Owodunni: Resilience Key to Sustaining Women Tech Startups

The Co-founder and CEO of Emergency Response Africa, Folake Owodunni, speaks about the role of women tech startups and how the healthcare technology company is changing the way medical emergencies are managed in Africa. Agnes Ekebuike presents the excerpts:

What are the key ingredients of success that women tech startups need?

Resilience and community are critical for success. Resilience is what keeps us going regardless of setbacks, opposition, and roadblocks. It is the belief that what we are doing is worthwhile and that continuing to try will yield positive results, even if we cannot see it at the moment. The role of the community cannot be overemphasised. I frequently say that a new business is like having a child – you labor to bring it to life, then spend years nurturing it to grow, become healthy and independent. That nurturing process takes a village, as the popular saying goes, and it is no different for a business. From mentors, investors, partners, customers, employees, peer groups, and family, every stakeholder has a role to play in the success of a business and they can either help you succeed or contribute to failure. As women, we have the added complexity of balancing society’s expectations of us with the businesses’ requirements. It is not easy and that’s where like-minded peer groups – other women doing amazing things – can and should support and help each other. Resilience and community are very closely related – without community, it is difficult to be resilient for long.

What are the things that inspire you as an innovator?

I am inspired by the problem Emergency Response Africa is trying to solve and the people impacted by it. It is a bit strange to be inspired by people having emergencies and not getting help, but it is what keeps me going. I regularly get personal messages on LinkedIn or WhatsApp of people sharing their stories of loss, pain, or near misses, simply because emergency response wasn’t available. Every story is a reminder that we still have a lot of work to do and no matter how difficult it gets, as long as there are people who need and cannot get help, our job is not done. This keeps me going.

Are you planning to position the business for funding opportunities as you make an effort to expand?

The business is already well-positioned for funding opportunities! We are ready to engage with those who are aligned with our values and prepared to take this journey with us. We are committed to building for sustainability, scale, and impact while making a good profit. This means that we are very intentional about who we engage with and ultimately where we go for funding.

Are there specific challenges facing female innovators in Africa?

Female innovators face a host of challenges. Even though African women are exceptionally entrepreneurial, many women-owned businesses remain small and limited due to a lack of access to capital, business support, and personal support to scale. There are too many stories of women running a small business who, with just a little help in the form of a loan or a grant would create jobs and readily feed five times more people than before. Yet, in a society where young girls are discouraged early from pursuing careers in science or technology, and young women are advised to view career aspirations and successful family life as mutually exclusive, many women struggle to reach their potential. As with any major societal change, it cannot be only up to women to change the narrative. While opportunities like the Aurora Tech Award do a great job of pushing women innovators forward, the need for allies is clearer than ever. Fathers, spouses, partners, and employers need to prioritize encouraging the women in their lives to pursue their ambitions and present a balanced narrative that you can be a successful woman in all areas of life.

What are the low-hanging fruits female innovators should pay adequate attention to while building their startups to become unicorns?

I would encourage every female innovator to worry less about achieving unicorn status and focus on creating a startup that aligns with your vision and values. If your goal is to create a unicorn – amazing, resilient and the right community will get you there. If your goal is to have a huge impact, the recipe remains the same. The most important low-hanging fruit is to stay laser-focused on the problem you are solving and the people you’re solving for and create a great team and community of supporters to deliver your solution. Keep the faith, and stay resilient!

Do you see the Aurora Tech award changing the narrative or breaking down the barriers around support for women-led tech startups going forward?

Yes, certainly. What I appreciate about the organizers of the Aurora Tech Award is their intentional approach to shining a spotlight on the women innovators they shortlist and the final winners. By promoting the winners and finalists across multiple platforms and publications, they have opened several doors to potential partners and funders. More importantly, by providing a cash prize to the winners, the award de-risks the opportunity for others to come in. This is the right way to create new opportunities for female entrepreneurs – open the right doors and de-risk the opportunity for others. If we had more people and organisations in the entrepreneurship ecosystem doing this, we would see more women-led startups succeed.

Tell us more about ERA

ERA connects individuals experiencing a medical emergency to the largest network of first responders, ambulances, and hospitals through technology. Since inception, ERA has managed over 4,500 incidents, reducing response times by 40-80 per cent, and helping to save lives. ERA partners with innovative governments such as the Edo State government to enhance medical emergency responsiveness in the public sector.

With over 15 years of experience in healthcare, marketing communications, and management consulting across Nigeria, the United States, and Canada, I have received numerous awards and recognitions for my work including the Aurora Tech Award, Google Black Founders Fund, JICA’s Next Innovation with Japan Award, and The Professor Grace Alele-Williams Alumni Impact Award by Women in Successful Career (WISCAR). 

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