EMBA alumna champions women in STEM

An interview with Executive MBA alumna Hema Vallabh

Hema Vallabh is an alumna of the Oxford Executive MBA January 2019 cohort. She is a South African entrepreneur, engineer, diversity and inclusion specialist, investor and all-round change-maker. She is the co-founder & CEO of WomHub, a boutique pan-African incubator for female founders in STEM. WomHub is a spin-out of her award-winning non-profit WomEng which provides interventions for girls and women at every stage of the engineering skills pipeline. Hema is also a founding partner at Five35 Ventures, a pan-African VC fund investing in women in tech in Africa and a limited partner at Dazzle Angels, an angel fund investing in women in South Africa.

Tell us about the background of the work you do in the gender equality space. How did your interest in this start and develop, and what is the nature of the work that you do?

At university, I was one of very few females and very few people of colour. My viewpoint is that you can sit back and complain or can you do something about it. We saw women dropping out because the industry was just unfriendly towards them or if they did go on to work in engineering, it was in consulting rather than industry. As someone who loves engineering, I wanted to practice. So a group of us got together back in 2006 and we started what was at the time very much just a student platform to get women from engineering together to work out our what next move would be after university. We started with a one-day conference in the first year and following overwhelming support this became a national five-day event the following year, more than a traditional conference but now also covering topics such as employability, leadership development, business development and where to go after university.

It was only couple of years later in 2009, after gaining much traction and seeing the impact, that we registered formally as a non-profit WomEng (at the time SAWomEng), which grew quite organically, but at the same time very deliberately. Today, we have a full pipeline of interventions spanning from programmes for girls as young as six years old through to senior female executives. At the early stage level, our work is really focused on breaking stereotypes, providing information and raising awareness, particularly in relation to maths and science studies. We show young girls that women can go to space and can be engineers. At high school level, it’s bringing this to life by positioning STEM fields as a career choice. After that, college programs, and at university we offer tertiary studies under the broader STEM umbrella, women’s lean-in circles and our flagship WomEng Fellowship for female engineering students in their penultimate to ultimate years of university (undergrad and postgrad). We want to ensure that these women thrive, and not just survive when they enter the workplace. We want them to trailblaze. So this goes on to cover entrepreneurship, innovation and simulations of starting up their own businesses, so that they can see what growing a venture looks like. Post-university level, we offer workplace programmes and focus on how industry can retain these incredible women and help them grow, all the way through to senior executive level. We do a lot of work across the board on diversity and inclusion, making the space more conducive for women at every level. While we are based in South Africa, we have had fantastic global reach having run programs in 22 countries around the world to date, and having an even bigger reach in the past year through virtual interventions.

This was something I was doing as a passion project on the side for the first seven or eight years. My primary job was working in oil and gas as an engineer for six years in South Africa and in Germany. Having seeing the impact and success we were having, I realised that so much more was possible with WomEng if I gave it more of my time, so I took a what was supposed to be a year sabbatical from my cushy well-paid engineering job to see what was possible. My co-founder followed suit six months later, and within a very short space of time thereafter we expanded to Kenya. This was all the proof we needed to realise how scalable this really was.

The seed was planted that I can really be the change I want to see. And later, living and working in Germany, I realised that — wait a minute — this was not an African problem! I was one of two female engineers working in the plant and it had no female toilets on site. This was a global issue, and that meant a global opportunity too.

So what started as a one year sabbatical…here I am eight years later! But so much more has also happened in that time.

There came the point where I realised I wasn’t going back into industry and that this was now my path. This also meant I had to think about my own future and rethink what we were doing from a sustainability standpoint. The financial crisis hit South Africa and the mining sector, where many of our funders came from, was hit incredibly hard — CSR and outreach was no longer so much of an priority and we found ourselves with little to no funding. But I would not accept that money was what was going to stop me, especially knowing the impact we were having. It turned out to be a personal journey of self-worth, and also the worth of the organisation, to come to understand that we were actually contributing to big engineering companies’ bottom lines by feeding them top talent, and quite literally transforming the journey. The budgets for our programs were coming from HR, supply chain, the engineering department, even marketing — not just outreach. We realised that it was not proportional in terms of what they were receiving from our organisation and began to re-value our offerings. That was a game-changer. Even with WomEng being a non-profit, it is a non-profit that thinks like a business, which has been the key to its longevity.

More so, in 2016 I decided to pivot to spin out WomHub as a for-profit company (still a social enterprise though). WomHub built on the work we were doing in the innovation and entrepreneurship space and was positioned as a boutique incubator and accelerator. It’s surprising how you get taken more seriously as a business rather than an outreach organisation, which can be perceived as a handout or just charity. We productised a lot of our programs, and converted sponsors in clients and partners, which enabled better revenue and subsequently more sustainable growth. Now we have expanded again, to virtual — the Covid-19 pandemic has been an opportunity to accelerate our existing digitalisation plans as we think about how to better support and enable women. It’s simply not the same for women as men working from home. For example, in Africa, women contribute more to the African ecosystem but it is not proportional to company, land and financial ownership. The recent pandemic has highlighted this even further.

So — first there was the problem of not enough female engineers — and I said, let’s try to tackle that. Then there was the problem of not enough female founders — let’s try to fix that. Now I realise there isn’t enough capital available to women, in Africa in particular — women are not seeing the money largely because men are currently still the investment decision makers. There are not enough female fund managers and investors making the decisions about where the capital gets allocated. Its with this in mind that I’m now starting my journey as a female fund manager, raising my first fund, Five35 Ventures, to invest in women in tech in Africa.

