By: Anthony Sedzro
At the last African Women in Technology Ghana (AWITGHANA) conference held at the Impact Hub, Accra, many diverse speakers inspired participants. GB&F brings to readers one such, the story of Mipe Okunseinde, Senior Counsel, Uber Sub-Saharan Africa as told by our Staff Writer, Anthony Sedzro.
Ghana Business & Finance (GB&F) magazine: Tell us about your background?
Mipe Okunseinde (MO): My father comes from Nigeria and my mother from Belize, a small country in Central America. But even though they were born in two completely different countries, they were raised in families that prioritised education over nearly everything else. So though they were raised in impoverished circumstances, they thankfully had a family and community around them that made sacrifices and made it possible for them to finally go through various educational attainment and ultimately get to the US for graduate school. They met at graduate school and decided to stay and raise my siblings and me there.
So I was born and raised in the United States (US) and as my father liked to say, “I was made in the US of foreign-sourced parts.”
As a young woman, one thing that was very important and also influenced me was that my parents continued a tradition of feminism [they had inherited]. See, my parents were both born in families where there were very strong female role models and they made a decision that they were going to raise their only daughter to have as much vision and confidence as she pursued her projects. So, as I was growing up, my dad used to constantly say to me that the world is going to tell you things about what you can and cannot do as a girl but it is up to you to decide whether or not you’ll succeed.
I worked hard at school….I was deeply interested in the humanities but also had an interest in maths and science…At Harvard University I started out as a Pre-Med [a student taking courses that will lead me to do medicine]. I did a lot of things that were of interest to me and ultimately when I graduated, I decided to take a year off.
After much deliberation, I took the decision to go back to Harvard for Law School and while in Law school, I was really interested in Foreign Law and International Affairs courses. While at Harvard, I did a joint degree where I went to University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom (UK) and completed a Master’s degree in Law, then came back to Harvard and finished a law degree. I then joined a law firm in Washington DC where I was led into International Law.
GB&F: How did you end up working in Africa?
MO: I was doing that (working in the Washington firm) for four years and because of my own personal background and my work in international law, the firm approached and asked me to help co-found what it called an Africa Practice. Because at this time, everyone was talking about an ‘Africa Rising’ story but there were so many companies that had no idea where to start when it came to doing business in Africa.
So we founded an Africa Practice and it was basically a one-stop shop where a company could come to you and say we want to do business in Africa, give us legal, strategic, policy, government relations advice That was a really interesting three years for me. I had very varied and fascinating experiences and it was really priceless.
I was telling them they had to be on the ground. You can’t do business in Africa from the US, or from Europe or from Asia and I was telling them this as I myself was sitting in the conference room in Washington DC. [It was] a little bit ironic and a little bit hypocritical.
So I decided I needed to come [to Africa]. There were a lot of things I had to consider but, really, it was the realisation that there’s so many interesting stories being told right now in Africa and I wanted to be the face, I wanted to be a part of it and experience what the challenges were. And, coincidentally enough, it was right around that time Uber posted for a legal position here on the continent. And in just a few months, I found myself now living in Lagos for the first time in my life and working at Uber. And as Senior Counsel at Uber, my role was to give legal advice on how to address the challenges and pursue the opportunities to expanding in Sub-Saharan Africa. So that’s my story.
GB&F: Interesting. Could you tell us about your company Uber?
MO: Uber’s mission is to help people get a ride at the push of a button – everywhere and for everyone. We started in 2009 to solve a simple problem – how do you get a ride at the touch of a button? Six years and over two billion trips later, we’ve started tackling an even greater challenge: reducing congestion and pollution in our cities by getting more people into fewer cars.
The Uber network is now available in over 475 cities in over 75 countries spanning 6 continents
What is interesting about Uber is that the basic concept of it is not revolutionary. People had needed transportation for years, decades and centuries. What it did was revolutionised the affordability, the reliability, the efficiency and the safety of the transport that you can get.
Today Uber is in 12 cities in 6 countries (Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Uganda) in Sub-Saharan Africa and there are over 60,000 driver-partners who use the Uber app for economic opportunities. And from the rider perspective, it means that if you need to go to school, work, any other destination there is a reliable, safe, efficient alternative way of getting around the city – as Uber supplements the existing transportation networks.
GB&F: How has the Uber experience been so far?
MO: So, disruption is not always welcome and we have had our fair share of challenges and we are still having our fair share of challenges ahead but, if you are committed to the idea and you are determined to see it through, the challenges will come but you will overcome them.
But you can’t just sit and rest on those victories and, as the Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, likes to say “if you are not planning for what your company will be doing in five years from now, you’re not going to have a company in five years from now”. So we are still disrupting, we have ‘UberPool’ which is a car-pooling innovation in which you are able to share your trip with another rider who is going in the same direction. We have ‘UberEverything’ which is a sort of concept where, once you’ve unlocked the concept of requesting a ride through an app, what else can you request?
So, UberEverything allows you to use the app to request everything from food, to delivery, to all types of services.
GB&F: What do you have to say to women in technology and those aspiring to build careers in technology?
MO: So when you’re dreaming, things to keep in mind is that opportunity is not going to walk up to you with a big splashing sign that says ‘I am opportunity’. Opportunity also will not come in straight [through the door]. It’s not how opportunity is going to come.
So it comes up to you to start to connect the dots between opportunities. It starts to connect the dots in a way that there is a picture that you can show to people-those people might be your friends, your parents, and might be investors- that explains to them where you’re going and what you’re doing.
The second main thing is that your career should not limit you, it should set you free. Instead of trying to craft yourself into something that already exists, first look at who you are, what interests you, what drives you and engages you and then fix something around you. Then you can find something that is around you and create.
The third thing is, be yourself. Be unapologetically yourself. I look back to moments when I have been called a lot of things in the professional work space. And, all of a sudden, me being driven becomes me being overly-ambitious. All of a sudden, me being assertive, becomes me being aggressive. You need to be able to know the difference between the feedback that is actually constructive criticism that will make you better versus the feedback that comes from a stereotype, or having an issue with you and who they think you are.
Finally, the singer Ani DiFranco wrote, “every time I move, I make a woman’s movement’. What you do and what you won’t do has an impact that is much bigger than you know. So when you are writing your story, please do keep it in mind you could very well be writing history.