(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)
Viola Llewellyn is the Co-Founder and President of Ovamba Solutions Inc. Ovamba is an Emerging markets focused marketplace funding and investment platform. She and the leadership of Ovamba bring an unparalleled understanding of the African market and its nuances to a global audience of institutional investors. Her experience with frontier markets has given her insights into the best way to integrate all players within Africa’s formal and informal banking landscape, and tailor opportunities to Western investor expectations.
What makes you do what you do?
The problem of Access to Credit in Africa is old and never seems to be solved. We get asked all the time, “How come no one else is doing what you are doing?” I do this because it needs to be done. I hate to be mediocre. Making these changes the lives of “billions” not millions of people. It is our problem to solve, and they are OUR solutions to create. We are Africans! This is our time.
How did you rise in the industry you are in?
Almost by accident, but when I look in the rear view mirror, it is clear that this was always going to happen. I came from a solid IT/HW background at IBM, I have been in advertising & communications, and I had been in alternative finance. I have also been in consulting with BearingPoint, Rothschild & KPMG. I know how to communicate a concept and simplify it for acceptance. I followed the path of problem solving and got to work with some great people. When I met my business partner, Marvin Cole, we found that we saw the world and Africa in the same way. Throughout my career, there have never been many women doing what I do, let alone black women. I “rose” by finding the hardest problems to solve and being functionally unaware of the difficulties or the barriers to success!
Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
This is true. I don’t have an answer other than that, I had no idea that I should NOT do this. Many women are in this position, especially when they are young. We have an outlook that anything is possible, we have not learnt to ascribe to roles defined by others. My father raised me to believe that I was always more than good enough. I am not interested in being contained and ordinary life is not interesting!
Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?
I seem to have absorbed mentorship either indirectly or “stealthily”! Mostly from previous bosses, Mark Goode, Jack Abramoff, and Robert Sheahan. And then there are those who I look up to such as Jack Ma of Alibaba, Richard Branson, Tim Ferris, Industry colleague Martha Mgendhi-Fisher of the European Women’s Payments Network, Batman, my parents, Shannon Billings, and especially my sister-in-law, Chandra Llewellyn, especially her!
How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
I have an unconventional approach to mentoring. I NEVER ask for it. I take it. Everyone I have mentioned has been a very specific help/mentor/support for me. The proximity of working together and getting along is basis enough. You go from there. Formal mentoring relationship are not convenient to me because they become stiff and unnatural. I like the flow of a trusted relationship and knowing that someone is rooting for me because they believe in me, and in return, I respect and enjoy watching them succeed in the paths I wish to follow in.
Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I have had to get VERY creative. Africa not only suffers from a Brain Drain, but the curriculums are hand-me-downs from outdated colonial models. This means that unless people like me, Marvin Cole, Nicole Anderson, Roland Fomundam of Greenhouse Ventures, Adeline Sede of FabAfriq or Anrette Ngafor, Director of Nacho College in Cameroon and many others don’t buck the system and augment the learning curve of our employees, it would be so difficult to hire and nurture talent!! Don’t get me wrong, Africa is TEEMING with amazingly talented people who need to be shaped and be given an outlet for their creativity and business skills. I have to hire people using elimination tactics and test for emotional and creative intelligence. We are problem solvers. We need rebels and pushers to ask questions and press for answers! Because we are a startup, things are always changing. Most who make the cut to work for Ovamba (and that includes interns from global Ivy League Universities) find that they have to grow and evolve quickly otherwise they won’t make it to the next pivot!
Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I consciously and deliberately support diversity. I look for it where it is banished. I create roles and opportunities for it and I fight for it. Not just on gender, but also on the forefront of disabilities, etc. We were told not to hire someone because he had polio – he is still one of our best hires! We were told not to hire a pregnant woman – she has risen to be a leader!!! I have had to fire men who treated women poorly. I have had to stand up for myself when discriminated against. It just so happens that I am one of only 20 women in the USA who has ever raised more than a $1million for a tech startup. I have been told “No – you are black”, “No – we don’t like Africa”, “No – you are a woman”, “No – we prefer charitable ventures”. With these experiences, and seeing what young women in STEM, finance and other walks of life go through, I HAVE to stand in the gap.
What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
You lead from the front. You push from the back. You fail forward with your team, you use your leadership platform to raise others. You create a winning culture by helping others be the best that they can be. You make tough decisions, you publicly admit when you are wrong. To be a great leader you MUST have a vision. You must commit EVERY DAY to take the team through a rough wilderness and actually help them enjoy the discomfort!! You must give people a reason to feel worthy and included. My favorite style of leadership is Captain Picard of the Starship Enterprise – Star Trek. He admitted in one episode that no matter what, you make a decision. The team needs a directive. You might be right or you might be wrong, it doesn’t matter, but you must show strength and commitment in making decisions. You can always change your mind as the scenario evolves. My leadership style is strongly rooted in going ahead with very little hesitation and adapting as the situation unfolds.
Advice for others?
I advise that we watch Africa and its burgeoning ecosystem of innovation very carefully. This will be highly investible. The recent Black Panther movie is RIGHT ON TRACK! Africa has a new narrative. Whether the world is ready or not is almost irrelevant. Women in leadership positions are becoming an undeniable trend. Hilary Clinton didn’t become President, but she surely moved the agenda forward. Next on my horizon is a focus on working with the team on new Blockchain technology, bringing tech to agriculture and “Barter-Tech”, raising capital to grow Africa’s Trade sector and develop even more ambitious automation for the industry. We also have an ambitious Africa expansion agenda. I want to be a leading architect of the ecosystem for business growth in Africa and change the MBA curriculums in emerging market countries. I would like to carry out the speaking engagements scheduled for this year and promote the concept of “Technology as the New Democracy”, and open the door for more women to establish themselves as leaders. I want the world to know that “This Ain’t Your Granddaddy’s Africa.”
If you’d like to get in touch with Viola Llewellyn, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/vallewellyn/
To learn more about Ovamba, please click here.