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Unleashing the Entrepreneur in Every Woman
March 5, 2015

“We believe that everyone is an entrepreneur,” said Takunda Chingonzoh, a 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow and YALI Network member. “It’s only a matter of people finding that aspect of themselves.”

Recently, Chingonzoh and his team focused on helping one particular group find that aspect of themselves: women. They did it through their organization Neolab Technology.

Founded in 2012, Neolab began with a goal to develop technology fit for Africa. It has since grown into “a startup factory.” The Neolab team recruits university students, trains them in entrepreneurship and forms them into teams. The teams work together to transform their ideas into sustainable enterprises.

This year, Neolab launched its first training course exclusively for women.

Moments of Inspiration

Students working at long row of tables (Neolab Technology)
University students participate in a focus group as part of an “unconference” hosted by Neolab Technology.

The inspiration for such a course began in the United States while Chingonzoh was participating in the Mandela Washington Fellowship. During class discussions, he observed that comments from the male Fellows relied more on generic knowledge while those from the female Fellows revealed a deep connectedness to the community.

“That was the initial spark,” Chingonzoh said.

That spark ignited when Chingonzoh witnessed speeches from National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and first lady Michelle Obama.

“I could see the kind of energy, the kind of presence they commanded and how it affected people,” Chingonzoh said. “It was inspiring.”

Through these experiences, Chingonzoh came to understand the roles women can play in leadership and technology and the valuable perspective they offer.

“I had been exposed to women in technology who were doing amazing things,” Chingonzoh said. “So my question was ‘How do you activate that same kind of drive in the women that we have in our societies?’”

Training Exclusively for Women

Takunda Chingonzoh interviewing President Obama on stage (© AP Images)
Chingonzoh interviews President Obama during the 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

For Chingonzoh and the Neolab team, the answer rested with providing a training class exclusively for women. They recruited 12 women from the local university and ran them through their standard seven-week training curriculum, which they call “Model X.”

The first part of Model X focuses on “activating the entrepreneur,” Chingonzoh explained. The second part hones more conventional skills such as idea validation and team building.

For the women-only training, however, Neolab had to add an additional training element to its curriculum: confidence building.

“They would talk about these great ideas,” Chingonzoh said, “but they would not have the confidence to push them across.”

Gender Differences

Five women crowding around computer (Neolab)
Five Model X participants work together on a finance management and literacy application.

In addition to their lack of confidence, Chingonzoh noticed another characteristic that set these women apart. They wanted to solve problems. They didn’t want to create the next Facebook; they wanted to develop sustainable solutions that would help people and communities.

These women also displayed a dedication and tenacity Chingonzoh had not seen before.

“In the first class, you’re the one asking people to do this, this and this. With the women, by the third or fourth class, they’re the ones asking ‘What’s next? What can we do? How do we do this?’” Chingonzoh said. “They were taking the course with way more vigor and more drive than we had seen in previous classes.”

For Chingonzoh and his team, the results of this women-only training have been both “amazing” and transformative. Neolab has not only decided to host a women-only training course every year, but also to shake up the gender balance of its training team. Chingonzoh said it’s important for the women being trained to see other women in leadership roles. He believes this will provide them with a person whom they can relate to and will also boost their self-confidence.

“It’s really important to publicize and celebrate the women that we have in our networks who are doing all these incredible and amazing things, because that in itself serves as a way to activate even more women and even more girls to break out and lift up their communities,”

he said.

To learn more about Neolab Technology, visit its Facebook page.