Hi, I'm Sudeshna from The Abundance Psyche, and you are listening to the Not-so-Corporate podcast. Here we talk about all of the not-so-corporate things that we corporate entrepreneurs do within and outside our work.
And today's episode is really, really special because I have with me one of my best friends Sarah Agbantou. We met in Strategy&, PwC, and the moment I met Sarah, we hit off, and she remains a good friend. And she is the true corporate entrepreneur if you will.
Sarah is a senior manager in product and tech innovation at PwC. She founded Design Thinking for Good, a volunteer-based community, which helps social enterprises to scale with design thinking techniques. Prior to joining PwC, this time around, she was the head of expansion at City Pantry, a food-tech startup that was bought by Just Eat, and a consultant for the private equity firm called HG Capital in London. She has recently launched 54Sud, which focuses on helping aspiring entrepreneurs build sustainable ventures in Francophone Africa with practical masterclasses. I'm so excited to have you Sarah, welcome.
Haa, thank you for having me, it is a pleasure to be able to finally have a catch-up, actually, you know, we've our busy schedules.
Yeah, I know. So do you want to tell us a bit more about yourself, Sarah? We met at Strategy& even when we met you were already thinking of 15 entrepreneurship ideas, and then you left Strategy& the new started your own thing? So give us a bit of Sarah, who is Sarah? And why is she doing what she's doing? Why has she taken this path?
I'm originally from the Republic of Benin in West Africa. And this is where I grew up, I grew up in an ecosystem and environment, which is very different from the UK. I came here for higher education. And then never left till starting my first work experience, which was with PwC.
I realized that we were able to have access to resources and the ability to do things at a much faster pace than perhaps the environment I grew up. It made me aware of an imbalance in terms of resources, ambitions,l and objectives. And what I really wanted to do was to be able to leverage all of the learnings, the skills, and somehow put that to the service of developing a company on the African continent, which is a passion of mine.
So as always kept that in mind. And I think London is such a buzzing hub, when it comes to thinking about how to improve our society. Or what are some of the different models that we already have. Just like thinking about bringing skills together and reimagining the possible.
So you were in PwC- actually Strategy& in PwC! That's quite a prestigious career. You went to one of the top universities here. So why did you then leave PwC and want to do your own thing? Because people would have thought you have it sorted?
Yes, actually, I think, yeah, you might think that. My father didn't speak to me for six to eight months when I decided to take a sabbatical for these exact reasons- you know, after attending one of the top universities in the UK, and then already having potentially your career path already written for you, why would you decide to do you live at all and, and pursue an entrepreneurial adventure?
This is back to a problem-solving. There are different type of evils in the world. And I'm one of those who are really interested in solving problems I see, when they haven't been as sufficiently identified.
The other thing is that you can tell I'm a woman, and I'm also black.So I was really, very early on exposed to potential challenges that groups and communities like mine face in the UK. So I wanted to find solutions to these challenges with the venture that I launched during the sabbatical year.
I really want to say that, you know, consulting firms are great and I am forever grateful for that. They give us the flexibility to explore and also pursue other initiatives, personal interests of ours. With that, and with the guarantee of going back as well. That's a gift as well, that shouldn't be taken for granted.
So I really measured the chance that I had to be able to take a sabbatical, and explore, and try to fix a problem. The problem at the time was, as you can see that I have natural hair. And it was the first time that I decided to shave my hair and to explore, what would grow and letting my natural hair look like itself. And this was the first time that I noticed that it was a market, which was potentially at the time underserved.
It was back in 2016 when the market was nascent. As women, we've seen our friends looking for how products which would suit the hair types. So there is a lot of time spent trying the product or process that was super inefficient. And, I'm sure you remember the hours in, in consulting- the hours are quite long. And I still wanted to like look really stylish with my hair, but not spend as much time. I just didn't have the time. The frustration grew into essentially a business opportunity.
As a classic strategy consultant I was looking a little bit into the market size, what are the opportunities. I realized that there was a huge market available to be able to like, potentially fix this issue. So our solution was meant to help women find hair products, personalized and tailored to their needs and their hair profiles. We were matching them with women who had the same hair profiles as theirs, and then suggested recommended products, which already worked on females with similar hair attributes. I came from an analytical background. I was building an algorithm behind the matching process.
