Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s alone.
While the Kansas City entrepreneurial community continued to percolate in April, I spent two and a half weeks in the poorest country in Africa.
Malawi is known as “The Warm Heart of Africa,” and with an average annual income of $255 per person, tenacity is more than an entrepreneurial trait. It’s a survival skill.
I led a Rotary Foundation-funded team to install solar lighting in schools and train teachers in a program designed to empower children — especially girls — to stay in school. Girls have limited educational opportunities due to roadblocks such as gender inequality, early marriage, teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS.
Although their circumstances differ, the girls of Malawi share challenges with women entrepreneurs. Here are a few insights.
Multitasking: Unlike the technology-driven distractions that interrupt activity in developed economies, the multitasking I observed in the Mangochi villages is physical. Girls learn how to multitask from their mothers, walking barefoot several times a day from the village water pump with 70-pound buckets of potable water on their heads, babies on on their backs and another child or two by the hand.
I saw village girls supervising younger siblings while pounding maize, herding the goats and trying to get homework done. If tenacity and the ability to wear many hats are essential entrepreneurial traits, these girls have both in droves.
Tradition: According to a United Nations Development Program background paper on Malawi, only 47 percent of girls finish “standard 8” — the equivalent of the eighth grade. Family pressure to honor the tradition of early marriage and cultural acceptance of teen pregnancy limit opportunities.
The girl who intends to go to secondary school and then to college or university must have what women entrepreneurs also need — unrelenting focus, as well as encouragement.
Mentors and Role Models: Inc. Magazine recently reported that almost 48 percent of female founders cite a lack of available mentors or advisers as holding them back. They share this issue with girls in rural villages in Malawi.
I met dozens of girls who told me they aspired to become businesswomen, doctors, nurses or accountants. None of them knew women in these fields. Just like many women entrepreneurs who are pioneers in their industries, these girls don’t have mentors or role models. If and when they reach their goals, the girls who succeed will become role models for others.
Two and half weeks in-country doesn’t make me an expert, but this experience has given me a global perspective on the value of entrepreneurial traits in girls’ education and future success.
Currently, the girls of rural Malawi must apply these traits to meeting their basic subsistence needs and not to enhancing their personal growth and development. With tenacity and encouragement, it’s my hope that the girls of Malawi will be able to reach their aspirations and become the entrepreneurs and professionals of the future.
Elizabeth Usovicz is topline revenue strategist and principal of WhiteSpace Consulting, and General Manager of Transaction Commons. Her career includes leadership roles in corporate, start-up and consulting environments. Connect with Elizabeth at firstname.lastname@example.org or @eusovicz on Twitter.
In July of 2015, Startland News collaborated with WhiteSpace Consulting to conduct a whiteboard conversation with women entrepreneurs in the Kansas City region. Women entrepreneurs shared their perceptions about launching and leading companies, and identified topics for ongoing discussion. As a result of this conversation, Startland News and WhiteSpace Consulting have developed (S)heStarts, a blog series that explores the entrepreneurial experience that women and men share, as well as perspectives on how their experiences are unique.