The Women Founders of the GIST Network Are Changing the World
Here at GIST, we are happy to celebrate Women’s History Month, and look to uplift and empower the women innovators in our network. These women are extraordinary people, at every turn finding opportunities not only to innovate and bring tomorrow’s solutions to life, but to uplift their communities at the same time. Women are vital to the flourishing of the GIST Network, just as they are vital to the entire global entrepreneurship ecosystem. We are proud to have a gender parity of 51% women across our network, and to date we have reached over 10 million women innovation community members… together, we can work to reach even more.
We had the privilege of being able to sit down with some of these innovators, founders and ecosystem builders, incredible women who are changing the regions they are from and in the process, changing the world. They are succeeding in extraordinary ways, and paving the way for generations of future innovators to follow in their footsteps. Get to know them and their work, as well as important lessons and inspiration to help you in your venture journey!
Meet These Incredible Founders:
Queeny was named the Outstanding Female Entrepreneur at the 2019 GIST Tech-I Pitch Competition and also participated in the 2019 GIST Business Incubation program. Her startup, Anuka, uses endemic microalgae from Ecuador to fix large amounts of CO2 present in the environment in a highly efficient manner—100 times more than one tree!
Sadaf is the founder of HerGround, a venture from Pakistan committed to helping women get the products they need for topics they are usually too uncomfortable to talk about. Her Ground is an online subscription service that delivers feminine hygiene products to users’ doorsteps every month. She is the winner of the AWS Outstanding Woman Entrepreneur award at the 2018 GIST Tech-I Pitch Competition. HerGround has just launched its first product, a reusable menstrual cup, and is working in over 190 cities in Pakistan.
Kemi is the founder of BabyMigo, a venture from Nigeria, who won the Outstanding Women Entrepreneur award at Catalyst 2021. BabyMigo is Nigeria's largest pregnancy and parenting community, and is in a period of exciting growth: it launched a new platform, and is preparing to launch insurance for moms, where moms have access to over 100 hospitals in this part of the world at reduced costs, where they would have access to antenatal services, childcare services, as well as child delivery and childcare services at a reduced cost for when the mom is pregnant. They are also developing a product that will allow women in less developed areas in sub-Saharan Africa to be able to access antenatal classes without an Internet enabled phone.
How does your startup journey intersect with being a woman, what does this experience mean to you?
Queenny: I think science is still a field that is difficult for women, right? So for me, it is very challenging, but it's an honor to be the founder of the startup. I’m very proud to be working in engineering because it is a discipline dominated by men, so I'm proud for being part of this startup, and also because my partner was a women too so we were able to make an important point in Ecuador, as we were some of the first women to make it to a global ecosystem of innovators, like through GIST, for example. And in this opportunity we had the chance to be a part of universities, and have the opportunity to work with other women and even girls in inspiring them to take the path towards science.
And in fact I am working with gender in a program for the conservation of the forest, so I can talk from my own experience, and reflect not just in our speech how important empowerment for girls in science is and how it can change your life if you decide to choose this as your path. And, of course, I'm share with girls that they already have all they need to get everywhere they want, even if science and engineering looks like a difficult path.
Sadaf: HerGround is fundamentally a women's health platform. We provide feminine hygiene products at doorsteps and are working in 109 cities in Pakistan. We ship the period subscription box to women and girls, whether they are young and living in hostels, or to offices, or to their homes. What we have done in the last month is launch our first ever product, the menstrual cup. The reusable menstrual cup is a very big thing for us because previously we were just a platform in our online website. But now we realize that we are in that stage where we have to launch our own product; so that's why we are super excited to launch our own brand, and we have started working six months ago, starting with the prototype and then testing with this small group of women, around 50 women who used our initial testing product. We worked on the design in this process and then we finally reached the point where we have launched this.
We are thinking about technology that can boost women’s confidence, so we are thinking now more at the human design level, like how we can facilitate at every age group allowing women to build more confidence. We are empowering them to take care of their own health.
Our mission is not just to provide health products; every month we go to the community and talk about women's health, how they can take care of their health… When we are communicating with our community, that is what inspires us; hearing these conversations keeps us motivated. It keeps us going and reimagining how to help our community.
Where do you get the strength to keep going?
Queenny: I really believe in the potential of Latin America in terms of resources, we have an amazing biodiversity, and an appreciation for it built into our background… I think women are sensitive to these kinds of resources, and I think that is what inspired me to get involved with protecting them, to get involved with protecting the resource of biodiversity, of working with other people on this and particularly working with other women.
People suggest all of the time that girls don’t have enough to get to where they want to get to. And we need to prove to ourselves and prove to the world that women can do amazing things.
