As much as we say women are underrepresented in tech, there are still incredible women who are launching and building successful, innovative tech companies that are upending industries, setting new standards and earning their place in the tech industry. These women create and innovate, exploiting ideas, products and services to produce dynamic businesses.
As with most people who transition into tech, Clara Wanjiku Odero started from a different field entirely. She began her career as an environmental scientist. This choice of career was inspired by Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmental activist who was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first Black African woman to win a Nobel Prize.
Originally, Clara wanted to study law but changed her mind after listening to Wangari Maathai, thanks to a PeaceJam fellowship. PeaceJam is an international education program built around Nobel Peace Prize Laureates who work personally with youths to pass on the spirit, skills, and wisdom they embody.
Armed with a degree in environmental science, she went into International Development- carbon monitoring. However, she discovered that the field was different from what she expected. Clara has a strong sense of justice and she often talks about making a difference. Her work, which was a well-paid job, entailed going to poor communities and seeing how to help but she was dissatisfied as she felt she wasn’t actually making a difference.
It just wasn’t congruent to the things I wanted to do in life and I didn’t think we were actually making a change.Clara Odero on international development
This is not the only reason why she left though. She mentions a glass ceiling for women, especially black women in international development. Upper management was for white people and this realization led her to the next phase of her career, tech.
1 decacorn, 2 unicorns, a startup
Clara represented Kenyatta University, Kenya in the 2008 Zain Africa Challenge, a televised academic competition for students of African universities. Her university lost out at the semi-finals stage because she listened to outside opinion instead of her intuition. And this was a big learning point for her.
We lost because I let people tell me who to place as captain of the team, someone who had never played. Now, I am a big believer in following my intuition.
Listening to her intuition led her to abandon her pursuit of a business degree to move to Nigeria and to work at Flutterwave. After leaving International Development, she reached out to her friend, Iyin Aboyeji, co-founder of Flutterwave and thus began her career in tech.
Not many women can boast of working top positions at two fintech unicorns but Clara Wanjiku Odero is one of those women. She worked at Flutterwave, as the Head of Implementation. Afterwards, she acted as Director of Network Operations, Africa at Rapyd, an Israeli unicorn. Her last position before setting out on her own endeavour was as VP Growth and Partnerships at Nium.
One would think working at these impressive places is enough but it turned out to be quite the opposite for Clara.
“There was nothing left. It was time for a bigger challenge, for me to grow, I am a big believer in pushing myself to limits.”
Her experiences in those impressive places exposed Clara to how Africa was considered in the tech space and also the need to fill a vacuum in the African tech space.
“We were the last ones that people wanted to integrate with. It was so difficult to see us as a place to do business,” she said.
This vacuum is the need to connect all of Africa in order to sell the African opportunity.
I’m a big believer in this continent. I thought about why is it so difficult for Africa to be taken seriously. It’s because it is 50 plus countries that are broken up basically, so you have to go to each country to file in. But if you are to connect these (country), what’s the opportunity?Clara
To solve some of these problems, she set up Credrails with Teresia Kairu, a former colleague during her time in International Development and who had also gone on to be Head of Finance at BitPesa and COO of AZAFinance.
Countries in Africa have differing financial and monetary systems and this impacts building fintech for the continent- builders targeting Africa’s 1.3 billion people have to struggle with the many systems. Credrails’ single API connects all 55 countries, allowing developers to build for Africa with ease and quickly.
There is such potential. We are building a business that is going to make it possible for you to reach all 50 plus countries so that involves a little bit of work.
Within less than a year since its launch, Credrails now has access to 250 million accounts in 33 countries and is working towards connecting all of Africa, empowering fintech developers with incredible capabilities through a single API. Credrails solutions also promote interoperability across services, leading to faster and more affordable movement of money around Africa and beyond.
Life as an African female CEO
The best part of being the CEO of a tech startup, one she describes as a love letter to Africa, is her team. A humbling experience in this role is when experienced people show up wanting to work for the startup.
We have Monday morning meetings and I keep quiet most of the meeting because people know what they are doing. You’re just watching your dream, your little idea blossoming in the hands of people who are so experienced. It has been amazing.
Clara’s passion for her business shines through as she talks about appropriately rewarding her team through a generous employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) and also making plans for the next generation of startups through Credrails.
Only 2% of all funding goes to women globally. To put it into perspective, only three per cent of African tech startup funding since 2013 has gone to companies with all-female founding startups while 76% went to all-male founding startups, according to a Briter Bridges report.
After bootstrapping the initial process, Credrails has raised $2.5m in the seed round. Although it has been somewhat difficult to raise funding, it has not proven impossible due to Clara’s experience and track record in the space.
“It hasn’t been as difficult for me but I understand that it can be difficult for a lot of people because it is about network, communication and being able to sell your idea in a way other people will get it. With investors, people trust people who sound like them. Hopefully, as we build up communities, we can change those statistics a bit,” she said.
Advocacy for women
Clara’s love for wicked people stepmothers ends in the old Nollywood movies she enjoys watching as she can be described as an advocate for women.
“We make a conscious when it comes to hiring and who our vendors are, in every single way. I can’t say that I want to be a woman in business and not support other women.”
She also believes in having advocates in business.
I think people should learn how to have an advocate at work. Someone who is going to put your work forward and speak about how your work has been good and put you up for opportunities.
This advocacy for women is also evident outside of business. Clara was a loud voice condemning the sexual harassment acts labelled against Daudi Were, executive director of Ushahidi, a Kenyan crowdsourcing platform by a former employee.
I didn’t know this girl but the way they were treating her was so wrong. For me, right is right and wrong is wrong so I was speaking up and speaking up really loudly.
On opening up the space for other ladies to join in, Clara believes women should acquire the necessary skills and then go after what they desire.
“In this life, you have to believe there’s nothing too good for you and there’s no room you don’t deserve to be in. Believe you deserve to be in those rooms and go after it. It is really hard for people to say no to you when you are the best and so I’ll tell anyone who wants to go into tech. work on your skillset. Become so good they can’t say no,” she said.
Clara looks up to women who break glass ceilings and names her mum and sister as women she looks up to. She also names Odunayo Eweniyi of Piggyvest, Seun Runsewe Senior Product Manager at Chipper Cash, and Barbara Iyayi, Managing Director of Unicorn Africa Investments as people who open doors in tech. This is also the goal for her, to open doors for others.
I never want to be the only African woman in the room, there is absolutely no pride in that. I want to open the door so there’s lots of us. The goal is that a lot more of us are in these rooms and these positions.
To know which side Clara joined in the Jollof war, her favourite food and also her thoughts on open finance in Africa. Watch out for the full video on our Youtube channel.
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