100 Women, 100 Stories: Danielle Kayembe
Where do you live? New York, New York
What is your profession? Serial Entrepreneur, I work on projects at the intersection of women, social impact and tech
How did you get this role and what was your path leading up to this?
Why a Serial Entrepreneur?
I’ve always gotten the same business advice — build one thing first and then move on to the next. But my problem at school and at work, has always been that if I’m bored, I underperform. Once I met other serial entrepreneurs in my network, something just clicked for me — it was an “aha” moment, and I’ve never looked back. For me it works, and the ability to shift between projects and teams keeps me engaged and creative.
My early career was in traditional business roles — consulting, investment banking, strategy. I’ve advised Fortune 500 companies around the world, worked on $7.5 billion in banking transactions and shaped strategy for global health companies. I’ve also worked on projects in sub-Saharan Africa. I completely burned out working as a banker, and took a year off — in that year I started meditating and dabbling in entrepreneurship, both of which shaped my life.
From there, I started a decade-long love of meditation, practicing diligently in the evenings, weekends and my spare time outside of my hectic work schedule. My lifestyle included detoxing, green juice and shea butter, so a friend and I launched an organic products business as a side hustle in 2008 — we were SO far ahead of the curve. People thought we were crazy. I designed the packaging and paid my sister’s friend from college to build the website. We had organic packaging with all-natural fibers and fully recycled paper. We started with detox foot patches and then expanded into shea butter. The company was called “Just Shift” and the concept was all about shifting to an organic lifestyle for urban professionals. We folded after three years but we should have stuck it out!
After leaving my last full-time position doing strategy at an agency, I realized that I had a strong interest in tech and social impact. So I became a founding partner in a project called Tour of Tech with two other women — where we brought investors from Silicon Valley (500 Startups, TechStars, Wingpact) to tour tech accelerators and incubators in Lagos, Nigeria. In addition to participating in demo days and meeting entrepreneurs, we also included social impact partners like Generation Enterprise, Andela and She Leads Africa as part of the experience. I enjoyed shaping the event, and after speaking at the United Nations about it, my contacts there asked me what I wanted to create next. I realized that the topic of women and their role in the global economy was really fascinating to me. Although women drive the global economy and are disproportionately affected by poverty, women are largely excluded from conferences and events that set global policy. I felt like there was an opportunity to give women a seat at the table and shift the narrative on women and economics, similar to the approach we took with Tour of Tech. With a close group, I helped to found FLOW Global (First Ladies of the World) — an organization that works with First Ladies and female leaders in business, to champion women’s role in global economics. Technologies like mobile phones, banking and blockchain have a huge role to play in this equation. We soft launched last year at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development Goals, and are excited to host more events this year.
After almost 10 years of meditation, I had an epiphany a couple of years ago that the techniques I was learning were largely created for and by men. I started studying with women from different traditions, and soon realized that everything I’d been taught was backwards — I’d never realized that meditation, yoga and mindfulness techniques are gendered. Women need a completely different set of practices and techniques to achieve the type of focus and groundedness that men experience when they meditate. Men use meditation to achieve energy preservation, while women need the opposite — we need to actively express our energy to feel focused. I tell my students that they should feel less like Mother Theresa and more like Beyonce after meditation. I started sharing with friends, and soon found myself doing corporate workshops and coaching female executives and founders on topics like authentic leadership and self care, integrated with meditation. I launched Powerbase Meditation about a year ago, and I still can’t get over how profoundly the workshops and techniques resonate with women. Our mission at Powerbase is to help train the leaders of tomorrow. As women we see and emulate what we know, which are overwhelmingly male archetypes of leadership — we need healthy, whole images of female power and leadership to aspire to.
Greyfire is where I leverage my business skills for good. I spent time working in Africa, which was a big change after New York investment banking. I realized the challenges there are different for businesses coming from abroad, and that the expectations and cultural differences are hard when people don’t know the terrain. Companies and CEOs in Africa also want access to western markets, funding and investors, and don’t know how to make that happen. So a lot of the work is culture, setting expectations, and knowledge transfer. I take on projects that are Africa-facing, advising companies and countries around “AIR” — agriculture, infrastructure and renewable energy. I love that it keeps me connected to the continent and keeps my business skills sharp.
What did you study in school?
I studied Political Science, with a focus on Africa and International Relations; and I have a Masters in Organizations (Business and Sociology). My final thesis was on the rise of telecom in Africa, and how Africa was leapfrogging the West in its development. I also took a lot of classes in the arts — Greek Classics, Art History and French, and was a classically trained pianist growing up.
