Female Founders: Olivia Ansell on The Five Things You Need to Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview with Candice Georgiadis
You need to be prepared to prove yourself. As a woman you will be underestimated, and you need to be prepared when people don’t take you seriously. If you are also young, a woman of color, and don’t have the prestigious degrees to back you up you have an even bigger uphill battle. To be taken seriously all women still sadly have to do more than a man would have to do to succeed, and oftentimes, they have to find ways around people who won’t give them a chance at all.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Olivia Ansell.
Olivia Ansell is an international entrepreneur whose rags to riches story is an inspiration to women in business throughout the world. Growing up hungry and poor in the African country of Uganda, Ansell started her first business at the age of 10, selling popcorn in the streets of Kampala to stave off starvation for her mother, sister, and herself. Twenty years later she is a successful founder and owner of several multi-million dollar businesses spanning a range of industries including manufacturing, retail, health care, real estate, and others. Ansell hopes to use her journey into entrepreneurship to teach, encourage, and inspire other women to create and execute their own opportunities as entrepreneurs, and to live the life of success that each envisions.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Hunger. And I don’t mean that in a figurative way, like a business person having that constant desire and drive for wealth and success, I mean it literally. I was hungry. For food. Every day growing up in Uganda my mother, sister and I had to figure out how we would eat. Even as a child I had a natural ability to see things for what they are in a very concrete way and I saw that the world around me worked by transactions. I knew that I needed food to survive, and I understood that in order to get the food I needed money. I could see and identify who the people were who had the money, and so all I needed to do was figure out a way to get the money from them so that I could use it to buy food for myself. But because I was only 10 years old I also knew that no one would hire me. That meant I needed a business of my own. So, I started selling small snack bags of popcorn to people on the street before and after school. That went well but was long hours and hard work. I noticed that in the morning and later in the day people wanted something more substantial to eat than popcorn, so I put some of my earnings into ingredients for cakes and started selling those as well. I realized by selling two different things I was doubling my money, so I started to look for other things to sell. In Uganda the lights were always going out, so people always need candles. I started carrying those and made even more money. And as I grew I got better at creating opportunities out of nothing to get everything I wanted and needed. When I needed a ride to school but could not afford to pay I turned myself into a transportation broker, gathering a group of students together, collecting their money and hiring a van for them, which I would then ride for free. When I moved to London I answered an add for an in-home caregiver, accepted referrals from the family’s friends and hiring others to provider the care, which eventually led to my first business in home health care. For as long as I can remember this has been my approach.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One defining moment stands out for me. I was 22 years old and running an executive meeting at my company. At that point I’d been an entrepreneur for 12 years, successfully supporting myself through a variety of business that I’d started and developed on my own, and making a very decent living through all of them. But for some reason, as well as they all did and as successful as I was in growing these businesses, I didn’t see myself as a business person. There was a big part of me that still felt like I was still just that ambitious girl who worked hard and sold cakes to get money for food, tuition, and rent. I had several million- dollar companies, employees, profits, contracts, and everything that proved I was now operating at a very different level, but inside I felt no different than if this business was one of my side hustles. I was doing what I’d always done, taking what I had as far as I could grow it. But then I remember looking around the room and being almost shocked at what I suddenly realized I was seeing. I was sitting at the head of a table surrounded by mostly white men, double my age, with business degrees from prestigious business schools and a product that would be worth millions. And I was leading them. It was the first time I felt the extent of my achievement- how far I’d come and what the measure of my success actually was. I felt validated and legitimized in a completely new way. This was a world I belonged in and I thought to myself if I could accomplish this in spite of my gender, my place of birth, and my lack of any advantage whatsoever, there is no limit to what else I can do.