African Science Entrepreneurs Gather for Women's Village Workshops

Entrepreneurs at the GIST Women's Village Workshop in Maputo, Mozambique, practice networking.  | Charles Dunlap/AAAS

Science and technology entrepreneurs in the African nations of Côte d’Ivoire, Mozambique, and Nigeria learned strategies – like filling the seats in their “personal boardroom” – to expand their networks and advance their entrepreneurial projects during a series of GIST Women’s Village Workshops held this spring and summer.

Each workshop, organized and managed by AAAS’ Research Competitiveness Program (RCP), brought together 25 local entrepreneurs in all stages of their careers in an array of fields, including information technology, health, telecommunications, and agriculture. A particular focus on women’s access to entrepreneurship resources and networking skills drew a majority female group of participants, who convened 24-26 February in the Ivorian city of Abidjan, 18-19 May in Lagos, Nigeria, and 24-25 May in Maputo, Mozambique.

The program is just one element of the U.S. State Department’s Global Innovation Through Science and Technology (GIST) initiative, which provides young innovators and entrepreneurs from more than 100 emerging economies around the world the resources they need for their startups that tackle economic and development challenges.

The GIST Women’s Village Workshops represent significant progress on the U.S. government’s commitment to train, mentor, and connect more than 10,000 young African science and technology entrepreneurs, as announced by President Barack Obama in July 2015. The workshops are expected to satisfy about 40 percent of that goal by connecting approximately 4,500 entrepreneurs, said Charles Dunlap, program director of the Research Competitiveness Program.

With nearly 20 years’ experience providing peer review and guidance to U.S. and international organizations engaged in scientific research, development, and innovation, RCP brings to the GIST Women’s Village Workshop unique insights into cross-cutting issues faced by scientists and entrepreneurs.

The workshops’ centerpiece was the creation of a networking action plan by each participant. To accelerate their entrepreneurship, all workshop participants were challenged to reach “60 in 6”: expand their network by 60 people over the course of the next six months by using the strategies learned at the workshop.

To kick-start their action plans, participants took stock of their personal boardroom, said the instructor of the workshops in Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria, Maggie Dugan of Knowinnovation, which specializes in running creative workshops to accelerate scientific innovation. Dugan applies this work in the realm of economic development as the leader of the organization’s Inclusive Innovation initiative.

The personal boardroom concept, developed by Amanda Scott, who led the Mozambique workshop, and Zella King, doesn’t rely upon collecting as many business cards or LinkedIn connections as possible. Instead, entrepreneurs focus on cultivating relationships with fewer key people who play 12 different roles in advancing their work.

Ivorian entrepreneurs collaborate at the Abidjan workshop. | Charles Dunlap/AAAS

“The most important information I learned at the workshop was the identification of the 12 key roles we need to have in our professional network. This helped me clarify my vision of my network and it made me learn how to build an efficient strategy to boost my professional network,” said Côte d’Ivoire participant Guilène Assamoi, a communications consultant and entrepreneur. Assamoi is the founder of Jolieville, a label created for the promotion of African cultural and artistic works, and is a member of the Abidjan team of Jokkolabs, a nonprofit organization promoting innovation.

“I think all entrepreneurs must know and use this tool in order to know how to build their personal boardroom,” said Jessyca Esther Houenou, an Ivorian workshop participant who works as a software and web developer and project manager and has co-founded an organization to promote Côte d’Ivoire’s natural wealth. “For me, this is the essence of networking.”

Workshop participants created a map of their personal boardroom, beginning with who they already know and what roles they play. Then, they walked around and shared their maps with other participants – an interactive moment emblematic of the workshop and its goals.

Although most meetings in the region are “relatively passive,” Dugan said, the GIST Women’s Village Workshops departed from this tradition. While she sought to respect the expertise and seriousness of the participants, Dugan emphasized discussion and interaction in an atmosphere of “deliberate creativity,” she said.

An environment in which people are comfortable taking intellectual risks leads to deeper conversations and allows space for people to surprise themselves with their own ingenuity, Dugan said.

“I was surprised by, and I liked the communication techniques used,” said Côte d’Ivoire participant Safoura Fadiga. Participants were frequently moving around the room to interact with one another, which led to a friendlier feel than traditional workshops, said Fadiga, an engineer, teacher, and entrepreneur who leads IST-DUBASS, a private, French/English bilingual college that aims to train more young people – particularly girls – in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The nontraditional structure also facilitated a space for exchange.

