ISIS NYONG’O, founder and CEO of Mums Village and a principal at strategic advisory firm Asphalt& Ink, speaks on her journey into entrepreneurship.
By KAGENI MUSE
Q. You’ve had an interesting career path in tech, often being in areas where you are breaking ground. You have even been named as Forbes Africa Top 20 Youngest Power Women and World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders. How has the journey been?
A. My professional journey has been truly incredible and I count myself quite fortunate to have found my passion for media and tech early on in life. I’m inspired by Africa’s potential and immense change that we’ve experienced here in Kenya and in other markets over my career. It’s not everywhere in the world where you can tangibly feel the impact of your work and that provides a source of strong motivation for result-oriented business leaders like myself.
Why leave flourishing formal employment to launch into entrepreneurship?
I had inkling several years earlier that I wanted to build my own enterprises from scratch. I was never the type of employee who had the energy for a side hustle, but I had so many unexplored business ideas. The turning point came when I took deliberate time off to reflect on what I was uniquely positioned to do and concluded that if I didn’t push myself out of my corporate comfort zone at that time, I may not for another decade.
That process led to me partnering with others to found strategic advisory firm Asphalt & Ink, a few years before MumsVillage, a digital media brand focused on women. The journey with both companies has been immensely fulfilling in different ways. As a principal with Asphalt & Ink, I serve clients who face unique challenges that have the potential to shape our country and continent’s future and value the versatility of our firm’s strong strategic thinking and domain expertise to help them get there. MumsVillage has impacted the lives of thousands of women seeking content and online communities tailored to their needs.
How has been your experience being an entrepreneur?
The entrepreneurial experience has been quite multifaceted for me and I’ve learned an incredible amount about what it takes to build ventures from ideation phase.
There’s a certain tenacity one needs to possess, as the initial years require significant energy and resources. Given the fast pace of change in our market and in media and tech specifically, there’s an abundance of enticing opportunities. It takes considerable discipline to efficiently evaluate opportunities and prioritise where you’ll focus your effort effectively.
What have been your greatest lessons about running a successful venture?
First, execution matters a lot more than the idea (with the caveat that you have to find ways to stay inspired) in the early years. Many founders say that it’s 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration and I couldn’t agree more. Second, to handle rejection magnanimously as founders hear ‘no’ a lot but sometimes that can mean ‘not now’, so keep relationships alive, as it can turn into ‘yes’ when you least expect it. Third, create dedicated time for reflection as the everyday operational needs will demand all your energy and leave you unable to process new information adequately to build for the long term. Fourth, create support structures for emotional endurance and remind yourself the journey itself has to be worth it.
Having worked with startups in Africa, where would you say the opportunities lie for those seeking to stand out?
The past decade has been primarily about ‘fixing the basics’ needed for Africa’s technology and other industries to flourish. Now that we have a critical mass of users online, there is enormous opportunity for entrepreneurs and investors who can collectively leverage technology to address the key problems faced by historically underserviced markets. These markets will likely on average be richer, younger and healthier than our societies are today and their demands will be far greater than we can even begin to predict.
What leadership tips have you found to work?
Soliciting for and listening to the views of everyone I work with has served me well in building better businesses and in what teams consistently tell me they value in my leadership style.
How do you empower the teams you work with?
Young people have the chance to write a completely different chapter for Africa than the one they were handed. I give my teams a high level of responsibility and focused guidance to strengthen their skills. I hope this will empower them to have strong problem solving skills and the confidence to pursue their lives’ passions.
Kageni Muse is the Sub Editor Management Magazine.