I took art history and classics courses out of love, and political science out of interest and practicality. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life when I was in college, I followed my instincts and studied what I enjoyed from professors that inspired me. Surprisingly, everything I studied has been directly relevant to my career and ultimately my pursuits as an entrepreneur. As my career has progressed, I’ve found that one of my biggest strengths is the ability to think creatively, and find patterns and synergies others don’t see, and I credit that to my education in music, arts and letters.
Has anyone been a mentor to you? What role did they play and how do you feel about mentorship now?
On the personal side, I have a Buddhist monk who has been a personal and spiritual mentor for several years. I believe this has shaped me deeply as a person. I believe that being committed to self-knowledge and internal growth has been essential to my path as an entrepreneur. Being fearless, authentic, visionary and grounded define how I show up in the world every day, and how I build my business.
On the business side, I’ve been fortunate to be part of a network of female entrepreneurs called Dreamers and Doers. It is THE deluxe swiss-army knife of mentors for female entrepreneurs. Being an entrepreneur isn’t a straight path, so I believe it can be harder to find a traditional mentor. There are 1,001 questions you need answered every month, and having a deep network of women is the best way I’ve found to crack that problem. Having a community has been my secret ingredient for success. It’s important to be able to interact with women three steps in front of you and benefit from their knowledge
What’s the hardest thing that you’ve had to deal with in your career so far?
There’s a great quote by Randy Komisar, that when you work for other people you take on “The most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want, on the bet that you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” I’ve worked in traditional roles at large companies, and I’ve stepped out to be an entrepreneur throughout my career. This question is part of what drives me as a builder and creator. I think there are three kinds of entrepreneurs — visionaries who see into the future, leaders who can create a movement, and operators who execute. I’m a visionary, I can see into the future. It’s a gift and it can also be a curse, because one of the hardest things for me is being too far ahead of the curve. Do you sacrifice your vision for practical concerns, or is it more important to get the ideas in your head out into the world where they can have an impact? That’s the dilemma for me, but the entrepreneur in me usually wins.
What has been a really rewarding moment in your career?
As a builder there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing people interact with your ideas. I’ve been building a lot lately, so I’m having a lot of these moments! I do a lot of public speaking to inspire young women and other entrepreneurs. When I give a talk and someone says that I’ve introduced them to a completely new perspective that has shifted their world view, I geek out. And the response from women at my Powerbase workshops, is amazing. So many women think they can’t meditate, and that it’s their problem. Women have told me that they’ve been able to operate from a place that feels powerful and grounded, and shift previously negative interactions at work or with friends or in relationships. This kind of feedback inspires me and fuels me to keep going.
What do you want to accomplish in your lifetime?
Women are the next disruptive force in business and technology because we are the largest underserved market. Although we’re half of the population, the majority of the products and services we use are not created, designed or built for us by other women. Women’s voices have been absent from shaping the fabric of the societies we live in, cities we work in, much less the products we use and interact with everyday. This is the single largest business opportunity and I think it will transform everything from politics to culture to global governments. This is what keeps me up at night. My goal is to provide platforms that empower women economically and socially, as well as men that see and understand this opportunity.
What’s something you want young women to remember when thinking about their future?
I think there’s never been a more exciting time to be a young woman. Why? Because all of your pain points as a woman walking through daily life are actually signals for innovation. That’s how billion dollar companies like Honest Company started: by women creating solutions to problems they were experiencing every day. And now there are so many: Slick Chicks, Cosign, Adventure.ly, WTRMLN Water. As a woman, you have a wealth of business ideas that no male CEO of a Fortune 500 company has ever thought of — and a completely untapped market with no competition. I think this is the new normal — The new economy will be driven by products created by women for other women, and every company will need you to come in and shape their vision….but you should build your own!
What’s one thing you want to try to make an impact on in your lifetime?
Impact is central to everything I work on, and I realized at some point that the common denominator to many problems we see globally, is gender. Even problems that don’t seem like it, like global poverty or the refugee crisis for example, are actually at their core issues about how our global community views gender. I’m dedicated to creating new initiatives that tackle global gender inequality — not as a moral question — but as a challenge and an opportunity. I see the intersection of business and impact as the most efficient tool for lasting change.
Where can people find you on social media?
Follow me on Twitter: @kkayembe