“People in the workshop learn as much from each other as they do from the people leading the workshop. We want to create a space where participants can learn from each other as much as they can learn from the content provided,” Dugan said.

Accordingly, the women and men at the workshop took the opportunity to complement their personal boardrooms, asking their fellow participants if they could fill an empty seat or if someone in their own network could.

While Dugan noted that a significant portion of networking in the entrepreneurship field focuses on funding, “there are so many other things that we can exchange with people who help us build our businesses and enhance our careers,” she said.

It’s a matter of making the right “asks” of the right people, Dugan said. You probably wouldn’t ask the people who serve as a source of inspiration for funding, she added. Instead, she noted that networkers are more likely to get positive responses when their requests are targeted.

But networking is more than just what people can do for you, Dugan said – it’s an exchange. Workshop participants put this into action during a separate networking bazaar. Each participant created two lists: one of their needs and one of the things that they can offer to others. They were then encouraged to chat with each other, as if at a cocktail party, to network amongst themselves.

“I was able to share my expertise in communication strategy development and task management for the organization of an event,” said Assamoi.

“I could share the impact of good public speaking with my fellow attendees,” particularly women early in their careers, Fadiga said.

Workshop participants also came away with guidance for using social networking to further their entrepreneurial projects, another element that demonstrated the collaborative nature of the meeting, Dugan said. She provided participants with information about the uses of various social networks, and participants then discussed their own experiences using social networking in their entrepreneurship.

Participants are now hard at work applying the lessons learned at the workshop to expand their networks and further develop relationships with existing contacts.

“Since attending the workshop, I organized an event to expand my professional network and I have led a workshop on networking with the NGO Bibliothèque Sans Frontières. Every time I meet someone useful in my network, I asked them to connect me to some useful contacts,” Assamoi said.

“After the workshop, I felt more motivated and committed to expand my network. I put into practice what I have learned and my network continues to grow by meeting new people and refining my personal boardroom,” Houenou said. She has also shared her enhanced digital marketing knowledge with other women in her network who were interested in reaching new customers but did not yet have the social media skills to boost their business.

Nigerian entrepreneurs at work at the Lagos workshop. | Charles Dunlap/AAAS

Cultivating leadership among participants is a key benefit of the workshop for RCP, said Dunlap.

“We see all of those things as capacity building — that’s why we want to see our participants pass on knowledge,” he said.

In order to stay in touch as they continue to build and sustain their networks and serve as leaders in their entrepreneurship communities, Dugan said the participants created a Google group to keep tabs on one another and their entrepreneurial projects.

AAAS will continue to be in touch with the participants as well.

RCP has gathered data before, during, and after the workshop from participants about their networks and networking skills.

“We really place an emphasis on quantifying the impacts,” Dunlap said.

They will continue to reach out six months after the workshop for updates on participants’ progress toward their “60 in 6” goal, said Shaaretha Pelly, the program’s GIST Women’s Villages project lead. The participant who has made the most connections within six months after the workshop will receive a prize yet to be determined.

The information gathered by RCP from the Côte d’Ivoire workshop also helped to inform the Lagos and Maputo workshops, Pelly said.

In additional to language adaptations – a bilingual English-French learning environment in Côte d’Ivoire, English in Nigeria, and English and Portuguese in Mozambique – Pelly said that RCP worked to “tailor it to the entrepreneurship landscapes, participants’ backgrounds, and networks within each country.”

They also shortened the workshop from three days to two, which enabled post-workshop receptions in Lagos and Maputo, allowing participants to put their newfound networking skills to the test and celebrate their accomplishments, Pelly said. In Lagos, the organizers invited local entrepreneurs and representatives of the U.S. embassy. In Maputo, the U.S. ambassador to Mozambique closed out the workshop and presented certificates to the participants.

The organizers also had the opportunity to introduce greater geographical diversity at the Maputo session. While nearly all participants in Abidjan and Lagos were from the city, the organizers were able to bring four participants to Maputo from the north of Mozambique to encourage networking among entrepreneurs throughout the country, Pelly said.

Participants in the Côte d'Ivoire workshop gather for a photo. | Charles Dunlap/AAAS