The Reflections of an African Founder

Sophy Mwale | 10th July 2020

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The Reflections of an African Founder

The Reflections of an African Founder

Sophy Mwale | 10th July 2020

Job Search

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2020 has been an interesting year. It started with me hoping to raise a seed round of at least 300k(USD) for my company, growing the team to at least 20, participating in & winning a couple of competitions, getting some media exposure. Basically the entire shebang of what constitutes a “successful start-up” here.

I run a talent sourcing and management platform (, built to connect SME’s to professional talent. Because of issues ranging from lack of processes and systems thereby a perceived lack of professionalism and stability, qualified talent tend to avoid SME jobs if they can, and if they can’t, they stay only as long as it takes for a more established company to come along. Our platform’s conception though was incidentally from the point of solving jobseeker pains in entering and navigating the job market (hence the initial name jobsikaz-a corruption of jobseekers)- but then we realized beyond the jobseeker challenges of having a clear understanding of their own professional paths, how well aligned their skills, interests and temperament were for these paths, and how well presented they were to interested audiences, there was need to expose them to the SME opportunities by allaying their fears associated with SME employment, at least as far as HR systems and professionalism are concerned. After all, SME’s only form nearly 90% of the business enterprises in Africa, and the employment opportunities they hold cannot be overlooked.

So with a clear vision of our mission(hasn’t changed despite the number of opposite advise, especially from potential investors), a passion to meet the overlooked needs of both SMEs and professionals struggling to navigate a competitive job market, a solid business plan(that I had to do for the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneur’s program, also for my main advisor at the time, Dr. Niels who, having previously headed the Copenhagen business school-executive, is a sucker for business sense and business plans), paying customers and a profitable business model-I don’t understand how I got sucked into the start-up theatre and posturing for VC and got sidetracked from the metrics that really counted when the stage lights were off -like acquiring paying customers and maintaining profitability. Well I remember being very ambitious, and we still are, and wanting growth so bad because everyone else in the job market space was growing so fast, but then running into a pandemic full speed with a bag full of vanity metrics is like getting lost in the Sahara with a bag full of gold and glitter and realizing all you’ll need to survive is water and a bit of bread. And you have nearly none.

Well, I guess sometimes all it takes is a pandemic to get perspective. And for me, the new perspective had driven me to these conclusions:


1. I shouldn’t have wasted all that time applying for competitions, accelerators, and the entire “start-up theater” funfair. Listening to and juggling all the “advice” and counter advice that was really thinly veiled commands from people who had only listened to 2% of what we do has been as helpful to the actual growth of the business as the last two letters in "queue".


2. I should have spent less time in founder groups with all the “herd thinking” and vanity accolades just driving my blood pressure up.


3. I should have spent less time learning VC speak. Like way less time, and probably just put that time into learning an actual language like French or maybe better Swahili to communicate with my Tanzanian brothers across the border (Like seriously, when I vacation in Tanzania I can’t hear half the words they speak. And get this; on Labour Day this year, we had to cancel an initiative of posting messages in local languages on Emploi’s social media pages because we couldn’t get someone to do the right Swahili translation).

The other day, a well-meaning person with enough mastery of VC speak tried to advise me. They felt me saying “COVID created an opportunity for a dynamic recovery of the job market” would be better than saying we are currently “tackling the excesses of Covid-19 Job meltdowns through career development and support”. And he was right. But I just realized I don’t have time to mold simple statements to speak to particular audiences anymore. I don’t want to live a life where I have to spend hours curating a sentence instead of doing actual work in areas that would have meaningful impact e.g. creating a product or process that makes it easier for a laid-off person to land a job or a message in the company blog to assure them they aren’t alone, someone will walk and guide them through this and into the next opportunity. I mean we live in a world that has normalized the role of PR in leadership, in campaigns, in companies' engagements with communities and nobody asks about the real work and intentions anymore. It’s probably good for the world and I have nothing against it. Personally though, I guess I have tried and accepted my failure in it and I am now ready to move on.


4. I should have pondered less. Lord God I needed to have pondered less because I think my grandfather couldn’t recognize me from the grave anymore. Having been so independent-minded my whole life, but coming into an ecosystem that is so homogenous- don’t buy the “rebel founder” and “square pegs in round holes” rallying chants from start-up events- where your likeability plays a huge role in success, I was forced to do what it takes to get people to like(at least accept) me. It’s called networking skills.


In Kenya, the industry is small; the accelerators are the investors, or they know all the investors; they run industry events; they also run the “start-up” association; they run the competitions or they know the people who run the competitions; sometimes they’re also the participants in the competitions. You are basically dealing with one guy, or several arms of one guy and by God, you need them to like you if you are to have a fighting chance. So I pondered. After losing one competition that everyone thought we’d bagged because someone didn’t like me, I had to ponder. Hard. I hated how it exhausted me though. I am naturally not a people person. I do not fit the profile of a charismatic founder by a mile. It’s awkward when I try to be all warm and chatty. Evening drinks and meet-ups stab my soul in several places at the same time- I’d rather spend my evenings going through our sales figures, trying to lay out a process execution manual, or reading- But I have to network, get my name out there for the next competition or accelerator, I have to fake smile and be all awkward. And because I think they can sense it, I end up achieving the exact opposite of what took me out in the first place. I show my lack of charisma, which in a thought culture intoxicated by the allure of charismatic foundership, I basically succeed in displaying myself as the least likely to succeed founder.


