Diversity divide

Women Battle Stereotypes Blocking Career Pathways In African VC

By  |  July 12, 2022

One of the key areas where women are disadvantaged in the venture capital (VC) workplace in Africa and elsewhere is job progression, and retention of female colleagues is notoriously low in this space.

That is according to Tokunboh Ishmael, co-founder and managing partner at Alitheia Capital, which is the second focus of a series of case studies and podcasts produced by Disrupt Africa, commissioned by Boost Africa Technical Assistance Facility and financed by the European Union under EDF Thematic Blending and Cotonou Investment Facility.

Female fund managers are very much in the minority worldwide. In the US, only nine per cent of decision-makers in the VC space are women. In Africa, no definitive numbers are yet available but female fund managers are hard to come by – a big mistake for the VC world, as data clearly demonstrates a direct link between gender diversity in teams and increased profitability. The Diversity dividend: Female fund managers in Africa series looks at firms that recognise this truth, and put diversity front and centre.

One such company is Alitheia Capital, which recently started deploying its USD 100 M Alitheia IDF gender smart fund – actively looking to back female-founded businesses and companies serving female consumers.

One of the key areas where women are disadvantaged in the VC workplace is job progression, and Ishmael says Alitheia consciously tries to create an enabling environment that is responsive to the changing nature of women’s commitments, in a bid to address the fact that retention of female colleagues is notoriously low in VC.

“We create an environment for women to progress, and if they need to take time out – for family reasons, or to have a baby – they’re able to scale back their hours but they’re still able to operate at the level that their skills and time and professionalism enables them to operate. So they don’t suffer from the fact they take that time out,” she said. 

“What that means is we have a high retention rate, particularly among women, which is not something that you see typically in the industry, because mostly if women need to take that time out, they actually have to step out.”

Tokunboh Ishmael (third from right) and other members of the team at Alitheia Capital

The result of poor retention rates and lower levels of progression to senior VC roles is a vicious cycle where investors overlook female founders and female-focused sectors. This means there are not enough female decision-makers able to pick up on neglected sectors and entrepreneurs.

“Why don’t we have enough? I think maybe in the younger generation it’s starting to turn around. But part of it is that we do take career breaks, and if you’re not in an environment that supports your career breaks then you can be the best at school, in finance, in technology, what have you, but if you come off that track you might not get back on it. We need to have more environments that are retaining women in those types of workplaces. That then impacts the pipeline of women that are able to go through to those senior roles,” Ishmael said.

Ishmael said she had experienced first-hand the disparities between how female and male candidates are treated in the professional world.  

“When we started on the fundraising trail for raising the fund, it became clear that the sort of questions myself and my colleagues were being asked as women were very different from the sort of questions our male counterparts were answering,” she said.

She advised young women entering or operating in the tech startup ecosystem to be more confident about being persistent.

“Never take “no” as the final answer. In fact, take “no” as the first answer to be discussed and changed into what the final answer needs to be. But when that first “no” comes, don’t dismiss it, listen to the feedback, and address accordingly. But never take “no” as the final answer. Just keep pushing the envelope and believe in yourselves to do and achieve what you have set your heart on.”

Feature Image Credits: Crunchbase News

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