THE VOICES & VIEW FROM FEMTECH LEADERS

“My mother had two separate culture meltdowns.  Each of these impacted me profoundly.”  Can you please explain this statement you made during our interview

 I was born in London and spent my childhood there.  One day when I was 11 or 12 years old my mother became worried that we would grow up too “white” with no sense of culture.  She thought that if we did not see where she grew up we would not be able to relate to her when we became adults and the chance of friendship would be lost.  This was the first time.  The second time was 4 years later after I had been kicked out of boarding school.  She worried that we would not have the benefits of a British education so she got me back in time to do ‘O’ Levels.  If she had not taken me to live in Cameroon, Africa, I would not be building a FinTech company today.  Those years living there made a permanent impression and gave me a strong connection.  If I had not come back to England for the rest of my education, the “creative” spark that is part and parcel of the best of western education would have passed me by.  So I got the yearning, the education, the relationships, the culture and the creative spark.

Your goal was to be a ‘mad scientist’ as a young girl.  How did you come about being an entrepreneur?

Me and my microscope were inseparable!  But my life took an unexpected turn.  At 19 I became pregnant.  I gave birth to a son with severe life threatening disabilities.  He died when he was 7 months old.  I ended up distracted and never went onto college for my human biology degree.  I ended up working, got amazingly mentored and got into sales.  My love of tech tooK me to IBM, Digital Equipment, all the way through to alternative finance.  Its only when you look back that the rear view mirror’s image makes sense.  As a young woman I was derided and laughed at for being bold enough to change my mind frequently to find the next level of experience.  When you don’t have a degree, you have to climb your way consciously through each stage of what I call the “Organic MBA at the school of hands on experience”!

Viola (2)

 

You mentioned you struggled at math until you were eighteen, at which time a “professor with a fat, farty dog” changed everything for you.  How?

I don’t even remember his name!!!!!  But I swear he had St. Vitus Dance and ticked and stammered his way from one elegant concept to the next!  I was transfixed by him and his simplistic explanation of what had previously been gobbledy-gook.  Because he was wordy and explanatory, I was able to follow and understand in a way that is very native to me.  I think in 3D pictures, not abstract concepts.  I have to be able to visualize information and actually “feel” it.  Next thing I knew, I was scoring near perfect on trigonometry, calculus, and algebra.  However, I still cannot do simple arithmetics or my times tables!

You first business job was selling mainframe computers.  How did you come to excel at this?

I listened, faked my way and used all the right jargon in all the right places.  I asked a lot of questions and drew pictures of what was said to me at the end of every business day.  I also approached every sales situation by understanding what was wanted and only providing what would fit that need.  I would also drag a senior sales person and an engineer with me to meetings to fill in what I didn’t know.  I learnt that if you listen, everyone is telling you exactly what they want, even when they are saying very little.  The problems and complaints are the answers to the puzzle.

How did you come up with the concept for your current company?

By failing at so many other concepts!!!  Working with my business partner Marvin Cole taught me that if I have no clue what the hell is going on, listen to the closest person to you with a track record of accuracy.  Four years ago I had no clue what he meant about “crowdfunding” but I believed every word he had to say.  Next, I had to throw myself into the problem with a few fact finding missions to different parts of Africa, coupled with a copious amount of reading.  Once I grasped the possibilities and noticed that Africa is a debt driven society with a totally different way of looking at credit and risk, it became clear that the only missing piece was the delivery mechanism and the aggregation of the data.  FinTech is about bridging the gap between technology and Finance so that the disenfranchised, under-served and un-served can connect to the products and services they need to be included in the collective.  This is so important.  At first we thought we would go the path of Remittances and services the Diaspora, but the diaspora is not really part of this equation in the typical FinTech sense and they cannot be “scaled” the way Africa needs to scale.  Through much failing forward we arrived where are today:  A short term funding solution for African SMEs who want to grow but cannot do so with the current banking services available.  We make capital available in a way that protects Investor’s faith in the continent with transparency and great returns.

I’m personally fascinated by the African continent and its tech potential.  What is your long term view of this market?