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the reasons I’ve become such a successful business woman is because I’ve made so many mistakes! For a self-taught entrepreneur like myself, it’s the best way to learn. My first mistake is my favorite, though. I was 11 years old and at this point, selling popcorn and cakes. At times of the day when sales were slow, I would stand outside my neighbor’s house watching their television through a hole in their wall. One afternoon they were watching a cooking show, and the chef was making a type of western cake. Cakes in Uganda are not as sweet as they are in other parts of the world, so this was something different and foreign to the traditional cakes I was selling. Thinking it would be a good opportunity not only to diversify my little product line but also to introduce a totally unique product into my local market, I wrote down the ingredients and decided I’d make and sell these cakes as well. I had to make a few adjustments to the recipe, however, which I didn’t think would be a problem. I didn’t have an oven so had to make it over a wood fire, and I had to make some substitutions for ingredients that I just didn’t have. I knew better than to eat into my profits, literally in this case, so I did not taste the cakes before selling all of them. And they were awful! The next day even my regular customers refused to buy from me, telling me they tasted like salt. It took some time to convince my customers that this was how foreign cakes are made and if they don’t like them, they must not have a taste for them. Eventually and fortunately, sales for my traditional Ugandan cakes picked back up. But the lesson stuck with me… never underestimate the value of Quality Control!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
So many people have influenced me in a positive way throughout my life. But the one who made the greatest impact is a person I’ve never met. One evening soon after I came to the United States I was flipping through the channels of our tv, trying to get a sense of the culture here in America. I stopped on a show called Shark Tank. Watching Shark Tank was like finding the place that I fit in a world that I didn’t realize existed. Here were these billionaire expert entrepreneurs openly sharing their knowledge about business ventures and start-ups, and there I was thinking, “well yes, of course” and “he’s right, that’ll never work” amazed at how on-point my instincts were and how aligned my mind was to theirs. I heard the kinds of questions people were asking, what the sharks were thinking, and all the startup stories that I could ever imagine. Then a hopeful entrepreneur came on, pitching her business and talking about her undying passion. She was crying a little and talking about how that passion would be the thing that would catapult her to success. But I was thinking to myself “what does passion have to do with it?” From my own experience I knew I didn’t love making candles and I didn’t have an emotional desire to bake cakes. I needed the money. It was about the money. Just as I thought these words Mark Cuban interrupted and said the three most validating, most confidence building words ever- “Passion is Bullshit!” I lost it. I went crazy. I was overjoyed to hear him say it out loud. Here I was, this poor kid Africa who didn’t even go to college, and who had supported herself with a bunch of little side-hustles that she cobbled together herself, yet I’m thinking almost exactly the same as Mark Cuban, the brilliant billionaire. The person pitching her passion company had gone to Yale or Harvard or some other Ivy League business school, yet in that moment he told me that I was right and she was wrong. Everything I believed about making money, building businesses, investing — all of that was instantly validated. It validated my approach and gave names to things I understood conceptually, but had never thought about concretely. Suddenly I felt understood. I felt comforted and seen. Growing up and until that moment, the way I thought was not something that anyone around me understood or encouraged. Enterprising girls like myself were not appreciated in the least, and I always believed that there was just something wrong or different about me. But then came that stand -out moment in Shark Tank that validated that there was nothing wrong with me and that everything I felt, thought and believed was exactly on target. I wasn’t wrong or different; I was just an entrepreneur.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I’ve had the opportunity to coach many other women who want to start their own businesses and there are a few common themes that I’ve encountered again and again. One of the most significant barriers for women is the assumption that everyone and everything else needs to be put first. This is especially difficult for women who are wives and mothers. Even if a woman is surrounded by people who encourage and support her, there is still some instinct or self-expectation to take care of everyone else first. I also find that women are more aware of risks and more cautious, and tend to have back up plans in mind rather than committing themselves to creating success. Sadly, I also continue to work with women who are subservient or even fearful of their husbands or other forceful figures in their lives who tell them outright that they are not free to do what they wish. When I’m coaching women in business I try to help them identify those tendencies and consciously shift their thinking so that they develop a business mindset. Instead of thinking “what if I fail” I coach them to think “I will find a way to make this work.” Instead of feeling guilty about taking time away from the children to build a business I remind them to picture all of the things they will be able to provide because of the business they are building. If they don’t have the money I teach them to use what they have, including any and all advantages they could have by being a woman founder. Business is a mind game. Women just need to realize how to play.