My joy as an IT Girl: Interview with Liz Ngonzi, Entrepreneur, educator and speaker

This week we are in New York with Liz Ngonzi, Entrepreneur in Residence at Cornell University and Founder of Amazing Taste, LLC.  Liz has a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems with a concentration in Telecommunications Systems from Syracuse University, holds a Masters degree from Cornell University and graduated from the United Nations International School. Among those who know her, Liz is known for her great sense of humor, easy smile and for being a stickler for details with a great work ethic. She also loves preparing and sampling cuisines, and is also known as one of the original ‘IT Girls”.

10 years ago, Liz left her Manhattan business consulting career with Arthur Andersen to fulfill her dream of entrepreneurship and making an impact.  In this Interview Elizabeth shared her passion for Africa, her dedication to women’s empowerment through education, entrepreneurship and technology.

SiliconAfrica (SA): Good Morning, Liz! In your keynote speech @iSchoolSU Orange Central in November 2012, you addressed the audience on a topic that is close to you heart “Women in Tech in Africa, The New Faces of Development”. Do you see more and more African women in tech in Africa or here in USA?

Elizabeth-NgonziLiz Ngonzi (Liz): While I currently see more women in tech in the US, I would like to see more in Africa and elsewhere, because I believe that in order for African women to have more choices about how they live their lives, they need to become more financially independent and I see careers in tech as potentially the most well-paying and most relevant given our world’s increasing dependence on new technology.

SA: Women represent a small number of technology startup founders and investors, but you are quite confident things will change. At SXSW 2012, last spring, you extensively talked about this during the panel you co-organized: “Africa, Tech & Women: The New Faces of Development”. Can you give us some incidents to illustrate our optimism?

Liz: My optimism about the potential increase in the number of women founding and investing in tech startups stems from three facts that I believe are enabling factors:

  1. Existing Formal Entrepreneurial Activity by African Women: African women represent a relatively high percentage of formal businesses continent-wide: 49% in Ghana, 46% in Botswana, 36% in Kenya and 19% in Egypt, alone.
  2. Increased Access to Information and Opportunities for African Women’s Voices to Be Heard: Africa has become the second largest mobile market behind Asia, and the number of applications developed even on basic feature phones has significantly increased the way in which Africans solve business, health, education and other pertinent challenges.  Some of these applications are being developed by women who participate programs born out of the 45+ collaborative tech spaces / incubators on the continent.  Examples include Kenya’s AkiraChix, Women in Technology Uganda (WitU), Zambia’s Bongo Hive, The Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC), in Nigeria, and the FemTanz Program, in Tanzania

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Liz with Barbara Birungi, founder of Women in Technology Uganda (WitU) and Executive Director of the Hive Colab in Kampala, Uganda.

3. Increased Availability of Credit: There increasingly more micro-credit programs and social enterprise funders across the continent, which are enabling people to start and grow their businesses. A very promising example I recently saw in the Kibera area of Kenya, is a business (New Kadola SH Group) which started a cooperative bakery receiving an initial infusion of 200,000ksh by Allavida Kenya (an organization that funds social enterprises in Africa) and that has since grown into one that rents out four retail spaces and 11 sleeping rooms and most recently became one of Kenya telecommunications operator, Safaricom’s 40,000 M-Pesa mobile money agents.  By becoming an M-Pesa agent, the business is able to e-float money for its customers from which it takes commissions.  Additionally, through mobile money, the business is able to pay for and receive cashless payments.  With this additional service, the business moves from a traditional business to one which leverages tech to better service and grow its customer base.

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Liz (seated at left) visiting the New Kadola SH Group Bakery / M-Pesa Agent. Source: Liz Ngonzi

The three aforementioned enabling factors, along with the increasing emphasis on the education of the girl child, the high level of unemployment and increasing dependence on mobile technology will, in my professional opinion, naturally lead to an increase in the number of new startups, in general and by women, in particular.

