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Women on Top in Tech – Viola Llewellyn, Co-Founder and President at Ovamba Solutions Inc.

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Viola Llewellyn is the Co-Founder and President of Ovamba Solutions Inc. Ovamba is an Emerging markets focused marketplace funding and investment platform. She and the leadership of Ovamba bring an unparalleled understanding of the African market and its nuances to a global audience of institutional investors. Her experience with frontier markets has given her insights into the best way to integrate all players within Africa’s formal and informal banking landscape, and tailor opportunities to Western investor expectations.

What makes you do what you do?
The problem of Access to Credit in Africa is old and never seems to be solved.  We get asked all the time, “How come no one else is doing what you are doing?”  I do this because it needs to be done.  I hate to be mediocre.  Making these changes the lives of “billions” not millions of people.  It is our problem to solve, and they are OUR solutions to create.  We are Africans!  This is our time.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
Almost by accident, but when I look in the rear view mirror, it is clear that this was always going to happen.  I came from a solid IT/HW background at IBM, I have been in advertising & communications, and I had been in alternative finance.  I have also been in consulting with BearingPoint, Rothschild & KPMG. I know how to communicate a concept and simplify it for acceptance.  I followed the path of problem solving and got to work with some great people.  When I met my business partner, Marvin Cole, we found that we saw the world and Africa in the same way.  Throughout my career, there have never been many women doing what I do, let alone black women. I “rose” by finding the hardest problems to solve and being functionally unaware of the difficulties or the barriers to success!

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
This is true.  I don’t have an answer other than that, I had no idea that I should NOT do this.  Many women are in this position, especially when they are young.  We have an outlook that anything is possible, we have not learnt to ascribe to roles defined by others.  My father raised me to believe that I was always more than good enough.  I am not interested in being contained and ordinary life is not interesting!

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?
I seem to have absorbed mentorship either indirectly or “stealthily”! Mostly from previous bosses, Mark Goode, Jack Abramoff, and Robert Sheahan.  And then there are those who I look up to such as Jack Ma of Alibaba, Richard Branson, Tim Ferris, Industry colleague Martha Mgendhi-Fisher of the European Women’s Payments Network, Batman, my parents, Shannon Billings, and especially my sister-in-law, Chandra Llewellyn, especially her!

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
I have an unconventional approach to mentoring.  I NEVER ask for it. I take it. Everyone I have mentioned has been a very specific help/mentor/support for me. The proximity of working together and getting along is basis enough. You go from there.  Formal mentoring relationship are not convenient to me because they become stiff and unnatural. I like the flow of a trusted relationship and knowing that someone is rooting for me because they believe in me, and in return, I respect and enjoy watching them succeed in the paths I wish to follow in.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I have had to get VERY creative.  Africa not only suffers from a Brain Drain, but the curriculums are hand-me-downs from outdated colonial models.  This means that unless people like me, Marvin Cole, Nicole Anderson, Roland Fomundam of Greenhouse Ventures, Adeline Sede of FabAfriq or Anrette Ngafor, Director of Nacho College in Cameroon and many others don’t buck the system and augment the learning curve of our employees, it would be so difficult to hire and nurture talent!!  Don’t get me wrong, Africa is TEEMING with amazingly talented people who need to be shaped and be given an outlet for their creativity and business skills.  I have to hire people using elimination tactics and test for emotional and creative intelligence.  We are problem solvers.  We need rebels and pushers to ask questions and press for answers!  Because we are a startup, things are always changing.  Most who make the cut to work for Ovamba (and that includes interns from global Ivy League Universities) find that they have to grow and evolve quickly otherwise they won’t make it to the next pivot!

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I consciously and deliberately support diversity.  I look for it where it is banished.  I create roles and opportunities for it and I fight for it.  Not just on gender, but also on the forefront of disabilities, etc.  We were told not to hire someone because he had polio – he is still one of our best hires!  We were told not to hire a pregnant woman – she has risen to be a leader!!!  I have had to fire men who treated women poorly.  I have had to stand up for myself when discriminated against.  It just so happens that I am one of only 20 women in the USA who has ever raised more than a $1million for a tech startup.  I have been told “No – you are black”, “No – we don’t like Africa”, “No – you are a woman”, “No – we prefer charitable ventures”.  With these experiences, and seeing what young women in STEM, finance and other walks of life go through, I HAVE to stand in the gap.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
You lead from the front.  You push from the back.  You fail forward with your team, you use your leadership platform to raise others.  You create a winning culture by helping others be the best that they can be.  You make tough decisions, you publicly admit when you are wrong.  To be a great leader you MUST have a vision.  You must commit EVERY DAY to take the team through a rough wilderness and actually help them enjoy the discomfort!!  You must give people a reason to feel worthy and included.  My favorite style of leadership is Captain Picard of the Starship Enterprise – Star Trek.  He admitted in one episode that no matter what, you make a decision.  The team needs a directive.  You might be right or you might be wrong, it doesn’t matter, but you must show strength and commitment in making decisions.  You can always change your mind as the scenario evolves.  My leadership style is strongly rooted in going ahead with very little hesitation and adapting as the situation unfolds.

