Woman in Tech: Spytrac CEO, Ijeoma Mary Talks about Managing People and Work-life Balance
For most people, being in tech means knowing how to write codes and build software. Ijeoma Mary Chukwu’s take on tech has a lot to do with trackers, tracking software, and automobiles. She is the founder of Spytrac technologies and Hail Technologies, a ride-hailing platform that specialises in delivery.
Before walking into tech, like most parents, Ijeoma’s parents wanted her to become a medical doctor. After the senior WAEC exams, she took up a salesgirl role at Computer Village in Ikeja where she was introduced to the world of floppy discs, CD-ROMs, computers. This was where she developed an interest in computers and computer science.
After writing JAMB 4 times and not meeting the required cut-off for Medicine, I remember buying the form for the 5th time and my father told me “Ijeoma, you don’t have to buy this form, JAMB needs to dash you form”
After 5 JAMB attempts to study Medicine, she finally decided to study her preferred Computer Science and got her father’s approval.
“He said ‘you want to be a typist?’ and I said no but the difference was not really clear to him,” she said.
She got admitted to study the course in the same year.
Suggested read: Women In Tech: Ommo Clark Shares Her 20-Year Journey Towards Making an Impact as a Software Developer
Her fascination for computers drove her to acquire a Pentium 2-core laptop where she first learned how to type. The drive was to know how the computer worked and get into the World Wide Web.
She also learned how to troubleshoot and fix a computer after observing technicians do the same thing with computers at the computer village. During her interview for a job at C & I Leasing, a company laptop developed a fault and the only place to repair it was at the company’s other branch in Lekki.
‘I told the MD that I can fix computers. He gave me the go-ahead and I fixed the computer. I got the job.’
She worked at the company as an installer, installing trackers on cars and other equipments. Being a female who enjoyed the hardware parts of tech and was good at it did not come without some perks and challenges.
“My circumstances made me feel special because I was the only girl among many guys. However, there were times when I approached a client’s car, and told them I am the installer, that I got odd looks. This was more pronounced if the client was male. They would look at me from head to toe, especially because I wore skirts and I could see them wondering ‘okay…, what will she do?'”
When tracking called…
Ijeoma’s own company, Spytrac Technologies, focuses on Telematics. Services rendered include tracking and fleet management. She decided to build a company that provides these services after witnessing the recovery of a car that had been stolen.
“The day I stayed with my brother who was the tracking officer for C&I, a vehicle was stolen. From where he was, he tracked the vehicle and was able to show me a real-time map of its journey on the computer screen.”
“I watched at home while he went with a team in another car to the village where the stolen car was parked. The vehicle was retrieved and I could see the movement of both cars as they made their way back.”
Her interest in tracking grew from that time and prompted her to intern at C&I’s tracking department. After the internship, she was called back to work in the same department and headed it.
Heading a team in a male-dominated field meant that she was not taken seriously at first. More often than not, she had to put more effort into getting her point across.
“When you see something going wrong and want to speak about it, it’s easy for it to be pushed aside and not taken as seriously as it is because it is coming from a woman,” she said.
“To overcome that, I learnt how to push my point across and get the necessary people to hear it and take the desired action. When subordinates or fellow installers do not take my instructions seriously, I ensure that there are penalties especially if I head the person’s department. They don’t take you seriously until they know that you are serious.”
In her managerial role at C&I, working with women proved to be as challenging as working with men. Because any error in tracking means that the Company will lose and pay for it. As such, she did not give instructions with levity.
“Most times, women were not comfortable with that and I had to explain over and over until I realized that I needed to find another way to reach the female folk. I started making out time to gist with them, talk sometimes about things like makeup and hair. I am more of a tomboy and those topics did not hold much of my interest then. To get my message across, I had to become friends with them”
“I have found that, in the workplace, you can’t be a woman and want to approach a woman like a man, she will refuse you. To avoid misunderstandings, you have to explain and find ways to get your message across.”
In the Telematics industry where her main focus is, Ijeoma says enough creative attention is not being paid to the sector. ‘We are not manufacturing what we use in the industry. From the hardware to the software, we use what is manufactured and available from other countries,’ She said.
The tracking software available from other manufacturers did not solve all the local challenges that Spytrac’s team wanted to solve, and so the team developed its own tracking software that allows people integrate their devices to the company’s tracking service.
The challenges around purchasing and shipping trackers from abroad finally brought the Spytrac team to the decision of making their own trackers.
The need for a team and the challenges with teams
While people are huge assets of a company, they can also be the biggest challenge to the company’s progress. From her experience founding and building two tech companies, having people on board who do not want to learn, unlearn, relearn and embrace the vision of the company has brought on challenges at one time or the other.
For those situations, she said having a good HR structure and exit strategy for personnel in place is crucial. Knowing when to let people go and how best to let them go has been one of the most important skills needed for the business.
“When people come in to your company, they will test your structure and processes but your continuous insistence on ‘this is how we started, this is how it has to be’ is important. You need to know when to be flexible and allow some changes, and stay true to the foundation.”
As a female-led business, raising funds was a challenge at first. For most people, family and friends are usually the first financiers of the business, but even family did not immediately see the importance or necessity to put money in Spytrac as a young business.
As the business began to grow and needed to raise more funds to scale, Ijeoma faced the same challenge from when it started.
“One of the people I spoke with told me something very fundamental, she said ‘It is not money you need, you need a team’. That was when I knew I had to create an advisory board.”
“When I later approached investors, they did not just see me, they saw the men and women on the advisory board who believed in my vision and who had scrutinized the structure I wanted to run the business with. We were able to raise N5 million naira when we needed it.”
As at 2019, the company was valued at N248 million and has made more than that in revenue in the past 3 years. However, as she continues on the path of creating more solutions and growing the business, looking out for a work-life balance as a woman in tech is crucial for Ijeoma.
To make time for all that she handles, Ijeoma says “I outsource a lot of things so that I can have peace. Cooking, cleaning, and some other chores are outsourced but what I don’t outsource is the relationship. I am committed to the playtime, movie time, picnics, football sessions and other personal time with those who matter to me.”
“There is really no balance but you have to be intentional about making time for what matters to you. The job time is always there but those personal times are the special times. If I miss it today, I just ensure I don’t miss it tomorrow.”
If you’d like to get featured on our Entrepreneur Spotlight, click here to share your startup story with us.
Get latest Technology news, reviews, business-related content with a deliberate emphasis on the African narrative and insightful analysis in Nigeria – straight to your inbox.