Serial entrepreneur Anie Akpe shares her journey, her motivations, and how she’s helping the Black community break barriers
Despite the strides the labor industry is making in diversity and inclusion, women continue to be drastically under-represented in the tech field. The case is even starker in Africa. According to UNDP Africa, women constitute only 30% of professionals in the tech industry in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Anie Akpe, a trailblazer in the mortgage and banking industry with over 20 years of experience, is breaking these barriers and at the same time, helping African women overcome the gender gap by building a holistic ecosystem of support. A serial entrepreneur, she is the founder of IBOM LLC and Innov8tiv Magazine, as well as the African Women In Technology (AWIT) event series.
For Akpe, who is Nigerian, pursuing a career in entrepreneurship and technology was far from the traditional path of becoming a doctor, lawyer, nurse, or banker. Akpe’s parents, who couldn’t fully understand what it would mean for Akpe to have a career in technology and startups, also nudged her toward a traditional career.
However, as her parents were both employed full-time while also pursuing their own business, Akpe was exposed to entrepreneurship early on. After she began her full-time job in the mortgage industry, she gained a reputation for being knowledgeable about small business. Many of those she networked with started reaching out to her with queries about starting up. Akpe was ready with the answers.
“[IBOM] actually grew out of people asking me questions in an area that was just not my specialty,” Akpe tells Jumpstart. “However, […] I always had to study [business] for my parents’ sake, to make sure that they knew all of their rules.”
Eventually, as more questions started coming her way, Akpe decided to formalize the venture and bring in more experienced people. She soon started IBOM LLC, a consultancy for budding entrepreneurs. For over ten years, IBOM has been providing consulting services for African- and diaspora-founded small and medium-sized businesses.
A few years later, Akpe noticed that African and diaspora founders could use a dedicated media platform, both to make up for the dearth of coverage on such founders, and to provide essential entrepreneurial know-how and information. Additionally, she needed more people to speak at events she was organizing for IBOM–a blog, she thought, could be a first step to building a bigger community. She ultimately started her digital media company, Innov8tiv, in 2013.
Today, though Innov8tiv covers a wide range of topics–technology news, resources, and innovation–the focus still remains the same: to highlight and give a leg up to any new companies built by Black, African, and diaspora founders.
Creating a holistic ecosystem of support
“[In] mortgages, you don’t want to lose your skills. If you lose your skills, it means that you’ll be forever behind and on top of that, you will not make any money,” says Akpe. With multiple ventures on the go, this was a risky period in Akpe’s life, and she knew she needed to up-skill to keep moving up in the industry. She planned to resign and move to another company, but before she could, her company offered her the opportunity to be a manager.
“I need people and technology,” she told them at the time. However, they only gave her the latter.
This meant that Akpe, who had just moved to New York City, was suddenly doing everything from project management, to setting up print technologies, to developing RFPs to facilitate the company’s transition to new systems. The chaos of this experience spurred Akpe to help other women who could be in similar situations.
Five years ago, Akpe started African Women In Technology (AWIT), through which she provides training and development for women throughout Africa in AI, robotics, entrepreneurship, and design thinking.
“Because I had to do all of those things, I said, ‘Okay, there’s going to be other women, I don’t want them to have to go through this or not know where to start,’” she says. “I know that there’ll be women who will do way more successful things than me, but the right resources and opportunities are what they need in order for them to get there.”
Most recently, AWIT has partnered with various organizations and held training sessions on budgeting, pitching, making presentations, and product knowledge, among others. The organization also held pitch competitions where the winners were awarded cash prizes.
The full scope of Akpe’s vision had finally taken shape. She had built an ecosystem that supported Africans and those in the diaspora in three major ways–resources for aspiring entrepreneurs, tech and innovation news on Black founders, and consulting services for those with existing companies.
