Iselle Akwoue took the leap into the unknown platform of being an entrepreneur when the oil crisis hit her country – Gabon. At that time most private companies had reduced their spend, and there was a major challenge of organisations been focused on daily management that they failed to see what you could be done to help their business improve. However, Iselle saw the crisis as an opportunity to create value by teaching businesses what to do in times of crisis should and how to better benchmark the market, master their finances and lay firm organizational foundations such as operating processes, adapted commercial strategy.
Through the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme she finds an opportunity to join the movement to empower African Entrepreneurs through Mentorship. In her second year as a mentor on the programme we spotlight this passionate and dedicated Mentor, sharing her values, personal goals, thoughts on mentorship and her opinion on the vibrant entrepreneurship movement in Africa.
TEF: Briefly tell us a little bit about yourself, focusing on significant events that have shaped your character/personality.
ISELLE: Many events shaped my character. Failures have definitely sharpened it. Because they push me out of my comfort zone, they are the best times of growth. A recent example is the oil crisis’ blow. Its devastating effects results from failure to manage resources and diversify our economy which over-relied on oil extraction. However, I hold myself accountable for what can be done, as a solution developer: For the last two years, I have been organizing in Port-Gentil, with a group of consultants, a two-day event for SME action in times of crisis. Banks, subject matter experts and regulating administrations share expertise and advice to entrepreneurs. Last year, we focused on quality improvement and meaningful businesses. UBA Bank spoke about the importance of income and spend flow analysis, while tax authorities facilitated talks on conformity and trade registration on project feasibility. You see, promoting an enabling environment is everyone’s duty.
An important day was when I quit my job to become an entrepreneur. The commercial manager gave me a precious advice before I left: “As you go now, you are entering into a different dimension of Accountability. As an African entrepreneur, you will not only be responsible of your job or the company’s profit. But also of your staff, of part of their well being, development, and, at large, of part of the country’s progress.” It is a side of the medal we don’t always foresee.
Finally, becoming a mother was a defining moment for my character. I know that every decision I take, move I make, thought I project, is a seed. Whatever trail of legacy I leave today will influence my daughters’ tomorrow.
TEF: What’s the story behind your starting out your business?
ISELLE: When I was working as a contract analyst, one of my duties was to follow-up on the Contract & Procurement team’s tendering process, from invitation to award of contracts to small suppliers. It required multi-coordination between interacting with governmental regulating bodies, evaluating suppliers offers while attending internal stakeholders’ expectations, and meeting cost targets. It was a lot of team effort that I could gather from the first row. At some point, while taking part to many suppliers’ bids evaluations sessions, I realized that many local, competent businesses, miss out contracts because, in spite of their competitive proposals, they lack commercial skills. The key ones being market research, negotiation ability, structured cost and price, or contract terms and conditions knowledge. Sometimes it even comes down to knowing how to display their competitive force, whether it is deadline, quality, cost, innovation, etc.
Even when an SME is awarded a contract, they find themselves sitting alone at the table of negotiation, in front of the major corporate armada of legal and assurance experts, tax clerks, contract analysts, corporate business advisors and technical engineers. The final contract is hence, never really a win-win agreement for both parties. So I decided to target the hardworking ones, with development impact potential and integrity. My consultancy provides with commercial training, contract and procurement support, as well as translation services.
TEF: What will you say has driven you to be successful in your field/business?
ISELLE: Do things from the heart. Go 100% in what you do in the “Now”. I don’t spend too much time over-planning. I stick to my field. Once I set my schedule, understand if it fits into the global picture my call, once I know how best I can deliver, my head and heart are fully thrown into giving the best of all my competency, my being, in the present time. It demands a lot of energy to be focused, from reviewing the scope and terms of an engineering contract. Doing research on an upcoming workshop’s participants. Reading complementary material on one of TEF programme’s lessons content. Paying attention to a phone conversation. Commitment, discipline or attention to details, are all assets of the ‘Now’, not wishes for tomorrow!
It has helped my business be taken seriously in such a short period of time. It allows me to be very demanding of my customers’ sweating efforts to be great. I don’t want to be a motivator during the time of a working session. I want to trigger a long-term improvement, beyond the limited time and space of our interaction. You can only get this sustainable, length and depth of impact, when you give 100% of your heart in the Now. Impact is key to a business’ success.
TEF: What challenges have you encountered in your business and since you started out your business?
