Born in Nigeria and raised in the United States, Anie Akpe is a force to be reckoned with. The publishing professional recently turned to tech and is bringing other Black women with her. A self-described serial entrepreneur, she is the founder and head of African Women in Technology, an organization that provides information and support for African women already in the tech industry and for those who are trying to break in. She recently spoke to The Network Journal about the industry and how Blacks can continue to overcome the digital divide and find entrepreneurship opportunities.
TNJ: It seems to me that there already is a high representation African women in tech. Why did you feel that needed to create this organization?
Akpe: Actually, there is a lack of representation of women throughout the industry and globally. Women in technology are not being highlighted so much right now, but we’re starting to see a little bit more as the media recognizes that it’s always good to showcase the women who are doing amazing things in the field. So, we can add another layer. And when we come over to Africa, yes there are certain women who may get attention because they’re in technology. But if you look at the numbers throughout the industry there aren’t a lot of women. It’s like a nine percent representation of women in technology throughout Africa, based on the datasets that are available right now.
TNJ: What services does African Women in Technology offer?
Akpe: We offer mentorship and then internship programs, and we’re also building out entrepreneurship training programs for this year. These training programs will be held in New York City, London, and in Kenya. I’m also doing a test pilot now for the African Women in Technology Marketplace, where you could get follow-up advice from women in the tech space. On the event side, we’re building out a two- to four-day conference, depending on the country that we go to, where we will talk about nanotech, health tech, building yourself up and improving your brand—areas that actually allow women to feel confident in whatever field or direction they choose to go into.
TNJ: You say you are a serial entrepreneur and originally worked in in publishing. Why pivot to technology?
Akpe: I was working full time and was given a manager role but I couldn’t hire more staff. The company I worked with was willing to invest in technology because it didn’t need as much attention as a human staff; it didn’t need overtime pay; it didn’t require the additional costs of hiring staff. That being said, I had to identify the software I was going to use in order to actually be productive and complete my goal. I actually had to look for software that could duplicate productivity but still needed human touch. So you could keep the staff you had and create efficiencies by having a software that can actually produce at high levels as if you had the staff.
TNJ: Can Blacks afford to hold on to the “follow your passion” ethos? Should we be more strategically focused on investing in STEM education, which generally yields a higher returns than investment in other fields?
Akpe: Our community has a lot more STEM advocates these days, but we also need to take an active role in making sure our children aren’t left behind when it comes to technology development. Technology in the next 20 years is going to look totally different. You have more machines that are functioning as cash registers for instance. My first job was at a McDonald’s. I was a cashier. In the future McDonald’s may not have cashiers. It may have machines that process all of these things. What’s going to happen to your young ones who are looking for those part-time jobs? Get them into technology now. Just that basic knowledge of understanding how technology works is going to allow them to move forward into the future and not get left behind. It could be that they’re writing programs. Maybe they’re testing. Maybe they create digital content. Nevertheless, they’ll be able to understand that this technology will help you to do whatever it is they still need to know what’s happening in technology to see where they fit.
When my brother attended New York University, he only wanted to study finance. Because I understand technology and what is happening with technology, I told him he needed to do finance with computer science, or with business technology. I told him he needed to position himself to end up with a job that actually is technology inclusive. He did as I told him, had his first internship in his junior year at IBM, and was hired by them the same year. He’s been at IBM for the past four or five years now and is, I think, Northeast Regional Director My brother is only 28 or 29 and he’s making more than you and I made when we were that age. My point is, if we’re not introducing our community to technology, we’re actually hindering their ability to prepare for the future.
TNJ: What if they feel they can’t learn technology?
Akpe: I would say to them, “you learned how to use Instagram, you learned how to use Twitter! You learned how to set up your profile for a resume. When you use these platforms and say you wish you had this button and that button, guess what? You’re a creator of it. You may not be the one coding. But you understand what it should do and how technology only works according to our own knowledge.” Then you have a conversation with them about how to transition. This is happening a lot now on the high school and college level. There are mentorship programs showing students where they need to be in the future. A lot of Historically Black Colleges and Universities are now on board. They are now pushing many of their students towards technology, so they’re already having those beginning conversations.
TNJ: In terms of entrepreneurship or even careers, are Americans losing out by not looking for opportunities overseas as well as at home? Could the knowledge, information, capital, etc., that we have in the US be leveraged in the Caribbean or Africa, for instance?
Akpe: That’s a great concept. Ghana just hosted the “Year of Return” and wanted Blacks in the Diaspora to travel there and to do business here. Other countries in Africa offer such opportunities, but Ghana is more open about it. Sometimes, it’s not a question of affordability, but planning. If you plan something, you really can do it. Research is also key. There are countries in the Caribbean and in Africa that are willing to help you to invest there, but you have to tell yourself to take a trip there. This could be your vacation. While on that vacation, go to a business center. Every country has a business center. That’s your opportunity to find out how to go about investing. It’s just a matter of priority. Is it your priority to invest in the U.S., or is it to see if there’s a need elsewhere that you can possibly meet. If it’s the latter, study the country and see what it’s all about.
You can get information and advice here in the U.S. as well. For example, country offices attached to the United Nations provide provide information that you don’t have to go elsewhere to obtain. The best thing about New York City is that it is like a global currency: you can find someone from every couintry here. If nothing else, a thirty-minute train ride will get you to a consular office or UN mission where you can start to ask questions.
TNJ: Of the top of your head, what are two or three markets or industries that you think are best for someone who wants to try to do something like that?
Akpe: Right now, I know that a lot of investors have looked at Kenya. It has always been the friendliest towards foreign investors in terms of how businesses are set up. Ghana is running close to Kenya right now because it opened its doors with the Year of Return. I believe South Africa also has some leniency towards setting up a business. But you definitely have to do your research before you travel. Those are my top three countries where you can go within the next six months to a year and get as much information as you can before deciding on an opportunity niche for yourself.