The journey of building diversity
For many new startups that weren’t getting media coverage, Innov8tiv became a foundation for their growth, Akpe says. It won their loyalty and earned Innov8tiv a loyal following. Today, the blog has half a million readers (from none seven years ago), and it’s still growing.
Meanwhile, with AWIT, Akpe has been connecting, educating, and empowering scores of women– to take their careers or entrepreneurial journeys into their own capable hands. Since its inception, AWIT has held events in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and Mozambique, and has worked with over 2500 women.
“We’ve created entrepreneurship programs, we’ve created opportunities for the community to be involved, and we’ve built up a lot of women into seeing which way they want to go with their careers or entrepreneurship journey,” Akpe says.
Even though diversity and inclusion in the tech industry have come a long way, there is much left to go. Apart from women’s involvement in entrepreneurship, women in Africa are, on average, 34% less likely than men to have a smartphone (OECD). Sub-Saharan Africa also has the world’s second widest digital gender gap, at 37%.
In a world that is increasingly digitized, these numbers mean that women could be increasingly prevented from accessing life-enhancing services for education, health, and financial inclusion (World Bank).
According to a study by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), instead of creating a technology and then figuring out how to encourage women in developing countries to adopt it, developers need to ask what technologies women need to increase their economic opportunities. For this, women must be involved as technology innovators and developers during the critical design and development phases, to design something that women can’t afford not to use.
“Involving women in the technology development lifecycle can set off a positive chain reaction that enables women to use the technology to enhance their economic activity—by improving their productivity in current activities or allowing them to take advantage of other income-generating opportunities,” the report says.
The key to closing these gaps and getting more women and ethnic minorities working in technology, according to Akpe, is meeting people where they are.
“If the goal is to hire more people, they should do more hiring events that give them the opportunity to be more inclusive in the areas that they’re not inclusive in,” she explains. Similarly, recruiting at Black colleges or organizing an event like a Diversity and Inclusion Conference will draw people in, and may encourage them to apply for open positions.
Akpe’s personal approach to doing it all
Through most of this journey, Akpe also maintained her full-time finance job, which meant that things often got overwhelming. Nevertheless, what keeps her going is meditation and her passion for what she does.
Entrepreneurship is nothing short of a rollercoaster ride. As she shuffles between days when she is focused and excited and days when she’s demotivated, Akpe makes it a point to do at least one thing each day.
“You have to push past yourself. And if today’s meant to be a lazy day, let it be a lazy day. But set standards and goals for the next time that you’re able to pick up,” she explains.
Akpe emphasizes that it’s important to always remind yourself of where you’re going, what you want to accomplish, and to recognize that it’s okay for you to be lazy, or for things to not happen, or not to happen the way you envisioned them. The challenges will always exist.
“The only thing that keeps me going is, no matter how many noes I’m hearing, I just keep pushing until I can make it happen,” Akpe says, adding that nothing comes easy.
For instance, one of Akpe’s biggest challenges has been making sure that there is enough to pay the writers and to get the right funding and/or content writers.
“There are days where you question whether this is even worth it. But in the end, once I’ve completed [something] and I see my numbers going up, which helps to increase my advertising dollars, it helps, it all helps. And it all works out in the end,” she says. “You have to keep pivoting and moving in order to ensure your own success and not get caught up in the fact that something didn’t happen the way you anticipated.”
Akpe also believes in celebrating the smallest milestones in life. One of her proudest moments was the day Innov8tiv was contacted to be a media partner for an overseas event.
“I found that to be a big deal because we had just started,” she says. “Those moments still bring me joy whenever I can make those things happen.”
Akpe’s advice for women who are aspiring to enter the tech field is to first figure out their interests. She explains that most roles in traditional business also have an equivalent in the startup world–it’s just a matter of finding the right job description.
“Training with technology requires you to stay [up-to-date] with receiving training,” she says. “And there are lots of organizations and companies that have that. But it’s up to us to tap into it, and to gain some of those skill sets that we need for that opportunity that we’re trying to get.”