Below is a featured story of the upcoming book, The Internet of Women, shared by our company CEO.
In July 2015, President Obama, during his visit to Kenya, brought attention to the issue of female employment in Africa, saying, “If half your team is not playing, you’ve got a problem. In too many countries, half the team is women and youth.” Accomplishing gender equality in the workspace takes more than just proactively hiring more women. It requires breaking down barriers to resources, social pressures, and personal confidence that many women in Africa face, as we aptly learned in Zambia.
When we launched Impact Enterprises, supporting female entrepreneurs wasn’t the first thing on our mind. We just wanted to create good jobs. Back in 2008, our company president, Dan Sutera, took a trip to visit rural Zambia with his friend David Seidenfeld, who had spent years in the country between the Peace Corps and PhD work. After 10 years of growing startup companies, two of which cracked the Inc. 500 list of fastest growing companies in America, Dan was looking for his next challenge. Together, they launched Impact Network in eastern Zambia to deliver an e-learning curriculum, called eSchool 360, to rural village schools.
After a few years of building schools and educating thousands of children, Dan realized a quality education it isn’t much use if there are no jobs upon graduation. In Zambia, a southern-African country of about 15 million people, unemployment for 20-24 year olds is at 59%. Those who can’t find work often go into the informal economy, the majority being agriculture.
Harnessing this untapped population, in an English-based country with a stable political and economic climate, had to be possible, and it was outsourcing that brought the solution. Over the last decade, a movement known as “impact sourcing” has emerged in the business process outsourcing industry with the goal of bringing sustainable jobs to untouched communities. Thanks to the diminishing costs of technology, companies were now moving into tier 2 and 3 locations in rural India, away from the established tech megacities. They were building centers in frontier markets in southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Our goal was to bring the same potential to Zambia.
I met Dan back in 2012 while working at a financial software company in New York City. Years ago, I had worked as a director for the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, which ran a world-class K-12 boarding school for dalit children – the untouchable caste – in rural India. I was inspired by how the students’ lives had been the transformed thanks to the quality of education they received, and I was eager to apply my business background to a social venture of my own.
By mid-2013, we launched Impact Enterprises with our first client project, becoming the first socially-conscious digital outsourcing company in Zambia. By bringing digital jobs to a developing country, we aren’t just pioneering a new industry but we’re also creating equal opportunities for talented youth.
Setting up a high-quality service company requires a huge investment in employee training. For the majority of our employees, this job is their first time working in a formal company. Beyond just learning hard skills like computer operations and web research, they take part in ongoing workshops around teamwork, communication skills, career planning, financial management, and healthy living. Cecilia, one of our earliest employees, told us her jobs is teaching her “how to be responsible, how to keep time, how to have discipline. The feeling of having some responsibilities keeps me going. Now I know, wherever I go, I have to work hard.”
At Impact Enterprises, we strive to keep an equal male to female ratio of employees to demonstrate that women have an equal opportunity to succeed in the digital economy. In fact, we’ve found that in the first months of training, the female hires tend to be more responsible, attentive, and timely than their male counterparts. Realizing the unique career opportunity they’ve been given – one that few women in the country could possibly have – they don’t take anything for granted.
However, despite the close and supportive community we had fostered at Impact Enterprises, our young women were still struggling. Their personal charisma and determination seemed to disintegrate when put in a public group setting. Growing up in a patriarchal society meant their self-confidence was deeply undermined. During company-wide discussions, the women would go mute around men and were hesitant to share their opinions, even among just their fellow females. Something had to be done.
In mid-2015, we decided to launch a weekly support group exclusively for our female employees. They quickly made it their own, naming it Ladies of Victory and Encouragement (LOVE). As Dinah, one of the group leaders, explained, “We want this to be a space where we can share our ideas and learn from one another. Building our communication skills is really important.”
For their first assignment, they required every member to speak up in a workshop debate without being prompted. While initially they were nervous, after just one month, participation skyrocketed and they became more engaged in the company. The self-directed group has expanded to topics ranging from entrepreneurship and career advice to self-esteem, gender equality, and maternal health.
