Originally published on True Africa on August 03, 2016.
‘There’s definitely no pampering’ – how women in tech drive each other to achieve more
Beavly is an online platform that connects people who want to learn skills with professionals who want to teach these skills. Run by Ijeoma Oguegbu and Barbara Okoto, it is one of two African startups accepted into the exclusive S Factory in Chile last year in November.
‘We promote informal learning to get graduates and unemployed adults out of the house and towards career success,’ Barbara explained. ‘We focus on courses like makeup, gele-tying, fashion, and designing.’
They received a grant of USD$15000 to build their business from the idea phase to working prototype. In May this year, they were accepted into Startup Chile, which is like a continuation of the S Factory, except now it’s for startups with a working prototype who are looking to achieve product-market fit. In this programme, they will receive $30000 to continue to build Beavly.
Find out more about the pair behind the startup now.
Hi, I’m Ijeoma Oguegbu, I’m the CEO of Beavly. I’m in charge of the back-end code and communicating Beavly’s mission. Barbara Okoto is the CMO (Chief Marketing Officer). She leads business and marketing strategy and helps with front-end coding.
How did the idea for Beavly come up?
Ijeoma: One day, I bought some snacks from a new pastries shop that opened close to my house. They were horrible, horrible pastries – hard and literally inedible. I sat there, wondering why the lady in this brand new shop didn’t have the skills or staff to make good pastries. If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right; the least she could have done is learn how to bake before opening a shop that sells pastries.
I then remembered that growing up, I had a friend that went for skills acquisition programmes every holiday: cooking classes, bead-making, event planning etc. It helped her because she started making beads and selling stuff on the side. I suddenly had this lightbulb moment, like why can’t I help connect people to such opportunities?
Right around that time, I got information about The S Factory, an entrepreneurship preaccelerator in Chile that gives grants of USD$15000 to female entrepreneurs with good ideas. I teamed up with my then-roommate, Barbara; we applied to S Factory, got the grant and started building Beavly.
What are some differences between working with men and working with women?
Ijeoma: Women pay more attention to details than guys. We also settle conflicts differently. We put our emotions into the conflict at hand while guys can easily say whatever and move on.
For me, as the CEO, I have to always pay attention to how my cofounder is feeling. Also working with women, you don’t have to worry about emasculating anyone. You can be as driven and successful as you wish. Women also tolerate more and we are patient.
Barbara: For me, when working with guys, they pamper me a lot. They want to take my work from me to help. They don’t let me finish a task. It gets to me sometimes because it doesn’t help me grow. Also, they tend to always leave sales to me. When going on sales calls, they want me to come along as bait.
Working with females, there’s definitely no pampering.
Working with females, there’s definitely no pampering. I find myself growing more because I do everything myself. There’s also this competitiveness between women. Everyone wants to prove that they are good at what they do which sometimes is just unnecessary. On the other side though, the competitiveness pushes me to exceed my limits.
Do you guys fight? What’s your reconciliation process like?
Ijeoma: We fight often *laughs*. It might not be a healthy relationship. You see the thing is that having a cofounder is like a marriage. It’s worse than marriage really because, in marriage, you know beforehand who you’re going in with. But with a cofounder, you don’t know everything about the person, you’re still learning when you go in.
Initially, we used to fight frequently but now, there are certain fights that we don’t bother to have, and when we do fight, we don’t react as much as we used to. Now it’s more like, ‘eh whatever’.
We even have a safe word for when the other person is annoying.
We used to have mediators and shrink sessions with our friends who are also startup cofounders. And they really helped. After a session with our colleagues where we were completely honest with each other, we put in certain rules – this is weird and crazy but it works! – We have a book where we write down words and phrases we call triggers. Words like, ‘I told you to do this’, ‘You never understand.’ When either of us says any of these words, we apologize immediately. We even have a safe word for when the other person is annoying – ‘Orangutan’. It came from our shrink session with our friends. It’s a mild way of saying that the conversation is no more pleasant and the other person doesn’t want to have it anymore.
Are you friends outside of work?
