Female ICT pioneers visit the US

Janine Erasmus

Twelve of South Africa’s most enterprising women in the field of information and communications technology (ICT) will soon be heading to the United States to attend a professional development course, courtesy of the Maxum Business Incubator near Pretoria. The US trip forms part of a broader two-year mentoring programme initiated by Maxum.

From computer animation to e-commerce in the wine industry to managing donor funding, each woman has incorporated ICT into her business model, whether it is the focus of the business or is an integral part of the running of the business. There are even two hardware suppliers who, says Maxum manager Dr Jill Sawers, do not offer as much in the line of innovation as some of the others but are delivering essential services to their communities and deserve help in working out logistical problems.

Additionally, there are four finalists in the category of aspiring entrepreneur. These are women who are nurturing an idea but have not yet implemented it, or who need assistance with the fine-tuning of, for instance, their business model or target market. Their ideas encompass e-learning, web design, online ticketing and general computer services.

The visit to the US is managed by the Meridian International Centre, which promotes international understanding through the exchange of people, ideas, and the arts. It is also hoped that the mentoring programme as a whole will promote long-term collaboration between South African and American women business entrepreneurs, companies and incubators. Says Sawers, “The women that we are currently working with are all energetic and fired up. They’re ready to go out and make a difference.”

The Maxum Business Incubator provides a nurturing environment for emerging businesses from sectors such as ICT and biosciences to grow and develop during the vulnerable start-up phase. It is based at Africa’s first internationally accredited science park, the Innovation Hub in Tshwane.

Maxum is sending the successful applicants to the US at the end of March 2008, under the sponsorship of the Office of Citizen Exchanges in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the US Department of State.

The entrepreneurs will receive tutoring at the Meridian International Centre in Washington, DC, and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County’s (UMBC) Centre for Women and Information Technology (CWIT) in partnership with Maryland Women in Technology (MDWIT). They will also engage with women business professionals in their relevant fields of expertise and will take part in meetings and discussions relating to women in business.

Entrepreneurs from all over South Africa

Sixty-one applications came in from all around South Africa, the greater proportion of them from the Western Cape (WC). Maxum drew up a shortlist of 19 before the final dozen were selected. Says Sawers, “We have six from the Western Cape, four from Gauteng, one from Bloemfontein and one from Kimberley.” Initially the plan was to support ten women but fortunately funding allowed for the inclusion of two more.

With Gauteng touted by its provincial government as the business centre of Africa, it is perhaps to be expected that most of the applicants would hail from this region but, says Sawers, there are a few interesting factors to be taken into consideration.

“In the Western Cape 80% of SMEs [small to medium enterprises] are in the ICT field, while in Gauteng the figure is 98%,” she says. “However, while only around 2% of those contribute meaningfully to the GDP in Gauteng, the percentage is higher in the Western Cape. This says to us that entrepreneurs in the Cape are more active and involved.

“Additionally, in Gauteng the ICT sector is dominated by large companies and we find that entrepreneurs tend to partner with them or with the government rather than strike out on their own.”

Sawers adds that a further factor was the apparent greater efficiency of channels of information in the Cape compared to those in Gauteng. “There is good networking in the Western Cape, and our call for applications reached the target audience better.”

The mentoring programme, which is expected to take about two years from start to finish, while the US leg runs from 29 March to 19 April 2008, is designed to instil confidence and equip the women with the competence and skills to successfully start or grow their businesses, aided by South African business incubators such as Maxum. “Our aim is to encourage entrepreneurship,” says Sawers. “We particularly look for innovation because this will stimulate the sector.”

Each application was considered individually and finalists were selected on their own merits. “We chose our finalists not only for their entrepreneurial prowess but also for other essential qualities such as their leadership abilities. We want them to come out of this programme and be role models for other women.”

In order to ensure that candidates successfully go on to fulfil their potential and make the most of the skills that they have developed, they will receive ongoing mentorship on their return as part of the programme. “In Cape Town we will work with CITI [Cape Information Technology Initiative] and with the Innovation Hub here in Gauteng,” explains Sawers. ”Mentorship will mostly take the form of peer learning, where groups of entrepreneurs will come together and those who are strong in certain areas will share their knowledge with others. We are also looking for high-profile role models locally to interact with our candidates and inspire them.”

CITI has already confirmed that they will come on board for a six-month period. A further requirement from Maxum is an annual project report, to be submitted for two additional years.

International co-operation

The mentoring programme kicks off with the US trip, where the entrepreneurs will undergo a specially developed entrepreneurial and technology skills-based training course at UMBC’s CWIT. The course will focus on practical aspects of starting and growing a business, such as developing a business plan and a marketing strategy, managing business finances, human resources and operations, obtaining venture capital, and enhancing competitiveness through the effective use of technology. Dealing with clients, business leadership, and the development of a personal model for a work-life balance will also be addressed.

Knowledge sharing will take place during a series of roundtable meetings, panel discussions and networking events that have been arranged with US public and private sector organisations that promote women in business, as well as women’s business associations. Successful women entrepreneurs will also be on hand to impart their wisdom, and the South African contingent will shadow their American counterparts in their specific fields for two days.

Site visits to local business incubators have been organised, as well as visits to historical and cultural sites in Washington and Baltimore.

In addition, the South African entrepreneurs will be coached in the preparation of “action plans” for their existing or prospective businesses. These are to be implemented by the participants upon their return to South Africa.

However, the guidance and development does not stop at the passport control desk. They will also receive ongoing support from the American business professionals with whom they met during their visit to the US. The intention is for these same professionals to travel to South Africa around September to render hands-on assistance and to monitor progress.

Others will benefit through a series of seminars held in association with Maxum across South Africa for a wider audience of women, especially those from previously disenfranchised backgrounds. This will also allow those applicants who did not make the final cut to still gain exposure to valuable knowledge and guidance.

Helping the entrepreneurs of tomorrow

The Innovation Hub developed the Maxum Business Incubator with a view to ensuring the success of the entrepreneurs and business leaders of tomorrow. The incubation programme provides a fast track environment wherein selected individuals are assisted in essential aspects to get their businesses up and running and financially viable within two to three years. The mentoring programme is just one of the platforms through which Maxum assists entrepreneurs.

Incubator participants are able to rent space for their businesses and are provided with as much support as they need in the form of telephones, data storage and internet and e-mail access, a receptionist, advice from business and legal professionals, meeting and catering facilities, and facilitated access to funds. Here they can engage with fellow participants, sharing knowledge and creating partnerships. At the same time they are able to network with established companies through events such as seminars and power breakfasts organised by the Innovation Hub.

The Innovation Hub is an internationally accredited science park and is a member of the International Association of Science Parks (IASP). A science park is defined as “an organisation managed by specialised professionals, whose main aim is to increase the wealth of its community by promoting the culture of innovation and the competitiveness of its associated businesses and knowledge-based institutions.

“To enable these goals to be met, a science park stimulates and manages the flow of knowledge and technology amongst universities, R&D institutions, companies and markets; it facilitates the creation and growth of innovation-based companies through incubation and spin-off processes; and provides other value-added services together with high quality space and facilities”. [IASP International Board, 6 February 2002]