Antoinette Prophy is the founder and MD of 88 Business Collective, a Cape Town-based 18-month accelerator for emerging women entrepreneurs.
1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
Female founders are often faced with the challenge of having to extend a sexual favour in order to close a deal. In 2008, I came face-to-face with this unfortunate part of our journey when an executive insisted that we check into a hotel before he signed on the dotted line. I got up, and with all the grace I could muster up in that moment, declined and went home.
Now, this particular deal was earmarked not only to grow my then-ad agency, Afrofusion, but would have also helped me keep our Durban office open.
What male executives who subject female founders to this severe form of discrimination do not realise is their inability to control their sexual urges, and using this as a power play, means business-growth stagnation and emotional strain. That is an unnecessary burden to add to an already challenging journey. I have faced misogyny: when I expanded my business to East Africa, bumped into it in India and have to deal with it in South Africa. This remains a global issue for many female founders. Men, get your act together.
2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?
The past 14 years on this entrepreneurial journey have been an adventure of note, filled with incredible moments and learning opportunities. I am most proud of establishing the 88 Business Collective two years ago. And not just giving myself a second chance to try again, but also creating an ecosystem for female founders to grow through collaboration.
South Africa, and perhaps Africa, doesn’t appreciate failure, making it difficult for most people to come back from not getting it right. The noise could easily have distracted me from my vision to play a crucial role in unleashing the true potential of our continent. It could have drowned out my own, but I refused.
Now, it is such an honour to journey with female founders daily, to watch them step into their power as we collectively accelerate world-class African businesses.
3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
I am a loner by nature and love my own space, which made it difficult to reach out and ask for help. I learned early on that it takes a village to grow a business and the pressure to know it all at 26, 14 years ago, was completely unnecessary. The entrepreneurial journey will be loaded with new discoveries, but what is new to me has already been mastered by someone else. I had to learn to be all right in my vulnerability. Once I surrendered, I surrounded myself with people who were more experienced through an advisory board, and I reach out whenever I need assistance. Now, I can easily ask a startup founder about the latest developments in blockchain without feeling the pressure to know.
4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?
You will hear so many female founders say: “Yes, I hear you, but my business is my baby.” No, it’s not! The emotional attachment founders have when it comes to their business can be detrimental to their growth. When a female founder believes her business is her baby, her decision-making flows from an emotive space.
When you make decisions from your heart space, it feels compelling and it feels right, and you can lull yourself into thinking you’re doing a good thing. I had to learn the hard way that decisions made from an emotive space usually lead to immense disappointment, use your head. I only learned the importance of this after liquidating my first business; you don’t have to.
5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?
Oh yes, in 2004 the 26-year-old me sitting in her mother’s lounge thought she could change the world alone and all on her own steam. Heaven knows, I have no idea where this ridiculous notion came from. Now, I would tell my 26-year-old self that collaboration will change your life. I started my new business with collaboration as a key tenet in our mix and it has propelled our growth significantly. There is so much that comes from harnessing our collective power as Africans.
6. Name a business opportunity you would still like to pursue.
Blockchain is the future, especially for the African continent that has been marred by corruption and unruly, unaccountable leaders. Blockchain is the technology that underpins digital currency and allows digital information to be distributed, but not copied. That means each individual piece of data can only have one owner. The information is constantly reconciled into the database, which is stored in multiple locations and updated instantly. That means the records are public and verifiable.
Since there’s no central location, it is harder to hack because the info exists simultaneously in millions of places. This technology is ideal for African governments to create transparency in, for example, voting and procurement.
My obsession with blockchain led to a collaboration with Sonya Kuhnel from the Blockchain Academy in Cape Town. There are many successful use cases, such as IBM collaborating with Walmart and other members of the food supply chain to improve traceability and transparency: growers, distributors, retailers and others enhanced visibility and accountability in each step of the food supply. I am looking forward to exploring the many ways in which this technology will solve some of our most pressing societal challenges as a continent.
The journey so far’ series is edited by Wilhelmina Maboja, with copy editing by Xolisa Phillip, and content production by Justin Probyn and Nelly Murungi.