Advice for others?
I advise that we watch Africa and its burgeoning ecosystem of innovation very carefully.  This will be highly investible.  The recent Black Panther movie is RIGHT ON TRACK!  Africa has a new narrative. Whether the world is ready or not is almost irrelevant.  Women in leadership positions are becoming an undeniable trend.  Hilary Clinton didn’t become President, but she surely moved the agenda forward.  Next on my horizon is a focus on working with the team on new Blockchain technology, bringing tech to agriculture and “Barter-Tech”, raising capital to grow Africa’s Trade sector and develop even more ambitious automation for the industry.  We also have an ambitious Africa expansion agenda.  I want to be a leading architect of the ecosystem for business growth in Africa and change the MBA curriculums in emerging market countries.  I would like to carry out the speaking engagements scheduled for this year and promote the concept of “Technology as the New Democracy”, and open the door for more women to establish themselves as leaders.  I want the world to know that “This Ain’t Your Granddaddy’s Africa.”


If you’d like to get in touch with Viola Llewellyn, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/vallewellyn/

To learn more about Ovamba, please click here.

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Jonathan Oh, CEO & Co-founder of Supplycart

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Jonathan Oh’s enquiring mind and love for learning has led him on an entrepreneurial journey, with him starting Supplycart which helps businesses manage their offices better.

What’s your story?
I am a person that just can’t sit still. I was always intrigued by how the world spins and how people connect. Spending a lot of time outdoors, I had an affinity with exploring new paths, thus leading me to become a serial entrepreneur with experience in creating, operating and building new companies. I am a firm believer there is so much to learn in the world and I love talking to people about ideas, what they are passionate about and what drives them.
Starting off my career in the medical industry, I realised I had a flare to create something that mattered, something that impacted other people’s lives. After exiting my first company in 2014, I continued my journey with two other ventures with a purpose to look towards impacting businesses in the region together with like minded individuals, and here I am.

What excites you most about your industry?
Being able to part of the SME tech industry and seeing how technology is moving SMEs to go digital to improve workflows and efficiencies is an exciting space to be in. Users are consumers. More and more, they are familiarising themselves with using technology in their everyday lives. We foresee the SME space to be the next area where adopting new technology would become vital for any organisation to remain relevant. As I have dabbled in this industry for close to nine years now, I am really looking forward to working with more people in the business community to make a change.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Born in Malaysia, I had the opportunity to go abroad and I realised there was so much to do back home. Spending time in Melbourne, Australia for a couple of years and recently Silicon Valley, it has provided me with experiences and insights into the difference a multicultural community can make. It also made me aware that Asia is still a very culture driven economy, as each country has its unique differences. I believe that the time is right to be in Asia now. We are a growing economy and a lot of exciting stuff is happening in this region.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Malaysia. I believe Malaysia is still a very attractive destination for business as it’s close to other neighbouring countries within the region and travelling between the countries is easy. There is also proper infrastructure in place, an affordable cost of living and a sizeable pool of talent. The government also has numerous initiatives for technology companies to apply for MSC status that permits companies to hire foreign companies without restrictions. Malaysia is the perfect launchpad to start growing businesses regionally. From a culture perspective, we are multicultural, which promotes diversity in business and language is never a barrier here.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“The difference between a businessman and an entrepreneur; one does a markup and the other creates value.”

Who inspires you?
I would say the people around me inspire me. I wouldn’t narrow it down to a particular person but lump it up with family, workmates, entrepreneurs and friends. From my eyes, everyone has a certain drive, a certain glow and strengths that sometimes they do not see, and that inspires me. I believe the journey to success is never alone, it’s with people.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Something recently that blew me away, made me realise, visually about how much time I have left. I was reading and stumbled upon the writer doing this. This might sound morbid but I drew a horizontal line and started plotting the year I was born all the way up to when I think I might go. It showed me that I have spent 25% of my life growing up, I am going to spend another 55% of my life working and the final 20%, maybe retirement. It got me remembering all the milestones I have achieved and to be thankful for and above all, how I want to spend the 55% of my life doing what matters the most.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I believe that I am exactly where I need to be because of the experiences I have had before. Thank god for the journey so far. It has been filled with ups and downs, new experiences and people along the way these have moulded me. I guess a small thing, if I had my time again, would be to pick up playing a musical instrument which I think still possible now. You are never too old to learn anything.

