When it comes to tried-and-trusted advice, those who’ve had years of experience have plenty of wisdom to share with their younger counterparts

The MasterCard Index of Women Entrepreneurs reveals that in SA, the number of women in early-stage entrepreneurial activity dropped by 15,7% in 2018. This means only 18,8% of business-owners in SA are women.

The lack of credible mentorship opportunities available to women is cited as one of the reasons for this gender gap in the entrepreneurial space. This is particularly true for black women, who continue to face the double bias of gender and race, which excludes them from spaces of learning and support.

Mentorship plays a crucial role in the success of early entrepreneurship. The experience and insights of an established entrepreneur are invaluable in influencing the trajectory of an emerging one. In spite of this, however, there are younger women forging their own paths and finding ways to make their entrepreneurial pursuits work.

We opened up the conversation to two black female entrepreneurs – Sinenhlanhla Ndlela, food entrepreneur and founder of Yo Coco who is in her 20s and Ego Iwegbu, a beauty and retail services entrepreneur in her 40s who is also the founder and CEO of Miss Salon London. We asked them how they’re circumventing the mentorship challenge as they build their businesses.

Have you had a mentor on your journey of entrepreneurship?

SN: Not in the traditional sense – just insightful conversations with people I’ve met along the way while building my start-up.

EI: Not an “official” mentor. Many conversations and moments along my journey have been inspirational guides.

Sinenhlanhla Ndlela, Yo Coco

Do you believe that a lack of sound mentorship contributes to the gender gap in entrepreneurship?

SN: I do believe that mentorship can play a big role in the success of one’s journey, but it’s not the only way to achieve that. As a young female entrepreneur, I’m glad that there are women in influential positions who can lead other women coming after them into these various spaces of learning. It’s sometimes difficult getting mentorship from men, because it can feel as if you have to give to get. That can get in the way of accessing really good opportunities to learn.

EI: I don’t think this is entirely true, as there are many resources online these days. But if you’re referring to black women wanting advice from other black women who are successful and can offer advice, then perhaps yes. Everyone has to begin somewhere. Do what feels right and just start. In due course, all the answers and guidance you need will find their way to you. You may fumble and fall, but that will just be part of your special journey. My favourite saying is: “As you start to walk out on the way, the way appears.”

Do you believe that having a mentor could have (or have had) a significant impact on your success?

SN: It’s incredibly helpful to have someone who knows more than you do and can help you see your business differently. Just knowing that there’s another brain outside your business who has your best interests at heart is valuable.

EI: I think if I’d had a mentor in the very beginning, I may have avoided many of the mistakes I made that caused my first business to collapse. Having said that, I was one of thousands of other start-ups who made horrendous errors starting out. Even when they’re backed by venture capitalists who supposedly provide strong support and resources, many start-ups fail. Good mentorship is an amazing, magical gift to any entrepreneur. However, it isn’t always available, so it can’t be a reason not to start a business.

Championing female entrepreneurship and closing the gender gap isn’t a female issue – it’s an economic and social imperative.

What do you credit for your entrepreneurial achievements?

SN: I work really hard, I’m passionate and very persistent. I view my business as something that has to succeed, but I allow myself to make mistakes and learn from them.

EI: Resilience, starting again, enjoying my work and doing what I’m really good at.

The truth is that if something’s your passion, your calling, you’ll feel the pull to start again and again, so ultimately – while it requires super-hard work – if there’s an underlying purpose and therefore optimism running through your work, life, day and veins, you’re on the right track.

What could your entrepreneurial journey teach someone who regards you as a mentor?

SN: It’s a little intimidating for me to think of myself as a mentor right now, because I’m still growing and have a lot to learn. But what I’ve realised is that you have to continually innovate, try to improve and learn. That way, you’ll ultimately grow.

EI: A lot! My own journey is evidence that if it feels right, then you should keep going and have the courage to follow your instincts, even if you fear they may be crazy. I could tell 100 stories about this!

The legacy of exclusion has resulted in limited access to holistic support, including mentorship for black female entrepreneurs.

While improving this access should be a priority, there’s a blank canvas to create an ecosystem that authentically resonates with black female entrepreneurs to reimagine and find new ways of approaching and thriving. The current entrepreneurial space isn’t built for black women, but that doesn’t mean they don’t belong in it. In fact, it’s an indication that they’re there to stay and the space needs them.

Championing female entrepreneurship and closing the gender gap isn’t a female issue – it’s an economic and social imperative.

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