For example, I work with indigenous girls, and they recognize the importance of this territory and they feel this kind of connection with nature and with plants, seeds and animals and if you touch this kind of sensitivity, the girls want to explore this resource and I think that this is a wonderful inspiration, because we have many, many resources in Ecuador that we can take advantage of.
Sadaf: When I was a part of the Business Incubation program, I kept thinking about how to launch the sanitary napkins, which we wanted to be Organic Cotton, but in Pakistan it's very hard to find organic cotton. But, if we were to make it somewhere else, the cost of the actual end product would be too high, so we wanted to launch something which is cost effective but good for the environment, and which of course is also good for women, so we launched this. We were motivated by this idea of, you know, let’s launch it and then let's see how it goes. So we launched, and then we were surprised to see the impacts on society, that women are actually using the cup. It makes us really happy to know the audience that is using it and the excitement they feel.
What inspired you to begin this work?
Queenny: I’m very inspired by the indigenous women in Ecuador who are fighting for the rights of their territory, who are working very hard for the protection of the Amazon and the protection of the forest. They are very inspiring for me.
Sadaf: So many of our partnerships have come as a result of working with other women and other women-led organizations. I was so inspired by the startups all over the world led by women… Even in COVID, watching women-led startups pivot and meet the challenges here. You find a special energy and passion in ventures led by women.
Seeing women that have similar stories, watching founders come from the same small towns as me, they have similar challenges, and watching them keeps you going and motivates you and keeps you focused, like “These women are doing it, you can do it too!”
Kemi: From my experience as a physical therapist working in a hospital and heading the women's health unit, every day I would see pregnant women come to the hospital and see the challenges they had, I realized they needed community, they needed one another.
There are a number of women founders in Nigeria, and around the world, that inspire me.
I think it’s inspiring to see female founders across the world that show you what you can achieve, whatever it's what you put your mind to, and that being a woman does not limit you in any way, regardless of your gender.
I’m inspired by the moms in our community. The moms in our community are amazing. We have over 250,000 moms in our community, and I have seen moms share very horrible experiences with pregnancy, in their childbirth experiences, and how they have overcome all those challenges to still continue and go about their daily lives and to do the work that they do; so I'm absolutely inspired as well by them.
I'm also inspired by the women that we work with; we actually have about 80 to 85% of women that work with us; the men on the team are mostly our software developers and tech team. We have a company which is mostly women, and I must really commend the immense strength of the women that work with us, who show up to work passionate about what we do; it's really inspiring to see and sometimes when I come across challenges and obstacles, their strength and encouragement really keeps me going, so I really must commend the female members of our team.
What advice would you give to your younger self that would be helpful to other women founders?
Queeny: Everything passes... The happiness, the sadness, everything passes. Take advantage of that moment you’re in; take advantage of your time, for example, of your body. If you're younger, you can run faster, so take advantage of that; climb on trees and live… live as much as you want, because everything passes in the end.
Sadaf: You should not have to stop yourself from negative criticism. One advice I can give you? Keep trying, keep going. Even if you fail 99% of the time, you only need it to succeed once.
As a woman, it's sometimes hard to fight for yourself, especially when you are in the field of entrepreneurship. So the one advice I will give, especially to the young girls, if you have passion about things, is to just focus on that. Follow your sixth sense, and just go for it. You will find the way. Young girls have unique energy, young vision, and they often worry about how to make it 100% perfect. But it never will be, you just have to go for it.
Kemi: Trust your intuition… and times when I make mistakes, forgive myself more easily. Founders with way more years of experience make mistakes as well, so be patient with yourself, and allow yourself to make mistakes.
What makes you excited for the future?
Queenny: Well, our unique solution is not about our technology, it’s about a pathway to get more in touch with nature, to come back to our nature as human beings. And really, that is the key to sustainability. The key to the future is informed by how we as a society, as human beings, how we can learn from nature to improve our relationship with resources, and what nature can show us. So for me, the future is to rediscover how to reconnect with nature and learn how nature has survived for more than billions of years to now. If we extend this to human beings, nature will still be on the planet many years after us, so if you wanted to survive it will need to different than how it is now, it needs to learn from nature how to survive.
Kemi: I'm excited to see moms in Africa have better access to natal and postnatal care. I’m excited to see the incidence of mother and early childhood mortality decrease in Africa, and I’m excited to see women who give birth transition back into society in a more effortless manner, and not be limited by the cultural and local beliefs that we have seen in this part of the world.
I'm excited to see women have an even more awesome and exciting pregnancy experience, without being burdened by just systemic issues, these different things in the society that we don't necessarily have to go through.