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#FoundingWomen - Interview with Rebecca Enonchong, CEO Appstech

Rebecca's interview is part of Founding Women, a book spotlighting African female tech role models to inspire the next generation of female founders.

Each book sold will donate a free copy to a young aspiring female entrepreneur and fund one hour of mentorship to help them kick-start their business.

Pre-order to receive a copy of the book and help unlock the potential of young women across Africa.

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Known as @Africatechie to her twitter followers, Rebecca Enonchong is one of the most recognisable names in Africa Tech. Born in Cameroon, she moved to the US with her family in her teens where she later went on to found AppsTech, a leading global provider of enterprise application solutions. She has received widespread recognition for her work championing and promoting technology entrepreneurship in Africa including being named a Global Leader for Tomorrow (GLT) by the World Economic Forum and one of the top female tech founders to watch in Africa by Forbes. Below she shares about her journey building a global tech company from the ground up.

1.When did you fall in love with technology?
I was working at a hotel in finance and accounting. I happened to have one of the powerful computers because I had to do a lot of financial analysis and modelling. That was when I discovered my love for computers. As soon as I touched a computer, not to simply play with or write a paper, but to actually deliver something, I thought, “This is so powerful”. I literally fell in love - first with computers, and then with technology in general. I remember I took a part-time job with a computer store and I didn’t make any money because I would spend it all buying stuff from the store. I would take my computer apart and the put it back together. I was one of those people who would be in line when a new version of software came out. That’s really how it started. And I’ve never stopped loving technology. I adore it.

2. So what would you say to people who think that girls are not into tech as much as boys?
I think if you put a group of girls and boys in a room with devices, you will notice that there are some girls who want to engage and some who don’t. Similarly there will be boys who engage and those who don’t. I don’t think it’s a gender issue. I think it’s about finding relevant content and something interesting to do on the device. I’ve seen little girls touch a phone and start doing stuff. My niece is four years old and she uses up all her dad’s bandwidth downloading games. I think as adults and parents we need to be careful about the messages we are sending out to kids. We might be the ones telling girls technology is not for them.

3. Was there someone in your life who influenced your love for technology?
Yes, my maternal uncle. He is a software engineer and I used to spend a lot of time with him during the summers growing up. He would explain complex technology concepts to me without watering them down. I think having somebody in your life who respects your mind as a girl or woman is really key. When it came to actually learning how to use technology, I’m self taught. I didn’t study anything related to technology. I taught myself how to code. But I think that my uncle definitely had an influence on my love and appreciation for technology.

4. How did you go about starting your company AppsTech?
The first thing I did was write a business plan. I always tell entrepreneurs to spend time working on a business plan. Not for some investor or a banker, but for you. A business plan is really about taking your vision, your ideals and what you want to accomplish and building a plan around that. This is so critical because it allows you to identify your weaknesses and where you need reinforcement. If you write your business plan for an investor or someone else, you are not going to be fully honest. Mine took me a couple of weeks. During that time I did not do anything else but plan. I thought about how I was going to build this company, who my target market was and how I was going to reach them. I worked on my numbers over and over again. They showed I needed to make over a million dollars in the first year and it seemed very daunting. But I put in the time to plan and in the end I knew what I needed to do to get to that point. The first year we made two million dollars worth of revenue. I believe I managed to do that because I had a plan which I stuck to and have refined over the years.

5. Did being African and female ever present any particular barriers or challenges?

All the time. When I started my company, I knew the types of customers I needed were very large companies and I quickly realised that many of them were not going to give such a big contract to this black, African woman. So in the beginning I hid behind a corporate structure. For instance, my business cards didn’t have a title. I simply worked for AppsTech. I would walk into a meeting and be a salesperson, engineer or whatever I needed to be at that moment in front of that particular customer. I didn’t lie. I didn’t have to because no one ever thought that it could be my company anyway. Even years later when I started using the title of CEO, most people believed I was just a front for somebody or some other entity.
I remember one particular incident where we had a customer service issue with a very important client and I had to get involved. I made a call to the client and my vice president for technology services who is a white male was with me. As soon as I started the call the client asked to speak directly with the vice president. So I let my vice president lead the call and towards the end he told the client he would need to run what they had discussed by me for approval. It took a bit of back and forth before it sunk in that I was the boss. The client later called me and apologised profusely. I think that’s the only time I’ve ever gotten an apology in these situations.
But in the end what matters is your ability to deliver. One of the reasons I love technology is that it is a great equaliser. As long as your solution works and you are able to consistently deliver value to your customers, you will succeed. But it can be tough in the beginning when you are trying to get your foot in the door. So unfortunately sometimes you may have to fake it till you make it.

6. How did you handle the stress and pressure of building a global company from the ground up?
To be honest for a long time I didn’t handle it very well. I would say for the first 10 years I hardly slept. I kept really long hours. And it definitely took a toll on me. I would work myself to exhaustion and then be dysfunctional for weeks. At some point I knew this had to stop. So now I programme time specifically to re-charge. Even when I’m not particularly tired or stressed, I still set aside my weekends to gain my strength back, reflect and prepare. I’ve noticed that since I’ve been doing that I’m able to deal with the stress during the week so much better.
Don’t wait until your body can’t take it any more. Especially as women, we tend not to stop until we are completely exhausted. You cannot take care of others if you are not okay. Be accepting of yourself. You are not infallible. You are going to make mistakes. Another tendency we have as women, is being too hard on ourselves. It’s okay to screw up from time to time. Just get up and keep going.

7. What is the best piece of advice you have received?
My dad gave me a great piece of advice although I didn’t really get it at the time. He said, “Don’t be bothered with what people think. Your value doesn’t increase or decrease based others’ perception of you.” This advice is especially relevant in our African society where what people think of you and the impression you give is so important. Hearing these words from my dad, who was an African chief and therefore very traditional, really stayed with me. Some people will like you and some won’t. It doesn’t change who you are. You are you. They key is to understand who you are and know your value. Then that societal pressure won’t affect you. Go about your business and your life without worrying constantly about what others think. It comes down to you and what’s inside of you. Make sure you are good with yourself and things will fall into place.

8. What achievement are you most proud of?
Building AppsTech into a global but authentically African company and being able to employ Africans as well as people from all races, creeds and walks of life. When I started this company, I had no idea what it would become. No idea that it would be become so big. Because of Appstech I’ve been able to work on projects (such as ActivSpaces - a technology incubator in Cameroon) to develop technology entrepreneurship in Africa, which is something that is personally of great importance to me.

Read more interviews with trailblazing African female tech founders in our upcoming Founding Women book.

Each book sold will donate a free copy to a young aspiring female entrepreneur and fund one hour of mentorship to help them kick-start their business.

Pre-order to receive a copy of the book and help unlock the potential of young women across Africa.