Originally published on True Africa by yours truly -06.07.2016

Meet the African all-female team who just got $20,000 for black hair app, Tress

 

Tress is a hair inspiration app targeted at black women. It was created by Priscilla Hazel, Esther Olatunde and Cassandra Sarfo in Accra where they came together due to their shared love for dreaming, learning, building, travelling and innovating. 

This June Tress, which was founded at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST), was accepted to the Y-Combinator fellowship, a eight-week programme that comes with USD$20,000 worth of funding.

Find out about their experiences about working together and breaking international boundaries as African women in technology.

Introduce yourselves.

Hi, I’m Priscilla Hazel, I’m the CEO and business lead of Tress. Esther Olatunde is the CTO (Chief Technical Officer). She builds our code from scratch. And Cassandra Sarfo is the CPO (Chief Product Officer). She’s the intersection between tech and business, and she’s in charge of how Tress looks and feels.

What is Tress?

Priscilla:Tress is a social community mobile app for black women all over the world to find hairstyle inspiration and information about hair. It has information about styles – like the name of weave or products used, the location of the salon where it was done, and how much it cost to buy and fix.

How did the idea for Tress come up?

Cassandra:I saw a hairstyle online I really liked and I wanted to do the exact hairstyle, so I asked around to see if anyone knew the name of the weave, but no-one did. They all gave me different answers. I never got to know the name, and I thought of how often I’d had to ask strangers (girls) about their hair, without ever getting the true answer.

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I talked to Esther and Priscilla about it, and they related to the problem because they faced it often too. We decided to build something we could use to collate information on hair and hairstyles, and Tress was born.

What are some differences between working with men and working with women?

Priscilla:With women, you have to be sensitive because we are generally more intuitive and have a lot of emotions. You have to be aware of your actions but not in a bad way. For example if I come into the office and Cassie is extra quiet, I know that something is on her mind, and I need to figure out how to get it out of her. A guy may not pay attention to these things.

Something else I like is how passionate we are about every detail of Tress. Everyone participates in every decision made. Whether we’re talking about logos or content or users, everyone chips in to support. All hands are always on deck.

Cassandra:We ladies have our mood swings and personal issues – like cycles – and when you work with ladies, they understand that. They understand your biology and can empathise but a guy would sometimes think you’re trying to dodge certain tasks. They make it seem like you’re seeking attention or just being difficult.

Esther:I work well with either sex. As long as we get the work done, I’m fine. I don’t like a lot of external factors when I’m trying to work. I’m not interested in that. Like if you want to gossip and I’m working, I’ll ignore you. I’m not saying only women gossip though; guys do too. I’m just as ruthless with both. I love working with my team though. We understand each other. I don’t know if it’s because they’re females or because of their personalities.

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Are you friends outside of work?

Priscilla:Before we started working together, we were just acquaintances. Each of us had our own friends but since we became a team, we’ve become close. We’ve seen each other cry, we’ve seen each other annoyed, we’ve seen each other happy. We know about each others’ personal lives and we can go hang out and not talk about Tress.

Cassandra:Oh yes, we are. We don’t only work together, we talk about stuff which are not related to work.

Esther:Working on Tress has made us friends. We’re close because we’re humans outside our skills sets. We hang out often and it’s funny because Priscilla is a people person, I’m a loner, and Cassie has her moments on either side.

Would you say women bring personal issues to work?

Priscilla:It’s a yes and no. Yes, women bring personal issues to work, but men do too. We can’t phrase the question to say that only women do. That wouldn’t be fair.

Because of our responsibilities, women can’t control what people see. For example, if I’m pregnant and I need to get up and throw up, everybody can see that. It’s my personal business but I can’t hide it.

It’s the role society has placed on us.

Another example is with children. Women are charged with taking care of children and sometimes we may have no choice but to bring them to work. People will see that and say you always bring your kids to work. But it’s the role society has placed on us.

I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book. In it she said she never realised how far the car park was from the office until she was pregnant. And so, she made a rule that pregnant women should be able to park closest to the office. Can you imagine if a woman employee had gone to the board of directors to ask that pregnant women park closest to the door? They would say she’s a troublemaker and bringing up issues that don’t exist.

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Would you say that being an all-women team has made you progress faster?

Cassandra:It has, I won’t lie. When we attended social media week in Nigeria, everyone was so impressed that we were an all-women team – we are marketing, building tech, doing everything on our own. And people think it’s special. They see us as independent and smart. And so they push our story to inspire other women by showing them that it can be done, and to let more people know about us.

We don’t wait for anyone to tell us what to do.

