Mary Olushoga knows a lot about small business development and entrepreneurship in the US and African context and she’ll be the first to say not having money is NOT an excuse. Yes, starting a business is tough and there are plenty of hurdles. But there’s also a plethora of resources and if anyone is ready to help you, it’s Olushoga. On any given day, this Nigerian multi-tasking networker is mentoring, holding a business clinic, writing an opinion piece, participating on a panel, or helping an African entrepreneurs get their stories out and reach new markets.
“I am proud of my work and being part of people’s entrepreneurial journey. Entrepreneurship is a solution to unemployment in Africa. Working with young African entrepreneurs and women business owners simply makes me happy. I can’t think of a better job,” she says enthusiastically.
Olushoga recalls a happy childhood with her three brothers in Lagos, Nigeria. Both her mother and father were entrepreneurs and sparked an early interest in business in their only daughter. The tight-knit family moved to the United States in 1998 where Olushoga attended Union College in New York. Following a fellowship at the University of Albany’s Center for Women in Government and Civil Society, she earned a Masters at Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs. Her passion for politics and business development is only matched by her love of performance art, which spurred the gutsy young woman to audition for American Idol, not once but twice.
“Men’s voices are given more priority, I remember I went to a conference and someone said, ‘Anyone can speak but not everybody listens to who is speaking.’ I feel like a lot of women are speaking. They’re saying that they want support, but not many people are paying attention.”
Staying on in the US after graduation, her foray into entrepreneurship and the business development space began at the NY City Department of Small Business Services where she helped businesses start, grow and expand. From there she was a Public Policy Fellow at the NY State Department of Transportation, followed by Program Manager at Count Me in for Women’s Economic Independence where she directed the initiative supporting female business owners (nationwide) funded by American Express. Her interest in small business continued as she moved to NY City’s Business Solutions Center followed by a stint at the US Department of Commerce Minority Business Development Agency – Minority Business Center before giving entrepreneurship a try and launching her own business – the African Women Power (AWP) Network.
“Although I was living in the US, I traveled frequently back to Nigeria where unemployment is a serious problem. After years of working in the economic development space, I saw firsthand how resources, such as mentoring, education and financing, helped entrepreneurs achieve success. I said to myself, if I could develop a supportive community to help African entrepreneurs to grow their businesses, they’d become sustainable and in turn create jobs and reduce unemployment. I wanted to focus on women because they reinvest in the community, creating a knock-on economic effect.”
But the AWP Network does not limit its supports to just women. The dynamic Nigerian works with a diverse range of African small businesses, both young men- and women-owned. A mix between a PR consultancy and small business development service, Olushoga’s platform shares startup stories of African entrepreneurs, organizes events, webinars and clinics, and creates opportunities to connect with business experts in marketing, tech and HR fields, for example. The Network also offers agribusiness training for women farmers through a strategic partnership with the Planet Earth Institute and recently launched the DREAM Project, a program helping secondary school students in Lagos develop business plans.
And while Olushoga acknowledges she was privileged to have access to formal education, she argues it’s not the only way to build skills.
“My education has opened doors, but I am also very focused on pursuing my passion. I’m hands-on and action-oriented, unafraid to take risks and I’ve taken every opportunity to learn from those who have gone before me. Being a mentee and mentoring others has been central to my personal development and growth and I recommend it to anyone with dreams of starting a business,” she says with emphasis.
When asked what she thinks it’s like for women entrepreneurs in Nigeria, Olushoga doesn’t mince her words. “Men’s voices are given more priority, I remember I went to a conference and someone said, ‘Anyone can speak but not everybody listens to who is speaking.’ I feel like a lot of women are speaking. They’re saying that they want support, but not many people are paying attention.”
And although women definitely face more hurdles than men, the champion of small business believes the greatest challenges facing Nigerian entrepreneurs are not unique to women.
“To start, these entrepreneurs need reliable electricity and broadband internet connections. With respect to the former, for example, energy tax credits would elevate some of the hurdles associated with obtaining electricity. Accessing finance is particularly an issue and not just in Nigeria as interest rates are high in many parts of Africa. Moreover, if you don’t have any collateral or the right social standing, most banks will not even look at your loan application. This needs to change, we need more competition, equality, and transparency in the system. And of course, skilled labor has and continues to be another challenge.”
Nevertheless, Olushoga is optimistic.
“I feel very strongly that Africa is heading in the right direction. The shift from a consumer economy to an innovator of products and services has occurred and is picking up pace. I see that every day with the entrepreneurs I meet, especially the young people with whom I work. I’m confident if we start to make progress on these obstacles and support businesses more effectively, we’ll see an increase in the number of founders of high-growth companies. And I’m excited to be part of making that happen.”
- Be bold and take risks – even if you fail, at least you gave it your best.
- Do your research and ask questions when you don’t know.
- Don’t forget to live your own life. Don’t sweat the small things, forgive, let go, and move on.
- Always dream big!
Mary Olushoga has won many accolades, including, but not limited to, winner of the Africa Data Challenge, Women4Africa International Media Woman Award, Crans Montana Forum New Leader for Tomorrow Award, GOOD Maker/Oxfam America International Women’s Day Challenge Winner. She writes for the Huffington Post, The Guardian Nigeria, SciDev.net, and G.E. Ideas Lab and has spoken at several events including the US Department of Labor Strategy Meeting on Inclusion, Entrepreneurship, and Disability, Columbia University’s Africa Economic Forum, the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and the UN ECOSOC Youth Forum. You can connect with Mary on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram