Surayyah Ahmad is a serial tech entrepreneur, exit founder currently investing in early stage startups in Nigeria. She founded YDS Online, an e-commerce and fulfillment services company that was recently acquired.
Also a co-founder of Tech tanks solutions, she currently works at a startup in the UK called Ethco. His current angel investment scheme through a subsidiary of Tech Tanks, Tech tanks lab, focuses on driving inclusion by working with female founders from Northern Nigeria, where there are very few startups, and helping them build their MVP and secure funding. .
She tells TOBI AWODIPE how she is trying to close the gap in the number of startups in the north, driving tech inclusion for northern women, how she chooses early-stage startups to invest in, and how the ‘glass ceiling’ it still affects women today. .
Tell us a bit about your years of growth and education, would you say it impacted what you do now?
I was born in Ibadan, in an area dominated by the north, and spent the early part of my adolescence living in a few cities, mainly in northern Nigeria. My early years in education were a bit rocky as I come from a family where education was not a priority. However, when I had the opportunity to go to school at that time, I always came first in my class. The lack of stable education had a great impact on me, as I was still in primary school at the age of 12 and could not make a meaningful sentence in English.
I later moved to Abuja to live with my mother, where I started over, taking five words a day from the dictionary and reading every book I could find to bridge the gap. I continued studying at a public school in Abuja before getting a scholarship to study at the Turkish International College of Nigeria.
I didn’t grow up seeing people in my family working for the government or private companies. Most of my paternal and maternal family members were merchants and small business owners. I think that has impacted what I do now, as my mother was also a small business owner and I later followed her. I started entrepreneurship at the age of 14 to finance my secondary education myself.
You say you are an angel investor and a serial entrepreneur, what do you mean by that?
An angel investor is a person who invests in companies on their own or as part of a group of friends or family. Angel investment is usually a small check and is taken by most companies in the early stages of their business, but this could be different depending on the circumstances.
A serial entrepreneur is someone who starts multiple businesses; they might eventually step back from some of them or sell some of them. By virtue of the number of businesses I’ve started and the one I’ve just sold, that’s why I sometimes refer to myself as a serial entrepreneur.
One of the companies you started was recently acquired, what does this mean for you?
Selling a company or being acquired is when you sell the majority of the shares in your company to a new company or individual who will take over the company. Many times when an acquisition takes place, the employees of that company remain, as in our case, and the founder is also required to serve in some capacity for several years. So for me, this means selling the majority of the shares and the shares of our current shareholders and also stepping down as CEO and taking on a different role.
In terms of how I feel about selling the company, I think it doesn’t always feel like you gave your baby away; it almost feels like his son is getting married or something. You know that they are entering a new phase that will allow them to grow, it will allow your employees to grow, but it will also give you the opportunity to start something new.
You also co-founded a technology company, what solutions do you offer to Nigerian users in this regard?
Yes, I co-founded Tech Tanks Solutions. Tech Tanks offers software solutions to companies and helps them streamline their operations by automating their business with technology. We also created Tech Tanks labs under this, and the Tech Tanks lab is incubating startups, especially with founders from Northern Nigeria due to the gap in the number of startups coming from that region compared to a similar trend in Lagos.
As a female founder, did you feel any fear in venturing into the AI space?
Venturing into the technology space in general requires a lot of upgrading, especially if one comes from a non-technical background. It gives a little scary; you look at the technicality and start to feel like it’s overkill. But constant self-development helps one get up to speed faster. Also, many times you find that you are the only woman in a room full of men discussing these things.
You mentioned that you are passionate about driving inclusion in Northern Nigeria, how are you achieving this?
I strongly believe that technology could be a game changer for women in Northern Nigeria. Partly due to religious and cultural norms that sometimes make it difficult for women to go to work, being able to work remotely, which is a trend in the tech space right now, can have many positive impacts on women.
Starting with a charity I founded in 2012, Feed The Needy, all of our empowerment programs focused on women, because they are the foundation of our society. Additionally, we hosted a couple of Tech Tanks and TTL webinars to help northern women get into tech. We invite women in the field who have already done this, to serve as a guide to others. I also tutor some women one-on-one, and through TTL, I sponsored some women in a technical skills acquisition school to learn to code.
