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  • Nov 6th, 2017
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Sydney Gray is the Director of Impact and Development at Propeller, an entrepreneurship incubator and accelerator dedicated to driving social, environmental, and economic impact in New Orleans. She is also the founding director of Mama Maji, an organization that supports women innovating in water around the world. Since it was founded in 2012, Mama Maji has trained women in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan and Zimbabwe in building their businesses and leading in their communities. She holds a master's degree in Global Development from Tulane University, and Bachelor's degrees from University of California, Berkeley in Molecular and Environmental Biology - Animal Science and Molecular and Cell Biology - Infectious Diseases.

Following are the edited excerpts of a conversation between BR Research and Ms. Gray

BR Research: What is your trip to Pakistan all about?

Sydney Gray: It is part of the entrepreneur speaker series with the US embassy. I specialize in entrepreneurial curriculum development so I came to speak with mostly universities and the faculty, but I have also spoken with some accelerators.

BRR: What is your experience with empowering women and your success stories?

SG: I work with two organizations. One is Propeller, which are the largest social innovation incubator and accelerator in the United States. We work with all entrepreneurs but we focus on women and people of colour in New Orleans. In that case, there are 60 percent African-Americans there, so what we are doing is that we are targeting minority entrepreneurs who are actually a majority.

With Mama Maji, which is my side hustle and my passion, I work with women entrepreneurs in East Africa. We are specifically using water projects as a platform, to engage women in business and solve the water issues in their communities.

BRR: Are there any projects that stand out?

SG: For Mama Maji, I am really excited about what we are currently doing. We are working with women in the south of Nairobi, in the Messiah community to build a construction business. They are going to make compressed earth blocks, and make big rain cisterns for rain collection and sell them to schools and larger homes. This way they get income from the places they sell to get water and rain collection systems.

BRR: Have you heard of any projects that promote or encourage women empowerment through entrepreneurship in Pakistan?

SG: I heard of a very interesting project in terms of education. It looks like they are targeting both genders but they especially help girls through the Access program. They sound like they have the ability to impact and provide quality education in some of the rural areas, but they also have schools that target just girls, which I thought was really excellent. I also saw a lot more women engaged in the Pakistan Startup Cup in Lahore, than what I expected to see.

BRR: When you were talking about entrepreneurship in your seminars, what were the broad themes of it?

SG: There are two ways that one can look at entrepreneurship. There are the accelerators and the incubators that are very famous. And those are things that bring in the businesses and support the businesses. But when you are looking at entrepreneurship from the university level, you need more than that. Starting a business is extraordinarily painful. The skill-sets you need are very personal like perseverance, tenacity, and passion.

Universities are well-structured for teaching things like how to run a business, how to incorporate, how to do marketing, etc. But they are not well-structured in the traditional sense to do things like how does one have tenacity, tolerate risk, and re-frame the concept of failures. So a lot of adaptive curriculum I use is to try to get entrepreneurship out of the books and into the act. Because entrepreneurship is an act, it is not something you study as much as something you do.

BRR: Can we draw parallels to the African model that you have been practicing there and Pakistan in terms of women empowerment or entrepreneurship?

SG: In different parts, yes. From what I understand from speaking with some women here is that it is hard to access something like business and entrepreneurship, if you can't even get access to resources or opportunities.

So it is like a double-edged sword with which you attack. You can't just attack empowerment or whatever empowerment looks like to that community because you can solve problems like women not being able to own a business. You can try to solve that, but it is not going to matter if they get a loan and then their husband manages their money. The problems in Pakistan are very similar to those in Africa; it is just a different cultural context.

BRR: How much of it is down to the lack of awareness? And how much of it is due to the cultural aspect of things for entrepreneurship?

SG: I would say a lot of it is access. Especially when you get to the more deprived urban and rural areas, people have that thirst and need. They are ready to do it. Somebody brought up in one of our sessions the concept of entrepreneurship by choice versus entrepreneurship by necessity. There is a lot of entrepreneurship by necessity, and hence there is a lot of potential for it. It is not ideal, but there is a lot of potential for it.

The problem becomes access, awareness, and having the resources and tools. The question then becomes: is the barrier the cultural problems where women can't manage the money or they are not allowed to be out in the market; or is the barrier something else like they don't have those skills.

BRR: Entrepreneurship is something that is inborn. Do you agree with it?

SG: In my opinion, entrepreneurship is not for everybody, but that is different than being inborn though. I am not an actual entrepreneur. I am too risk averse, too anxious, and not at all optimistic. I am the person someone will go to when they have to think of 50 ways something will fail. I am not good at seeing how something will succeed and that's not good for an entrepreneur.

But about six to seven years ago, I hit a point where entrepreneurship became a necessity for me because nobody was willing to hire me - or no one was willing to hire me in what I wanted to do. So I told myself that I will do it for myself and I got my business partner who has all the optimism I need.

Entrepreneurship is not for everybody, but I think everyone can benefit from learning to be an entrepreneur. It encompasses the willingness to risk things, the humbleness you need, the optimism you require, the readiness to fail and to learn from failure. Learning this can benefit everybody.

BRR: Do you have any idea how businesses can incorporate or encourage entrepreneurship in their business models?

SG: Some companies give their employees 10 to 20 percent of their time to do whatever they want. There are a couple of very successful companies in the Silicon Valley that do this, and I have been told that there are a couple of companies in Pakistan that have started doing this a well.

This takes away the risk of entrepreneurship, because they still have their salaries and they can work on their stuff and they don't have to worry about paying school fees of their kids. But that means their business still has that edge in innovation. It's good for the individual in terms of their engagement, it's good for the company in terms of their innovation in the market, it's good for their shareholders and it grows the general economy.

BRR: What do you think is the biggest fear that stops people from venturing into entrepreneurship?

SG: Failure. Some people also worry about the fact that it's going to make them look bad. Others worry that they are going to quit their job, lose all their money and lose their house. That's why they are entrepreneurs by necessity because they don't really have a choice. It's like they are not worried about failing because they have already failed.

That's why, in my curriculum, I talk a lot about learning to re-frame failures. There is an exercise I love to do in the classrooms called 'Failure shout out'. It literally celebrates how everybody failed at something on that day or that week. Everyone shout outs their failures to general applause. And you can re-frame it that you learned something by failing. There is a very famous Einstein quote "I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that won't work".

BRR: How common are the issues of women or entrepreneurship in USA, Africa or even Pakistan?

SG: I call it a matter of scale. So even in the US, women take on the lion's share of the work at home. But being an entrepreneur, entrepreneurship and children don't work together. Among the things you need to be successful in a business is financing, and women get none of the financing. If you get women in front of investors in the Silicon Valley, they will laugh at you and it's very sad. Like I said, it's a matter of scale. You know women can access capital in the US, but it's still not as much as compared to the men.

BRR: What stops them? It's technically an open society.

SG: Discrimination. The problem is that people don't learn to see the biases they have and its human nature. One tends to defend the people they look like or belong to their tribe. The more I travel, the more I see that this exists almost the same way everywhere. It is just a matter of where it is on that scale of bad-ness, I guess.

BRR: What can be done to change this in Pakistan?

SG: I was talking to a woman in Islamabad about how we have these images of male entrepreneurs but we don't have images of women entrepreneurs. It's a problem of self-belief - if you don't see yourself doing it, you are not going to think that it is for you. Hence, you need things like marketing campaigns and case studies to show that Pakistani women are doing these businesses, for Pakistani women to think that maybe we should do them too.

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