Personally, I don’t buy it when people say they can’t find women on boards, they can’t find female entrepreneurs or female engineers — it’s not true. They are there. You just need to mine them like diamonds, and polish them — they need different kinds of support, because they don’t always have the institutional leverage, inherent mindset or the networks to achieve everything they might want to the way men historically have had. I’m really hoping to make some tracks in this space so that those who come after me don’t have to face the same challenges I faced. It really shouldn’t be this hard in today’s world!

In what ways did the Oxford Executive MBA help you?

Knowing you can’t keep doing the same thing and get a different result, I knew it was time to apply to study an Executive MBA to upskill myself in order to be able to grow and scale my business even further. Now I have started a journey to become an investor — Five 35 Ventures. My mother always says: “Financial freedom enables dreams”. I didn’t come from wealth, but because I had saved and planned from a very early age, that’s what enabled me to quit my job at 30 and follow my dreams. I want more people to have access to money to be able to do this too. If I can do it, anyone can!

My EP project* is the best example of how the EMBA programme helped me to develop my skills. I thought I would use the Oxford platform as a blueprint for real life. In reality, a lot of the work happened in parallel to the study, because the pandemic meant the plans for my fund were set in motion faster than expected, so there have been shared learnings in both directions. So much great learning came from that. I started to get my feet wet in the investing space and I am now an angel investor myself — even on a small scale it is a nice way to practice as I build up actual VC investments in the fund.

*The Entrepreneurship Project is a component of the Oxford MBA and Executive MBA The project introduces critical skills of entrepreneurship and cultivates a broad perspective on creating a new venture. As part of this learning module, students work together in small groups on either new products or new business models in a safe environment. They receive mentoring support throughout the project and feedback from senior business professionals, entrepreneurs, experts or investors who are panellists at their pitch presentations. The project challenges participants to develop a full business plan and present it to a panel of invited investors and entrepreneurs. For students already running a business, this is a great chance to develop new products or business models and have them rigorously evaluated.

What gender-specific struggles do you think women face?

I did an interview in my 20s and naively said ‘If WomEng is still around in ten years time there’s a problem, because organisations like mine shouldn’t exist.’ 15 years later, I still believe this, that it shouldn’t be a thing to be a female engineer, founder, funder.

But until such time as that’s normalised and a non-event, we have to do this work.

I couldn’t wait to get older as thought older people get taken more seriously. As women, we have to be so much more. If I was a 35 year old white man, arguably my journey would have been so different in terms of growth and the doors that were open or closed to me. That’s why we do the work we do, because this has to change.

If your whole life you have been told that you should get some education — but not too much — because you’re going to get married and have your 2.5 kids, serve your husband and live in that white picket fenced house — if that’s all you’ve ever heard, that’s what you’re going to start believing. We need to change the inherent beliefs and narratives and normalise women having a career, choosing not to get married, being the breadwinner. It all comes down to choice. A lot of that sits internally. You have work on those barriers and to work with women to help them, almost give them permission to do so. But that’s not the full story. Until the world around us changes, you can empower women until you’re blue in the face, but if men still think the way they do then so what?! I don’t believe men are purposely out to get women, it’s just that a lot of work needs to be done on cognising men around unconscious bias. Even in the investment space, the way we question men and women is different. A male founder will be asked ‘explain to us how you will capture the whole market’. A woman founder will be asked: ‘how are you going to defend your market? How are you going to ensure you get enough customers?’ Same question. But the way it’s asked is different. Unconscious bias, of men, but also of women biased about other women.

The tangible physical environment is another facet — we have put a man on the moon but I am yet to find a car with space for my handbag! I say this as a joke but it’s so true. The design versus user experience do not match for women. It is only recently that you start to see breastfeeding facilities, for example in the Saïd building. This should have been normal a long time ago.

A quote I really like is from Gloria Steinem — “Though we have the courage to raise our daughters more like our sons, we’ve rarely had the courage to raise our sons like our daughters.” The fact is, if you tell a young boy ‘you run like a girl’ and he sees that as an insult, what kind of message are we sending about what it means to be a girl? This is a first principles level that needs to shift. Same applies to race, sexual orientation, all sorts of discrimination. How is it that we are still here in the 21st century? It blows my mind. This is what keeps me up at night.

Too often we talk about this issue only at surface level. We need to stop talking about it and actually implement and practice these ideas. What are the dialogues between friends and families? Not just panels of speakers at formal events. Are you calling out inequality where you see it?

We’re moving in the right direction, but I don’t think we’re moving fast enough. A parting lesson — I normally hate giving interviews, but I’ve learnt if you don’t tell your story and own your space as a strong and powerful woman effecting change, some mediocre man is going to take your place. And you have to share your story to give other women permission to believe they can do it as well. Not just the glamourous parts. It’s been a hard journey. I have struggled personally, even with the systems of support I had, so what chance do women have who don’t have that support?

What’s next for you?

My fund Five35 Ventures is a pan-African, female-focussed VC fund investing in early stage (Seed and Series A) women-led tech-enabled businesses. On International Women’s Day we’re launching The 35’er Club, which aims to stimulate accomplished women’s competitive instinct and desire to participate in a professional network that will generate returns and impact on many levels. It’s an opportunity for women who want to find an easy way to invest in women-led start-ups without having to start their own funds or projects, and of course helps us raise the fund. I’m really excited about this as its one of the first of its kind in Africa and has so much potential for impact.

I’m also excited about picking up my EMBA again, after suspending as a result of COVID. I can’t wait to get back to school and continue what’s already been such an incredible learning and growth experience.