Tech, Now + Beyond

Serial entrepreneur Jennifer Chizua is breaking stereotypes in Nigeria

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Nigerian-born entrepreneur and inventor Jennifer Chizua is an incredibly interesting woman. Like me, she’s a graduate of the University of Exeter in the U.K. Unlike me, she graduated with degrees in human biosciences and sport science and calls herself a ‘serial entrepreneur.’

This lady loves to create something out of nothing, finding gaps in the market to create jobs and products that can revolutionize the industries.

She’s an award-winning entrepreneur with firms in two sectors: Elite Sports International Clubs is a sports business and management firm, and the other is Startpreneurs, an entrepreneurial ecosystem based out of Abuja, Nigeria.

It was a bit of a challenge to juggle the six-hour time difference between us, but Jennifer answered some of my questions about being a young woman blazing a trail in the entrepreneurial world.

The Tempest:  What is the mission of your business?

My current firm is Startpreneurs. It is a seed-fund and accelerated program that allows entrepreneurs to incubate, and we also match them with industry experts. It’s also similar to the tech clusters in Silicon Valley. At the moment, we don’t have a website but we will be going live in January. In the meantime, I want to do a pilot video and compile videos of the entrepreneurs before that happens.

Back in 2013, I created my own product, Chijen Beauty Limited, which is the world’s first automated cleaning machine. It uses innovative technology to clean, dry, and disinfects makeup brushes for professional makeup artists. It was with the financing of the U.K. government that I was able to do this, and now I’m hoping to get a licensing deal with L’Oreal.

The idea for the product came about in university, when I had to do two dissertations while studying at Exeter University. One of these was called “A Chemical History of Cosmetics.” I realized then that there is a lot of bacteria on our makeup brushes. I heard one horrible story of a woman who became paralyzed after sharing makeup brushes with her friend due to lack of hygienic care.

What’s your background in business and how did you start as an entrepreneur?

While I was in the U.K., I also started to work at Manchester United as well. This lead to me doing a lot of networking and finding out about Business Growth Hub in Manchester, so I started taking classes for my master’s degree there. I also grew up with parents who were entrepreneurial – for example, my Mother is an entrepreneur. I also knew that I wanted to be independent and rely on myself, and always knew I wanted to create my own company. So I took it and ran with it.

Have you faced any difficulties being a female in the business?

With starting Startpreneurs, I have faced difficulties. This is because in Nigeria, for example, women are not equal to men. The general idea is that we should be at home. I have to break that stereotype.

I also meet investors who buy shares into the company, and a lot of these are men. A lot of times they will treat you differently because they feel like you don’t have enough experience or that you don’t know your place. I’m almost overly prepared when I meet them – in fact, I’m the very best I can be when I meet them. It’s very sexist here. Very sexist. I’ve been told, “Why you working so hard, don’t you have a boyfriend or husband who takes care of you?” Even in business, if you’re a married woman, people tend to take you more seriously because you have ‘settled down’ in comparison to being single and working.

The greatest challenges by far are that women are being put in a box by society, and I have to break out of that stereotype. It’s more of a cultural thing, really. When you’re a female, you’re expected to know your place as a woman. But I see people as equals. I can still be female and be assertive at the same time. But here in Nigeria, the society doesn’t allow you to have a personality and be a female simultaneously. For me, I’m very much out there as a woman. Every day is a fight for me as a professional. But for men who do what I do, they don’t have to fight so much.

What are your plans for the future?

I’d like to see Startpreneurs grow, and support Entrepreneurs in Nigeria. I’d also like to create International exposure for Nigerians. If they have software or hardware ideas, it’d be visible to the international market. I’d like to export technology in and from Nigeria.

What advice would you give to young women looking to become entrepreneurs?

My advice would be to have their own identity and career path, as well as being an expert and have great knowledge in what you’re going into. Tenacity goes a very long way. As entrepreneurs, we have the highest highs and the lowest lows, and your tenacity will get you through these things.

Along with consistency, remember that it’s going to be a long, hard, rocky road, once their vision is clear and they know what they want to do. Also, I can’t stress this point enough, but it is so important to have a mentor or mentors. You need to have industry experts around you, especially when it comes to offering you free advice. You’ll have to self-learn, always be curious, and learn to teach yourself too. Understanding every part of the business is critical as well as being very knowledgable.

Don’t let yourself be confined by cultural restrictions, because in the end they will celebrate when you make it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Find out more about Jennifer Chizua here.