Interview by Chief Editor
June 2020 7 min read
Marcia Ashong is the Founder and CEO of TheBoardroom Africa, an initiative that champions women in executive leadership across Africa by working with venture capital and private equity investors, development finance institutions, and organizations across the continent to improve female representation in boardrooms and investment committees. As a special feature in our Amplified interview series, Ashong talks to us about her company, experiences in the industry, perspectives on current affairs, and shares timely advice to aspiring entrepreneurs.
(VC) As someone with a business background in the Oil and Gas industry, what were your most identifiable skills or approaches carried over into TBR Africa?
(Marcia) Being an intrapreneur, an innovator within a company is what truly prepared me to be an entrepreneur. I ran my first country-level profit and loss centre representing a large multinational oil service company which was my first time juggling sales, operations, finance, and human resources more or less simultaneously. During those years, when the industry was turbulent and every line item was scrutinized, I learned to do more with less, be self-sufficient, and make resources stretch. We won a huge contract for the first time in the firm’s history in that country, which meant that in a short period of time, along with a formidable team, we had taken a small business and turned it into an organization that had positive cash flow and sizeable margins. My experience building the team later equipped me to be able to run my own business, where I’m liaising with clients, managing contracts, cultivating our talented staff, managing the budget, and more. That holistic viewpoint has been invaluable.
(VC) A perfect world does not exist, but if one did what core values would you make a staple in the immediate community and your sphere of influence?
(Marcia) Integrity is one of my foundational values because I believe that true leaders stand up for what they believe in. On a personal level, people with integrity keep their word, take responsibility for their actions, and follow their morals and values even when it is difficult. In a business context, it means a firm commitment to doing what is right, to producing quality, and to act with sincerity. I believe that many of our challenges in Africa or even across the globe come down to a crisis of integrity. If we hold this as one of our highest values in both government and business, our societies and economies will emerge stronger.
While multinational corporations may bring economic opportunities, they aren’t always bringing locally-born solutions. Even in the midst of this pandemic, we are seeing innovative, locally-born solutions that aren’t associated with any multinational interventions
(VC) Many critics may counter-argue that locally born ideas are not really local because the African continent is in her second economic scramble, and many multinational companies are already contributing to the continent. What are your general thoughts on this?
(Marcia) I disagree with the premise of the question. While multinational corporations may bring economic opportunities, they aren’t always bringing locally-born solutions. Even in the midst of this pandemic, we are seeing innovative, locally-born solutions that aren’t associated with any multinational interventions that are even scaleable beyond this continent.
Take a company like Ethiopian-born Sara Menker’s Gro Intelligence, for example. Menker recognized that African businesses often can not get access to capital because there is a dearth of reliable data. Now, Gro Intelligence is positioning itself to scale globally because the company has identified a problem that goes beyond Africa.
Photo courtesy TheBoardroom Africa
Similarly, look at Nigerian mobile money player Paga which has fuelled the adoption of digital financial services on its home turf and is now targeting expansion into Mexico. There are plenty of African solutions to African problems as well as African solutions to global problems.
(VC) When should a small business look to go public and what would make it attractive for private equity investors or brokers?
(Marcia) A small business should always first consider its growth trajectory and what injection of capital is required in support of its goals. Sometimes “going public” is the right choice, but sometimes it isn’t. It depends on the business goals and priorities.
If you are trying to raise money from new investors to fund future growth or offer your early stakeholders liquidity and the chance to realize a return on their risk, it might be a compelling future goal. However, if that’s not the case, it might not be the right choice for you. After all, consider the fact that there are many large global companies that are not public such as Cargill, Mars, and PwC.
Beyond the financing question, there are a few other considerations that should shape whether or not going public is a feasible milestone for your business. Can you accurately forecast your financial performance? Are you audit-ready? Do you have a clear strategy and the right executive team in place? These are all critical questions you need to answer because a publicly-listed business must also be equipped to manage the stock exchange’s disclosure obligations.
(VC) As a woman of Africa descent who is well-traveled and exposed to a variety of boardroom situations, what do you tell aspiring young women or entrepreneurs about the risk and realities of the business world?
(Marcia) First, I would ask any young person — not just young women — to consider if they are really ready for the life of an entrepreneur. The entrepreneurial journey itself may come with successes, but it is a hard, long-fought journey that requires a lot of patience, listening, and open to changing course in order to preserve your goals. That being said, you can only fully understand what it’s like to be an entrepreneur when you are an entrepreneur! So be willing to take a risk on yourself once you understand the costs.
I’m an entrepreneur many times over. In addition to TheBoardroom Africa, I have also founded the Ghana Oil Club earlier in my career, and most recently The Mylk Company, and other ventures. Throughout all of these, I’ve learned to remember to avoid letting perfect be the enemy of good. Choose action over perfection to get the ball moving; you can’t let the fear of failure or making a mistake paralyze you.
Secondly, I would advise young entrepreneurs to regularly set and measure goals to ensure you remain focused on your value proposition and how your everyday work contributes to your broader vision. When you see your success through milestones that you can celebrate along the way, the end goal doesn’t seem so daunting.
(VC) Some mention different historical times as a period they admire for affluence or culture. If you could time-warp to any era to collaborate with its culture, what period would it be and why?
(Marcia) I would probably return to independence-era Africa. The decisions made in the 50s and 60s radically shaped the trajectory of the continent and the world, our understanding of our identity, and the foundations of our future. They were times of change and sacrifice–but also times of hope. From Nkrumah to Lumumba, that era was full of people working for causes much bigger than themselves. I think since then our emphasis on community and service to the nation has waned. I would like to inject more of that spirit into everyday life.
Photo courtesy TheBoardroom Africa
(VC) Thanks for speaking with us Marcia. At this stage of your collective accomplishments, If you could work alongside any international public figure, brand, or enterprise. Who would it or they be, and why?
(Marica) Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the U.S. Supreme Court Justice, is a person whom I have long deeply admired. Her gender advocacy began at a time when the issue was not top of mind for the nation or the world, for that matter, and she has persevered in the name of justice while facing misogyny, health challenges, and more. Her indomitable spirit is unmatched. I would be lucky to even spend one day with her.