Eloho Gihan-Mbelu: ‘I would like to see more women becoming high-impact entrepreneurs, leading more impactful companies’

Eloho Gihan-Mbelu

Over a career spanning close to 20 years, Eloho Gihan-Mbelu has worked with entrepreneurs, companies and entrepreneurial teams across multiple industries, at a range of life-cycle stages. She started her career in investment banking, working for Credit Suisse in London and then Renaissance Capital in Lagos, in M&A and Advisory roles, rising to the position of Vice-President in six years. She is a former growth private equity investor, working for General Atlantic, where she focused on high-growth companies in key Sub-Saharan African markets. Today, Eloho is the Managing Director/CEO of Endeavor Nigeria whose goal is to support entrepreneurs who are transforming industries and economies, by providing them with access to mentorship, capital, market entry support and access to global networks. Before Endeavor, as Managing Partner of Amari, an early-stage investment and consulting firm she founded, Eloho conceptualised, designed and launched ‘Lagos Innovates’, a portfolio of startup support programs, currently operated by the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF). Passionate about entrepreneurship and believes high-impact entrepreneurship is one of the best vehicles for economic empowerment, she holds an MBA from the London Business School and an undergraduate degree in Economics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. In this interview, she talks about her passion for finding and scaling up businesses, building a strong entrepreneurship ecosystem in Nigeria, issues that startups/scaleups face and five things an upcoming entrepreneur must do to be successful in business amongst others.

You are quite prominent in the finance and tech space, was this always where you wanted to be?

I started off my career as an investment banking analyst. With every new role and company I joined, what became clearer and clearer to me over time, was my personal mission-orientation and great respect for the impact that successful companies can have on economies and individual livelihoods. Through my interactions and responsibilities at work, I became aware of the role of entrepreneurs in economic growth, as well as the moral and economic imperative of job creation in a country like Nigeria. In terms of being where I always wanted to be, not at all; I think the best professionals are constantly extending their visions, and are never satisfied with where they currently are on their journeys. I see myself as being at the very beginning of a journey to significantly impact the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Nigeria, beyond just providing capital to innovative companies and I look forward to seeing where this journey takes me.

How has your background and experience helped you out in this industry?

Coming from an investment banking and private equity background means that I’m familiar with how investors think and how a founder can go about raising capital; I understand the intricacies of business models, and the complexities of taking companies from early stage to maturity. Conceptualising Lagos Innovates immersed me in what it takes to create responsible policies and foster collaboration between the government and the private sector.

You used to run your own consulting firm but now head another company, what informed this decision?

I started Amari because I wanted to be part of the scaling journeys of the next generation of companies to come out of Nigeria. As a growth-stage private equity investor, I became interested in the challenges a company faces from the start-up phase to the scale-up phase, and increasingly committed to creating support conditions under which more and more Nigerian companies are ready to receive growth-stage capital. When you have a growth stage company with $50 million or more in revenue, those challenges are no longer as threatening to your business. But for companies that are trying to scale up, they need all the support they can get when it comes to access to financing, market expansion and entry into other countries, mentorship with some of the most experienced business leaders, and the opportunity to interact with a global network. I see the journey to Endeavor as a simple extension and continuation of the work that I started at Amari, which was to help more and more founders be more successful in Nigeria. I joined Endeavor because of its global reach, and the simple fact that if we’re serious about building a strong entrepreneurship ecosystem in Nigeria, we need to give companies adequate support. Endeavor’s scaleup support model works, we’ve proven this for more than 20 years in most parts of the world, and the organisation is committed and equipped to provide that support. We have a critical challenge to develop Nigeria’s economy and I see high-impact entrepreneurs as perhaps the most important players in helping to tackle the job creation challenges we face.

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In your opinion, what are some of the key issues startups and scale-ups face, especially in Nigeria?

People often point to funding as the “main” issue facing startups and scaleups in Nigeria but I disagree. I think experienced talent for scaling companies is a bigger issue. Entrepreneurship has, of course, always existed, but there is a gap in Nigeria’s entrepreneurial landscape. There are a handful of large corporates (often multinationals or banks), like your MTNs, Nigerian Breweries, Tolaram Group, Dangote Industries, and a plethora of MSMEs, which includes most tech startups. We have too few growing, entrepreneurial companies at the scaleup stage. We talk often about a culture of entrepreneurship in Nigeria, but the truth is that we now have fewer than 1,800 medium sized companies in the country; that is, companies that employ anywhere between 50 and 200 people.

That category of company is also shrinking. We need to build companies that can create thousands of jobs, drive innovation, productivity and massive transformation that our economy needs. There are not enough companies that have successfully grown within our entrepreneurial ecosystem to achieve real scale in, say, the last 50 years. This is a challenge for many reasons, not least because in this culture of tech entrepreneurship, founders looking to scale their companies are now struggling to find employees and even mentors who have first-hand experience scaling a company. If you consider a more mature entrepreneurship ecosystem like Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs can tap from an existing pool of talent that has experience with scaling companies. When Facebook was growing, it was able to hire Sheryl Sandberg who had experience scaling Google, and more recently, Uber was able to hire a CEO who had experience scaling Expedia. Perhaps, the most notable example of this is the ‘PayPal mafia’, past employees of PayPal who have gone on to found, invest in or work in hundreds of other companies such as Tesla Motors, LinkedIn, Palantir Technologies, SpaceX, YouTube, Yelp, and Yammer. In Nigeria, we have not yet developed such a wealth of founders, operators and mentors, but things are starting to change as employees from pioneering companies in our ecosystem like Interswitch and Konga are now moving on to other companies and taking their experience and knowledge with them.