My world has been enlightened by twitter interactions of late. I have previously existed in a space where, apart from a couple of founders, the rest of us just keep to ourselves on personal opinions. We never have a position on anything, and surprisingly not just on social media, but in person too. So having purposefully connected with founders, VCs, and ecosystem players from outside the continent, I was pleasantly surprised by how unapologetic everyone is about their opinions and positions! At first, I kept saying to myself, “Are you sure they won’t victimize and jeopardize your next round over these sentiments?” But then the Black Lives Matter wave-exposed me to the dynamics of voice and I was blown away. I saw white people calling for equality, then I saw black people going against the grain, I saw founders challenge VCs, I saw VCs challenge founders back or even apologizing for sentiments and was like ”IT’S A FREE WORLD OUT HERE!!”


5. I should have spent more time with my sales team. After several months, I realized how I have failed them by denying them an opportunity to learn from me…I mean the most resounding compliment I have gotten as exit feedback from guys leaving the team, interns going back to school is I am a good teacher. But all this time I have only demanded numbers from the sales team.

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A card from a former intern.


6. I should have taken more steps back to just understand the ecosystem I was operating in and what I wanted from it. I mean just knowing the whole reward system for venture capital is something I learned this year, but then having chased it as my life depended on it last year, without knowing if I was, or they were an ideal for us is the height of insanity! But then, who can blame me? I set out with a vision to build a business, only to come by a thing called an ecosystem in which I would have to operate from, and in that thing, I had to be well-capitalized or I would die. So all I needed to do was to find out how the players were raising money and do the same. The VC industry was young, the local players largely mis- or uninformed, local research nonexistent, what were my chances of landing the right information to act on?


But now I take steps back. I have gotten over the terror of running out of the runway that would lead to business collapse as has been preached by VCs from the beginning of the pandemic. I am making right, purposeful, non- a hysterical day to day choices and steps and I am so at peace.

7. I should also have advised myself more:


The best advice I came by this year is “advice yourself as you would advise somebody else”. One thing anyone who knows me will tell you, I do give good and thoughtful advice. And it’s funny I just started doing this to myself.


So what I’m I saying? 2020 has been a big year as far as learning, understanding, and accepting that not everything that’s good for everyone should be good for me, and my company. And I’m OK being the only person in the room with this opinion.


I have had an eventful start-up life. I wanted success with every cell in my body. As someone who excelled her entire school life through sheer hard work, my notion for success has been pretty linear in life, and I believed it lied in a formula where the right inputs bore the desired outputs. But running a start-up has changed that, and I have come to accept start-up success in the sense of its current composition is not universal. A good number of times, people will invest or support you if they like you, and the triggers of getting liked are not the most obvious, I think. A good number of times we like or dislike people and we don’t know why, and it’s because something about them tickled or irritated some part of our brain. But then people who are either trying to make money or trying to be helpful will always churn out articles, training or workshops on “how to succeed as a founder”, “how to be charismatic” etc because they think they studied patterns. I have worked with hundreds of people, and one thing I learned while doing my MBA in business and leadership, which has been reinforced by these 100s of people is, people are as diverse as the sands of the sea. You can’t create a formula around people’s potential, you can only create bias. And there is a cost of bias for society. It could be a failure to meet a society’s full potential, larger inequality gaps, and even protests and riots like the #BlackLivesMatter movement triggered by a different event but whose main cultural environment really biased practiced over decades either consciously or unconsciously. An MIT technology review article recently observed that innovation in America could quadruple with more funding of more diverse founders and scenarios. It was a great article, by the way, you can read it here.


Have I found the next formula for growth? No. I know scaling at our current revenues would take years. Am still exploring options though, from partnerships to revenue share agreements. Hell, I know equity investment would still be a great way to go, but if the number of people still willing to bet on unique start-ups — i.e. woman-owned, illiterate to the language of investors, no MIT/Harvard/any recognizable prestigious place connections, single founder (I will write about the time I spent looking for a cofounder last year and how that went, and how many founders actually have to literally buy someone to be a cofounder)- is as low as it is, I am not feeling it. I am in the middle of a pandemic, people and will not be spending a lot of time dancing to frivolities or twisting myself out of shape to get liked. Maybe it’s the frustration and the exhaustion speaking. Maybe I’ll sit down and talk myself back into the game, and finally play it as it’s supposed to be played, but until then, I’d like to see where these new perspectives and resolve takes us by the end of the year.


Sophy Mwale

Founder and CEO


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