Tell us more about what is QWB + Allies and why and how did you come up with the idea.
Our story started back in 2016 when my co-founders and I, Siyabonga Ntuli and Buyelwa Xundu, were having conversations about possibly doing something for the queer women community in South Africa. All we knew back then was that we wanted to make an impact. Two years later, I moved to San Francisco to complete my master’s degree, which I did at Hult International Business School. I started to recognize that there were many events, conferences and gatherings that were specifically catering to queer women entrepreneurs and professionals. The turning point for me was attending events such as the Lesbians Who Tech conference for the first time. To walk into a room with over 5000 queer women ‘techies’ supporting each other, opening doors for one another and networking in a safe and inclusive space was something I had never experienced back home in South Africa. The more we started to engage with queer women in South Africa and across the rest of the African continent, we realized that our lack of these experiences was not because there were no professional queer women like we grew up believing, but that there was a lack of visibility and representation in the upper echelons of our society. And so, we decided to create similar experiences to the ones I had in San Francisco for South African queer women.
How did you start?
We organized our first chapter event in Cape Town and had targeted an attendance of 30 people. However, more than 50 women came to the event. For us that was a big indication that there was a huge need for a space for queer women in business to connect with one another.
What are the challenges that queer women are facing?
The first challenge that we discovered is the lack of safe, inclusive spaces for queer women in business to network. There are a lot of queer women who attend LGBTQIA-centric events, but the majority of the attendees are usually male identifying. A University of Massachusetts professor spoke about the why representation matters and that if you don’t see yourself in a given society, it insinuates that you don’t count. From engaging with queer womxn entrepreneurs and working professionals in our network, we discovered that 60% cited the lack of access to business development skills and funding as the key reason to stunted business growth and 80% struggle to find visible, like-identifying and supportive mentors.
What is your main goal?
Our mission is to empower and advance African queer women through access by creating experiences and opportunities that allow them to connect, collaborate and ignite action towards building thriving businesses and careers. We are working towards achieving this in various ways. In the past two years, we’ve built a community of over a thousand queer women entrepreneurs and working professionals. We do it through our chapters, which are present in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. Our chapters are localized groups, where our members can connect, network and support each other. We also connect our members through our annual summits, where we bring together queer captains of industry as well as our supportive allies for a insightful talks and workshops. In 2019, we launched the QWBA Startups Pitch Challenge, a virtual accelerator for queer women entrepreneurs, the first of its kind on African soil. With the funds that we raised for the program, we were able to coach 30 founders and awarded funding to the winning pitch. We are now moving towards building a supportive startup ecosystem for African queer entrepreneurs.
“If you don’t see yourself in a given society, it insinuates that you don’t count”
You live in San Francisco – how do you manage your company from here?
Harnessing the power of technology! I also work with an amazing team of passionate people. We work very closely on daily basis and we rely hugely on technology tools and platforms that allow us to communicate and collaborate. Managing a remote team is not easy, but its all about putting the right systems in place. I also travel 2-3 times a year to South Africa for our major events.
Speaking of the situation and queer women in Africa and South Africa specifically – do you see a shift there?
South Africa has made really great strides in the law to protect the rights and lives of LGBTQIA people. However, the reality on the ground is that there is still a disparity between the lived experiences of queer people and the laws that are in place to protect them. There’s still a lot of intersectional challenges that we as a community face and some unknowns. For example, I read an article that stated that back in 2019, only 4.5 percent of African venture deals that went to tech startups are owned by women. We don’t even know what this data is for queer women. The lack of visibility and data or knowledge about our community makes it tough to decipher or discern what shifts are taking place. The great thing is that there are a few global and local organizations that are working to ensure that we are counted.
“If I hadn’t had the opportunity to experience the various thriving queer communities in San Francisco, I wouldn’t have had the guts to go out there and do what we are doing”
When starting your initiative, to what extent was it crucial to live in a liberal environment, such as San Francisco?
I believe in merging cultures, merging ideas, merging thought. In order for innovation to thrive, it’s important to have different lived experiences and voices present. If I hadn’t had the opportunity to experience the various thriving queer communities in San Francisco, I don’t know if I would have had as much guts to go out there and do what we are doing. It takes a lot to be able to champion something new, specifically in the LGBTQ space on the African continent. I do believe that a lot of the relationships that I built here and that I’m still building have really impacted our community in positive ways. For example, based on our crowdfunding campaign that we ran last year, about 70 percent of the funders came from the United States. Our ultimate goal is to be able to create those international highways and connect queer women from all over the world. We’re queer African women centric, but we we cannot exist in silos. We understand that there is a need to engage and connect with queer women from different parts of the world. That’s how we learn.
Going back to the challenges – once queer women get into business, do they face any additional setbacks?
As human beings, we have certain biases both conscious and unconscious and this impacts queer women in business and the workplace in various ways. One of the biggest challenges we’ve seen is with the lack of mentors and role models in our community – queer women, who are at the upper echelons of society or who are at the executive level are not usually out or visible, because there is a fear of being discriminated against and possibility of losing out on career opportunities. We’ve had women in our community who have lost out on business contracts set aside to empower women-owned enterprises, because they didn’t visually fit the ‘norm’ of what women are expected to look like. True story. When someone loses out on economic opportunities because of who they are, it is not only against the law, but it is detrimental to their livelihood and quality of live.
What is the one piece of advice that you would give to queer women, who would come for help to you?
I would say remember the initial issue we have as queer women – the lack of access to each other and the lack of representation. The one thing I always say is that it takes a tribe to build a tribe. And it’s important to start recognizing that we need to take responsibility for ourselves, to build ourselves and to build each other. Because if we’re not focusing on supporting ourselves first, we can’t expect other people to support us. As an organization, our long-term goal to make sure that queer women have equitable access to economic opportunities is realizable when we start by working on developing ourselves first. We understand that trying to build a business alone as an isolated queer person with no access to a supportive network and resources is tough. Hence why we are creating this space.Tags: Diversity, Entrepreneur, Entrepreneurship, Founder, Insights, Rolemodel, Women, Worklife