many different reasons, I encourage you to be bold and go for it, because when you have found something you love in life, you’ll find it’s much more gratifying to be a job creator than a job seeker. I have never regretted entrepreneurship or wanted to do anything else. It’s difficult but it is not impossible – the more challenges you face, the more you may get knocked down, but the more resilient you become. 

That’s what being an entrepreneur is – creating risky but innovative solutions to complex problems. Nothing is more gratifying than when you see yourself solving problems, especially if those solutions are making an impact in your community. 

So, when you’ve found your passion, be bold, be brave, always seek to learn and remember to network, network, network.