Five Success Tips from an Award-Winning Tech Entrepreneur
It’s Wednesday afternoon, and life is busy in the low-income district of Posta, Gong’olamboto. As we drive through the narrow streets, our ears are assaulted with the deafening sound of men hammering metal in makeshift garages, while the smell of fresh chapattis drifts through the air from a row of mamas selling food on a tiny veranda.
We are here today to meet Carolyne Ekyarisiima, award-winning tech entrepreneur and founder of Apps and Girls. As we take in the scene around us, one question keeps running through our minds. Why would one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Tanzania set up her business in a low-income neighborhood? What potential could she possibly see in an area like this?
Why would one of the most successful tech entrepreneurs in Tanzania set up her business in a low-income neighborhood?
It doesn’t take long to discover the answer. “Ever since I was a young girl, the thought of helping others gave me an adrenaline rush,” Carolyne tells us when we arrive.
“Early in my career, I noticed the huge gender gap between men and women when it came to technology. It was evident that the girls I met lacked the confidence to interact with computers. This was alarming to me, and I was determined to change it.”
Apps and Girls was founded to address that gap. It’s a social enterprise that gives young girls in Africa the skills, self-esteem, and competitive edge to become effective leaders in their communities. They accomplish this by helping girls in underserved areas build technology that solves real social challenges in a sustainable way.
Carolyne, a young mother of two, started Apps and Girls from humble beginnings in her own living room. Today it empowers hundreds of girls in neighborhoods like this to start their own digital social enterprises. Her work has been recognized with many prestigious awards, including the Tigo Digital Changemaker award, and honors from the Young African Leaders Initiative and the Obama Foundation.
“This is the kind of neighborhood where dreams are shattered,” she tells us. “Most young girls here don’t dare to dream at all. They go to low-income schools and often struggle to afford the 500 shilling bus fare to get to school. The opportunity to give them training in technology and business is exciting because it has the potential to change their lives forever.”
“This is the kind of neighborhood where dreams are shattered. Most young girls here don’t dare to dream at all.”
With such a rich background, we decided to ask Carolyne if she had any advice for women who want to start a business. She shared the following five tips:
Starting a business is hard work. If you don’t love what you’re doing, it’s hard to stay motivated during the dark days when everything seems impossible.
“I started very small with plenty of tech savvy, but no entrepreneurial experience,” Carolyne tells us. “I enrolled a team of five university students, and half way through, they all quit. As a startup I had no funding and used my salary to pay for the costs. If I hadn’t been passionate about the mission, I never would have stuck with it.”
“I had no funding and used my salary to pay the costs. If I hadn’t been passionate about the mission, I never would have stuck with it.”
Once she had proven there was demand for her service, Carolyne mobilized a group of women who were willing to pay a small fee to receive training in technology for business growth. That turned into a robust source of income that helped her build a successful business over time.
Technology is a must. It’s the easiest way to do business, takes less time, and is easy to monitor. Take a look at social media for example; a growing number of business owners are using Instagram and Facebook to market their products here in Tanzania. If you don’t know where to start, find local businesses you like that are using social media, and ask the owner for advice. Don’t be afraid to try new things. You will make mistakes, but it will be worth the time.
“Technology also offers unprecedented opportunities to empower women,” says Carolyne. “One post on social media can change everything. The more women are active leaders in using technology, the more society will benefit. Never underestimate the power of a girl who codes. She drives the future.”
“Never underestimate the power of a girl who codes. She drives the future.”
“What kills most businesses is setting their expectations too high”, Carolyne tells us. “Every business feels chaotic at first. Just start with whatever you have and believe in your dream.”
“In the early days, my office was a small living room with two kids running around playing superhero games,” laughs Carolyne. “The girls I was training would sit with me in that room creating colorful websites as my boys threw toys and ran around us.”
“In the early days, my office was a small living room with two kids running around playing superhero games,” laughs Carolyne.
“My kids got to know my customers by name, and we were all one big happy business family. I am also thankful to my husband for being supportive enough to take in all this mess as I was still trying to figure everything out.”
Your chance of success goes up dramatically when you find a mentor who supports you step by step and holds you accountable. You will reach your goals faster. Mentoring starts with a realization that we all have different expertise and are not perfect in everything. Instead of spending two years making big mistakes and failed attempts in your business, find at least one mentor who has been there before and can help you along the way.
Your chance of success goes up dramatically when you find a mentor who supports you and holds you accountable.
“In return, we need to inspire and mentor other females,” says Carolyne. “I’ve had an opportunity to mentor hundreds of girls now. I’ve seen them transform from cautious and timid, to strong women with a mindset that anything is possible.”
“One of the high school girls I mentor won a 50 million shilling grant through a project we nurtured, and she now employs seven people,” Carolyne says with the joy and warmth of a mother witnessing her kids succeed.
Carolyne’s advice to any new business is to take it slow and not be hungry for early success. Entrepreneurship is not a straight line. There will be many ups and downs on the journey.
“In the beginning, virtually no one believed in me. They told me my product was not viable and would never work.”
“I reached my lowest point ever in 2016. I was broke and felt like giving up. What kept me going was to stop looking at myself, and instead focus on my customers. I listened to the testimonials of the girls I had empowered, and saw how my products had impacted their lives. They gave me the strength to keep fighting”.
“At my lowest point, I listened to the girls I had empowered, and saw how I had impacted their lives. They gave me the strength to keep fighting.”
As we left Carolyne that day, I looked at the neighborhood around me with new perspective. Where I once saw chaos and poverty, I now saw hope, beauty, and potential. Spending time with Carolyne has a way of changing the way you look at the world, I thought to myself and smiled.
Hello, am Diana Ninsiima - and am as East African as they get, with roots from 3 countries, and a proud mom of 3 ninjas. My friends and colleagues identify me as a strong gender equality enthusiast, now you know why am here. I have passion for fantastic writing that’s brave, passionate, and true and I started my journey as a writer with development impact stories on women. I have recently rekindled that soft spot with DreamLink, because I get to shine a light on the stories that build bridges, tear down walls, and speak truth to the formidable strength of women. You will literally find me leaning into all initiatives, things, and everything women. I am also a dreamer, on a mission to raise the bar for women in leadership and employment.