“I know that in the future, maybe I will be managing other people,” Catherine, one of the members, said. “What I learn here from the managers really inspires me.” Debra, one of the newer employees, said that she felt the group brought back the energy she used to have in secondary school.
As a company overall, the workshops have significantly strengthened our workforce and services. “It has helped in numerous ways to reestablish my self-esteem and confidence as a woman,” Debra told us after one of the session. “When a person is surrounded by positive minded, dream-oriented, enthusiastic individuals, life is worth living because you know you can make it everywhere.”
Developing the young-adult female demographic is particularly valuable, since they can immediately contribute to the workforce with their skills and perseverance. Unfortunately, existing social initiatives either focus on adolescent girls, in an effort to impact them at an early age, or working adults, who need simpler career mentorship. Meanwhile, few resources are available to young adults out of school, who require a higher investment to impact their lives – they are more mature and sophisticated than adolescents but lack the experience of their adult counterparts.
Empowering young women is crucial for struggling countries such as Zambia. While Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ghana have emerged as tech destinations in Africa, Zambia has failed to embrace the promise of new industries over the years. Even still, riskier ventures are usually led by men. If Zambia hopes to be competitive internationally, a holistic support system must be created with the collaboration of various stakeholders to empower women at work.
In early 2015, the U.S. State Department launched the WECREATE program to establish physical entrepreneurial community centers across Africa. Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, was fortunate enough to have been chosen, and the center provides programs for training, pitch competitions, and grant funding, while also providing family support. Establishing similar facilities is critical, in lieu of the currently inadequate school system.
Providing access to digital information is an easier, less resource intensive method of creating access to education and training. Currently, Zambia is limited in internet bandwidth, resulting in high data costs and unreliable access. While the Zambia Information & Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA) was created with the intention of acting as a watchdog, today it lacks any influence. Investing in fiber optic infrastructure and promoting competition with ISPs will dramatically improve the reach of digital resources.
Women must also have the standard resources outside of work. Health services and family planning must be accessible so they can live healthy lives and raise their families without interfering with their careers. Early education must focus on soft skills to build confidence in girls so they can boldly tackle their careers and interact with teammates. Even family members must be supportive of their sisters and daughters so they can compete with men. Antiquated values such as jealousy and gender stereotyping don’t belong in the modern community.
Unfortunately, the reality is Zambia’s government is saddled with debt and a devalued currency has attenuated the abilities of local companies. Realistically, progress is going to come externally, either through foreign investment or “re-patriates”, who are returning to their native country. For us to see real progress, at least in the interim, the private sector will have to take on the responsibility of multiple stakeholders – both employer and educator – as we’ve demonstrated at Impact Enterprises.
The LOVE workshops at Impact Enterprises teach our female employees skills that are invaluable to entrepreneurship and allow them overcome the psychological barriers many of them face. I’m particularly proud of one of our members, Nelicy. She’s only 19 years old but one of our most determined employees. From the beginning, Nelicy put in great hours and quickly advanced through her projects. During breaks, she was gregarious and carried a bright smile, but in group discussions, she closed up. Just by looking at her, I could tell she had ideas to share, but couldn’t get them out.
Later in the year, we held a workshop on financial planning to teach key concepts like savings, interest rates, and inflation. Rising prices is a major issue in Zambia (inflation reach over 20% in December 2015 due to slowdown in Chinese demand) and Nelicy aptly understood the implication for her pay. The following Monday, during our weekly company morning talk, I had opened the floor to questions. After a long pause, Nelicy raised her hand and boldly requested we raise wages, eloquently explaining how inflation is impacting everyone.
She was absolutely right, and we recalculated our pay structure that week. I admire her courage to stand up for her team. When we featured Nelicy in our company blog, she told us, “Actually, the time I came to Impact I was kind of a shy person. Being here I have had to open up to people.”
When I think back to that Monday meeting, I remember how the long silence before Nelicy spoke up was just as loud as her voice. It demonstrates the reality of President Obama’s remark about missing half our team, and I worry what else we’re missing in that silence.
Dimitri Zakharov is CEO & Co-Founder of Impact Enterprises, a socially-conscious outsourcing company that provides lead generation, content moderation, and order management services with the mission of providing digital jobs for skilled youth in Zambia.