Although women only account for less than a quarter of the jobs in the tech industry and only 29% senior management positions in South Africa are held by women; a lot of companies are joining the right side of history and doing away with the gatekeeping of work opportunities which have led to a gender imbalance in the workplace. One company, Afri Ride, is tipping this imbalance. We spoke to their Chief Operations Office, Mireille Umuhoza, about how she got involved with Afri Ride, her role at the company, representation of women within the company, what she believes can be done to encourage more women in tech and her hopes for the future.
Umuhoza credits a combination of variables that helped her gain her position as COO at Afri Ride: courage, support, relationship, a solid work ethic and a hunger to push her limits. At the age of 22, when she joined the team at Afri Ride, Umuhoza had completed her business degree at the University of Pretoria and was already setting up her own business – a second-hand bookstore for university and college textbooks. Umuhoza knew the founder of Afri Ride, Joe Moyo, while he was still working as a real estate agent and assisted him on several proposals, marketing and PR projects and he, in turn, helped her look for a location for her bookstore. So, when Moyo founded Afri Ride, Umuhoza was the natural choice to hire to handle their communications. As Umuhoza explains, as with many start-up companies, the company structure can change rapidly based on the needs and size of the company and that over time, as she got more involved and took on more responsibilities within the company, she moved herself into the role of COO: “I guess proved myself capable to hold what would be the second biggest role in the company.”
When asked about the representation of women within the company Umuhoza stated that the majority of their staff are women and that moving forward, as the company grows, she will continue this happy trend according to Umuhoza “We do not actively go out of our way to find women to hire, we simply do not withhold roles from a specific demographic. Because of that, we have created a very competent workforce that happens to be made up of women”. When asked what more she believes could be done to encourage young girls to pursue a career in tech, Umuhoza felt that there are many good programs and initiatives already out there, such as Microsoft’s girls in STEM and GirlHype aimed at exactly that, but that they should be careful to not try appeal to girls through superficial gender stereotypes such as pink lab coats or glittery goggles, but by sparking their interests by highlighting the cool things you can achieve through tech and ensuring that hiring policies and practices are not discriminatory.
Because the number of women in tech and senior management positions is so small, Umuhoza has by default been given the heavy responsibility of being a role model of these girls. When asked what she would like to say as encouragement for girls who seek to follow in her footsteps as one of the youngest female COOs in a tech company, Umuhoza wanted to make it clear that her ability to be so daring in terms of starting her own business and deciding to join a start-up, as opposed to the security of working for a well-established company as many graduates do, is thanks to the opportunities she had to attend a private school followed by one of the best universities in the country, as well as the support of a loving family that is not financially struggling. “It’s these privileges, along with my youth that make me feel less threatened by failure”. So, as Umuhoza pointed out, the best advice would be to just do it, take advantage of the opportunities and privileges you are given and don’t let them go to waste.