Catherine Mahugu says she is the first Kenyan woman to make it to the Forbes 30 under 30 Social Entrepreneur of the Year. She tells us why she hasn't let that fact got to her head.
The Forbes 30 under 30 Social Entrepreneur of the Year is a prestigious list that, in the past, has been graced by women and men who have disentangled themselves from society’s limiting beliefs so as to solve humanity’s pressing problems.
One winner, Malya Yousafzal - who in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for campaigning for girls rights to go to school, was recognised for establishing the Malya fund that helps educate girls.
Therefore, making it to the list was not easy, Catherine had to beat thousands of applicants from all over the world.
All the candidates underwent rigorous scrutiny by Forbes reporters and a blue ribbon panel of judges, one of them being the president of renowned organization Echoing Green that has funded over 33 million in startups capital.
Obviously, Catherine is ecstatic but it has not gone to her head, “It’s a good recognition. But one should not become self-absorbed. I did not do it by myself it was a team effort.”
The idea to start Shop Soko came to Catherine and co-founders Ella Peinovich and Gwen Floyd, over time, “we would go to Maasai market to buy beautiful pieces of jewellery and noticed that most of the people who sold their products in the open air market would be in the sun the entire day and earn close to nothing, so we started the company.”
A better world
Shop Soko is a website that posts images of the jewellery produced by the company’s artisans for anyone with internet access, local and international, to purchase and the artisans get to keep 25 – 30 percent of the profits, which has raised their standard of living.
“The purpose in life is not to make money but build a better world. So we see the value in investing in people- we want to make a profit at the same time have an impact, that’s our business model,” Catherine says.
Catherine’s efforts to solve problems experienced by the marginalized in our community did not start with Shop Soko, but right from the beginning of her career when with NOKIA she helped create a mobile application where the visually impaired could use a mobile phone to set the alarm and ‘read’ texts.
A couple years later with Stanford university students she helped create Mmajii mobile application to enable people in slums locate clean water.
Today, in Nairobi, angel investors are everywhere. But back in 2012, funders, did not quite understand what Shop Soko was trying to do. “People think entrepreneurship is a glamorous life where people enjoy the spotlight but they do not see what is happening behind the curtains.
It can be very difficult, you need resilience when things are not working. At one point, it was hard to get funding because local stakeholders wanted to invest in brick and mortar. They wanted something they could touch like a car or real-estate - not technology. That was the challenging part. Entrepreneurship, especially in the technology scene, was not an easy pass compared to what it is today,” Catherine says.
So, Catherine and her partners had to go abroad to find investors who had experience financing technology companies, “my co-founders and I took part in business pitch where we were competing with IVY league schools who had been pitching for years in different spaces and I remember it was quite intimidating, but I believed in myself and we were confident. So we were able to get some funding.”
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The initial Soko funding came from Dubai based investment firms called Rio Partners that provides seed and growth funding partnership for companies addressing the African consumer needs.
This funding gave Shop Soko a much needed boost helping them set up and now they have over four hundred retail stores across the world who access their products using that internet platform the seed money helped create.
Acquiring funding was not the only hurdle Catherine had to face. Being a woman in tech, especially in Kenya, is not easy, a study done by International Development Research Center titled Professional women in ICT careers in Kenya: what successful ICT journey’s entail says - Girls are made to shy away from science and mathematics as a result of a combination of factors, which range from socio-cultural to school-based issues.
Socio-cultural factors emanate from societal perceptions that science, mathematics and technology are supposed to be a male domain – But Catherine’s Alpha personality and growing up in an enabling environment ensured she did not conform to those stereotypes, “in campus, when people discovered that I was doing computer science they would ask me why I was studying that instead of marketing or communication (because those were more sex appropriate subjects) and I would ask - why should I - I am an outspoken person.
I could not keep quiet and let it go. Also, I have been raised knowing girls and boys have an equal opportunity. What’s more, in high school we were encouraged to raise questions because nothing is cast in stone. I have always carried that, so I am very grateful for the exposure.”
But not every girl is as lucky as Catherine, according to a discussion paper titled Women in Tech as a Driver for Growth in Emerging Economies another challenge facing women in ICT is the lack of female role models and mentors in their academic and professional careers.
For girls and women interested in pursuing a career in ICT—as in other male-dominated fields—role models have the potential to inspire them, provide support and networks for job access, and offer encouragement and advice through the course of their careers.
That’s why Catherine feels it’s important to encourage young girls to take up careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), “you need to open doors for other women.
Studies show that women often underestimate their own abilities, which holds them back from taking on challenges, so sometimes women need guidance or a helping hand. Mentoring also ensures those who are mentored also mentor other women instead of having a cycle where women bring down other women.”
Although making it to the Forbes list does not have any monetary benefits it certainly holds unfathomable benefits for Catherine and the Shop Soko team.
But Catherine is not dwelling on it, she has already moved on to the next goal, “a smart woman knows her limits and a wise woman knows she has no limits, I love using that quote for people who like creating boundaries for themselves and I think once you eliminate the boundaries, once you see that you are powerful beyond measure you will see the fruit of your success and the sky will be the lower limit.”