It will leap frog the rest of the world and the reversal in brain drain will bring about a consistent era of African bred solutions, products, services, IP and technology that is exported to the Western world.  At the point, the game will change forever.  That genie once out will NEVER go back into the bottle.  The Colonial purse strings will wilt.  Africa might even ignore currency control in favour of digital currency and universal ledgers for transaction management.  The mobile platforms will become increasingly powerful.  All of this will be tech driven.  Trillions of dollars/euros will be traded at great speed around the continent and will not just be oil related.  New Asset classes will arise due to the growth of the service and manufacturing industries which are still in their infancy.  At the genesis of this will be Ovamba as the premier platform driving the private sector’s growth with a secondary market for funds and a retail option for African’s to grow wealth independently and individually.

I loved this quote you gave during our conversation: “You can’t be scared to move on; especially women.”  What did you mean by this?

As women, we look to stabilize situations, especially when it comes to family, children, relationships.  When I reviewed my self some years back I realized that it was holding me back.  We stay in jobs/roles sometimes wondering how to get ahead or concerned about the upheaval that it may cause.  Being able to embrace change and all the unexpected elements that it brings is a necessary tool when learning how to reinvent self.  If you are scared to move on, you could easily miss some of the best opportunities ever.  Or you may miss the chance to create an opportunity for yourself/others completely from scratch.  Anything is just around the corner.

You are a board member of  ActivSpaces Incubator Tech Hub.  Can you describe the purpose of this organization and why it is important to you?

Yes!  I love this organization and it is such an honour to be part of it.  Founded by Rebecca Enonchong about 2 or 3 years ago.  It supports Tech startups in Cameroon and now in Maryland to help mostly Africans gain access to resources (mentoring, equipment financing and office space) to develop tech solutions and ideas with the hopes that they will become successful monetized businesses.  It is important to me because the African schooling systems focuses heavily on theory and passing exams.  There is nowhere to experiment and do the important work of “getting it wrong safely”.  It is important to me because we can eclipse the time line to success by getting a sense of community around like minded individuals to help them succeed.  Africa REALLY needs innovation and the generation coming behind us (especially young girls) need to see this modeled so that they can aspire and emulate.

Who(m) do you believe has had the most influence with respect to your own career?  

That is such a hard question to answer because it is not anyone “one” person.  To be really candid I have been influenced by some of the errors in judgment of a few of my previous bosses.  Watching the fallout of their errors has greatly influenced me and how I wanted to build my career.  I have always admired Rebecca Enonchong, founder of AppsTech and ActiveSpaces.  She is a contemporary and a close friend.  We come from similar backgrounds and have built businesses from scratch in partnership with FANTASTIC male co-founder business partners. She strongly influenced my transition from “Diaspora minded-hopeful” to fully fledged “African Tech Business Expert”!  Working for Jack Abramoff many years ago taught me to be incredibly detail oriented whilst operating at a very fast pace. I also learnt how to be goal oriented, not solely process oriented, how to make decisions that were good enough for the mission with maybe “almost” enough information. From Jack I also learnt relationship dos and don’t’s!

Who do you consider to be strong women leaders in the FinTech space?

Well, there are quite a few!  Is it rude to say me included??? (!)  But seriously, I run into Claire Calmejane Head of tech and innovation at  Lloyds Bank all the time and I am also learning from her and her steady sense of purpose.  In answering this question, I also realize that I don’t get to network with many as much as I would like and I will rectify that immediately!  Also, the ones I admire, I have not had the pleasure to meet!  I meet women from the Tech space, and women for the Finance space but we are a rare breed to find in the wild!  I am truly impressed by Sukhinder Singh Cassidy.  She has been inside the circle and outside the circle and seems to really understand the inner workings of existing large global entities and smaller entities on both of the fin and the tech side.  Would love to meet her.  She is truly a power house.

What do you see as the 3 leading future trends for FinTech?    

Poor imitation from the traditional banks and finance houses – some may try to “fiddle” with Block Chain and digital currency. But I don’t think it will get very far.

There will be some successful partnerships between the traditional and the alternative finance sectors. Tech will bridge the gap to enable the partnership.

The market and the apps will parse down into even smaller and smaller pieces as disruption splinters the Finance world.

BONUS: Millennials will go into banks less and less, and seek convenient mobile alternatives, but banks are not going away anytime soon.

First published on :  http://www.femtechleaders.com/north-america/viola-llewellyn/