SA: What could be done to support women in entrepreneurship, or to involve more women in the Tech scene in Africa?

Liz: Governments, private sector and educational institutions have to come together to develop more formalized structures that support and promote entrepreneurial activity. Without such structures, young people across the continent who account for astronomical percentages of the unemployed end up languishing and in some cases become involved in crime as a means of survival. Additionally, these entities need to recognize the great potential the continent has to really innovate in the tech space, particularly given the high mobile penetration rates continent-wide that present opportunities to develop new services. Finally, in order to involve more women in the tech scene in Africa, the women currently in the space need to be profiled and celebrated more, along with agreeing to serve as role models for those following them. This last bit is critical in that many girls with whom I’ve spoken have shied away from pursuing education or careers in tech because they are not able to see where they fit in, believe that these are “men’s careers” and instead pursue lower paying careers that have traditionally been relegated to women, as a means to “fit-in.”

SA: You were 4 years old when you left Uganda. You grew up in New York and studied at the United Nations International School mixing with hundreds of nationalities. You got a B.S. degree in information systems in Syracuse University, and later graduated from Cornell University in New York with a Master of Management in Hospitality. How does this diverse and international upbringing affects your worldview and actions?

Liz: I’m very grateful for the unique worldview I’ve developed as a result of the opportunities provided to me by my mother…a very talented and visionary Ugandan woman who deliberately exposed me to various cultures so that I would be able to make my own unique mark on society.  As a result I believe that my role as a consultant is that of a bridge-figure and connector who is able to identify opportunities for collaboration between seemingly disparate entities and individuals across the world.  As an educator / speaker for the last 10 years, I’ve worked to share knowledge I’ve gained from interacting with people from and traveling around the world.  Fortunately for me, a lot of what I do is facilitated by technology, either through distance learning courses, online forums and platforms where I exchange ideas with others around the world.

SA: You define yourself as the “IT Girl”. What does it mean? Do you face some discrimination as woman in IT? What are your joys and challenges as “IT Girl”?

Liz: Fortunately I joined the tech industry 20 years ago when there were still few people qualified to work in the field and therefore the discrimination I experienced was minimal. Additionally, the degree I received from Syracuse – Bachelor of Science in Information Systems with a concentration in Telecommunications Systems, along with my interest in marketing / sales enabled me to serve as a critical intermediary between business people and technology professionals in three of the companies in which I worked in the first 10 years of my career. As one of the original iT Girls (coined by my alma mater Syracuse University iSchool), I proudly support and encourage other women to pursue education and careers in the field or to seek ways to leverage technology to make themselves more marketable by finding innovative ways to do add value to their employers’ customers. Additionally, the term is a double entendre emphasizing that women in our field are in-demand, cool and trailblazing – in a manner similar to the way the “it girls” are perceived in high school. My joy as an iT Girl is seeing more women become economically advantaged by pursuing careers that are lucrative, while at the same time contributing to the innovations that will advance our society.

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Liz getting ready to welcome the nearly 100 high school junior and senior girls who participated in the iSchool’s 2nd Annual It Girls Overnight Retreat in November 2012. Source: Liz Ngonzi

SA: In July 1980, when you were 10 years old, your mom who was one of the very first African female diplomats, and also a gender equality activist, brought you to the second World Conference on The United Nations Decade for Women in Copenhagen, Denmark. You’ve mentioned that attending that conference has had an impact on your life and career choice, can you tell us more?

Liz: Meeting so many powerful women at the conference and those with whom I’ve interacted throughout my life has empowered me to live a life in which I do not let perceived limitations curtail the opportunities I create or pursue to make an impact. While I spent the first 10 years of my career in Corporate America, I’ve spent the last 10 as an entrepreneur and educator mostly working to help nonprofit organizations to think more like entrepreneurs and business people as a means to raise money and better engage their supporters. Many of the organizations to which I’ve consulted focus on empowering people through education, health and career development. Some of them do so for women, such as the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), the National Eating Disorders Association, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and The Office of the Special Advisor the United Nations Secretary-General (now UN Women). Increasingly I’ve been working with entrepreneurs in Africa, particularly women, to help them find ways to begin and grow social enterprises that will enable them to become financially independent while at the same time creating jobs for others and making an impact. I believe that by increasing the amount of entrepreneurial activity on the continent, I am able to contribute further to its development and independence.

