Interview with Karen Adie

Karen Adie is the Director of Merchant Services at TradeDepot. She started off her career at Goldman Sachs as a Technology Analyst and has worked in various capacities at several tech startups in Nigeria. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Nottingham and a Master’s degree in Management from Cranfield University, both in the UK. Her areas of expertise include project strategy and management, design thinking, digital and social media marketing.

Why is the development of digital finance crucial to the economy in Africa?
African economies are largely driven by SMEs and access to finance remains a major challenge for the large majority. These challenges have been exacerbated by COVID-19, with Africa’s informal retailers struggling to continue providing the crucial service their communities rely on daily. Thankfully, the pandemic has accelerated tech adoption and innovated tech solutions for some of the age-old challenges we’ve faced in Africa.

With COVID restrictions requiring touch-free interactions, we’ve started to see more mobile-enabled financial services. Access to flexible credit is one of the remaining barriers that prevents small retailers from running their businesses efficiently. The pandemic has necessitated lots more people seeking financial help and this has accelerated financial innovation to meet this demand. We expect to see lots more innovation in this space – which is ultimately good for the SMEs who are the driving force of our economy.

Read Also: New African gas producers and digitalisation

What role is technology playing in empowering women in roles you wouldn’t normally see them in?
While women still represent a tiny proportion of investor funding, Africa is creating a powerhouse of women in our tech startup ecosystem. We are seeing more women engineers as well as phenomenal women driving change with health technology innovations and agriculture. Technology is providing a much needed level playing field as no one can say you can’t code, design or manage because you are a woman. In the retail sector, the rise in digital platforms connecting traditionally analog services is creating a wide variety of opportunities in the sector. It is digitally enabling the millions of women who drive the informal retail sector to seamlessly access supplies, funding and in some cases keep in touch with their customers. The possibility of empowering many more millions of women to forge their own paths with technology is exciting. Our creativity knows no bounds and I live for the numerous ideas inside the brilliant minds of African women, yet to be discovered.

What can be done to increase the number of women in the African tech ecosystem?
Globally, men account for a huge share of the partners in the top 100 venture capital firms, and female-founded start-ups receive only a miniscule proportion of total investments by venture capitalists. And in Africa, only 9% of start-ups have female leaders, according to a 2016 study by Venture Capital for Africa. These disparities underscore the need for more women at all levels of start-ups.

Taking it a few steps back, we can continue encouraging more girls to consider STEM as a career option. My mother was far ahead of her time and spotted the global shift in the way technology was driving everything we do – and encouraged me to study computer science. We need more women, and men, encouraging girls to study science and technology, so that the solutions and products being made actually work for us. The way science and technology is taught also needs an overhaul and needs to be applied to a range of challenges, not just the age old text book ideas often pushed in formal education.

Africa’s tech ecosystem is an exciting mix of bold entrepreneurs and while still heavily male-dominated, there are a number of female founders that are flying the flag and inspiring a new generation of young women to follow their lead.

What is the most significant moment in your career and why?
It would be moving from the UK to Nigeria – from working with established large multinational companies to working with startups to build from the ground up.
The experience I gained early on was very useful in providing a structured foundation for me to think about, and practice finance and technology. However, the path that I’ve been able to chart here in the technology startup world has given me an unparalleled view into the realities of building great solutions for problems in Africa. There is a unique combination of challenges and opportunities that I have been presented with, which I would not have been exposed to if I hadn’t returned, and I’m definitely better for it.

What is the best way women can support each other in the start up space?
I have been blessed with a great mentor – my mother. She encouraged me to consider a career in tech at a time when there weren’t many women pursuing careers in STEM. I’ve seen the power of women working together, shattering barriers, and creating seats at tables they were not invited to be at. The African startup ecosystem has many examples of this. One phenomenal recent example is the combining force of Eloho Omame and Odun Eweniyi to create a fund specifically for women.

It is so important for younger women at the onset of their careers to find female mentors and sponsors who can offer advice and act as advocates for them. This then becomes a wonderful cycle that ensures that every woman gets the necessary support needed to excel in her career. Lastly, older and more established and successful female leaders should leave the door open for women coming up behind them; this is one of the ways we can encourage high female leadership rates and create diverse teams. With so few women in leadership spaces, it is understandable that some women protectively guard their hard-won positions at the top. But with a different approach, there can be enough seats for everyone at the table.

What are some of the things you’ve learned in your career journey that you wish you knew when you started out?
I have been incredibly lucky to work with some amazing minds in my career to date and I have learned something different from working with each of them. Each one of them took their own unique path to get where they are in their career and I think that is one of the things anyone starting out can be assured of. Having a great education opens doors, as does having strong connections in the field you are pursuing. But having a vision and the determination to boldly follow it through is equally important – the thousands of entrepreneurs I’ve met over the years are testament to this. The other thing is knowing when to self-promote. As women, we often feel like we can’t be vocal about our input, talent or contributions – instead leaving our work to speak for us. But I have seen so many fly in their careers not just due to their skills but because they were great at letting people know just how great they were! So I would say, yes speak up and also speak up for other women when they’re not in the room.

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