Betty Enyonam Kumahor is the founder and managing partner of Cobalt Partners, which works with African businesses to enhance growth and productivity using technology and through enhancing best practices. She is also a renown speaker, on topics ranging from leadership, technology, innovation as well as personal development. You can connect with her on her Website, Twitter, or Facebook. Our chat was focused on problem solving and her take on technology in Africa.
Tell us about yourself, and your educational background. I was not the best student. I enjoyed playing; had tons of varied interests; lack of focus; and little to no affinity to getting good grades! What I did like doing, though, was solving puzzles and working with systems, and for that reason I gravitated towards the sciences. In secondary school, I took 10 subjects instead of the normal 8. I didn’t take 11 because I couldn’t figure out how to add the 11th to class schedule (varied interests). At A-Level, I decided to have more fun so I picked the normal 3 subjects and I did Physics, Math and Chemistry. In University, I knew I wanted to do something in healthcare but not being either a doctor or a nurse. I really enjoyed computer programming. Towards the end of my undergraduate Chemistry and Math majors, I found out about healthcare informatics and left to do a masters in that. Without much industry work in health informatics at the time, I took the IT part of the degree and started my career. Then I found out I could solve puzzles and build systems in IT … I haven’t left since!
How did you start Cobalt partners? I had just left ThoughtWorks Africa after working for three years. It was a very rewarding experience but I needed a break. Just as I was leaving, I got 21 requests for assistance with projects within a week! I broke out a spreadsheet and said, “What does this look like?” I realized that it looked like a sales pipeline for a consulting company. And since I didn’t know how to say no to everybody, I figured I’d better create a company so that I could say yes to some. And that is how Cobalt partners came to be.
What does Cobalt Partners do? Cobalt partners is an advisory firm that works with companies on their growth agenda. Companies in Africa generally have a challenge in figuring out how to grow, particularly moving from small to medium size, or medium size to large. At times, to get a new initiative can be difficult to do with just the resources available in-house. Primarily, we deal in design thinking, problem solving, lateral thinking and we also build certain technologies as well. At the moment, we have about 50 clients and we are doing projects in about two or three different countries.
Has it always been natural for you to lead? In many ways, I consider myself a problem solver. I have always been passionate about helping people solve challenges. I really do appreciate people and their skills, so in that sense I think I have been a natural convener of people. In fact, that is really why I started the company. I think it has been a natural flow from the way that I have managed relationships in my life.
In terms of using technology for Africa by Africans, what are we doing right? And what could be done better? The first thing that I think Africans have been doing well is investing in the continent themselves…or bringing in foreign investment. While this investment is still insufficient based on a scale of opportunity, it is encouraging to see intra-African trade and investment on the increase and more pan-African technology teams and organizations. I also think that what we have done right is we have not tried to follow some other formula. For example, we did not keep implementing copper or even fiber terrestrial cables and instead went mobile. I believe that our success will come from us being able to innovate based on our unique circumstances, resources and needs. What I would like to see more of is the understanding that technology will succeed or fail based on how well we understand who is going to use it, how well we customize the technology for that particular persona or personas, and how well we manage the process of doing that. The context of the technology use is ultimately most important. I still see far too many projects that act as technology finding a problem to fix rather than shaping the technology based on the context in which it will be used.
Tell us about your experience working with tech-startups. It usually depends on what my main focus at the time is. In Johannesburg, we were trying to build an equivalent of the Silicon Valley. My office got to be known as the place where innovation happens. I would take on a few entrepreneurs and let them have office space with us. They could also join in the conversation with other developers about how to do things. We worked it out so that our clients felt that their confidential information was protected, but there was also room to support the technology entrepreneur ecosystem. Today, it has grown to 1000 engineers who come and talk about how to code and build software. Within Cobalt, for instance, we wanted to make sure that we could work with entrepreneurs dealing with cash strapped growth. Sometimes, we will do very creative things to make sure that we can help and build the product that they need, or get the outreach that they need.
There is data supporting the fact that there are very few women-led startups. What is your experience with women-led startups in Africa? We still need a lot more women to embrace this. There are still challenges. I remember judging one of the tech competitions. There was a team led by a woman who had a solution that she came up with based on watching her mother struggle with doing the groceries for years. She came up with some really nice ideas, but she told me “my friends all tell me that I am doing the wrong thing, that I should go and do nursing instead!” Even with great ideas, I have seen women stopping before they get to the stage of making the idea happen. I think that a big part of it is feeling like you are alone. Has anyone done this before? And how did they do it? Am I doing the wrong thing? Am I going to misstep? I think lack of role models is actually the biggest barrier. One of the people on my team at the tech competition I was judging came to me and said “I have never seen a black woman in technology before and just seeing you on the panel was mind boggling!” It is very difficult to start if you don’t have somebody you can look up to who has done it already, someone who can make your journey easier and tell you “It is great on this end. Come along.” I say, if you are going to do anything hard, find those things that will make you realize that the payout of the journey will be enjoyable, that the pain will be worth it, and that maybe the pain doesn’t have to be as bad as you think it would be.
Are you mentoring anyone? I don’t ever stop mentoring. I am always out speaking and talking to individuals within the network who need my advice. I started Ghana Women in IT (GWIT) with another lady. She does the daily running but I am happy to support and show up when needed. I have also participated in formal mentoring programs like the Tony Elemelu Project and barcamp in Ghana.
As we celebrate Women this month, in your opinion, are we doing enough? I would say we are still not doing enough. I think there are a lot of good interventions that are happening at all age levels. The main concern that I have around that is actually one of coordinated effort. There is no real apex organization or think tank that has the statistics across Africa around girls in science and technology. What is the metric of change within the last five years? Which interventions do we think have worked? Which interventions would we recommend for effectiveness? We don’t really have a brain trust that is focused on this across the continent. I think the gains we could get from that are innumerable.
Your blog talks about a morning routine. What is yours? I am big on that. I have a list that I check as I go along. I wake up and get some positive thinking first thing. I think about all the things that I am grateful for and I think about all the things I want to achieve for that day. I am learning French, so I work at some French for a few minutes. I do some brain exercises, get some exercise in, some meditation once in a while and then I journal, and then I am ready to go. I spend about two hours.
Favorite quote? ‘Carpe diem’ and ‘Do unto others what you would want them do unto you’. In other words, treat everybody with respect and they will treat you with respect.
What do you do to relax? I am on sabbatical right now, so I am writing a lot and sending time with people I haven’t been able to spend time with. I have really caught up on movies. My favorite movie is a 90s comedy called ‘Noises off’. It is absolutely hilarious. I also like puzzles. I am usually doing some puzzles on my phone, whether it is crosswords or logic, or candy crush, or jigsaw puzzles at home.
**Article was first published on Levers in Heels blog.