On Saturday, March 7th, more than 1200 entrepreneurs and professionals attended SLAY Festival Johannesburg, a one-day learning and networking experience for young professional women in Africa.
Co-organised by She Leads Africa and the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), attendees enjoyed mainstage panel discussions, networking sessions, masterclasses, mogul talk sessions, shopping from local vendors and loads of fun. We spoke to co-founder, Yasmin Belo-Osagie about the inspiration behind creating a platform that provides female entrepreneurs across the African continent with access to knowledge and network opportunities.
What inspired the creation of SLAY festival?
“So I’ll start with what inspired the creation of She Leads Africa, and then its ties into SLAY festival. My co-founder and I are just really passionate about making sure that African women are part of the continent’s growth story. And we saw a gap in the market to build an organisation that was focusing on young women who were really hoping to build and scale businesses. So one of the things that we found is that there’s been a lot of focus on African women over the last five to 10 years, you get a lot of focus on the rural areas in some areas. It’s a lot of that microfinance story. And of course, we have the high level one, which is like, hey, how do you get more women on boards and making them CEOs? But we were thinking… if you are a young woman who’s in your 30s, your 20s, you’ve just come out of Varsity. You’re trying to figure out like how do I meander and navigate and make sure I supply my freight. I know that I don’t feel fully happy at my job. Can I try out a business? Is that something that I could do?
We felt like there wasn’t really an organisation that was speaking to that demographic of women and speaking to them in a language that felt familiar to them and that they understood. So we created She Leads Africa to fill that gap. And I think one of the things that you’ll see about us is, we’re very, very big believers in the fact that you can make some money and have fun, we believe that women are very multifaceted. So I can be very serious and be on top of my stuff, be financially dependent, but hey, I want to go out with my girlfriends, have fun, go out for a drink, and do all of that. And that kind of ties into why we created SLAY festival because if you see at SLAY festival we really care about people having three things. The first thing is that we hope you learn, we have our masterclasses, we have the mainstage with so many panel sessions, so many interesting speakers from a range of different backgrounds. We hope you learn. The second thing is we hope you network. SLA will see that we have a lot of different activities that actually facilitate networking. So you have networking Bingo. We have mobile tools that are kind of small girl groups to discuss and debate different things. We have various elements that are meant to facilitate networking and allow people to meet and connect with the right minds. We always talk about the old boys club, the men’s club, I believe we can build our Women’s Club as well. And that’s really something that we want to do. And then the third thing is we want people to have fun, SLA will see that the vibe here is fun. You know, I’m in my sweatpants, trainers and a T-shirt. Some people are coming in like full-on makeup, it’s like come, be authentic and celebrate the diversity and the beauty of bringing African women in all different shapes and sizes and forms but just come ready to have a good time. We’re gonna be having a dance party in the evening. So I’m also trying to save my leg strength because I love to dance. So that’s it.”
So She Leads Africa helps young women achieve their professional dreams. Why? Okay, you touched on this but why is women empowerment important to you.
“When I started my career, this was not a space that I’ve been very active in before, my co-founder has been active in it for years. So she used to work in politics, and she was in the US focusing on how do we get more women to run in politics, she used to work in an organisation called Emily’s list where they actually support women who are going into politics. She was Communications Manager for a young woman who I think was running for Congress. And then she initially tried to start an idea-like business very similar to SLAY, by herself. So she’s been thinking about this for a really, really long time, like, five, six years before we ever connected. For me, when she pitched the idea to me I was just really inspired and engaged by it. And I’m always a big believer in that I always knew that I wanted to make some sort of an impact. I didn’t know in what form, I didn’t know if it was for women or the environment. I didn’t know where the impact would be but I knew that I wanted to make one. And I think when she kind of pitched to me on what she wanted to do, the vision was very clear to me. I saw the opportunity, I saw how I thought that we could do things differently to people who were already in the market and who are kind of focusing on this space. And I just knew that as I grew up, I started seeing so many of my friends so many smart, amazing, women and kind of seeing the struggles that they were going through. And I really do believe that, if we can unlock all the power that women have, it could be really transformational. Just kind of like a mix of opportunity plus passions.”
And then, what has been the most fulfilling part of creating She Leads Africa as well as SLAY festival?
“It’s amazing. Everything feels so fulfilling. I know that’s really cliche but I’ll talk about today. So we’re not South African. We have one employee in South Africa who joined us in December, right? So the fact that we come to South Africa and people are turning out, like, Oh my God, I’ve been following you for years. It’s crazy. Because when you’re in your office, and you’re on Instagram, and you’re putting out posts or you’re writing articles, or you’re sending out newsletters because we’re such a digital community. Our digital community is about 600 000 people, it’s a bit of a disconnect because it feels like it’s not real, but you don’t get back that direct contact, and then you come in and you’re like, Wow, I can’t do that, I haven’t spent much time in at all like you just been engaged in email. And yet you issued 1200 tickets. And so the fact that people would take time out of their Saturday, put their money down to come and spend time with us. And the fact that we’ve been able to connect with people in a completely different country is really really powerful.”
