Woman on the Rise: Tayo Akinyemi, Executive Director of AfriLabs

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Tayo Akinyemi

Meet Tayo Akinyemi, one of four Women on the Rise winners who will be flying to San Francisco this fall for a week-long educational journey!

Tayo is the Executive Director of AfriLabs, a pan-African network of tech innovation hubs with 40 hubs in 18 countries. She is an African entrepreneurship and innovation enthusiast who began her career at an NGO dedicated to advancing women in corporate business. Since then she has focused, with varying degrees of success, on understanding how businesses are built and sustained for impact. Tayo has an MBA from Cornell University and a BA from Princeton University.

Keep up with Tayo on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Tell us a little about yourself. What are you up to these days?

My name is Tayo (tie-yoh) and I manage a pan-African network of tech hubs called AfriLabs. We have nearly 40 hubs in 18 countries. Tech hubs are physical spaces that serve as convening spots for people and institutions focused on tech, entrepreneurship and innovation. Bay Area (semi) equivalents might be spaces or programs like Sandbox Suites, 500Startups, Matter or Upwest Labs. My current focus at AfriLabs is organizing our annual member gathering, and working with partners to host a workshop on sustainable business models for hubs—financial viability is still a pervasive problem for African tech hubs.

On the B-side, I’m trying to enjoy Chicago’s lackluster summer and attempting (for the umpteenth time) to stick to a meditation program.

How did you find out about the Women on the Rise Program? What inspired you to apply?

Donya, one of my best friends, emailed me about it; she’d received a notice via Thrillist. To be honest, I don’t normally apply to opportunities like these. The suspension of disbelief can be a pretty big mental barrier. But I’d been puzzling over how to create linkages between African tech hubs and their counterparts in Silicon Valley for some time. What I hadn’t sorted out was optimal timing or a credible approach, so I tabled the idea. I’d also struggled a bit with how to classify myself—as a woman in tech, a woman supporting women in tech, or a woman who’d like to be a woman in tech! Fortunately, Women on the Rise landed in my inbox, and I forced myself to apply the same day—no over-thinking allowed. Talk about a full court free throw approach to getting things done! To say that I’m happy with the result would be a massive understatement.

What are you most excited for during your week in San Francisco?

I’m really keen to be steeped in Bay Area culture and learn from women who are getting it done in tech. Oddly enough, I started my career at a New York nonprofit called Catalyst. They’ve done a lot of work over the years to help women overcome barriers to reaching the top echelon of corporate management. I’m pretty sure they released their first study on women in tech over 15 years ago. So, in a way, this will be a truly “full circle” experience for me. Will it be a case of “everything old is new again” or will there be evidence of real progress? Can’t wait to find out!

What do you hope to gain from the experience?

I’ve read a fair amount about Silicon Valley culture—both positive and negative. And of course the debate about the role of women and minorities in tech has been heating up for the last few years. From Vivek Wadha’s consistent advocacy to Sheryl Sandberg’s call to stand up and “lean in” and Ellen Pao’s landmark lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins as well as initiatives like Kimberly Bryant’s Black Girls Code and Women of Color in Tech, this is a complex issue with multiple dimensions. My personal favorite is the article that claimed that ALL of the black employees of the Valley’s top tech companies could fit in a single jumbo jet.

But there’s simply no denying the profound impact that Silicon Valley has had on startup ecosystems everywhere, including Africa. We’ve got the Silicon Savannah in Kenya, the Silicon Island in Madagascar, the Silicon Lagoon in Nigeria, and the Silicon Cape in South Africa. Monikers aside, it’s an incredibly exciting time for entrepreneurship, tech, and innovation on the continent. In fact, President Obama was in Kenya just last week hosting the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, and highlighted the importance of women entrepreneurs as well as the investments his administration is making to support them. In short, this is a uniquely wonderful and superbly-timed opportunity to experience the Valley’s “special sauce” first hand, learn from women who are breaking barriers, and build bridges if and where I can. There are lots of awesome women building networks for African women in tech; it would be great to connect them with what’s happening here.

Why is empowering women to pursue tech important to you?

We operate in a global digital economy. Whether you live north or south of the equator, engaging in tech, entrepreneurship, and innovation is key to creating economic opportunity. Why should women be excluded? Perhaps more importantly, why do we think we can do without women as value creators? It’s pretty nonsensical. This is particularly critical in Africa, where so much mobile-powered tech innovation is happening, but there are still huge problems to solve in access to finance and energy, health and education. As people around the world question how our economic system works—triple bottom lines, (social) impact, climate change, job creation, etc. we simply can’t afford to have our best minds sidelined.

Want another chance to go to San Francisco? Win a trip to the Lean Startup Conference in November.

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