Persis Ashers always wished to lead an exciting life. The entrepreneur, mentor, volunteer, and wife has fit a lot into her 26 years and she’s only just getting started. Not content with overseeing operations for the fastest growing research market consultancy in Africa, meeting US President Obama, and being selected as a Global Women Entrepreneurship Institute Fellow, this Kenyan go-getter is in the midst of getting the non-profit Akilah Academy, a girls’ professional development institute, on its feet. Successful by anyone’s standards, Ashers’ motivations are refreshing.
“For me, success has never had anything to do with money or external definitions, it’s centered around my relationship with God, my husband, my family and my networks. If I’m able to be the best version of me and add value to each of these, then I am successful. The money, the exposure, the fellowships … they follow these successes.”
Studying international relations at the United States International University in Nairobi, Ashers had her eye on her long-term dream of becoming a diplomat. Her career prospects changed course, however, when – while still at university – she took a position with Nielsen, as part of the global performance management giant’s Emerging Leaders Program. She stayed for more than three years before leaving to become an executive Director and Chair of the Board of afriQuest Research at the tender age of 24.
“I guess I got bitten by the market research bug. I was given the chance to develop extensive research expertise across Sub-Saharan Africa, UAE, and India and loved it. As a result, some fellow researchers and I established our own firm, afriQuest, to offer customized research and training in Africa. As one of five owners and Directors, I’ve seen the business grow tremendously. We have two regional bases – in Nairobi and Addis Ababa – we intentionally chose the most beautiful cities in Africa,” Ashers says with a laugh, before adding: “They also happen to be the most lucrative.”
“I put 200% into everything I do and always aim to get things done right the first time. But I always hope to be the most comfortable version of me. In 10 years, my interests might change, I expect them to. I’ve never wanted to box myself in professionally.”
And while the business is constantly growing – today afriQuest has 180 full- and part-time employees – success has not come without hurdles. “Every day is a new challenge; some challenges are around operations in countries with poor business policies for foreigners, others center on human capital. But that is the beauty and cost of entrepreneurship, but the wins far outweigh the challenges. When we win, we win big, and it’s always worth it.”
As Ashers points out, one of her firm’s key issues has being sourcing and hiring talent so – like many entrepreneurs – she set about finding a solution to meet her need. This past summer, fresh off the heels of her return from the US as a coveted Mandela Washington Fellow, she launched Akilah Girls Leadership Academy with her partners Roberta Mukhaye, a banker based in Kenya, and Nizenande Machi, a youth development professional from South Africa. The three self-funded the first #StartTheSpark workshop to kick-off the Academy and have plans for future events. They are currently developing a curriculum and the next workshop is scheduled for March 2016.
“Talent has been a real challenge as work ethic is not best-of-class in many African countries. The Academy is our contribution to a solution to this problem in East Africa. We aim to develop the East African talent pool through substance, leadership and job training of women under the age of 24. Akilah also offers its fellows the opportunity to intern at an age as young as 15 and gain access to interesting networks through female mentors.”
Although Akilah is currently a non-profit organization, the intention is to fashion the Academy into a female employee talent school in the next three years.
“With an exhaustive, well-trained female database to select from, employers will be able to source entry-level employees from Akilah and be assured of confident, contributing female employees to enable equal opportunity employment. The time is just right in Kenya for this initiative as female networks are on the rise.”
You’re not alone in wondering how this ambitious young woman does it all. She recently returned from Atlanta where she was invited to the prestigious Ivan Allen College Global Women Entrepreneurship Institute, her second fellowship in 2015. But when you love what you do, it doesn’t seem much like work.
“I’ve learned to split my time in order to pursue all my interests and have a great, young and proactive team and the support of colleagues at afriQuest. Nevertheless, I put 200% into everything I do and always aim to get things done right the first time. But I always hope to be the most comfortable version of me. In 10 years, my interests might change, I expect them to. I’ve never wanted to box myself in professionally. I intend to still be growing, to still keep lifting as I climb and to have seen more of the world with my love, Ian.”
“I love people and especially working with young women, and I have personal and professional networks that span continents so why not use them to grow human capital in Africa? I’m doing exactly what I would have wanted to be doing at this age. I have the most supportive systems around me and I mentor brilliant females. What more could I wish for?”
- As women entrepreneurs, we are judged more harshly – a sad reality. Be brave even in the face of conflict, never worry about the unknown, and don’t hide your femininity. As Sheryl Sandberg says, “sit at the table.” But I would encourage you do so with some flair and style.
- Own whatever role you choose to take. As my mum keeps reminding me, live in the moment, enjoy being whatever one is … a wife, a daughter, a director … and to savor the beauty of the relationships that these roles bring.
- Keep growing, learning and re-inventing yourself.
- Don’t be afraid to say “NO!” If any situation, agreement, or relationship does not work for you, proudly say a huge NO and don’t apologize either.
- Pay it back and mentor those coming up behind you.