ISELLE: I took the leap into the unknown platform of being “une entrepreneur” when the oil crisis hit my country. Most private companies have reduced their spend, so the major challenge is that many do not even give you a chance to bring forward a proposal, they are so entangled on daily management that they fail to see what you could do to help their business improve. In times of crisis, they should learn how to better benchmark the market. Master their finances. Lay firm organizational foundations such as operating processes, adapted commercial strategy.
Another challenge is that the consultancy profession is not always appreciated to the point where people are willing to pay for it. You get many phone calls and e-mails requesting free advice, forgetting we make a living out of this activity, and that our business is only profitable if we get paid for our services. Sometimes also, you are faced with potential clients willing expecting you help them secure contracts via your network of friends, or give confidential information about their competitors or the market. Part of our job is then to raise the level of awareness regarding ways of excelling as entrepreneurs, and how useful professional consultants are to their business.
I have learned more in 2 years as an entrepreneur than in 16 years as an employee, because the challenges are many. It is not a hobby, a fashion or an ego-booster. It is a tough and fun marathon. I might be on heels, but with sandals under my desk for the sleepless nights.
TEF: What motivates you?
Seeing progress, the result of a movement to create wealth, the product of continuous action, motivates me. I don’t like stagnation. To the point I get irritated when I have to queue somewhere. Tangible, measurable progress motivates me. It means we are on track, closer to purpose. When we have worked long hours with a client to prepare a tender submission, and that I see the final print of the bid package on their table, ready to go, I am motivated. When we complete with a client the actions recommended after an audit report, I am motivated. When I finish writing an article to be published, I am motivated. When I see the progress of my profit, I am motivated. Whenever I have worked from frontend of a project, and the final result is polished middle to edges, I am motivated.
Seeing the rising turnout during the last mentor’s webinar of the TEF entrepreneurship programme, with Owen Omogiafo the COO engaging hands-on, means the programme spreads itself, mentees, mentors, the team. I am motivated.
“Seeing the results of consistent effort” is my definition of progress.
TEF: Why have you chosen to be a TEF mentor?
ISELLE: Two years ago my husband spoke to me with admiration of this man, born and bred in Africa, who was investing $100 million to boost entrepreneurship in Africa. I went over the internet, did some research about Tony Elumelu’s career path and vision. The project is so tuned, the vision so clear, the demands so fulfilling! I then read that the programme was looking for mentors. I informed myself about the expectations, the requirements to be fulfilled by the mentors, looked back at my own profile and objectives, knee-prayed hard, and applied.
You know the heart-butterflies you get when joy overtakes you? That’s me when I was selected as a mentor. The programme is not a plus on my resume. Here is the opportunity to help create an elite of high-performing entrepreneurs in different sectors, for the years to come. Note that western management theory writers like Fayol, Brech or Drucker defined the traditional functions of an organization as control, planning, delegation, and some aspects of leadership. But the TEF Entrepreneurship Programme is an African-inspired pioneer of more sustainable ways of promoting organizational success, through mentoring and high-quality training between individuals who have never met but whose net builds the socio-economic tissue. A new, African specific business-mindset.
It moves us away from a primitive form of business management into something more sustainable, with consistency, thanks to the additional function of mentoring, which plays a key role for a continent that needs to bind together different but complementary values, practices, competencies, towards our common Goal of a redefined Africa. “Transforming Africa”.
As a businesswoman myself, I also knew I would learn la Crème de la Crème on this programme to improve my technical ability.
TEF: How does this mentorship position fit into your personal goals, how would you benefit from being a mentor?
Technical competency: The programme content has given me the foundations of a successful business in Africa.
Fulfillment: It gives me a real sense of belonging with the vision of a self-reliant continent. Note we do not make money out of the time we invest it, but the rewards are deeper.
Progress: I cannot draw energy and passion from what I do if I don’t improve, outstretch. I have never held a job position for more than two years; I kept moving up the ladder or building up competencies. But today I am self-employed, the progress is expressed differently.
Giving back: Giving is a lifestyle of the great. It is important to set apart a bit of your calendar to give your time, ear, and advice. We cannot seriously call ourselves leaders if we do not release something to the community in many ways. What does it cost to share, to inspire, to give hope, to build? Nothing. We actually owe it. This is why you feel “lighter”, as a leader, when you have finished mentoring, transmitting to others. You have released something you are meant to give, it cannot just stay within. Leadership is not inward, it’s an outward movement.
TEF: Is this your first time being a mentor with TEF? If not, please share your last experience with us.
