The Nigerian business environment is tough and, perhaps, tougher for the female gender. Onyinye Okonji, the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) at Sycamore, believes this much which is why she says building a startup is tougher for female founders.
Okonji, who is also a Co-founder at Sycamore, a fintech platform that connects lenders to borrowers, is a graduate of Psychology from Covenant University. She has close to a decade of experience, having worked with leading financial institutions.
She says that the experience of founding and growing Sycamore has turned out to be an immensely different ball game, sharing some important lessons she has learnt and still learning while experiencing the peculiarities of building a fast growing startup as a female founder.
“Since venturing into entrepreneurship, I have learnt that most people vibe with sheer grit and knowledge. And so, it is baseless to expect more respect or support just because you are a woman in business. I have found that competence and value are better grounds for respect, support and success, amongst other things,” she said.
Okonji added that she has also learned to confidently strike a balance between what she can prove with facts versus what she can only validate with gut feel, pointing out that this particular point was reinforced while birthing ‘Loan Friends’— a new feature on the Sycamore mobile app which helps people manage loans between friends.
“Historically, we had focused on the marketplace for business loans, but I have always had the belief that money is emotional and more so amongst family and friends, and maybe there was something there to probe. So, we conducted a little research and, of course, leaning on my team, we estimated an untapped and very viable lending marketplace for informal lending between friends and family. Perhaps, a little surprising is the fact that it’s actually larger than those going through formal organisations,” she noted.
She revealed that she was finding opportunities to give voice to the Women of Sycamore, explaining that this was based primarily on personal lessons and a project she did on the African Girl Child while concluding her MBA in IESEG.
According to her, it really came as no surprise that she enjoyed executing Sycamore’s #BreakTheBias campaign tagged, ‘The Conversation’, to commemorate the International Women’s Day (IWD) 2022.
She said she was elated to be in the unique position to create a culture that validates and promotes women’s voices, stressing that she also truly believed that building a startup was tougher for female founders. “I want to create an atmosphere that evens the playing field for women in my sphere of influence, and to help them rise a little easier,” she assured.
Okonji disclosed that she had also learnt the importance of addressing issues from a unified front, after the hard work of finding consensus which she considers as a tough lesson because “men are from Mars and women from Venus; things can always be sorted at home. But outside, we fight as one.”
“I am getting wisdom not to sweat the small stuff every day. Not all things are equally important to everyone (in this case, the founding team) every time. And proper timing can really be a strategic tool when managing people,” she noted.
She added that she had also learnt to speak in her most authentic voice, explaining that this confidence has reduced her initial performance behavior in meetings and groups in general. “Now, I am unapologetically myself, all day, every day,” she said, pointing out that what was interesting was that she found her most authentic voice was her strongest suit.
Okonji disclosed that she has learnt that building business was really about one step at a time, hands shaking and heart beating uncontrollably. She is absolutely proud to be thriving in an industry ordinarily dominated by men, and she looks forward to shattering biases, and breaking glass ceilings along the way.