Entrepreneurs

Women in Tech: How Determination, Her Inner Voice, and Michelle Obama Helped This Entrepreneur Succeed

In honour of International Women’s Day, we spoke with Catherine Mahugu, a successful techpreneur, changemaker and advocate for gender equality and equity, who is making a world of difference by leveraging the power of tech in the developing world.

From a young age, Mahugu was fascinated with how things worked. She remembers searching for a screwdriver so she could tinker with gadgets like a broken hairdryer, toy or calculator. And she would constantly bombard her siblings with questions like “How does a car move?” and “How does an engine work?”

“I’ve always been a problem-solver and a handywoman and it was a fulfilling thing if I tried to fix something — although I didn’t have the expertise to do so,” says Mahugu. It was because of her curious nature that Mahugu knew she wanted to work in a dynamic and innovative field. And it was in tech that she found her match.

Mahugu is the founder of Chiswara, an e-commerce company that provides specialty, premium Kenyan coffee to the international market and works in favour of the rural Kenyan farmers. She is also the founder of Soko, an ethical fashion brand that expands access to economic opportunity for artisans in emerging economies by disrupting the traditional export supply chain.

 

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Mahugu was a keynote speaker at DRIVE, the conference on scaleup ecosystems hosted by Hockeystick and the Lazaridis Institute in Waterloo last month. At the inaugural conference, she shared how her companies are revolutionizing the way money and goods are exchanged between producers in the developing world and global consumers.

Mahugu says trade, especially in the emerging market, is critical when it comes to fostering economic development.

 

“Over the years there’s been a lot of aid, but I believe that we need more of ‘trade versus aid’ philosophy, says Mahugu. “We have to empower the community — don’t give them the fish, teach them how to fish.”

 

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Through her companies, Mahugu has leveraged tech and the digital economy to help build an engine of growth for the developing world.

 

Read the Stories that 3 Canadian Female Founders Shared for International Women's Day. 

 

Fashion and Coffee: Women-Centred Industries

Women play a central role at both Soko and Chiswara. And Mahugu is dedicated to making sure they feel the economic benefits from their hard work.

Founded in 2012, Soko sources products directly from female artisans who have their own workshops. Mahugu says the fashion industry absolutely needs to better consider the impact it has on the countries where it sources products.

 

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Celebrities like Michelle Obama, Lupita Nyong'o, Nicole Kidman, Oprah Winfrey and Emma Watson have been styled with Soko's jewelry.

Her latest venture, the e-commerce coffee company Chiswara, is particularly close to her heart.

Mahugu’s parents grew up in the rural parts of Kenya in the 70s when coffee was a viable business for families. “Coffee was seen as a glorified job. But that’s not the case right now,” says Mahugu. “So I want to bring back the glory and dignity of farming.”

 

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Mahugu says the industry has changed drastically in the last 40 years. Now larger coffee corporations take most of the profit, with a typical Kenyan coffee farmer receiving pennies in comparison.

Increasingly, coffee farmers simply don’t see the point in continuing to grow coffee.

What’s more, in the coffee industry there is a clear division of labour between men and women. Women will cultivate and farm the land, but the majority of marketing and sales is done by men. Unsurprisingly, most of the profit lies in marketing and sales.

“Women compose half the farming population, so if you want to bring economic growth you have to uplift the lives of the women,” says Mahugu. To address this, Chiswara has developed a mandate to work with women-led coffee farms and cooperatives and ensure they see more profit for their work.

 

Proving Yourself as a Woman in Tech

As a young woman in tech striving for respect and recognition, Mahugu has faced her share of challenges. “You walk into a meeting in a boardroom and you feel you have to prove yourself twice as much,” says Mahugu.

She says when she was starting out people would often question whether she had enough experience as a founder or whether she was the right fit for the job.

 

“I had to listen to my inner voice that told me ‘You are powerful beyond measure’ and I had to believe in my dreams.”

 

Mahugu says that facing these barriers begins with the right mindset. “You have to be aware that you will face resistance but you also have to push yourself and see how you are going to overcome those challenges.”

She credits reading the stories of powerful women, like Michelle Obama, with giving her perspective and reminding her that she is not the first woman to encounter these kinds of obstacles.

Mahugu also says that finding the right support system, one that includes masters of industry, has helped her navigate the male-dominated world of tech. “They tell you mistakes you shouldn’t make that they made in their time,” she says. “They pave the way for you and make the roadmaps that you need.”

 

The Future is Fair

For Mahugu, tech is a tool for economic change. She is a firm believer in tech’s ability to foster digital and social inclusion. And not just because she’s witnessed it first-hand in her own work.

She envisions a world where developments in advanced manufacturing, in things like increased automation, will improve the quality of life for workers. “I see the value of technology in creating better quality jobs. It’s important for society to become a knowledge-based society, especially right now in Kenya,” says Mahugu.

“Technology is enabling us to ensure we don’t miss the fourth industrial revolution, we missed the first, the second and the third, but this way we can be active participants in the digital economy.”

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BalanceforBetter, which focuses on building a gender-balanced future. Gender balance is not just a women’s issue, it is an economic issue. And with leaders like Mahugu creating real change, that future feels within our reach.

 

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