I should also note that the majority of my team members have been women, not because I discriminate against men; however women are seemingly the ones most attracted to my vision. As a team leader I mentor them and place a real emphasis on enabling them to leave with valuable skills, networks and confidence to help them make their own impact on the world. Additionally, I’ve mentored hundreds of people throughout my career, both male and female, focusing on enabling them to feel confident in being the best they can be and to affect real change.

SA: Your company “Amazing Taste” connects nonprofits with corporations and philanthropists to further social causes through fundraising and educational events, trainings. You also offer your clients solutions to leverage socials media and traditional marketing to reach their fundraising goals. Can you tell us more about how social media are an important tool for nonprofits organizations?

Liz: Until 2008, the focus of our services was on traditional event-based fundraising, supported by email campaigns, website marketing and online auctions. In response to the financial meltdown in 2009 which drastically affected our clients’ bottom lines, we had to change strategy and find more innovative and cost-effective ways to help them raise money and enhance their brand presence. We found that by looking to social media and increasingly to mobile, we were able to gain traction lost through better engagement of individuals– the largest donor group in the space. What social media does for nonprofits is that it enables them to reach existing and develop new markets for a fraction of the cost of doing so through traditional means. However, I should note that social media and other online channels do not substitute the face-to-face interaction necessary for larger gifts, and should be incorporated as part of a larger communication / fundraising program.

In Africa where many nonprofits which were formerly supported by European Union governments, that have pulled a lot of the funding, they now face the challenge of differentiating themselves from the many organizations based in other countries, raising funds for their own work on the continent.  This can be quite daunting and requires the leveraging of social media, online giving platforms, email and mobile money solutions to build brands, reach new markets and begin to raise money both on and outside the continent.  In the following presentation – Going Digital: Creating an Internet-Based Nonprofit — that I recently delivered during the 19th Eastern Africa Resource Mobilization Workshop hosted by the Kenya Association of Fundraising Professionals in Mombasa, Kenya, I provide examples of how effective ways to take advantage of online and mobile platforms to engage supporters.

SA: You teach a course at the New York University’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy & Fundraising entitled “Always On / Always There: Leveraging Mobile Applications and Engaging Supporters Distance Learning Course”. What is this course about? How some organizations are already using mobile application to reach out to their supporters?

Liz: My distance learning course teaches organizations how to leverage the power of mobile phones to improve service delivery, fundraising and volunteer management.  The examples I enjoy sharing the most are those that come from Africa, where I’ve seen some of the most innovative solutions developed on basic feature phones.  One such example is one I recently saw in Kenya (and am incorporating into the course when it resumes next July), is the Textfor Life application developed by the BloodLink Foundation, an organization that manages blood collection throughout the country.  Text for Life enables the organization to better manage the blood donor relationship through SMS messages.  By collecting pertinent data (including mobile phone number) about the donor at the time of the first donation and inputting it into a database, BloodLink is able to increase the percentage donor follow-up at a rate of as much as much at 100% in some areas, where previously it had been able only do so at a rate of about 2-4%.  Through the establishment of the connection and the management of information, BloodLink is able to send out emergency requests for blood donations to a targeted group of donors be it by geography, blood type, etc.  Additionally, through the SMS system, BloodLink is able to remind its donors to donate on a periodic basis, thereby increasing the country’s blood supply.

Text For Life Create SMS Screen Shot

SMS Campaign Initiation page Screenshot from Text for Life System. Source: BloodLink Foundation

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Sample SMS Message from Text for Life System. Source: BloodLink Foundation

SA: We have many people reading this interview who work for companies and organizations which might need your company services. Why should they buy your services instead of going to the competition? What differentiates you?