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As CEO of a company, what does your day-to-day role entail?

The most important responsibilities I have as a CEO are guiding the strategy of the organisation and supporting its execution by worrying about things like resource allocation. I keep my team focused on the big picture or vision, and provide individual input, mentorship and guidance around our execution. That basically means that on a day-to-day basis, I am blocking and tackling around two things, on the one hand, being careful not to fall into the weeds of being too operational (effectively, micro-managing) and on the other hand, ensuring that nothing that I do creates bottlenecks or unforeseen challenges for the team.

How would you rate female entrepreneurship in Nigeria and generally, in Africa, are enough women going into it?

Research shows that African women are the most entrepreneurial demographic globally. This is interesting because even though we have women creating financial stability for themselves and their families, most large organisations are still led by men and when you hear of companies raising millions of dollars, the founders are typically men. I think the shift we are seeing in women becoming notable founders of high-impact companies with massive scale is great, but there’s still a long way to go. I would like to see more women becoming high-impact entrepreneurs and leading more impactful companies that are on a journey to scaleup. There are a number of reasons why we see don’t see enough large companies with female founders. Women tend to be more mission-oriented than men, and the companies that tend to scaleup the fastest and that raise significant amounts of capital more easily are generally for-profit companies.

There’s research to corroborate the view that investors typically invest less money in female-owned companies. There’s also research that confirms that female founders are assessed against different standards. Male investors will sometimes even admit, and this is also backed by research, that they are often less likely to connect to the sectors that female entrepreneurs typically serve. If we want to see more high-growth companies with female founders, we need to ensure that we aren’t assessing women based on biases or unfounded assumptions. The issue is a complex one; it’s not enough to say there are or there aren’t enough female entrepreneurs in Nigeria or Africa. The more interesting discussion is why women are under-represented at different stages of the entrepreneurship journey towards large company formation.

For a female-owned business looking for investors, what are some steps she can take to assist herself?

Women certainly face stereotypes that often impact them negatively when it comes to meeting investors, but I think it’s important that we don’t genderise these issues, in as much as there are gaps there. I think the risk is that as a female founder you find yourself, over time, in a defensive place, or in constant “fight mode”, if you aren’t able to keep the right perspective as you meet mostly male potential investors, many of which will probably ask one or two questions you might find gendered or biased. My first piece of advice would be, “Take a deep breath, be ready for that, and keep your eyes on the prize. Raising capital is not an event, it’s usually a painful process”. The most important thing is to end up with a group of investors who believe in you and in your company because it’s about building your business and setting it up for success. Raising capital takes time. The first capital is the trickiest, and entrepreneurs with track records and existing investor relationships tend to raise money more easily. It’s also important that she is well-prepared, with a great investor deck, and ideally a strong network of mentors that can give her unbiased feedback and help her prepare for questioning and due diligence. There are lots of excellent resources available online that will help her prepare for a fundraiser. Overall, my strongest advice would to give herself an appropriate runway of time. You don’t want to be trying to raise capital while under the pressure of running out of money. My guidance is to start networking 12-24 months before you need that cheque. For a high-growth scaleup-stage company that’s probably raising money every 18 months or so, that basically means you’re always in touch with investors.

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How important is mentorship for women, especially in this industry and how has mentorship helped you personally in your career growth?

Mentorship is extremely important for a professional or an entrepreneur at any stage of their career and company growth. A great mentor should be someone that will coach you through your challenges, give you unbiased feedback, and help you make better decisions around a specific challenge. A mentor is not just someone that inspires you. People worry too much about whether their mentors are male or female. I think it’s more important to select mentors based on their experience and achievements, and to build a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. To the specific question of the importance of mentorship for women, I am a strong believer in the power of female networks, but also in the importance of diverse, integrated networks, especially for women. It’s important to be in the room when the decisions are being made. At the same time, female-only networks are important. Women need to feel supported in their journeys, whether as entrepreneurs, employees or stay-at-home mums.

If you had the power to change something for Nigerian women, what would that be?

I would wave my magic wand and change the cultural context to one with greater justice, fairness and equity between the genders. I think Nigerian women live with far too much injustice and inequity; and the cultural context creates both internal and external conflicts on our individual journeys towards not just self care, but hopefully, self actualisation. It’s difficult to live a full life and achieve your highest potential if you’re constantly battling those inequities, at home or at work. And it can be pretty overwhelming to often feel unfairly treated, dismissed or undervalued, in ways that our fathers, husbands, brothers or sons may not be. We all face uphill battles in our lives, but I do think the battle as a woman is often much harder than it could be. I would like to see a world that is more equitable and just, and for everyone to be given the same opportunities and platforms.

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