How do you unwind?
Unwinding for me would be spending time with my family and my two little boys. The little ones are such a bundle of joy. Reminding myself to have balance in terms of not missing the early years with them. Other than that, having coffee with other entrepreneurs, sharing ideas and learning from them is also another way I unwind.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
A term I would use would be “cuti cuti Malaysia.” This means heading to a local destination for some R&R to save on the cost of going on overseas to travel. Top of my the list would be heading to a farm or the jungle with clear river waters and a waterfall all to myself. Staying the night, out in the open under the stars, with a campfire and heading back to nature. The other option would be taking a boat to one of the furthest islands in Malaysia, just before the border of Indonesia, to get away from civilization.

Everyone in business should read this book:
I would actually recommend two books that everyone in business in the early years should read. ‘Founder’s Dilemma’ and ‘Start with Why.’ After being in a couple of businesses and many mistakes later, I came to realise the importance of starting it right. Both these books address the whole mind-set on what founders need to have from selecting who is it we start a business with to why are we starting the business. The business foundation is built from the founders and moving forward everything is built from there. Sometimes we are so into the business that we forget we need to be on the business as well. I would have definitely avoided a couple of bumps if I came across these much earlier on.

Shameless plug for your business:
Manage your office better, that’s our motto. We are always on the lookout to work with organisations, suppliers and partners in this field for partnerships and collaborations.
Supplycart is a B2B procurement platform addressing a need for a change in the way companies manage their office supplies, products and services. We enable suppliers and companies to adopt digital technology when selling and procuring for their business, resulting in a more efficient and productive workforce.
Supplycart provides an easy to use, convenient platform that streamlines the whole procurement process by allowing users to quickly order and reorder, receive instant quotations, obtain quick approvals from necessary approvers and fulfilment items are coordinated/planned to ensure a timely a speedy delivery.
Businesses can now focus on the more important matters in growing and sustaining their business while leaving managing the office to Supplycart. Our vision is to be the number 1 office platform for businesses across South East Asia. “Your office will never be the same again.”

How can people connect with you?
https://www.linkedin.com/in/ohjonathan/
e : [email protected]
w : www.supplycart.my

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Trung Nguyen, Founder & Managing Director of Advertising Vietnam

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Having initial success with his first start up in the ad industry, Trung Nguyen went on to start other ventures in the ad world in Vietnam. He now has the largest agency community in Vietnam.

What’s your story?
Three years ago I got my first job in the advertising industry. I worked for a local agency in town, and I fell in love with the creative industry. In June 2015, I founded Agency Life Community in Vietnam. It quickly became the most engaging community in the ad industry. The main content focuses on entertainment. After six months we had over 30,000 organic followers, now we have 120,000 followers.

Because the industry had been good to me, I decided I had to something for the industry to help the industry be better. So, I opened http://AdvertisingVietnam.com – a creative industry ad site which keeps advertising informative, creative and inspiring.

After more than a year in the ads industry in Vietnam, I figured the industry needed a better solution for the recruitment of good staff. Given I own the largest advertising community platform, why don’t I utilise Agency Life to help connect talent with ad agencies. So, I founded job site, AdJob.Asia in January 2017.

What excites you most about your industry?
The ad industry is a creative one with very passionate people who are always challenging themselves. The exciting part for creatives, in the morning they might be working on a baby brand and in the afternoon they are answering a beer brief. There is so much diversity. Every day is the new journey.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I am Vietnamese.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Thailand. The Thais are the kings of the creative industry in SEA. Thai ads are very smart and creative.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Do what you love.

Who inspires you?
My friend, mentor and partner Mr Nghi Nguyen, founder of BrandsVietnam.com. We started our businesses at a similar time. He doesn’t see us as a competitor but rather, he believes that we share the same passion and we are working to provide better knowledge for the ad community.
Mr Nghi also guided me a lot when I first opened the business. I am inspired by his vision to make our marketing industry better.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Our business is a startup company and as a founder I do everything from operations, business development, planning and strategy. However, this is not the good way grow our business. You have to share the workload – find a co-founder or hire a great employee to help share the workload. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Quit my full time job sooner.
During the first year of running my business, I was still working as an ad manager for an agency. However I lacked focus at work due to the overload of work and it affected the company I used to work for. I strongly recommend people who have an idea to start their own business, quit their job early on and focus 100% on it from the get go!

How do you unwind?
Play with my cat.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
I love to travel throughout all of Asia. I enjoy new places and meeting new people.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The Carpenter: A story about the greatest success strategies of all.

Shameless plug for your business:
AdvertisingVietnam.com is a site where you can quickly update yourself on the advertising news in Vietnam. We have 15,000 unique monthly readers who are professional people in the advertising and communications industries.

The Agency Life, https://www.facebook.com/agencylife is largest agency community in Vietnam. This is the right place for ad agencies to share their creative work.

AdJob.Asia now has more than 160 agencies in Vietnam who use our services. We are a leading recruitment service for the advertising industry in Vietnam.

How can people connect with you?
You can connect with me:
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/trungnx26
Email: [email protected]
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/trungnx26/

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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