A World Built for Us

Naadiya Moosajee is a serial social entrepreneur by passion, a civil engineer by training, and is co-founder and CEO at WomEng (Women in Engineering), an international non-profit developing the next generation of female engineers in Africa. She is also the co-founder of WomHub, an innovative incubator for female founders in STEM. We spoke with this ROOM member, World Economic Forum Global Shaper and one of Forbes Magazine’s “Top Twenty Young Power Women in Africa” about how she’s shifting the landscape for female engineers and entrepreneurs in STEM.

Women have been largely excluded from an industry that literally designs and supports the building of cities, countries and the virtual world. When women are excluded, we have a world that was not built for us…

We are in awe of your outstanding achievements as an engineer, entrepreneur and all-round powerhouse of a leader! What was the initial impetus for setting up WomEng and WomHub?

WomHub was founded as a vehicle for financial sustainability for WomEng — a non-profit organisation I started with my co-founder, Hema Vallabh, in 2006, to address the severe shortage of women in engineering by developing the next generation of female engineering leaders.

Seeing the ebb and flow in the non-profit space, we realised that if we wanted to build lasting opportunities for women and girls in STEM, we had to do so with a different business model in mind. That was the initial reason for establishing WomHub, but we also realised the difference in how the world looks at you — and how seriously you are taken — when you have a for-profit venture. Additionally, we had scale and building aspirations that we found needed a different business model.

You are passionate about developing STEM talent in girls. Why is this so critical right now, particularly on the African continent?

We have what can be called “wicked problems”: universal challenges that have plagued us for too long. We need smarter, more diverse engineers to tackle these problems, especially with local understanding. Women have been largely excluded from an industry that literally designs and supports the building of cities, countries and the virtual world. When women are excluded, we have a world that was not built for us, and we see gender bias persist in everything from infrastructure to virtual safety. The way we combat this is through bringing more women to the design table.

Can you share some of the highlights of your work with WomEng and WomHub? What impact are they creating in the engineering ecosystem?

We are building the entire women in STEM ecosystem, from attraction (how we get more girls excited about engineering) to ownership. Through WomEng, we currently work with thousands of girls and women in South Africa and Kenya, and with backing from UNESCO, we plan to take things to an even greater level — reaching 1 million girls with targeted WomEng programs by 2027.

With WomHub, I’m particularly excited about our work supporting female founders, especially given the lack of capital that goes into female-founded businesses as well as a general lack of support. At our incubators, we have seen founders raise over $5 million dollars post programme and hire more than 400 people. We are looking to scale these numbers dramatically, which is why we introduced a venture capital fund — Five35 Ventures — into our ecosystem support, led by my partner Hema Vallabh.

We are also seeing some of the women we invested in through our talent support programmes now becoming directors at global engineering companies. And we also have an incredible partnership supporting a company in Botswana around women’s talent development in diamond manufacturing. We are playing the long game to not just build but truly support the advancement of the ecosystem at every stage.

Have you seen a shift in the number of young women taking up careers in STEM since you were training as an engineer?

Most definitely there has been an increase, largely through our GirlEng programme, and the increase in role models and general awareness of engineering careers. Some engineering classes are up to 50% female, but we still see large drop-offs of young women and exclusion when they get into the industry, so we still have a long way to go.

The data is clear that betting on female founders pays off, yet we still only see 0.98% of VC funding going to all-female founded teams.

Given the odds stacked against women entrepreneurs, why did you feel it was important to establish a community for female founders?

The data shows that women hire more women, and female founders have a higher ROI. The data is clear that betting on female founders pays off, yet we still only see 0.98% of VC funding going to all female founded teams. We need to invest and provide the support that female founders need to grow. They in turn will help our struggling economies thrive.

Can you shed some light on some of the initiatives that WomHub drives, such as your Imagineering Hub and Accelerator programme?

We have built the first female founder innovation and co-working space in Africa, based in Johannesburg. We are looking to scale these spaces to provide opportunities for female founders to connect, cultivate relationships and convert it to revenue through access to market, finance and skills. We offer this through our accelerator programmes. We have a number of programmes running that support female founders in STEM businesses with various thematic focuses, from the circular economy to working with companies focused on economic growth.

There is rampant inequality in the African startup space, where over 90% of funding goes to men. What will it take to level the playing field?

99% of funding goes to men. Ultimately, we need more women investors for this to shift. This is why Hema, my business partner, is not just raising a $30 million VC fund, but also opening it up to women and lowering the entry dollars for women investor to become LPs into the fund through the 35er Club. We want to shift the dynamics of who is investing and where, and support women as investors and entrepreneurs. This changes the landscape, but we need incredible male champions to invest in these funds as well. They still hold the power and the ability to write large checks, and at this point we definitely need all the allies to rally behind a transformation agenda.

What have been some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced as a female founder in STEM? How were you able to surmount these challenges?

When you look young and wear a hijab, you are constantly having to educate and explain the challenges that women face, and these are often dismissed with comments like “I don’t get the women thing” or “If women worked as hard as men they would also achieve”, which is just not true. Women are working 2–3 times harder, on top of all the other responsibilities they carry that have been deeply entrenched in our society by gender norms and stereotypes. It’s really hard to wake up every day and fight patriarchy, which is why I am so exhausted. I honestly want to see women make loads of money so we can all just invest in other women and shift the power dynamics in business as well as in our homes and families.

As someone who is dedicated to developing the next generation of leaders in Africa, what excites you about the opportunities that lie ahead for young women on the continent?

I think the barrier to doing incredible things has been lowered by technology, which has started to reduce inequality. Before, you needed an Ivy League education, where now you can learn cool things online from those institutions, tinker with technology and develop cool things, connect to others and have your voice heard, and that excites me for young women.

I’m blessed to have a network of incredible women entrepreneurs and team members who inspire me every day to get up and fight.

Who are some of the women that inspire you in your work?

I speak a lot about my co-founder and business partner, Hema Vallabh, who is just incredible and I consider myself lucky to work with her. I’m blessed to have a network of incredible women entrepreneurs and team members who inspire me every day to get up and fight.

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