There’s a common saying in many African homes: “You’re either a doctor, engineer, lawyer or a disgrace.” In my country, nearly all Ghanaian parents want to be hailed for raising a child who graduates into one of those three professions. It’s a badge of honor, a passport into the elite Parents Achievers Club. When a son returns with a Master’s from an American Ivy League College, they call out his name at family gatherings and present him, Simba-style, to the entire clan.
But what of the family’s black sheep? What of her? Being a female creative in Africa is hard. With the exception of a few culturally accepted roles such as dressmaking, singing, and dancing, the path to actualizing your full potential is like making for the moon on foot! The would-be entrepreneur might recognize that the path faced by the creative soul trying to turn her talent pro is much like theirs — a road strewn with failure.
Am I drawing a long bow? Think about this: an estimated 90% of all startups fail, and 95% of new products are not accepted by consumers. New entrepreneurs may feel like they have embarked on their own lunar trek. Here are four qualities to help navigate a hostile environment, learned from an intensely curious African female who dared to break the mold.
1. Developing Resilience
Rejection, disappointment, and failure come with the territory. Not only do successful entrepreneurs prepare themselves mentally to deal with these challenges, but they must stay determined to succeed despite them. So my advice to anyone who hopes to defy convention with a novel business idea is be prepared to fight.
The African creative is naturally conditioned for an unending battle for expression. And before being confident enough to share a single piece of art with the world, they inadvertently build up their biceps fighting off doubt, fear, resistance, imposter syndrome and lots more. You know that demon most creatives combat? Give it, I don’t know, five extra heads.
First, there’s battling the fear of poverty. Then the authoritarian educational system. Another opponent, armed with a mean southpaw, is conformity culture and religious boundaries. Let’s not forget the dearth of opportunities. The creative female who is assertive and dares question the status quo fights twice the battle because, as we know, women are not to stir up the pot unless it’s for soup they are about to serve.
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2. Becoming Your Own Leader
When the African creative faces rejection, it is like being banished from the tribe. Yes, African parents admire cultural disruptors such as Ama Atta Aidoo, Chimamanda Adichie, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe, but they are never able to see their children in that light. So when the creative female can’t find contentment being suitable “wife material,” she learns to live in a world of her own construct.
Without support or a blueprint, she develops an internal compass that motivates and guides her to her dream, taking risks doing what she believes in, going against the norm, and getting lost but finding her way back on course. Sound familiar?
These are also the qualities of leadership, a key entrepreneurial skill useful in developing ideas and guiding employees towards a target. But research has found that most entrepreneurs who get their company off the ground fail as CEOs. In other words, the leadership required to follow the dream must be complemented by the capacity to build a strong culture once the company starts to grow.
3. Creating Culture
Tradition, culture and art are intrinsic to nearly every African. Whether it’s in the majestic choreography of the Adowa dance, the rhythmic pounding of fufu, or the elegant design of the Kente cloth, art is in us. We need only learn to extract it from the ordinary. In the African creative analogy, tapping into the dormant power of a population’s creativity and innovation will allow for the emergence of more entrepreneurs who will help solve seemingly intractable problems.
4. Adaptability is Non-Negotiable
The world has been characterized by volatility and upheaval in the last few years of the pandemic. Companies that thrive are those that are quick to read and act on signals of change. A successful entrepreneur needs flexibility and adaptability to stay relevant.
In Africa, that’s our way of life. Things hardly go as planned. Unscheduled power outages, intermittent water supply, and unstable internet teach us to be adaptable. These factors, together with limited opportunities, compel the African creative to adjust and lend her abilities to disciplines that fall outside her scope.
Going by the Igbo proverb that says, “If you haven’t eaten, how can you feed your dog?”, she will need to find regular work to survive and give the leftovers to her dog (the creative side) until she finally decides to put aside the “disgrace” associated with being a creative.
The Galvanizing Effect of Challenge
As a continent with one of the youngest populations in the world, Africa has massive potential for growth and economic development using the untapped power of creativity. If the social change and evolution this continent craves will be reified, it will come from inside the creative African mind.
However, if you live in a place where hunger and poverty remain the concern of the majority, how do creatives look beyond that and make it? Frankly, most don’t. A few obstinate ones (like myself) find opportunities outside the country where we are able to live the dream we’ve nurtured secretly all our lives.
So as you set sail into entrepreneurship, think of the African creatives who do go on to thrive because of the many challenges they have faced. Through difficulties, we learn to adapt; from rejection, we forge leadership; and out of disappointment and failure, our resilience and tenacity grow.