The Commonalities of Female African Entrepreneurs, American Architects

Two recent experiences with senior women leaders and entrepreneurs have left a lasting impression on me.

Last week I had the opportunity to present at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) bi-annual Women Leadership Summit, whose attendees are women principals and senior women in the field of architecture. Tuesday, it was my pleasure to address a group of African women entrepreneurs participating in the U.S. State Department’s African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program.

The Commonalities of Female African Entrepreneurs, American Architects The Way Women Work


I found that many of the women at both events were missing a key strategy that could help them reach an even higher level of success — perhaps you are too.

At both events, my comments focused on very practical actions senior women leaders take to achieve the often-illusive highest level of professional success. Don’t get me wrong, the attendees are already very successful: many of the architects are already owners or executive women at their firms; the African women entrepreneurs are running companies with 12-800 employees.

But the question still remains: “How do women get from this senior level get to the very, very top?”

I shared strategies and approaches with both groups, and they shared what’s worked and is working for them with each other and with me.

As you would expect, we also talked about barriers and obstacles to success. I was intensely reminded how fortunate many women in the developed world are when an African entrepreneur added to our running list of obstacles “war, famine, no electricity, inaccessible roads.”

Recently, there has been a great deal of research and writing about a key component of many executives’ road success: having a sponsor. When I asked the women at both events whether they knew what was meant by the term sponsor or even better if they had one, a few hands went up — but not enough hands.

It occurred to me then that we do not yet enough about the importance of having a sponsor. Here is an easy way to remember and understand the importance of a sponsor:

“Mentors talk with you, Sponsors talk about you”

A sponsor is someone within your organization (if you work at a company) or within your business community (if you are an entrepreneur), who has the desire, power, and influence to advocate on your behalf, to promote you, and to facilitate making good things happen for you. For information about how to get a sponsor, read this. Yes, it is likely harder to get a sponsor as an entrepreneur, and yes, it is likely harder in Africa and many developing countries where gender cultural norms further complicate matters — but just because it is hard does not mean you should not do it.

I was inspired to continue to share more on this critical topic by the impassioned comments of one of the African entrepreneurs who said  “On this trip to the United Sates, I have been inspired by the way I see American women helping and supporting each other. I have come to realize that to not develop myself and to not share my learning with other women is selfish.”

I hope you will take this opportunity to share the importance of having a sponsor with a woman in your life.

“Mentors talk with you, sponsors talk about you.”