The future of African women is bright. This is the opening gambit from seasoned executive and management consulting CEO Awamary Lowe-Khan from her home in The Gambia.
It’s a concrete message of positivity and hope for women, but also for Africa, whose economic prospects are looking good right now, but promise to be even better with women as part of the leadership workforce.
And this is the mission that drives the Gambian-Spanish entrepreneur, philanthropist, CEO and mother of three, who has been named one of 35 rising women in Africa by CNBC, and has been directly empowering women and girls in Africa for the last four years through the NGOs she founded in The Gambia – The Woman Boss and Innovate Gambia, the country’s first tech hub.
She is an active global speaker at forums and conferences worldwide, on everything from leadership and entrepreneurship to diversity and gender parity. Passionate about the role of women and girls in society, she advises governments and organisations on policies that impact minorities, women, girls, and small businesses, and has addressed the White House, US Congress, US State Legislature and the Gambian Government.
Fostering the next generation of women leaders
At The Woman Boss, a female-focused creative space she founded in 2018, and now present in 11 countries, women are given the tools, training, strategies and support to become entrepreneurs and leaders.
The aim of the organisation, says Awamary, is to “increase the economic opportunities for women, foster the next generation of women leaders, and ultimately reduce the gender equality gap”.
And so far, the results have been impactful. Through its many programmes and initiatives, including its 90-day accelerator, leadership series and a schools programme, The Woman Boss has helped more than 4,000 women and girls – trained over 1,500 girls in leadership and mentored more than 600 female entrepreneurs.
In some ways, Awamary acknowledges, empowering and educating women in Africa is easy in that most entrepreneurs in The Gambia are women, and more women than men in Africa hold college degrees.
“Women in Africa have been putting children through school and reinvesting in their homes for generations.”
The hard part comes with wider society and the patriarchal views that are still held there with particular challenges including getting institutions to invest in women and getting women into leadership roles.
Awamary points to ‘unconscious bias’ as the problem, a theme highlighted in this year’s International Women’s Day, and an issue she describes as being “pervasive and often unnoticed”.
It’s an issue she herself has faced, in the US and in Africa, when, as a young, African woman in America she was promoted to CFO age 24, and was subsequently treated by some with insubordination and condescension. In Africa, where patriarchal norms persist and gender equality lags, the challenges are greater still, challenges Awamary addresses as part of The Woman Boss, with strategies focused on helping women overcome obstacles to advancement.
“We mentor women on how to communicate their desires, goals, and to ask for what they deserve,” says Awamary. “We teach them how to advocate for other women too, for things such as benefits for mothers, paid vacations, and on influencing other policies within an organisation.
“We are intentional about nurturing and building the next generation of women leaders in Africa,” says Awamary. “We intentionally focus on innovative ways to make entrepreneurship flourish, giving women access to the technology needed to grow their business”
But some of the challenges cannot be overcome by mentoring of women alone, including the lack of support and resources available for women.
“African women lack resources. Most women in The Gambia do not have collateral to access loans for their business because the majority of assets are owned by men. We need more assistance from corporations.”
It’s these challenges, along with having two daughters herself, and a son, that are Awamary’s driving force in the empowerment of women – because when women are empowered, they thrive.
“When more women are given a position of power, they shine, but there just aren’t enough women making it to senior leadership roles. We need to ensure that women are around the tables where decisions are being made.”
African women barely present in leadership roles
She’s not wrong. African women are barely present in leadership circles, where 95% of CEOs in the continent are men, according to McKinsey, and women hold just 12.7% of the board seats in Africa’s top-listed companies, according to data from the African Development Bank.
And yet the argument for women in leadership roles in Africa is compelling. Research from the IMF shows that countries ranked in the bottom 50% for gender equality globally, among them large African economies like Ethiopia and Nigeria, could add a whopping 35% to their economies by bringing more women into the workplace.
Considering that Africa is already home to six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies, and that by 2050, one in eight people globally will be an African woman, according to WEF, achieving gender balance in the workplace could deliver a significant boost to global growth.
Accelerating digital transformation and giving access to technology is paramount in boosting Africa’s economies, and particularly in elevating the role of women and girls in society, and Awamary is tackling this too.
As someone well-versed in tech leadership, having co-founded her own cloud management startup, Awamary set up Gambia’s first tech hub, also in 2018, to help break down barriers in business.
With the overall aim of accelerating the economic development of the country, Innovate Gambia is designed to foster digital transformation, and build innovation, tech leadership, entrepreneurship and workforce development.