So all of that sounded really exciting and got to a point where I really wanted to focus full time on it and it ended up being a great learning experience. And redefined me as well, in my personal life and my career.
what were the learnings of that? Because you did that, and then you are back at PwC... So what happened, tell us a bit more about that journey.
Wow, so many things happened and great things I wanted to launch and build these ventures in Africa, without the resources I would have had access to in the UK. So really, I decided to make the job even harder for myself. The reason why I did this was really I wanted to understand what it's like to be an African and what it's like to be an entrepreneur in Africa without the resources that entrepreneurs in ecosystems, which are much more mature, much more advanced would have access to.
And I think that was the biggest learning because if you manage to nail launching an MVP, or getting traction in Francophone Africa, for example, or in West Africa, then you can almost pretty much go into any market because you would have gone through all of the different obstacles and barriers that entrepreneurs would face. But in an ecosystem, which is so far less advanced than the west. And I think in terms of growth it was phenomenal.
The first thing I think in terms of learning is a good dose of humility, which made me realize that some of the resources that I may have access to like a big brand in the UK has many advantages and should not be been taken for granted.
I also learned about the power of a brand, so much easier to knock on doors, when you have a powerful brand and want to sign new deals. But when suddenly, it's just you and your idea. and you are thinking about how do you pitch, what are the benefits... And it also makes you test limits in terms of do I really want to solve this problem for the end-users? How far am I ready to go to be able to have these doors open?
The other learning was around the network. So when you have no funds, your network is your best asset.
I remember having friends, ex-colleagues, really beautiful stories or putting in hours on top of the day job because they believed in the problem that I was trying to solve and the impact that could have and help come from different continents, different geographies, different life, and experiences. I think the one thing that you want to protect and nurture is your network because when you decide to launch an adventure, they are going to be your best asset at the time to open doors, to help you to sponsor you as well to push the idea to solution. So these were essentially the three key learnings and ...
Brilliant! Humility, which is great. Like, you know, that doesn't come very naturally at times, especially to strategy, young strategy consultants who are already at the top of the game. The second one you said was the power of the brand, which is phenomenal, right? Like I suppose the brand capital you have in your personal brand is well, the earlier you start to think about that, the better it is. And then the third one, you say it is about network, my god network. I mean, you know, me, I can go on about network for ages and ages. So you left PwC and went into this world with your own brand capital? What skills other than the strategy consulting skills Did you take from PwC, or your corporate life into the entrepreneurial venture?
The number one skill is the ability to solve problems. Having a problem solver mindset- I never really evaluated how much of a skill that is. It is only when you're in this situation or are there certain roles where it's really enhanced, and it really comes to life.
And entrepreneurship is one of those. The ability to know that even if you do not know or do not have the skills to currently solve the problem that you're facing, you have the ability to think logically, to come up with steps and ways to find a solution.
And that is such a powerful skill. That strategy taught me that the foundations in consulting taught me.
It meant that, although I did not know anything about the hair industry or the cosmetic industry, I was able to find a way to gather the right resources, put in place a good roadmap, and also be able to find solutions to know that I would be obsessed about finding a way to solve the problems of our target customers, knowing that I didn't know anything about web development, for example. But I had coding experience in statistics, but I was going to be able to know this is what we need. How do we get there? And how do we work collaboratively to get there?
People were very impressed with the ability to be able to very quickly understand what it is, what are the milestones that we need to put in place to be able to get to the end result, People were really impressed with this ability to say, “Well, what? Wait, you knew nothing about that a couple of weeks ago, and then now you're able to, at a high level, at a strategic level, be able to understand what components are needed, and key at what stage and when?”
So it's like that whole orchestration which I think is super important, especially when you launch a venture, to be able to make the right decisions very quickly at the strategic level, and then get into the details which are called moving across the vertical.
And then the other thing was that I was working like I was saying in an ecosystem, which was so nascent, where I had to face other issues like electricity- it is going on and off. Internet is so pricey, and very different styles and culturally different ways of working, of operating of approaching businesses as well. And then you add on top of that layers around gender difference.
It was really this ability to be a problem solver and to break down the problem to find a solution, which helped me to design what the next steps would be.
