In recent technology landscape, there has been a surge of innovative entrepreneurs in many parts of the world, but in terms of delivering gender parity, the industry has been disgracefully slow. However, even with the damning gaps and records, there are signs of women making headway in the sector.
These growing number of young women in a stiff male-dominated terrain are creating a path and ensuring that the future is bright for the next generation of amazons. Though the economy might be hard, the system unfavorable and the acceptability may be poor, yet in recent times we have seen and documented giant strides of female entrepreneurs, technology inclusive, in emerging economies like Africa.
In this interview with Amazons Watch Magazine, the Managing Director, Smart Kids Zone, Chinenye Udeh, tells us more about her journey and strategies in Techpreneurship. Excerpts:
1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the childhood memories that are inspiring your journey?
Graduating in 2009 with a degree in Medical Biochemistry from the University of Benin, Nigeria, I realized that pursuing a career as a medical practitioner wasn’t my dream. I had always dreamt of a career that will give me the opportunity to travel the world. A fulfilling job that will give me the opportunity to serve the underserved communities, support people going through healthcare challenges, and children in their education goals, but it seemed at that time I couldn’t figure out any field that offered my dreams in plain text. My father felt I would make a great doctor, because of my personality traits, such as endurance, compassion, and dedication. However, being a doctor wasn’t my calling. I went ahead with it believing it will serve as a vehicle to finding my passion. I graduated from the School of Basic Medical Science after 5 years, where I was also the first female vice president of the School of Basic Medical Science. I, however, did not have any passion to continue in life with that profession.
So, it all started for me after I was invited to an event in Enugu State, Nigeria where I witnessed an amazing level of innovation and creativity by Nigerian teenagers who were all students across Nigeria. The event was organized by the Student for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurship (SAGE) Nigeria. It is an annual event that gives teenage entrepreneurs across Nigeria the platform to showcase their innovative business ideas and community service projects. It was there I found my passion, and my professional trajectory took a different turn ever since.
I like to think of myself as an out of the box thinker. I have been told I am strong-willed, creative, and innovative. Following the event at Enugu, subsequent events and involvement with SAGE lead me into Techpreneurship and social entrepreneurship with 10 progressive years of work and experience at Global and National levels delivering hands-on youth entrepreneurship education, community service education and addressing the Suitability Development Goals in schools and communities across Nigeria through my work as a Program Manager. I have, ever since, been working with SAGE. With so much zeal and passion for youth development especially in Africa, I am in the forefront of changing the face of education through a program called Smart Kids Zone, the first action-based learning center in Africa conceptualized in building the body and mind of children by preparing them for the 21st century, through physical movement and skills such as technology, entrepreneurship/financial literacy.
I possess in-depth knowledge in human capacity and business development, global leadership with extensive management and collaboration with the government, cooperate and private organizations both locally and globally.
2. As a young female entrepreneur in an emerging economy like Nigeria, how has been the journey thus far?
Entrepreneurship offers so many opportunities for women around the world. With an emerging economy like Nigeria, it has huge market potentials and opportunities to strive like never before, most especially the small and medium enterprises (SME). I must say that the journey has never been easy, it’s been tough and challenging, but I found comfort in the progress we are making so far. The major challenges we are facing in the industry are the issues of inadequate infrastructure, electricity, poor access to market information, technology, and lack of finance. Poor linkages to support services are also an issue coupled with unfavorable policies and environment that is not quite business-enabling. These are the key structures that can enhance the growth and sustainability of businesses. Despite all these, we are making headways, albeit gradually.
3. The pandemic impacted negatively on women-owned businesses around the world and even here in Africa, as a businesswoman how were you able to navigate through this and what measures did you put in place to help your business overcome the post-pandemic downturn?
I would say, globally, many businesses were affected by the pandemic. And I think a lot of businesses weren’t ready for the change. In the last 15 years, we have seen the tremendous growth of digital platforms and their influence in our lives, with the economy of the world going digital, businesses and people have no choice but to adapt. I think this is what has helped a lot of business to weather what, otherwise, would possibly have been an annihilation of far too many businesses.
When the pandemic hit, we had no other choice than to embrace the new normal. The use of technology-enabled us to keep the business running by changing our structure and strategies to accommodate the new normal. Although restructuring wasn’t easy, especially trying to put in place the infrastructure needed to deliver services. The pandemic forced businesses to restructure and opened up new opportunities for businesses. With the utilization of technology, we were able to take the Smart Kids Zone coding program online thus placing our business on the global map. Exploring this new avenue, we made it possible for children around the world to take tech courses.
Another avenue we explored was the creation of an online hyperlocal marketplace “Valuex.online” that sought to make life easier for shoppers, who are also taking advantage of our top-notch delivery technology service in the delivery of satisfaction.
4. Being a woman in STEM with a focus on technology, what are your opinions about the lack of women in technology or STEM in Africa?
There has always been a huge and unacceptable gap in the tech industry. Women currently hold 19% of tech-related jobs at the top 10 global tech companies, relative to men who hold 81%.
Cultivating an interest in STEM fields must start as early as possible – and this is the major aspiration of Smart Kids Zone, to catch our girls young. Education is one in a multifaceted interplay of drivers that will bring more women into skilled jobs, especially in STEM fields. Other factors may include cultural background, lack of mentorship, etc.
What we really need in our society for our young girls, is a shift away from what I like to call a “princess mentality”. Such mentality of raising a girl-child as a “Princess”, we sometimes unintentionally direct their path in life away from things that really matter. Take for example if you go into a big mall you will notice what I call the “pink aisle”, dolls, princesses, fairy tale dreamy stories about being happily married, makeup, kitchen tools. What bell does it ring? Let me leave you to ponder on that thought. Then, what do we find at the boy’s aisle? You find tools, measuring tapes, Lego blocks, electronic toy cars and so on. That’s STEM right there. Boys are focused on STEM skills earlier in life than girls. These are part of the problems, I think. I have no problems with this girly stuff, but parents should also endeavor to engage their daughters in play-items that can spark their career interest and possibly shape their aspirations.
When it comes to education in Africa, we lack the resources; the infrastructure, and skills to deliver STEM. To close the gap, Smart Kids Zone created the Smart Girls Tech Team program dedicated to empowering girls with technology and entrepreneurial skills. I also see other organizations in Africa creating platforms to support girls. I, honestly, must commend their effort too. With the world-changing, there are lots of opportunities for Women and Girls especially in Africa, with the increase in internet penetration and accessibility, I believe that in no time there will be a huge emergence of women in the field of technology. That’s my hope and belief.
5. What are your words to young girls out there aspiring to be in the tech-business space? What do you wish you had known?
If I knew 10 years ago that tech would be the next big thing, I would have probably gotten myself into the tech world early enough. No regrets still, since no knowledge is a waste.
To all the aspiring young girls out there, I will say: follow your dreams. It takes hard work, commitment, consistency, dedication and focus to achieve anything in life, be it in business, relationship, or overall success. Keep Dreaming BIG and aiming HIGH and continue pursuing your dreams!