Interview with Regina Agyare, Ghanaian Tech Entrepreneur
As Regina Agyare left her good IT job at a bank to start her own business, all she heard was negative comments: “You will probably come back, you aren’t married, you should wait until you are older, until you have more assets…”
She was nervous, but she did it anyway. Ironically, her first client was the bank itself, and she’s been able to work successfully off of referrals since taking the entrepreneurial leap in March 2012.
Her company is Soronko Solutions and her passion, is using technology to spark social change. She is currently developing a location-based mobile app for local SMEs in Accra, Ghana to help small businesses gain visibility to compete against the big businesses. She is also working on hiring a staff for the first time, finding office space, and is seeking funding, investors, and partners.
She also wants to expand her company’s social project of taking technology to teach math, science and engineering to kids in rural areas. She has been amazed with the results so far, and cannot wait to measure the impact and expand the program. Her goals when she visits the kids is to channel their creativity to problem-solve in their own communities, to help them learn through play and tech, and to inspire their dreams for the future. Someday, she wants to expand this program to all developing nations and create the next generation of innovators.
As a self-described “coder who loves a challenge,” Regina never had a woman role model in IT growing up – she didn’t even know one. Today, she loves working with girls and teaching them about the possibilities with tech, science and math. Contrary to the common cultural perspective that ‘math is for boys, English is for girls.’
We thank Regina for sharing her advice with women wishing to pursue a career in technology or entrepreneurship, more of her story, her keys to success, and her journey ahead.
Tell us about your background & career path.
RA: I studied computer science at university and I was the only girl that wanted to study that – all my classmates wondered why. When I was younger I didn’t know any woman successful in computer science in Ghana or anywhere else.
There are three things in Ghana that your parents want you to be when you grow up: a doctor, a lawyer, or to have a job in banking. My parents wanted to me to be doctor because I was good at science.
But, my father bought our first computer when I was 12 years old, and in my first interaction with it, playing Pac-Man, I knew then that I wanted to work with computers. I was drawn to know more about it because I was fascinated that you could give it a set of commands and it would respond.
My parents were fine with it. They’ve always been supportive and encouraged me to study computer science. My parents just want me to do what I want and based on my personality, they weren’t worried. I am very independent, second oldest of four kids.
Taking the big step into entrepreneurship is very scary. It is never easy – so many people start business and then they fail. If you aren’t working in a company or a business, and people here see somebody working from home or in your parents garage, it is considered that you aren’t serious. We are programmed to follow the blueprint of how you ‘should’ live your life – get a good job after school, get married, have kids – and anyone who deviates is looked at strangely!
Your passionate is very evident. How did you come to be so passionate about technology and social entrepreneurship?
RA: Growing up, I was privileged to go to a private school. But in my area where I lived there were several kids going to the government school. At the end of the day, I would out-perform them in how I thought, my grades, and the way I discussed and shared ideas. I was getting a better education because the government schools have so many students, so few teachers, a curriculum that doesn’t change, and basic facilities.
One of my best friends was going to basic school – I realized we were going to have two different paths. I would end up going to better schools and have access to more opportunities. He would not continue his education and start looking for jobs.
That realization led me to start to teaching math in my community. I became very passionate about seeing the difference that made. I realized that with technology we could do so many different things. I would build programs to help the students and share my school notes on the computer.
In my social initiative at Soronko Solutions, we introduce children to science, mathematics, and engineering. I want to provide a hands-on training approach to get them to think about the problems they have around them and how they can fix those problems themselves. We tend to rely on the West and people don’t think about fixing the problems in their own communities. I also do a lot of this work with girls in the school because the general perception is science is for boys, English is for girls.
I want to continue making and measuring the impact, building (code) things we can use around and get an investor who would be interested in helping us grow.
Who or what has helped you succeed along the way?
RA: Apart from my supportive family, I haven’t had mentors or women to look to in IT. Because I didn’t have access to any even if they are there. It took me such a long time to start something.
Generally, I am motivated by my surroundings. Even though I had access to good schools etc, there are still a lot of people in Ghana who don’t have things that they need. There needs to be a change, and we can change, we can fix it.One of the other things that motivates me is that we have so much potential here and it isn’t being used. When I wake up every morning, I have to do more – it’s a calling that I have, I have to leave a legacy behind.
It was only much later after launching my business that I met women in the IT world.
What advice would you give to other women in Ghana who want to get into ICT or become an entrepreneur?
RA: The first advice is that they should STOP listening to what everyone else tells them. If you listen to what everyone says you won’t do what you want to do. I heard, “IT is for boys, you’ll be behind a computer all the time, you won’t be social, you won’t be able to marry, etc.”
My second advice is: Know that if you start a business, it is going to be difficult…every day is scary. You can never tell what is going to happen, you have to find the courage within yourself to keep moving forward. There is never the right moment or perfect scenario, so JUST DO IT. It’s always about the first step – sometimes it is just what you need, it is very scary but when you do it, everything will fall into place.
Third, get a good network. Find good people who can advise you, that you can talk to and who can mentor you. There will be challenges you won’t know. You will think it’s just you. But then you will realize it’s not just you – or there is something you’re doing wrong, but it is something common.
Lastly, get used to people giving you the LOOK – doubting you, looking at you – questioning. Develop tough skin, let it slide. Don’t take it personally because if you dwell on it, it will eat you up. Just laugh about it and don’t take it to heart. NEVER GIVE UP!
What is next for your business?
RA: Next for my business is to build a solid approach and a model with education and technology so more people can embrace science, tech and math. I want to create the next generation of innovators and replicate the model in other developing nations. I want to build apps for people who can’t afford them but who need them. Tech can really help in society, especially in developing nations. We can be left behind, but now we don’t have to be. I can provide affordable technology and a great educational start in the community.
I am building apps to move the industry. SMEs are stuck using old technology but they need new technology to grow and to get ahead. One app example that I am working on right now is a location-based service for small businesses in Ghana – from mom and pop shops to big businesses – that don’t have visibility and are losing businesses to big companies. This app will provide a location-based online directory on people’s mobile phones so they can find these smaller businesses.For example, if you search for ‘Shoes’ it will list small businesses, hours, contact info, the address, etc. Helping local businesses to get more business is my main product. We are hoping to launch very soon.
I am currently looking for investors or partners, particularly funding to help women in technology.
If you are interested in funding Soronko Solutions or learning more, please contact Regina at bbsoronko[at]gmail.com.
Follow on Regina on Twitter @ragyare and her social entrepreneurial efforts @SoronkoS. Learn more about her at IQ4News.com.