That's amazing. Yes, I do think that problem solving is probably quite an underrated skill, having worked across both consulting and industry and also now entrepreneurship. I see all sorts of people who are, I wouldn't say that they can't be good problem solvers. But I think strategy consulting does give you that base of being really good at it very, very quickly. So completely agree with you on that.
Yeah, I think what strategy gives you is approaching problems and finding solutions in a structured way to problems. So it's that structure- I think strategy provides that structure to problem-solving, which is great knowing that whatever the problem is, you will be able to apply some structure to find your solution.
Yeah, the solutions out there, you just need to figure out how you want to break down that problem. That's excellent. But on to more interesting things. What did you not miss in your corporate life at all during your entrepreneurial venture?
I would say the level of approvals required to push something to market. This is the flip side of the power of a brand. You know the more powerful your brand name is, the more you want to protect its reputation. And this means that you end up being much more careful about solutions that you develop, how do you go about collaborating with the client clients that you work with as well, with that comes sometimes a lack of agility in certain circumstances. And I think this is something that potentially I didn't miss.
That's come up in the show, twice now! I completely agree, because, on one hand, you have the power of this brand. But on the other hand, you also have the responsibility of this brand, which almost is limiting in terms of the agility.
So Sarah, you left PwC, you finished off your sabbatical, then you took some time off... I think you left PwC completely, but then you joined back. What made you want to join back?
So PwC was at a time where they were looking at and really thinking about what are the ways of working... the new ways of working that they would like their teams to adopt. Ways of working that they would like to also adopt with the clients. So thinking about having a much more human-centered approach.
I think these are words like that we hear in the industry at the moment. So looking at bringing the human element in as well. So everything around the experience as well, and the emotional touchpoints when you're thinking about a recommendation, a solution or service, so they really wanted to look at who in our network from an existing or who have already been in PwC can we reach out to, so that you will be able to leverage the experience. So for me, it was a really great opportunity! I heard that, PwC is looking at individuals who may have spent some time building ventures or have adopted this entrepreneurial mindset, and they can leverage that back into our delivery models to influence our approach to how we sell and how we deliver. So it sounded like a great opportunity.
What do you find different from the first time as a quite a junior person when you joined. And now coming back after setting up a venture, having worked with the top private equity firms, expanding food-tea ch startup that arguably was bought by one of London's top food tech companies? What was different this time around?
The first thing is time for adjustment. I'm sorry, I think anyone who has experienced both worlds could testify that there needs to be an adjustment in both directions- actually a substantial adjustment. So thinking in a startup environment, you're so used to thinking, and then seeing your idea of being executed within the space of hours, when you go back to consulting, in this case, it is much it's a much more cerebral exercise.
So you're really valued for your thinking. And it could stop there often. So I think it was a total adjustment, where, I was so used to seeing the idea almost immediately being implemented, and then looking at the results. And now it was back to the thinking bit.
And then, changing mindsets which is almost like a cultural journey, rather than potentially looking at gigs that you are able to execute.
You are right as well around the grade. So after having led teams in the industry, or when I was launching ventures. I think that was a personal goal of myself, which was around what kind of a leader I want it to be and become. And that took a lot of courage and also a lot of big slaps as well along the way to find what would be the right style.
Today leaders are much more human much more flexible, as well and much more focused on purpose than pure goals, and that has been something that I was always interested in. And so the focus on and especially the experience in Francophone Africa really shaped me because suddenly I realized there's such a big gap in terms of opportunities and access to resources. I really wanted to make sure that part of my time was spent as well redistributing the access to resources and making sure that there was fair access to resources to be able to grow ventures. I wanted to work on initiatives or Social impact. And this led to design thinking for good. So ended up doing some intrapreneurship, essentially.
So Design Thinking for Good is based at PwC, which I founded with, with Macron, an awesome team member. And the idea is to help social entrepreneurs in the UK, leverage design thinking techniques, and also bring the best that the PwC firm has to offer in terms of setbacks, subject matter expertise, to help them scale, or build sustainable ventures that are completely pro bono.