ISELLE: It is my second time. The first year, I mentored two entrepreneurs. One of them unfortunately dropped off, which was a lesson for me to encourage the mentees to be extremely well organized with their time and to visualize their end target so they can take it to the end.
This year, what I did differently was organising with some 2016 TEF entrepreneurs’ information sessions about the programme, and take more time to read the resource material as soon as it is available. We don’t sell the idea of an easy programme. It is hard. You must be disciplined and thorough.
The same goes for mentors too, we must be organised. I have a whole afternoon a week set aside to read the resource material, review what my mentees work, or share good news about the programme in social network. The mentor is not meant to do the job for the mentee, to fix the hub’s technical issues or to explain every lesson. The mentee does the biggest part of the job and must take ownership of what he has been selected for amongst over 90,000 candidates. But he needs to be encouraged, to exchange views, to receive feedback and advice to make the best out of the programme. Mentors have been selected too; we have a mission entrusted to us.
I attended the 2016 TEF forum in Lagos. It was a personal decision partly to support my mentee, to learn myself from the many speakers from different horizons, and to help as a mentor if I was needed. I learnt beyond expectations. There are times in life when you know you are exactly at the right place, at the right time, doing exactly what is right. That’s the resume of that week: “Beyond expectations”.
TEF: Who were your mentees? Are you still in touch with them?
ISELLE: Last year one mentee with a beautiful project of a small amusement park in RDC, and the second with a ready-to-cook and affordable mango nuts sauce, a dish that is widely appreciated in Gabon. This year I have a mentee from Centrafrique, Gabin, and one from Cameroon, Emmanuel. It is more difficult to stay in touch with the mentees once the programme is over, partly because I focus on the new promotion, and try to encourage also the other entrepreneurs from Gabon that were selected on the 2017 programme.
TEF: Did you ever have a mentor and do you have any mentors in your life right now?
ISELLE: I had a mentor, my manager. Back in the U.K, Dilip taught me everything and challenged me without mercy. Sometimes we did not even need to speak, I knew what to deliver and how. The company I was working for at the time then created the position of “mentor” for me, so I could train the newcomers and struggling staff. I was 22 years old. But I don’t recall having another professional mentor after that. I am extremely demanding of what I expect from a mentor. This is one reason mentoring is important, and we, mentors on the TEF programme, must value this privilege. Entrepreneurs are in an environment that does not support them, doubts their dreams. We can with small steps tell them how they can improve, tap into their abilities, work on their weaknesses, and share values.
Today I would say I have a never-met mentors, like Tony Elumelu, and Daphne Mashile-Nkosi. I am inspired by Mr Elumelu’s career path and his character. I have never met him. But I know him. Common vision stirs togetherness.
TEF: How open are you to sharing your personal values and learning about the differences in values of your mentee?
ISELLE: You must be able to share your values. Higher up I spoke about the specific way the Tony Elumelu Foundation is raising a new way of raising the continent. Mentoring being one of them, and encompassing transmission of values. Mentoring is not about showing only how things are done. It is about doing them for the right reasons too. Values are transferable: Consistency. Effort. Accountability. Integrity. Commitment. Etc.
Most of my mentees know their dream, but do not necessarily realize how important it is for us African to clearly identify, ‘value your values’, so I encourage them to get in touch with them. It will strengthen their identity and keep them on track. Your values determine your decisions at all levels, including the business one. They quicken your decision-taking process, and reduce the probability of making mistakes, of randomly seizing opportunities that are hidden failures.
TEF: What expectations do you have about the relationship you may have with your mentee?
ISELLE: Honestly, just the hope that my little contribution brings a smile to them when I tell them something they do not here enough: that their project is right. That their dream is valid. Legitimate. I learn from them. Their genuine hope is powerful. Their sincere and fearless questions. Their belief and creativity.
TEF: How has the Tony Elumelu Foundation’s Entrepreneurship Programme helped you as a mentor and your business?
ISELLE: The programme has taught me about better connecting my business to the needs of my environment and to carry simple but effective studies to direct my strategy. You cannot operate the same way in times of economic recession as in times of growth. You can adjust. I am able to be a better consultant for my customers, in a simple way. With a better structured approach to their challenges. It has helped me get in touch with many positive minds that lift you up. Knowing that in 50 years from now, people will walk the streets of my country and see their needs and wants met by locally produced services, homegrown solutions, to which I was able to contribute a long time ago, is a great responsibility. We are condemned to succeed. And mentors play a key part if we know how to give a tiny portion of this: Nothing but the best.