5 lessons from a 5-hour panel with 5 businesswomen in Nairobi

On May 22, 2019, I had an honour of joining 4 outstanding business ladies at the 3rd“She Means Business” event at Zen Garden; an event that brings together women, who are business owners and senior leaders, to share the rewarding and challenging moments of running an enterprise. The event was so engaging that conversation ran well over the initially planned 2 hours and spilled into dinner and, probably for some, into a nightcap. I was one of the speakers on the panel, but also a curious learner seeking inspiration just like almost 40 other women in the room.

Between the “awes” (as in “awesome!”) and “awws” (as in “how awful!”), I laughed and cried listening to powerful stories of women standing strong in men-dominated industries (Construction! Really!) and speaking up against inequality, entitlement, bias, nepotism, stereotypes and stigma.

And here are the 5 things I walked away with:

  1. The imposter syndrome is real – at some point, every single woman in the room doubted herself and wondered whether she really deserved the power/fame/money/job/etc., yet most women also admitted that they worked really hard really frequently and sometimes accepted losses to not compromise their promise to the clients. As women, whether in business or not, it is really important that we remind each other about that hard work and help each other get rid of the imposter syndrome because – Yes! Yes! Yes! – we do deserve the power, fame, money, job and everything else that results from hard honest work.
  2. Women are successfully conquering sectors traditionally dominated by men – e.g., construction, engineering, IT, import-export, etc. – yet they remain true to their womanhood in the way they talk, dress, behave, live and work. Being a businesswoman does not mean a choice between being a woman and being in business; a girl can run a successful business and remain a girl.
  3. Being a business owner is truly liberating – a businesswoman has a choice, who she works with; she is free to say “no” to men or women, who do not treat her right, who do not see her as equal. Yes, the “no” might result in a loss of a project for now, but it will build the woman and make her business stronger in the long-run. As women, starting a business is our way of being free from bias, stigma and stereotype.
  4. It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of the family in making or breaking a woman. I grew up with a mother, who survived the World War II as a child, became a heart surgeon (the most male-dominant sector of medicine), ran a hospital, served in the city parliament, and was a role model to both men and women. I never questioned whether I could be a business owner, only whether I wanted to be one. Yet, several successful business ladies struggled to gain approval of their families and almost felt guilty they did not fit in the “box” the family and the society prepared for them. As mothers (and fathers!), it is up on us to free our daughter of these “social boxes”, to be the role models of possibilities not restrictions.
  5. Happiness is the ultimate goal of owning a business. For most women, business is not about big ambitions or big money; it’s about financial stability that allows us to spend more time with our children, husbands, parents, or even to just have more “me time.” In the world dominated by businessmen, it is easy to lose the sight of this goal and join the chase for whatever big men might be chasing. We need to allow ourselves to think small, to think close-to-home, and to step out of the race to focus on our own priorities, and things/people that make us happy.

I really enjoyed the sincerity of the conversation, the honesty and the openness of sharing, and the energy I felt in the room. I want to thank Shivani and Payal for coming up with the idea and for keeping the story going.

#shemeansbusiness #genderequality #womeninbusiness