AZA’s Elizabeth Rossiello on entrepreneurship in Africa, branding across borders and tri-continental motherhood

Last week our branding work for AZA won the Visual Communication Category at this year's Core 77 Design Awards - a huge achievement for our agency. We’re passionate about supporting high growth start-ups, so seeing our work and client recognized on a global stage was a very special moment for the team.

It’s been nine months since we re-branded BitPesa - the largest non-bank-currency broker in Africa - as AZA. Since then the Fintech has gone from strength to strength, raising an additional $15M in debt financing from the Development Bank of Southern Africa and SBI Investments and continuing their global expansion.

Our Head of Client Services, Oliver, caught up with Co-Founder and CEO, Elizabeth Rossiello, fresh from the Davos World Economic Forum where she co-chairs the Global Blockchain Council.

It’s no secret we have a work-crush on Elizabeth here at Wunderdogs. She’s a female founder in a heavily male-dominated industry, a mother of three young children, a champion of emerging markets, and one of the loveliest people we know. We sat down with her to discuss launching a business in Africa, balancing being a mother and a founder, building a workplace culture, and the danger of omitting Africa from conversations on the global economy.

Elizabeth on launching a business in multiple sub-Saharan African countries...

When we first started, I was based in Kenya. After two years, our growth meant we needed a founder presence in expansion markets. My co-founder went to the UK and I travelled frequently to Nigeria to find a licensed partner. A large part of doing business in emerging markets is about execution, it is very hard to outsource that and maintain operational consistency.

When I went to Senegal a year later to open our francophone markets, it was at an earlier stage in terms of technology, innovation, and regulation. Now the market is up and running and we have a great team. After opening Senegal I realised it was easier for me to travel between all three offices if I based myself in London. I can actually get to Lagos faster from my house in London than I can from my house in Dakar!

On raising two children in sub-Saharan Africa and founding a global business….

In Kenya and then also in Nigeria and Senegal, where my children were raised, there is a culture of allowing your children to interact with the community beyond just the parents and direct family. From the teenager on the public bus in Senegal that would take one of my toddlers on his lap without a word so we could all fit in, to the neighbor’s security guard who would play with my daughters every evening, there is much less fear about letting your children also learn from others. This was hugely important for me in getting started with my business, because I had a lot less guilt about not being the only adult my kids learned from.

We had an incredible woman live with us for six years to help watch the girls when I traveled for work. She had a wildly different life experience and approach to parenting. I feel it was a gift for my kids to experience different world views so young. In America, there seems more pressure to be the only influence on your children.

It has been a lot harder trying to run a business and have a young family here in London, even though my house is next to the office. I now race back and forward between the office and home. To make it work, my husband has put his intensive career on hold somewhat, to work part-time from home.

On work-life balance and achieving it….

Firstly - you have to have a partner who understands your workload. Most of the other women I meet with intense careers have a partner who also has an intense life: nobody is guilty and you’re both trying to make it work. Less frequently, I know women who have stay-at-home partners. It would be nearly impossible to carry the majority of work at home and lead at work while your partner does not contribute more than average.

In the early days, my husband would be working in Chad or South Africa regularly - we’d have a Google Calendar showing our schedules - one of us would return home, high five the other, take over family duties and the other would leave. Neither one of us felt guilty if we came home from work, had dinner as a family, then went back online until midnight.

On the daily routine….

I’m a 24hr person - but I take time each day where I completely turn off work. When I’m with my kids, I am 100% present and when I am at work, I am laser-focused. I prioritize and separate my time to get each role done efficiently.

In the early days, I had set breaks in my day, and I knew that at 6 PM I had to go home to relieve the nanny. So, I would be super efficient every day with deadlines. You can’t miss the deadline to feed your kids or put them to bed. Also, I was a very efficient parent. The kids would be in bed by 8:01 PM as I had a call at 8:15 PM.

On managing time when traveling and maximizing productivity…

When I lived in Africa this was really hard. In Senegal, I spent 50-75% of my time on the road as there are not many direct flights from Dakar. When I lived in Nigeria, a lot of my work was in Lagos, but traffic was so bad I had to constantly work in the car so as not to miss a school drop or dinner regularly.

It was sometimes hard to discuss this balance with non-female peers, investors, and work acquaintances. They did not seem to understand why I traveled with my kids, or felt stressed about missing out on school events, or why I was so strict about racing home by Friday evenings. When I met a female founder who had her infant with her at meetings in Davos, I was so excited to see somebody who was living a similar experience to me. But, this was the exception.

On the 50/50 female to male employee ratio at AZA…

At AZA, when managers need to hire fast, they often end up hiring men. It is a combination of recruiting firm resumes, network referrals, and just bad habits. It doesn't matter if the manager is male or female, without a concerted effort we see teams start to skew more males. To counteract this, we have a quota and actively challenge managers to build high-performing teams that are 50% female.

We also strive to have the highest percentage possible of black Africans, approximately 85%. We always look to hire locally; what's meant by that is we don’t hire expats and fly them into our African offices - equally in London and Madrid, we look for people who are residents in these markets but have experience or a deep interest in Africa.

On the challenge of meeting the ratio…..

It is so hard when the market tells you that building a female, African-focused team isn’t possible. We just hired a female Chief Revenue Officer, a position that took over a year to fill. Two recruitment firms repeatedly tried to dissuade me, saying I was ignoring the most qualified candidates who were male. I ended up finding her myself by going to page 37 on LinkedIn one night at midnight! She is the perfect fit for the job.

You have to hire with intent. We make true diversity and equity a goal and an essential part of our company culture. It isn’t going to happen accidentally - this world is biased and that bias will show up in your teams if you do not actively work against it.

On the Wunderdogs’ rebranding efforts….

Initially, the re-branding process was painful because when we polled the team, everyone wanted a word that reflected their office or country. It became very nationalistic! We were also very afraid of re-branding as BitPesa had such strong brand equity. We arrived at something neutral that everyone loved and wasn’t exclusive to one office or country. It took time for people to adjust, but the feedback from clients, investors, and partners has been that they love it and they’ve questioned why we didn’t do it sooner!! They all think AZA is a very strong brand, they love the word, they love that it looks like a currency, love the A to Z and back.

It’s been a pleasure working with the team at AZA and we’ve loved watching the business grow - here’s to many more years of adventure and success. Lastly thank you to Elizabeth for the insights into launching, scaling, and motherhood - as well as the importance of paying attention to Africa, branding is just one of the many services we offer at Wunderdogs - find out about all the other exciting things we get up to here.

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