I also feel that we being connected to Tress makes it easy for us to work super hard on it. I do my hair regularly, like every two to three weeks, and everytime I want to do my hair, I use Tress. After my hair is done, I want to upload a picture. So Tress is second nature to us. This makes us think fast and innovate. We don’t wait for anyone to tell us what to do, we are ahead of the game. We work hard, doing what we have to do to succeed. When we make decisions, we don’t think, ‘Oh we’re ladies so let’s do it this way’, we just make decisions that push us forward. We fight the same way as anyone else.

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Esther:I think the women in tech initiatives are helpful, but I don’t think the landscape is rigged in our favour. Women have been on the sidelines for so long, it’s time for us to come up. I like being in this era where smart women are becoming visible. Before it wasn’t that smart women didn’t exist, but you just couldn’t see them because of how the industry was set up.

I wanted to sell myself as a damn awesome developer.

Being an all-women team has helped us :). At first we didn’t see ourselves as that until a friend pointed it to us when we were about to write our first press release. He brought it to our attention that when pitching to the press, we should let them know we are an all-female team. I felt weird about it as first, I didn’t want to sell myself as a woman who happens to know how to code, I wanted to sell myself as a damn awesome developer. But I had to chill and realise that it’s media. Journalists always need an angle to tell a story. But I really don’t want people use my app because I’m a woman. I want you to use it because it’s a good app that provides value. So I struggle with the tag.

Do you guys fight? What’s your reconciliation process like?

Priscilla:We’ve never fought, really. But we’ve had arguments. We’ve never had to bring in someone else to solve our issues though. We just sit together and trash out the issue. Our guiding principle is that we always go with what’s best for Tress, the product. Whoever’s argument makes the most sense always wins.

Cassandra:We have arguments, not fights. Priscilla, our CEO, is very good at settling conflicts. She looks at things from a positive and mature angle. She puts herself in people’s shoes and tries to understand them. Now, when anything happens, I ask myself, ‘how would Priscilla deal with this?’

What resource does Tress need right now to make it grow?

Priscilla:We’re a startup so we need to scale. We need to hire more people to help us achieve that. If you were a genie, I’ll ask for money because Tress isn’t making money yet and we need to keep it afloat till we hit critical mass.

Cassandra:Definitely money because we need to hire marketers and developers for an iOS version. We also need to pay ourselves so we can stop thinking about money so much and focus on improving the app.

Esther:Yeah, at this point, we’ve grown Tress as much as we can without money. Now we need to scale. We have so many ideas but no money to execute them.

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What’s your favorite technology time waster?

Priscilla:YouTube; hairstyle tutorial videos especially for natural hair even though I have relaxed hair. *laughs*

Cassandra:YouTube videos; hairstyle videos too. I’m obsessed with learning tips to make my hair grow healthier.

Esther:Instagram; I stalk natural hair bloggers. I also love Snapchat. And Twitter. Ha ha, I’m just a social media person. Whenever I have to work, I uninstall them until I finish the project.

What self-limiting belief do you think African women have? And what advice do you have for them?

Priscilla:There is a lot of societal pressure on women. Women are expected to aspire to marriage. So girls go to school and chase non-ambitious jobs while waiting for a husband. They are comfortable standing behind the men in their lives and they just go for the easiest things e.g get a job, get married, follow the conventional path.

Women should set goals for themselves.

I believe that women should set goals for themselves, not just aspire to be sidekicks for the men in their lives. Marriage shouldn’t be the main focus or end goal of young ladies.

Cassandra:I can only speak about tech and software. When I was younger, I felt I couldn’t do things on my own, I had to get help from guys because I felt they learnt faster. I don’t know why I had this perception. In my final year in university, I built a project all on my own, I learnt four frameworks and it was good.

I don’t rely on anyone anymore.

I was really proud of myself. Now when I see people achieve things, I believe I can too. I don’t rely on anyone anymore. Relying on people suppresses your independence and growth. I think ladies need to break out of that rut. We need to try to try, and we will achieve.

Esther:I think the worst self-limiting belief women in Africa have is believing their place is to be someone’s wife. Some girls spend all their efforts trying to get married. That’s all they think about and work towards. Boys are trained to be go-getters, rule the world, go after what they want while the girls are trained to support the men.

Pick a goal and go for it.

I think that’s very limiting. Women in Africa can aspire to a lot much more. You can be something, do something. Pick a goal and go for it. It doesn’t mean you won’t still be someone’s wife, but if your life goal is to get married, we just can’t be friends.

Find out more at tressapp.co

This interview was originally published on True Africa.

Written by yours truly.

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