IWD 2019 – Interview with Elizabeth Rossiello, Founder & CEO, BitPesa

In the spirit of celebrating International Women’s Day 2019, we are featuring Endeavor Nigeria’s first female entrepreneur, Elizabeth Rossiello (Founder, BitPesa). Elizabeth spoke to us about her challenges and accomplishment as an entrepreneur.

Q: What’s one time you faced a challenge, setback, or failure as an entrepreneur? What did you learn from the experience?

A: A few years ago an investor defaulted on an investment payment and it nearly bankrupted the company.  It was incredibly challenging, as we were very near the end of our cash runway and the team started to panic.  Although legal documents had been signed, we had not done enough due diligence on the investor.  We also had not found a back-up plan when the investor first showed signs of delay.  I had chosen to just “hope” that it would be ok, instead of put a risk-based plan in place.  I learned that as CEO, even under very stressful situations, it is essential to remain clear-headed, assess risk accurately and find solutions to move forward.

Q: Describe a problem you’re solving as an entrepreneur. What is it’s significant to you, and what is the solution your business presents?

A: The African continent still struggles with the remnants of financial colonialism, with national currencies (i.e. the CFA) lacking monetary sovereignty.  This contributes to the lack of financial infrastructure development, making it difficult even today to send payments between African countries and regions.  Even within the same Banking network, it is often problematic, expensive, or not possible to make direct African currency pairs and enact settlement.  African currencies are often traded only against the USD or EUR and wired via US or European correspondent banks, even when the destination is Africa or a non-US/Euro market.  This limits intra-Africa trade and trade between Africa and emerging partners, such as Japan, China, and India.  It is essential that secondary and mid-market brokers, such as BitPesa, develop and create more liquidity in these African currency pairs to enable trade and increase local monetary sovereignty.

Q: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of growth or a new understanding of self as an entrepreneur. 

A: When we acquired our first company at the start of our fourth year in business, I was able to make the announcement at the annual Yahoo Finance event in NY.  I was featured in a 1:1 discussion and so it was a featured video.  Yahoo has huge SEO presence, so this video spread everywhere.  Partners, customers, investors, colleagues and even competitors reached out to say they had seen this and were impressed by our growth, ambition and execution capability.  It was a great moment – because the work leading up to the announcement was so intense I had not begun to process what the success of the deal meant for our company and team.  Taking a minute to acknowledge the accomplishment gave me space to think about what we were capable of as a company, and where I as a leader could take the company in our next season.

Q: The theme for IWD 2019 is “Balance For Better”. What does that mean to you? What do you think needs to be done to achieve a better balance for women in high-impact entrepreneurship and business? 

A: In terms of it being a balanced playing field, we are miles away from it being fair. Most socializing at executive levels is done without many women around. There are some exceptions and it is certainly better than it was in years prior, but still not balanced. For funding, there have been studies that clearly show male investors hear pitches differently when delivered by a male entrepreneur and a female entrepreneur. One Harvard study showed that women are funded more if they show a social mission, as the association with women + social impact is something men believe more than women + for-profit. Another Harvard study showed that women get asked different questions than men, even when delivering the exact same pitch. The questions delivered show that the funders struggle to believe that the female entrepreneur is as capable, as likely to succeed, and as knowledgeable.  Even when male investors and mentors are keen to work with female founders, sometimes even the most well-intentioned struggle to act appropriately or without visible awkwardness – as they are honestly just not used to socializing and working with women at an executive level.

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