In 2019, the proportion of women in senior management roles globally grew to 29%; the highest number ever recorded. In Africa, the number is slightly higher but still an indicator that there are fewer women in leadership positions in African companies especially tech companies.
Many people approach this issue of inequality by asking how we can get more African women interested and involved in tech but Tsakane Ngoepe thinks that’s not the only question people should be asking. She is the Chief of Staff at M-KOPA and on this episode of TechCabal Live, she spoke about her career journey and what it’s like being an African woman in a leadership role.
Career progression over the years
Ngoepe’s journey started at university where she was studying to be an actuary. She soon realised she didn’t like the course so she switched to a degree in finance. Finally studying a course she prefered, she realised that unlike her mates who were gunning for more traditional roles, Ngoepe felt she wanted to do something different.
She got interested in impact investment and fortunately, the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Cape Town was hiring for the role of a project manager. The requirements for this role were five years of working experience, a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) qualification and a Masters degree. Despite not meeting any of the requirements, in the spirit of ‘shoot your shot’ she applied anyways.
And it worked. Although the interviewers recognized she wasn’t qualified for the role, they offered her a different position in the company. After a while working as a consultant in the impact investment space, she realized she wanted to work within an investment fund.
To fulfil this desire, she moved to Nairobi in January 2017 to join AHL Venture Partners, an African venture capital firm focused on impact investment. While at AHL Venture Partners, she got a better picture of the challenges companies face and decided it was time to solve problems from within a company. The company she chose was M-KOPA, an asset financing platform that has raised over $185 million in funding.
“I have no idea what I’ll be doing within the next 5 -10 years. I’m not one of those people who have a career ladder but I’m pretty excited about what the future holds,” Ngoepe said.
What it’s like working in male-dominated spaces
The tech industry has been male-dominated for years and Ngoepe knows a thing or two about working in male-dominated spaces.
She reminisced about scenarios where when she walked into meetings, the general assumption was that she was the assistant who was just there to take notes because of her gender and age. While the general impression has improved over time, her biggest challenge is still being overlooked during the conversations.
“I’ve been in many meetings where people assume my male colleague is the main decision-maker. So they direct the conversation and main questions to my male colleague instead of me. It can be a little bit demoralizing,” she said.
“But my advice is don’t back down when other people underestimate you., it’s okay to say ‘I’ll take that question.’”
“Behind confidence is competence, you cannot expect people to respect you or your decisions if you don’t know your stuff.”
How to encourage more women in the workplace
“We tend to focus on let’s get more women into tech”, Ngoepe said. “But the issue here is that when you look at many companies at the junior layer, you’ll find that it’s pretty balanced, it’s when you rise up the leadership chain that you’ll notice the diversity starts to thin.”
“So as a company you’ll have to start asking what it is about the work environment that affects women from progressing to leadership positions.”
She goes on to say that having mentors and sponsors – people who have advocated for her – has helped her along the way.
How do you get a sponsor or mentor?
“Don’t be shy to ask [them] and it helps that you have a specific area of ask. It might take a few tries.” She said.
Ngoepe is also wary of the big focus on CEOs and founders in African tech. She believes we need to tell more stories about the other important roles in tech, to get more people interested in those roles, especially women.
Beyond getting more women into leadership positions, Tskane Ngoepe talked about how people can get funding, how to balance impact and commercial goals for a business, the best way to motivate staffs in an early-stage startup and many more in this episode of TechCabal Live.