Surayyah Ahmad is a serial techpreneur, exit founder currently investing in early-stage startups in Nigeria. She founded YDS Online, an e-commerce and fulfillment service company that was recently acquired.
Also the co-founder of Tech tanks solutions, she is currently working on a startup in the UK called Ethco. Her current angel investment scheme via a subsidiary of Tech Tanks, Tech tanks lab, is focused on driving inclusion by working with women founders from Northern Nigeria, where there are very few startups and helping them build their MVP and secure funding.
She tells TOBI AWODIPE how she is trying to bridge the gap in the number of startups in the north, driving tech inclusion for northern women, how she picks early stage start-ups to invest in and how the ‘glass ceiling’ still affects women today.
Tell us a bit about your growing up years and education, would you say it impacted what you do now?
I was born in Ibadan, in a northern dominated area and spent the first part of my teenage years living around a few cities, mostly in Northern Nigeria. My early years in education were a bit shaky, as I come from a family where education was not prioritised. However, when I had the chance to go to school at that time, I always came top of my class. Lack of stable education had a huge impact on me, as I was still in primary one at the age of 12 and could not construct a meaningful sentence in English.
I later relocated to Abuja to live with my mother, where I started all over again, taking five words per day from the dictionary and reading every book I could find to bridge the gap. I continued studying in a government school in Abuja before I got a scholarship to study at the Nigerian Turkish International College.
I didn’t grow up seeing people in my family working for the government or private companies. Most of my paternal and maternal family members were traders and small business owners. I think that has impacted what I do now, as my mother was also a small business owner and subsequently I followed. I started entrepreneurship at the age of 14 to fund my secondary education myself.
You say you are an angel investor and serial entrepreneur, what do you mean by that?
An angel investor is a person that invests in companies in their personal capacity or as part of a group of friends or family. Angel investment is usually a small cheque and companies mostly take it at the early stages of their business, but this could be different depending on the circumstances.
A serial entrepreneur is someone who starts multiple businesses; they could eventually take a step back from some of them or sell some of them off. By virtue of the number of businesses I started and the one I just sold, it is why I sometimes refer to myself as a serial entrepreneur.
One of the companies you started was recently acquired, what does this mean for you?
Selling a company or getting acquired is when you sell the majority of your company shares to a new company or individual who will take over the company. Many times when an acquisition takes place, the employees of that company are retained, just like in our case, and the founder is also required to serve in some capacity for a number of years. So, for me, this means selling the majority of the shares, and the shares of our current shareholders and also stepping down from the CEO position and taking a different role.
In terms of how I feel about selling the company, I think it doesn’t always feel like you have given your baby away; it almost feels like your child getting married or something like that. You know they are moving to a new phase that will allow them to grow, allow your employees to grow, but also give you the chance to start something new.
You also co-founded a tech company, what solutions are you offering to Nigerian users in this regard?
Yes, I co-founded Tech Tanks Solutions. Tech Tanks is delivering software solutions to businesses and helping them streamline their operations by automating their businesses with technology. We also created Tech Tanks labs under this, and Tech Tanks lab is incubating startups, especially with founders from Northern Nigeria due to the gap in the number of startups coming from that region in comparison to a similar trend in Lagos.
As a woman founder, did you feel any trepidation venturing into the AI space?
Venturing into the technology space in general requires a lot of upskilling, especially if one is coming from a non-technical background. It is a bit scary; you look at the technicality and you begin to feel it is far-fetched. But constant self-development helps one to catch up quicker. Also, a lot of times, you find that you are the only woman in a room full of men discussing these things.
You mentioned that you are passionate about driving inclusion in Northern Nigeria, how are you achieving this?
I strongly believe that technology could be a game changer for women in Northern Nigeria. Partly due to religious and cultural norms that sometimes make it harder for women to go to work, being able to work remotely, which is a trend in the tech space now, can have lots of positive impacts on women.
Starting from a charity I founded in 2012, Feed The Needy, all our empowerment programmess focused on women, because they are the bedrock of our society. Additionally, we host a couple of webinars from Tech Tanks and TTL to help Northern women go into tech. We invite women from the field that have already done this, to give guidance to others. I also provide one-to-one mentorship to some women and through TTL, sponsored some women to a technical skill acquisition school to learn to code.