“Digital transformation in The Gambia is lagging, and for the country to become more competitive, we must use technology to help accelerate innovation, boost entrepreneurial skills, increase efficiencies, cut costs, and digitalise labour-intensive processes.
“Digital transformation creates new markets and increases high-value networks. It creates opportunities, lowers the cost of access to education, creates flexible jobs, enables innovation and creativity, and fosters new skills required for the global economy.”
Since the hub’s inception, 1,200 entrepreneurs have been trained, while more than 200 startups incubated, adding to the impact already achieved at The Woman Boss.
“Impact drives me,” Awamary says. “I get asked all the time why I’m not in a corporate role. The answer is simple – I believe in creating a lasting and meaningful impact, a legacy that will continue to impact generations and communities to come. I have three children who inspire my work and I know that I am contributing towards their success. Aside from motherhood, The Woman Boss is my greatest achievement – the impact we have in communities and on people is immense.”
“I am excited about all the women that are fighting for a seat at the table, but sometimes you have to build the table and chairs” – Awamary Lowe-Khan
Awamary says she is excited about how women are progressing in Africa right now, not just with the help of her own NGOs, but with other female-focused organisations springing up across the continent.
“I am excited about all the women that are fighting for a seat at the table, but sometimes you have to build the table and chairs,” she says. “History has shown that our voices don’t always matter. Most women in male-dominated fields, especially in leadership, encounter numerous setbacks in growth and equality. Build businesses, employ women decision-makers. Women are innovative and contribute to a diverse perspective. We just need someone to give us a chance.”
While that rallying call is aimed at organisations across the continent, Awamary has this advice for women looking to rightly disrupt this status quo and societal norms.
“Be grounded and clear about your power,” she says. “Understand the power of your community and pay attention to the audience that is being ignored. Control your narrative. We are always undervalued and therefore have to work 6-10 times harder. Find a mentor or coach and build your self-confidence. Speak up for what you want and deserve.”
With leaders like Awamary driving change, the future for women in Africa does indeed look bright.
Advice for women leaders in Africa
Here, Awamary offers advice for women looking to lead in Africa.
Be your sister’s keeper African women leaders have the responsibility of pulling other women into leadership positions. They need to be intentional about mentoring and sponsoring other potential women leaders into top management spaces. Mentorship is such an important part of growth. Every woman should have a mentor or coach.
Be intentional about being transformational Being a leader in a predominantly male-dominated field can be difficult. Some women leaders feel the need to be autocratic because of insubordination challenges. Be transformational, not transactional. Encourage open communication, inspire others and intellectually stimulate your followers. Be intentional about changing systems and encourage creativity.
Serve on a non-profit board In some countries in Africa, there’s a challenge for women to serve on boards. Most boards comprise men: a good ol’ boys club. Women leaders need to challenge the status quo and request a place on boards to increase the diversity of thought for these organisations. This also helps women leaders expand their networks and skillsets, opens doors for possible mentorship opportunities, and increases growth opportunities.
Expand your network and circle Networking helps you to strive, both personally and professionally. Your circle of influence should be a village: with diversity of thoughts, experience, age, race, and gender. Be intentional about networking. Even if some communities shy away from this due to patriarchal beliefs, remember that your network is your net worth.
About Awamary Lowe-Khan
Of both Gambian and Spanish heritage, Awamary spent her formative years between the two countries, attending high school in The Gambia before leaving at 17 to the US to further her education. She spent the next 23 years living and working in the US, earning a bachelor’s in accounting and an MBA, and two decades working as an executive for various organisations, including as finance executive for non-profit American Red Cross.
She is also an entrepreneur, having founded businesses, NGOs, and products – among these a tech startup (PointClick Technologies, cofounded with her husband), a non-profit (North Carolina’s Black Entrepreneurship Week), a product (Ndox, The Gambia’s first boxed water product aiming to reduce plastic waste), and two NGOs in The Gambia, The Woman Boss and Innovate Gambia.
As well as currently running the NGOs, Awamary is CEO of a management consulting company, AKHAN Inc., and an active global speaker at forums and conferences worldwide, on everything from leadership and entrepreneurship to diversity and gender parity. She advises on policies that impact minorities, women, girls, and small businesses, for the White House, US Congress, US State Legislature and the Gambian Government.
She has been named one of 35 Rising Women in Africa by CNBC and received other accolades for her contribution as a woman to Africa. She splits her time between The Gambia, the US and Spain, is married to an entrepreneur and has three children.