And we've been helping over the past year- social enterprises in various sectors, including health education, and then looking at what are some of the challenges that they face in design thinking and what we could do to help you accelerate solving that problem. And we provide masterclasses deep dive design thinking workshops, and then we also follow them in implementation. So it really helped me to focus on something that would have a positive impact on society, which is something that I was really interested in, but it was really back to how can we leverage the resources that we have access to naturaly in such a big organization, and maybe just make even 1% of these resources available to smaller enterprises, startups or companies looking to solve social challenges. So again, back to purpose. And it's been great again, to have the firm, allow myself and my team to be able to pursue that on top of our day job. So back to the level of flexibility.
Yeah, so entrepreneurs within the corporate setup, and yeah, I have to agree that PwC is really, really great at doing some of that, and you are so right, that 0.1% of what we have... like, even if it's just an hour with a PwC, strategy consultant, is so valuable!
I remember during my days, I used to do some pro bono consulting for social entrepreneurs through the PwC network. And they used to really value that hour because we are giving away an ad that actually if they had to buy your services cost quite a lot. And then being able to sit down with us, for an hour, borrow our brains to solve that problem that they have in society. That was incredible. And I'm so proud of you that you have gone ahead and taken fundamentally different steps to be that corporate entrepreneur. So Sarah, tell us also about your new venture that you've started 54Sud, How are you managing time with PwC? What is it about?
Don't sleep much! So it's on the back of the experience with the first one. And having seen the difference in the two different ecosystems and access to resources.
So today, we have more than 80% of VC funding in Africa, which goes to west Africa. So the mission is simple, is to just change the needle a little bit. So it's back again to redistribution. Thinking about could we end up with the distribution of a little bit more towards Francophone Africa.
And the reason why I'm particularly interested in where funds are located in Africa is, one, we are we have numbers around and more than 10 to 12 million African students on the market in Africa each year, and only 2 million jobs available. So that means that you have two-thirds of your African students on the market who are going to be either looking for maybe an A official ways of being employed or looking at employment outside of the continent. Or they'll also be looking at starting and launching their own ventures sometimes not really by choice.
And it's how do we capture that and provide employment opportunities for these African students on the job market, knowing that we have these demographic pressures, which more and more apparent. It's thinking about helping them become successful founders so that they can then create ventures which are going to be able to hire over the years.
And then you want to be able to have sustainable ventures and potentially scalable ventures as well because there's a difference between the two. I prefer the word sustainable more than scalable because of the behaviours I can drive. Even if you just focus on a certain level, and we have high growth potential, that means at some point you will need funding, you will need some source of income. But if currently, most of the funding is located in Anglophone Africa, that means that the rate at which we can see these sustainable ventures in Francophone Africa appear year on year is going to be slower. So that's why that's the mission.
I want to solve some of the issues and the challenges I faced and that other entrepreneurs are still facing. And I had access to a network outside of the Republic of Benin. So I was very lucky. But you still have the majority of entrepreneurs who only have access to the network and the resources that they have in their country, I want to be able to help at one level in what I can do, we've hopefully, increasing the employment opportunities and increasing the number of sustainable ventures, which can be created in that environment, that ecosystem and location.
That's amazing, I love how you put that together into there are people looking for jobs, and you want to tap into the entrepreneurial market and grow it so that you are addressing the other challenge. But also it almost becomes this virtuous cycle, which sustains each other. But I noticed that you mentioned that sustainable and scalable are not necessarily the same. Tell me a bit more about that.
Yes, I think this is just my opinion. There is a big debate around what should the model around startups and entrepreneurial model for Africa. We've all seen the Silicon Valley wave. And there was a tendency at some point on the African continent in the bigger market, potentially to reproduce this mode. It is not necessarily a model that serves the needs of the African continent. And I think today, we started to really see a change in the approach around building ventures, maintaining ventures, but also in investing in ventures.
And I think this is where investors have a big role to play as well. And you know, we're starting to see a lot more as a rise in the number of impact investors, impact investment as well, on the continent. And the focus is shifting sustainable for me would be are we solving a problem that helps the society. Scalable would also mean are we creating ventures, which are going to be able to provide and scale but in the number of employment opportunities that they can offer, and in their impact on society, like their within the environment that they operate in? And I think, the type of investors that I would like to approach and I would like to see more on the continent, are investors interested in these two questions.