How can the issue of low entrepreneurship, especially in the North, be addressed?
I don’t think there is low entrepreneurship in the north. In fact, the majority of Northern women are small business owners who sell one thing or the other to feed their families. What I think is we do not have are as many tech startups in the north as there are in Lagos. This requires some of the things that TTL is already doing in terms of incubating early-stage founders and giving them guidance is a good way to help them raise funds via a pipeline. We need more of these.
I can see more startup incubators coming up in Kano and Kaduna and a few more in Abuja. The more incubators we have and hubs that foster innovation, the more those numbers will go up.
Do you think women are under-represented in entrepreneurship?
I disagree, women are not under-represented in entrepreneurship; 41 per cent of early stage businesses in Nigeria are run by women against the 39 per cent being run by men. There might be more women in the start-up world due to the barrier coming from the under-representation of women in STEM courses, which mostly translates into having fewer women in tech start-ups. Incentivising more women to get into STEM courses will help bridge this gap.
In your opinion, what are some of the key issues startups face and what would you suggest they do?
Startups face many challenges from funding to hiring the right people and to macro factors such as government policies. To be honest, advising a start-up will be very peculiar to their industry and which challenges they are facing. But I find that as a general rule of thumb, improving the founder’s leadership and management skills can get a startup really far and help them with most of the challenges that will keep coming up.
How do you pick the early-stage startups to invest in?
We look at startups that are trying to solve a big problem, that is sometimes peculiar to the north or where another startup has found it difficult to infiltrate due to religious or cultural barriers. We also look at who the founders are and if they have the appropriate expertise to run the startup. We consider startups in other regions as well, but this is our primary focus for now.
What advice would you give female founders and entrepreneurs?
Get out there. I know it feels hostile and sometimes people look at you like you do not know what you are doing, but more often than not, you probably know more than many people in the room.
You also need to be extremely good at what you do, because the expectation is that you won’t be, so make sure you invest in lots of self-development. Finally, know that the opportunities out there for you are endless; you just need to go to them.
Tell us something you do/did that has influenced your career positively today?
I think getting work experience early on really helped me. In addition to doing business, I always applied for internships while I was in school and I worked for private companies. That gave me insight into how to run a structured business and I implemented a lot of the things I learned from that journey.
Also, having the ability to learn and unlearn fast really helped me; you just have to keep up with the pace of development and get to know exactly what you need to learn and when.
Do you think today’s woman has managed to break the ‘glass ceiling’ and what would you tell a woman that wants a seat at the table?
I think we still have a lot to do to break that ceiling; it is there. It is why our house voted against having more female seats, it is why female founders are still raising less than male founders, sometimes even with better competency.
If you want something as a woman, you cannot wait for it to be given to you, the society will never give you, you have to take it; you have to show that you will do an incredible job when you get. That’s the only way you can keep it. Men can still get away with a lot of corporate wrongdoing that is hard for women to get away with.
What inspires you and keeps you going?
My biggest inspiration is the thought that I could influence a girl like me out there. That a girl could grow up in a ghetto community like mine, with very little education and still be able to do this. This is the 90 per cent of girls in this country, mostly living in poverty with not a lot of access to education; I want that girl to be able to look in the mirror and say, ‘if Surayyah could do it, then I can definitely do it.’
If you were not doing what you do now, what would have been your career choice?
I would have been a gynaecologist. I actually changed my JAMB form a day to submission, so I was very close to becoming a doctor.
What do you do to relax? What is your guilty pleasure?
I love spa time. Going to get a massage, watching movies and swimming really makes me happy. I also love trying on new clothes.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
I wake up early around 6 am. I pray, get my kids ready for school. Prepare breakfast, and drop them off. Have my celery and apple for breakfast, do 30 mins yoga/pilates, shower, come into my office and start work at 10 am.
I take a lunch break to pray and sometimes prepare lunch for my kids; I continue to work until 3:30 pm when I have to pick them up. I get back to work around 4pm and mostly finish around 6 pm. Sometimes, I work late till 8pm or work after they go to bed. Even though I have a company office, I mostly don’t work from there; I mostly work from home and only go in for my meetings or when I need to. Sometimes, I work weekends if I need to.