Liz:

• Focus on development of ideas and methodologies from various geographies, industries and life experiences to identify and solve our clients’ challenges.
• Track-record of successfully working with leaders in the industry both in the US and Africa.
• Commitment to helping tell the organizations’ stories from a fresh perspective and in a manner that dignifies the recipient.
• Cultivation of donors and strategic partners focused on investing in organizations that are truly looking to make a sustainable impact.

SA: Role models are important in our lives. Could you name 5 to 10 African companies, institutions or entrepreneurs that you do admire?

Liz:

I admire the following companies / institutions for the innovative ways in which they approach their markets and the manner in which they are revolutionizing their respective industries:

  1. African Leadership Academy
  2. African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF)
  3. Ashesi University College
  4. Equity Bank
  5. Safaricom

The following entrepreneurs are inspiring based on the impact they have made on the continent and its people and the ways in which they have been able to successfully re-invest themselves over several decades:

  1. Khanyi Dhlomo – Managing Director, Ndalo Media / Non-Executive Director, The Foschini Group Ltd. / Young Global Leader, World Economic Forum
  2. Mo Ibrahim – Founder, Celtel / Founder, Mo Ibrahim Foundation / Creator, Ibrahim Index / Initiator, Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership
  3. Ayisi Makatiyani – Co-founder, Africa Online / Managing Partner and CEO of Fanisi Capital Ltd. / Young Global Leader, World Economic Forum
  4. Tereza Mbire – Serial Entrepreneur / Founder, Uganda Women Association Limited (UWEAL) Founder / Co-Founder, Uganda Women Financial Trust / Author, Shaping a Destiny: An African Woman’s Story of Challenges, Perseverance and Triumph
  5. Sir Gordon B. K. Wavamunno – Chairman, Spear Group of Companies / Author, Gordon B.K. Wavamunno: The Story of An African Entrepreneur

SA: Lot of young people are excited about the opportunities to start their own company. There is a huge trend in that direction everywhere in Africa (there are some dangers too: http://www.siliconafrica.com/lessons/the-danger-of-silicon-valley-driven-startup-mania-in-africa/ ), What advice will you give to those young people who want to start their company today?

Liz: I believe that we need more young people to start businesses as a way to increase innovation on the continent and to create jobs. While I encourage young people to do so, I also recommend that they start while they have a means of steady income (through jobs and/or funds raised from their network) to support them at least at the beginning. Ideally they should pursue the many online and local business contests that can provide them with access to capital, exposure to build their brands and feedback to improve their offerings.

I recently wrote a piece for Apps4Africa’s blog entitled: Liz Ngonzi’s Advice on Improving Your Pitch, in which I provide advice to entrepreneurs looking to pitch their ideas to investors. I believe it would be quite beneficial to your readers, as well.

Most importantly, entrepreneurs need to be able to weather the inevitable storms that present themselves over the course of the journey. Those without the wherewithal to withstand ups and downs should likely pursue other dreams.

SA: How can our readers connect with you?

Liz: Your readers can connect with me through any of the following means:

Email: Liz@LizNgonzi.com
Twitter: @LizNgonzi
Presentations: Slideshare.net/ElizabethNgonzi
Courses: Epsilen.com/EN33
Website: LizNgonzi.com
Pinterest: Pinterest.com/LizNgonzi/

Thanks Liz.

Mawuna Remarque KOUTONIN

About Mawuna Remarque KOUTONIN

Mawuna Koutonin is a world peace activist who relentlessly works to empower people to express their full potential and pursue their dreams, regardless of their background. He is the Editior of SiliconAfrica.com, Founder of Goodbuzz.net, and Social activist for Africa Renaissance. Koutonin’s ultimate dream is to open a world-class human potential development school in Africa in 2017. If you are interested in learning more about this venture or Koutonin’s other projects, you can reach him directly by emailing at linkcrafter@gmail.com

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