As I ventured into the world of social entrepreneurship, I anticipated a few roadblocks along the way due to my gender. In 2015, I founded Kilimanjaro Green Energy, a social enterprise which brought solar lighting systems to the masses with a focus on consumers using our products as an asset to engage in income generating activities. Being an Indian Kenyan starting a venture in Kenya was like hitting the jackpot of male domination. This is expected in an environment where business has always been dominated by men and in both African and Indian culture, men are still in charge. But even women in the West are also still facing problems when trying to break the proverbial glass ceiling. In a ‘modern society’ where gender equality is supposedly the norm, only 7% of FTSE100 companies have women as CEOs. What could I possibly expect in Kenya?
When I began my social enterprise, I had a slightly naïve outlook: I thought that in the 21st century, business would be based on some sort of meritocracy. However, in Kenya, nepotism rules. I began the humbling task of reaching out to business people I knew for useful connections and general advice. The responses that yielded positive results came predominantly from the women I approached. The few men who did help me, sat me down to say that because I am a woman people will drag their feet about assisting me and I should just power on through without giving up. Men are aware of the gender bias but most do not act to change it.
Having come to terms with the fact that spontaneous introductions would be difficult for me to get, I expected that once I did manage to get some face time with an organization, the decision then, at least, would be made on content, not gender. I was wrong. “Why don’t you come work for our organization for a few years so that you can get your work experience out of the way before you get married and settle down. Don’t worry yourself with a business”. This is something the regional manager of micro-finance institute said to me during a meeting to discuss a potential collaboration. It is only one of a series of eerily similar comments that have been made to me by men I meet in the professional working environment. These interactions indicate that men believe women should be ambitious enough to work but also know that it is only a pit stop on the way to marriage and being a homemaker. This assumption is unfounded because through my own life experiences, I have found that my greatest joys have come from running my own social venture. Women are beginning to get married later in life to allow time for uninterrupted professional growth. Men are respected for such a trajectory and it’s about time women are too and not frowned upon for choosing such a path. Women can have high powered careers as well as families, the issue of having only one of those should no longer arise in a gender equal society.
Experiences like these initially left me reeling in anger, but one thing women in business all have in common is each other. This is actually a weapon that enables us to become smarter and more savvy business women. Having a female mentor in business is of paramount importance: not only to provide assistance with business plans, but also to help form a personal development perspective. Women sharing stories of how they experience sexism in the workplace and how they handle it is a unique way to learn the harsh lessons about what sort of business environment we are faced with. I recently shared my tale with the female COO of multinational company, and hearing about some of her own similar experiences really helped me in my own development. Something important I learnt through my discussions with her is that it is how we as women react to men’s misogynistic behavior can make all the difference. A female sports coach I had as a youth recently told me about the trials and tribulations she has experienced on her way to becomes a leading coach on the African continent. What really stood out was how she reacted to male coaches who stated that she wasn’t good enough to be there, despite having more experience and qualifications than them. She never took the bait, and let the performance of her athletes do the talking. Actions truly speak louder than words - especially when it is expected of women to wear their emotions on their sleeves.
Gender inequality is not going away anytime soon, and as women we must equip ourselves with the right skills and mentors to guide through the difficulties so that we can reach a place where our competency will begin to speak for itself. If there is one takeaway from my experiences, it is to surround yourself with other like-minded women: you will gain so much for both your professional and personal development.
By Chandni Hirani