What has been your biggest learning curve? Do you translate any of your learning curves into the programs?
“Yeah, we learn every single time. Every event is stressful. From the morning, throughout the day until it gets to when we get around this period and everything is going well, then you’re kind of calm down. I think some of the things that we’ve learned about South Africa uniquely other than just the peculiarities, like making sure you have a JC regulation done because you don’t have these types of things in Nigeria where you have to get a permit for your events, its those little things that I think are problematic. One of the things that we always find is that if you work with the right partners in the country, you can go to any other country and do something successfully. And so the fact that we were able here to work with Glade, Dark and Lovely, Trace, Google, and with AUDA. And of course, even our event planners, leveraging the guys who are doing our PR, we were able to leverage the fact that they’re in the market. And there are things that they know that we don’t know. We know a lot about African women, but there are things that they know about South Africa, that we don’t know. One of the things that I always learn is working with local partnerships is so key and so important. And so even when we’re putting together the schedule, I really say to my team, hey, go out, talk to some South African women, talk to them about what speakers are pumping, who they want to hear, don’t just go online and research, you have to talk to people, you have to make partnerships. You have to connect with people, and that we find to be extremely valuable. And I learned that every single time and every time I forget how important it is, I learn that all over again.”
And what’s the greatest career advice?
“The greatest advice I’ve received? take chances. I think I was always someone who was on a path, it was my career, and then this and that. But I think that what I found is when I’ve taken risks, obviously calculated risks, you know, I’m like, you don’t need to drop out of college. Maybe you get to the end. But taking small risks, I think is really, really important. And the second one is surround yourself with people whose values and missions are aligned. All my friends or my girlfriends are super smart, very hard working. It means that it’d be just uncomfortable for me if I wasn’t being serious about my career because everyone around me is, so I wouldn’t want to be the outlier. So surround yourself and be intentional about the people who you actually surround yourself with. I think it’s very transformational.”
What would you say is the biggest challenge facing African business owners and professionals in Africa?
“I think it’s very different depending on what industry you’re in. But the core thing that we find is that funding is always an issue for people and, funding can come from either raising money, getting bank loans, whichever one. Number two, I think access to markets. So if for an example, you’re a woman who’s making beauty products in South Africa, and if you assume that you’re making up for black women, all of Africa should be your audience, but it’s very, very difficult to for example ship and distribute to Nigeria, because of shipping fees or high clearance. It’s very difficult to actually access any other market. And that kind of limits the extent to which people can grow and scale, compared with the European Union, for example, and where I’m kind of able to ship and move things around very easily. So I think access to markets is the big thing, and then I think knowledge, learning, and making sure that you get good working experience. I know a lot of people like to stop businesses because they think it’s not going to work. There is a skill in building a business. There’s a skill to develop processes. There’s a skill to managing this thing and you want to make sure that you learn those skills properly. Whether that’s through working, coming to events like this, whether that’s through online courses, and just learning how to do things better, I think, is a big challenge for people.”
One last question, what inspired you guys to bring the festival to Jo’burg?
“Our first event in South Africa was in 2018. It was a small event with about 100 to 200 people in Jo’burg and Cape Town. Once we did that, we knew that we wanted to bring a bigger event to South Africa at some point.
We started SLAY festival in Lagos, we’ve now done about three additions and with the fourth one this year. And at the end of last year, we asked people to vote, to see where you want to take the event. And so you voted and Jo’burg came out on top. It was a mix of us saying, hey, we always wanted to do Jo’burg. And then we found that Jo’burg also wanted us to come. And so we said let’s just do it. Let’s try it. And you know, by the grace of God, this thing is gonna go well, yeah. And it did. So sometimes, you just gotta take that leap of faith and do that thing that’s scaring you. You just have to say, you know what, I’m gonna try it out. And I trust myself in that, no matter what problem comes up. I’m gonna figure it out. Yeah, and I think that’s very important that self-belief is key.
Yeah. Cool. Thank you so much. Have a lovely day!”
She Leads Africa (SLA) is a global media brand that helps young women achieve their professional dreams by providing expert advice and opportunities for networking. SLA reaches more than 650,000 women across 35+ countries and 5 continents. The brand has been featured in the Financial Times and CNBC Africa and in December 2016, SLA was the first African startup to ring the Closing Bell at the New York Stock Exchange.
Pictures: Masego Morulane, supplied