Because if you're able to answer yes to both questions, you will also have the financial benefits as well. And other benefits- I'm really looking as well at the employment opportunities provided, and also the impact on the society. We talk about responsible innovation a lot more, we've been talking a lot more around innovation protocols as well. So these are things I'm really interested in at the moment. And Africa is really starting to find the model that is going to work for itself. And that's great to see how some regions are starting to shape what are the priorities around investments, or onboarding ventures are, and having as well, the government, join forces with the private sector, to start to provide direction into what are some of these priorities as well.
And then inferencing, what kind of ventures are being created. And that's really exciting to see, as well. We are seeing Financial Solutions really tailored to the needs of the users on the continent. With what we saw with the rise of mobile money, we're also starting to see that the Financial Solutions adapted to the preferred use of the end-user. So that's just one example In FinTech. There are many in Agritech, in Health-tech, as well. And it's great to see that!
The one area that I think there's still a lot of a significant amount of work to be done is in education and that's what 54Sud is about it. How do we really bridge the gap between the existing educational curriculums where you really produce talented, technical individuals, but the needs on the market today from the employers were really was much more entrepreneurial mindset, a can-do attitude, and yeah, do you have transferable skills as well?
In Francophone Africa, the educational system is very geared towards producing great talents with an area of expertise. So it's bringing and leveraging that and also starting to put more emphasis on the soft skills, more emphasis on transferable skills so that you broaden the level of horizons and the number of opportunities for the students when they come on the market and are looking for a job and they realize that hang on, I'm specializing this area, and that's what my degree tells me. But actually, I also have X, Y, Z skills that I can apply in another area because that's what the employers are looking for today.
That is spot on. I mean, I can't even begin to just say that the overemphasis on technical skills, look, it's great. We all love that. But after a point in your career, after a point in your entrepreneurship journey, that almost becomes the given, that's the bare minimum, you have to have. What sets you apart are all of these other soft skills that you mentioned. And that's amazing that you are bringing that back to Africa.
So coming back to that purpose-driven leadership and purpose-driven entrepreneurship, because that's what you are doing even with 54Sud right now. What would your last thoughts be to people who are really wanting to lean into their purpose and their purpose-driven leadership? Or entrepreneurship? What advice would you give to them?
A few questions I would advise anyone to think about answering and now probably will give them a bit of a direction into what to do next.
The first one is, what problem are you trying to solve? Because entrepreneurship is always back to a problem that you're trying to solve. And you want to find a solution to it. When you hold on to that in the difficult times, because there will be difficult times, you will remember, why am I doing this in the first place? So it's really back to what you're trying to solve. Because you know, there will be millions of versions of the solution, there will be 1000s of ways to solve it. There will be and hundreds of 1000s of plans as well, which are going to change, have roadmaps, and then people coming and going. So what problem are you trying to solve? Are you clear on that? That's quite important because this will define whether you want to start or not. And then so that's the first thing.
The second question is, where are you at in your life, for thinking about pursuing entrepreneurship? And the reason why I'm saying this is you will need to commit and sacrifice so much. When you start your entrepreneurship journey, you just want to really understand where you are in your life before you're pursuing an entrepreneurship adventure. So one of the questions, what are your top priorities in life right now? Are you ready to obsess about finding a solution to this problem? What is your support network like? Because entrepreneurship can be quite a lonely journey as well. What does your financial situation really look like? Because when things don't really go as planned, and they won't go as planned, numerous amount of times, what are some of the backup options you can consider?
And you really want to like, take the time to think about these fundamental questions before you embark on the journey. Because once you're in, it's really hard to pause. You can pause definitely, you can... but it's just best to think about this question because then you prepare yourself before embarking on it, as well. So yeah, I think support network, the financial planning, whatever you're trying to sell, what's your level? What are you ready to forego? How committed are you? What kind of venture do you want it to be to it as well? Because people have different styles and entrepreneurship- it could be a side hustle, it could be the next million-dollar idea for you that you really want to pursue. So again what's your level of ambition with this idea as well? It goes down to whatsoever ambition as well. So I think that's the key question.
My God, that's amazing. I love these… Why are you trying to solve the problem? What problem are you solving? What stage of life are you at? And what level of commitment can you have to be solving the problem? What's your financial situation like? And what do you want out of this venture financially as well? I think it is probably also interesting to note that it's not only the income but also the impact. If you are being purpose-led, the impact that you have goes hand in hand almost with the income and