Barbara: Yes, we are. Before we started, we were just acquaintances. But now we are close. Because what happens in your personal life outside of work affects your work life. So when you work closely with someone, at a point you just have to start confiding in them.
Would you say that being an all-women team has made you progress faster?
Barbara: I have to admit that people recognize women more these days, especially in the tech industry. We have a lot more opportunities at this time. I think we are scaling and growing faster because people are eager to help us. For example, getting into the S Factory really pushed us forward. There are a lot of opportunities for women looking to get into the tech scene right now.
Ijeoma: Well, we did get into S Factory which was an accelerator for female-led startups. And the S Factory helped us progress. Before then, I would never have thought I’d be the CEO of a company, let alone travel to a new country to do it.
Nope, we work as hard as guys.
But other than that, I don’t think being a lady pushes your startup forward. It’s not like when you got to meet investors, they say, ‘Oh see, she’s a lady, let’s give her what she asks for.’ Nope, we work as hard as guys. We write the same code. We seek the same funding.
How does it feel being a woman in tech in Africa? Have you ever felt marginalized?
Ijeoma: Not really. The reaction I get most often is surprise. People are surprised that I’m a lady, they’re surprised that I’m so young, and they’re surprised I can code better than them. Usually, when the shock and surprise passes, they’re impressed.
When guys find out you’re female, they want to hit on you.
Barbara: Oh yes, as a woman, people take you less seriously. We don’t let our clients and customers know we’re women if it isn’t necessary because when guys find out you’re female, they want to hit on you.
What’s your favorite technology time-waster?
Ijeoma: Emails, WhatsApp. They’re important for my work, but they waste my time because I’m always checking them. YouTube. Oh lord, I don’t even open it when I want to work because it’s always like a rabbit hole. I go from one video to the next, from hair videos to music videos, I even watch Spanish videos, trying to learn the language. First, I’m checking something about Caitlyn Jenner, and before I know it, I’m watching everything about her family.
Barbara: I am the marketer so I’m always on social media. Sometimes I’m trying to craft posts and analyze our analytics, then I find myself on someone’s profile or scrolling down my newsfeed. Facebook is my biggest time thief but really, all social media distracts me.
What resource does Beavly need right now to make it grow?
Ijeoma: We need human resources the most right now. People who are passionate about what we’re doing. As a startup, when you start thinking of bringing someone in, it’s crazy because you want someone who cares about the product and can fit in with the team easily. There’s no high power distance in startups, we want someone who can be honest with us, transparent in their dealings, and fit in with the team.
What self-limiting belief do you think African women have? And what advice do you have for them?
Ijeoma: Something that pisses me off is girls (people, in general) who go to university just for the sake of going and graduating with a certificate. Like they don’t care about the course they’re studying. You see a girl in computer science, she can’t write or understand a line of code and she’s failing all the courses. It makes me mad.
Stop doing what you don’t want to do.
How can you not care? It’s like they get in just to get out. What’s up with that? I believe no-one should go through life going with the flow, we need to deliberately sit down and have a plan for our future. Honestly, this is the reason I started Beavly – to help people who have probably wasted their first chance in uni. I just want to scream at them and say: stop doing what you don’t want to do. Stop wasting your time.
Barbara: I think the fear of taking risks holds a lot of women back. I was like that too. When I was in school, I just wanted to get a job at the bank and make some money to take care of myself. And even then, I was scared I wouldn’t be able to get a job. When I applied to MEST, I didn’t think I’d get in, but look at me now, with my own company.
So my advice to women is: ignore your fears.
Fear of risks, fear of succeeding, fear of being honored, fear of making it – I felt all. I just wanted to stay at home and be safe. So my advice to women is: ignore your fears. Fear kills dreams. I was one of the most scared people I knew, but I’ve faced my fears.
What’s the greatest thing that has happened since you faced your fears?
Barbara: Fulfillment. The biggest accomplishment is that I’ve made my mum proud. When I came back from Chile, she came to visit me and we went to eat at the mall. She said to me, ‘Barbara, I’m really proud of you.’ She saw the change in me. I used to always be in the closet, afraid. She sees that I’ve grown so much.