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Irene Chikumbo: Changing the Entrepreneurial Space in Africa

Updated: Jun 19, 2018

Although she initially thought she had to become a lawyer, Irene Chikumbo ended up studying the Social Sciences at UCT where she found her true calling, a calling that opened many doors. She was one of thirty Zimbabweans selected to take part in Barack Obama's Young African Leaders Initiative, she's worked with the US African Development Foundation and she represented Zimbabwe at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Stanford University in California. Find out what else this social entrepreneur has done and what her plans are for the future.

Image: Facilitating a session during the first Startup Bus event


Name : Irene Chikumbo

Age: 32

Based in : Harare, Zimbabwe

Education: Bachelor of Social Sciences in Labour, Organizational Psychology and HRM (University of Cape Town)

Masters of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Business Development (Blekinge Institute of Technology, Sweden)

Master of Science and Strategic Leadership Towards Sustainability (Blekinge Institute of Technology, Sweden)


1. Did you always know you wanted to be a social entrepreneur?


You know what, when I was initially applying for university I had wanted to be a lawyer. Thinking back on it now, did I really want to be lawyer or was it because it was the “in thing” to do back then? Did I want to study law because my parents wanted me to study law? At that point I didn’t know I could be anything I wanted to be and to be honest, I had no idea I would be doing the work I am doing now. I never pictured myself doing social sciences or considering any form of entrepreneurship. I got into law school in Australia and finances did not allow for that so I ended up doing social sciences at UCT by default.

2. In 2014, you were one of thirty Zimbabweans selected for the Mandela Washington Fellowship, a part of President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative. How did you come across the program and what did you learn that you find invaluable to your work today?


In 2014, I was invited to be on a panel with Macon Phillips, who was the Coordinator for International Information Programs in the office of President Barack Obama. He was in Zimbabwe to promote the program. On the panel we discussed the role that we have as youth and how we can be catalysts through leadership and entrepreneurship. He spoke about this upcoming opportunity and I asked myself, why not? I was curious and decided to try and apply. To be honest, I had applied for the Fellowship with little hope of being accepted. I knew that the Fellowship was going to be extremely competitive (50000 youth from across the continent applied and only 500 were going to be chosen), but I told myself I had nothing to lose. The fellowship had a huge emphasis on community initiatives and they also wanted people who were doing things on the ground. I liked to think my work meant something and would meet the requirements.


Image: Waiting to be addressed by Michelle and Barack Obama


The Fellowship was probably one of the biggest milestones in my life. I got to spend time with youth from across the continent who were doing amazing things. It was, and will continue to be, a constant source of inspiration for me. I worked with youth just like us, who were business leaders, influential members of government and civic leaders. The friendships and relationships I developed during my time in the United States cemented the foundations for future work collaborations. I had an opportunity to work at the US African Development Foundation for two months in Washington and had an amazing mentor, who still mentors me today. I gained experience from there that I would not have got from anywhere else. As a bonus, I met some influential people from senators to business leaders, and even got to hang out with Akon.


Image: With Akon at a Bloomberg Business party where they discussed his work in the Renewable Energy industry


After the program, I was nominated to be on the Mandela Washington Fellowship Regional Advisory Board to USAID and Irex. That was a huge learning opportunity for me and it gave me the chance to practise leadership on a regional level. It was platform for me to be nominated in the UNISA YALI Leadership Center Advisory Board, which I am currently on now. I got to do some work with Microsoft Africa and spent time learning at the offices in Johannesburg. I got a lot of support from the local US embassy to run my program which took place in three countries. I took part in the fellowship five years ago and the impact still touches my life today.


Image: Just before a panel discussion


3. As it currently stands, you hold a number of positions. You are the Operations Director for Act in Africa, a holistic entrepreneurship development program, a programs consultant at Udugu Institute and currently on the UNISA YALI Regional Leadership Center Advisory Board. Can you tell us what these positions entail?


It definitely takes time, discipline and patience to balance all three. A lot is expected of you. As Operations Director I do a lot. My job requires me to multitask and play different roles. I am a mentor to the program participants, consultant, facilitator doing trainings, manager, coordinator, planner, stakeholder engagement and being an ambassador for the entrepreneurship ecosystem. There is quite a bit of travel involved so that is always fun.