How can the problem of low entrepreneurship be addressed, especially in the North?
I don’t think there is little entrepreneurship in the north. In fact, most northern women are small business owners who sell one thing or another to feed their families. What I think is that we don’t have as many tech startups in the north as there are in Lagos. This requires some of the things that TTL is already doing in terms of incubating early stage founders and mentoring them is a good way to help them raise funds through a pipeline. We need more of these.
I can see more startup incubators in Kano and Kaduna and a few more in Abuja. The more incubators and centers that foster innovation we have, the more those numbers will increase.
Do you think women are underrepresented in entrepreneurship?
I disagree, women are not underrepresented in entrepreneurship; 41 percent of early-stage businesses in Nigeria are run by women versus 39 percent run by men. There may be more women in the startup world because of the barrier that arises from the underrepresentation of women in STEM courses, which mainly translates into having fewer women in tech startups. Encouraging more women to enter STEM courses will help close this gap.
In your opinion, what are some of the key issues facing startups and what would you suggest they do?
Startups face many challenges, from funding, to hiring the right people, to macro factors like government policies. To be honest, mentoring a new company will be very unique to your industry and the challenges you face. But I find that, as a general rule, improving the leadership and management skills of the founder can take a startup a long way and help it with most of the challenges that will continue to arise.
How do you choose early-stage startups to invest in?
We look for startups that are trying to solve a big problem, which is sometimes peculiar to the north or where another startup has had a hard time infiltrating due to religious or cultural barriers. We also look at who the founders are and if they have the right experience to run the startup. We also consider startups in other regions, but this is our main focus for now.
What advice would you give to female founders and entrepreneurs?
Get out there. I know it feels hostile and sometimes people look at you like you don’t know what you’re doing, but most of the time you probably know more than a lot of people in the room.
You must also be extremely good at what you do, because the expectation is that you won’t be, so make sure you invest heavily in personal development. Finally, know that the opportunities that exist for you are endless; you just have to go to them.
Tell us something that you do/has positively influenced your career today.
I think getting work experience early on really helped me. Besides doing business, I always applied for internships while I was in school and working for private companies. That gave me an idea of how to run a structured business and I implemented many of the things I learned from that trip.
Also, having the ability to quickly learn and unlearn helped me a lot; you just have to keep up with the pace of development and know exactly what you need to learn and when.
Do you think that today’s woman has managed to break the ‘glass ceiling’ and what would you say to a woman who wants to sit at the table?
I think we still have a long way to go to break that ceiling; is there. That’s why our house voted against having more female seats, that’s why female founders continue to raise less money than male founders, sometimes with even more competition.
If you want something as a woman, you can’t wait for it to be given to you, society will never give it to you, you have to take it; you have to show that you will do an amazing job when you get it. That’s the only way you can keep it. Men can still get away with many corporate irregularities that are difficult for women to do.
What inspires you and keeps you going?
My biggest inspiration is the idea that it could influence a girl like me. That a girl can grow up in a ghetto community like mine, with very little education, and still be able to do this. This is 90 percent of girls in this country, mostly living in poverty without much access to education; I want that girl to be able to look in the mirror and say, ‘if Surayyah could do it, then I can definitely do it.’
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, what would your career choice have been?
I would have been a gynecologist. In fact, I changed my JAMB form a day before I submitted it, so I was very close to becoming a doctor.
What do you do to relax? What is your guilty pleasure?
I love spa time. Going for a massage, watching movies and swimming really makes me happy. I also love trying on new clothes.
What is a typical work day like for you?
I wake up early around 6 am. I pray that my children are ready for school. Make breakfast and leave them. Eat celery and apple for breakfast, do 30 minutes of yoga/pilates, take a shower, go to my office and start work at 10 am
I take a lunch break to pray and sometimes I prepare lunch for my children; I keep working until 3:30 pm when I have to pick them up. I get back to work around 4 pm and almost always finish around 6 pm Sometimes I work until 8 pm or work after they go to bed. Although I have an office at the company, most of the time I don’t work from there; I mostly work from home and only attend my meetings or when I need to. Sometimes I work weekends if necessary.