As part of LoA’s continuing focus on 'Women in Tech', we took time out of the busy schedule of successful Kenyan techpreneur, Dorcas Muthoni, to chat about her own entrepreneurial journey and the building of her impressive company, Open World.
What first inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
That is a really interesting question because the way I started out was that I was working corporately and I wanted a change in my job, but at the time I figured I should just keep going in my career, moving from company to company and setting up IT infrastructure in each different environment. But the difficulty was always feeling that things were not moving or growing as fast as one would like. As a result, I thought that consulting would be more interesting because you can do different projects for different clients and that would provide the dynamism I was looking for. However, I think at the back of my mind, my dream was always to build my own company.
"Once I put my mind to something, I don’t look around to see what others are doing, I just do it. As long as I am convinced that it is the right thing to do, I follow my instinct and just do it."
Were you inspired by other entrepreneurial women role models in your sector?
Actually, I didn't know of anyone else, I simply took the attitude that it was what I personally wanted to do. Interestingly, once I put my mind to something, I don’t look around to see what others are doing, I just do it. As long as I am convinced that it is the right thing to do, I follow my instinct and just do it. A lot of people considered such a move into the entrepreneurial environment to be a big risk - at the time I was around 24 years old - but I didn’t see it that way, for me it seemed the right decision.
Tell us a little about your company, Open World, how it got started and what it does.
At the point that I decided to get into consulting, this is the company that I incorporated. At that time, I used a lot of Open Source to provide services to the universities and that is actually what I chose as my line of services initially, consulting and providing training and deployments that could positively impact businesses, using Open Source solutions. Over time, I took up software development because I felt this was something the company should be doing more of, and that work continues in the company today. We also provide a platform for small businesses across Kenya called Open Business, which is an in-house development. We still do custom applications for various kinds of clients on a needs basis, and also project management for software projects.
As a successful woman techpreneur in Africa, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing women in the sector?
I am not sure if the challenges facing women in the sector are any different to those facing men in Africa’s tech sector. In fact, I think that business has no gender, so the challenges seem to be really similar for both. A good network is an intrinsic part of business, but when starting out in business you might not have the level of access to the right decision-makers that you need, for example, they could be 20 years your senior. That is a big challenge for the new business startup. You spend a lot of time in the early days trying to sell yourself, not just your business, so I don’t think this is some thing particular to women - it applies to all young startups trying to break into Africa’s tech sector.
"A challenge, particularly in the tech sector, is that sometimes you are ahead of your time - you want to be a trendsetter and an innovator, but here in Africa the market can be running a little behind you and your ideas."
Dorcas Muthoni is founder and Chief Executive Officer of Openworld Ltd, a specialist computer software company she established in Kenya when she was just 24 years old. Today, Openworld is a leading e-Government and business software services firm involved in the delivery of some of the most widely used Web and Cloud applications in Africa, such as ARIS, an African Union reporting application used by all 54 member states; and the Performance Management System for the Government of Kenya, automating performance contracting in the public sector.
Dorcas is passionate about using technology to positively transform African society through the lives of its ordinary people, businesses and governments and is a co-founder of the regional organization LinuxChix Africa. She also serves as a Director at Ushahidi; is a Member of the council of the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa - FOSSFA. Through her day to day work as an entrepreneur and Computer Scientist, Dorcas seeks to see technology positively transforming the lives of the African society, governments and enterprises. In 2012 Dorcas was inducted by the Internet Society into the Internet Hall of Fame.
Another challenge, particularly in the tech sector is that sometimes, you are ahead of your time - you want to be a trendsetter and an innovator, but here in Africa the market can be running a little behind you and your ideas. But the bottom line is that everybody, no matter where they are in the world, wants to consume the best technology available. Personally, my philosophy is based on giving clients something that is world class, even if that technology solution is ahead of its time. Getting known in the market for this type of forward thinking approach is what gets you known and helps to build your reputation.
What excites you about the future for women techpreneurs in Africa?
What I really like about this space is all the social media market opportunities this has brought for women, whether they are at home or in the workplace, in terms of changing the dynamics of doing business. I think as a result, we will see a lot more innovations coming from women and the ways in which they utilize social media for business, and stimulating opportunities for greater entrepreneurship amongst women. I think that access to the internet and the explosion in social media is one of the best things to happen to women, in terms of giving them access to business opportunities, particularly through cloud computing. Whether women are building new businesses, or reaping the benefits of these new technologies in other ways, we will start to see so many more of them succeed. There is something very liberating about women being able to build their businesses whilst they are in their home environments, meaning they can juggle all aspects of their lives whilst still being entrepreneurial.
"Personally, my philosophy is based on giving clients something that is world-class, even if that technology solution is ahead of its time."
What message would you give to other aspirant women techpreneurs?
If you think you have a solution to a particular problem or challenge that you see in society or in a particular market sector, then just go for it because that is the starting point that can lead you to being able to start a business – you identify a need, you find and develop a solution to meet that need, and you make a difference.