At Udugu, we work on engaging the private sector and government to support entrepreneurial development. There are a lot of meetings but it is crucial to be able to articulate the needs and opportunities. This role is targeted more at the long game as it takes time to engage people in the private sector and in government.

At board level, you need to be able to engage with people from different backgrounds (country of origin, age, race and beliefs). Being on a regional board means you are not only an ambassador for youth but for your country. It requires us to bring together our experiences and knowledge to develop an inclusive output that will help youth around the region identify and develop their leadership potential. It also entails travel every quarter.


4. What drives you?


I know this may sound cliché, but I really do want to be the change that I want to see. It has always been at the core of everything I do. I really want to see Zimbabwe being the best it can be. I want to see other young people realise their potential and achieve things they never thought possible. I was not an all A student in high school but looking at what I have achieved keeps me going. I’m driven by helping others realise what they can offer and that following their passion isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This all stems from my passion which is a cross section of doing social good and entrepreneurship. I think something else that motivates me everyday is that the work is never done. There is a lot to do and sometimes you never get it right the first time so you have to keep learning and reiterating.


6. What are your biggest career highlights to date?


My biggest career highlights would definitely include my board work with USAID and UNISA. Other highlights include the work I have done with ACT building an entrepreneurship program with my colleague Henri from scratch, founding and starting the Social Entrepreneurship Bootcamp which was run in 3 countries and working with US based entrepreneurs. I’ve also worked with the Ericsson Innovation and Research department in Sweden where I was awarded $5000 for the research we did during my Masters. Working at the US African Development Foundation was also big for my career journey as was being invited to represent Zimbabwe at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Stanford University in California in 2016.


Image: With the ACT class of 2017 and some of the MBAs from California


7. You were the community manager at HyperCube Technology Hub where you did various activities to encourage growth in the technology and youth entrepreneurship arena in Zimbabwe. Do you see yourself going back to that space or spearheading something similar in the future?


The time at Hypercube was a very interesting one. Many lessons were learnt, both good and bad (including embracing failure). Failure is painful but it is okay; failure means you tried and it is important to take it upon yourself to extract what is important and move on. Overall, I will continue promoting youth entrepreneurship but one thing I learnt is that technology is an enabler for many things. I think there tends to be this misconception that technology is the solution to everything, but that isn’t the case. I think there will be elements of tech in my future work but I don’t see myself working in the hub and technology space specifically. But the work I am doing with ACT and Udugu continues spearheading and supporting youth entrepreneurship.


8. Are there any exciting projects you are currently working on?


I am very excited to be doing more consulting based work with private sector players. One of the things we are trying to do with ACT is to give young people an opportunity to experience innovating for a corporate entity. Last year we worked with one of Zimbabwe’s biggest entities and five of its subsidiary companies. That opened some doors for us and we are pretty excited about the involvement of the private sector in the entrepreneurial development of youth in Zimbabwe. Watch this space!

The other thing I am excited about (I can’t share too many details yet) is a concept my sister and I have been working on. We're working on some prototypes and testing out aspects of our business idea. We are extremely excited about it and have to work during the evenings to cover the hours and ensure that the work that needs to be done is done. It is a process but we are pretty optimistic if we put in the work it will work out =)


9. What does a day in the life of Irene look like?


A day with Irene can vary (never a dull moment). My day usually starts at 5:30 to work on any side projects. I am in the office around 8:00, and my day can include working with our program alumni on their ideas and businesses (I spend a lot of time in the field as well as doing brainstorming sessions for their businesses), facilitating access to financing for our alumni, working virtually with some amazing MBA students (in different time zones) from different business schools, facilitating workshops on business modelling, design thinking and innovation or traveling for various purposes (mainly to develop our entrepreneurial ecosystem) There is never a dull moment!


11. Finally, where do you see yourself in the next ten years?


In the next ten years I hope to be able to facilitate large scale investments and hopefully I will have the capacity to invest in businesses myself both locally and regionally. I hope to see the concept that my sister and I are working on boom into a thriving business located in either two or three countries in the region or found in multiple locations in Zimbabwe. Watch this space!


If you'd like to get in touch, you can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter. Additionally, if you'd like to find out more about Act In Africa, head over to our Facebook page or find us on Twitter.

© 2018 by nnyasha.

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