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Society may or may not change if and when more women become entrepreneurs, and the government may or may not take actions meant to encourage change. But neither of those can lead to the kind of change that an individual on his or her own can do. I look at my own story, which is so similar to the stories of countless other entrepreneurs. I was born a woman in an underdeveloped country where women are undervalued, I had no money, no education, and no advantages of any sort. I was in a society that treated me as less than nothing under a government that not only condoned it, but offered nothing to prevent me from dying of starvation. I literally came from nothing, had nothing. And through nothing more than my own determination and action, I’ve become more than even I dreamed I could become. I’m a believer that every woman’s future is hers to drive and decide. And as individuals, we have to take action and DO. You can wait for society to open a door or you can stop sitting around and open it for yourself. You can sit around and hope that the government clears a path or you can plow ahead in the direction you want. Having expectations that something around you will change and suddenly you’ll have opportunities falling at your feet is passive and reliant, and it relinquishes control to a place outside of the only thing you can control- yourself. The individual is the only person who can overcome obstacles. You have to do it yourself.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
First, I think it’s important to remember that male or female, not everyone is meant to be a founder. Not everyone has the determination and drive, and not everyone can develop the mindset to be successful in business development or as an entrepreneur. And as a group, I would not say that women in general would be better or even different from men as founders. Those are the types of stereotypes we would all be better to get away from. But what I will say is that by not normalizing women in business we are all potentially losing the benefit of some brilliant future leadership. Similar to other historically male-dominated industries and positions, like computer science, mathematics, politics, and many others, when women began entering those fields and bringing the advancements that they were equally capable of making all along, everyone benefits. It simply makes no sense to exclude a portion of the people capable of being extraordinary because of any reason other than ability. The more women who become founders the more great minds there are to advance our industries.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
That it is glamorous, that it is wonderful being the boss, and that it you reach a point that you get to sit back and enjoy all of your wealth and success. Generally, I feel the opposite of powerful and glamorous. Mostly I feel like a donkey carrying everyone and everything on my back. And being the boss does not mean that you enjoy having people doing things for you. It’s actually the opposite. A good leader knows that it is she working for them. Employees are customers too, and you have to be thinking constantly about what they want and need to make the portion of your business that they are responsible as good as possible. As their leader you are responsible for their safety, their livelihood and the well being of the families they support. You are responsible for making solid decisions and keeping your business profitable and sustainable, not just to make the next payroll, but because you need to be in business long term. And there is no rest. Last year when COVID-19 hit two of my three highest grossing businesses had to close down, and the third, a health care company, was on the front line battling the risks every day. Whether it’s a pandemic, a recession, or some other form of natural or economic disaster, there are always threats to contend with alongside the opportunities. Being a founder means you never stop working, doing, and moving.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
No, not everyone is cut out to be a founder. There is a certain mindset that successful business people have that is counterintuitive in many ways to how a typical person would think. Working with women who want to start businesses, I find that the most common thing that holds prevents a person from turning a great idea into a profitable business is the way they think. From the interpretation of risk to their beliefs about failure, a founder and an employee can look at the same situation or issue or opportunity and conclude the exact opposite things. A regular person thinks “I hope I don’t lose money.” I think “I’m going to figure out how to make money from this.” A regular person thinks ‘I’ll have to have a back up plan in case this fails,” but I think “I’ll just have to keep moving forward and make it work somehow”. A regular person thinks “I need money to start a business” and I think “the only way to get some money is to start this business.” If you start from nothing then you have nothing to lose. An employee wants security but a founder knows that the only thing that is truly secure is what they create and grow.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You need to be fearless. You cannot allow yourself to be intimidated, dragged down, discouraged, or made to be inferior. When I was a small child my father died, leaving my sister and mother and I practically homeless and penniless. I was poor and a girl, and throughout my childhood people freely treated me as a worthless being, including family members and people who should have valued and loved me. Instead of shrinking and becoming exactly what people thought of me I pushed against it. When I was told I would never accomplish anything I thought “I’ll show you.” Each time someone told me one of my ideas wouldn’t work it was like an invitation to fight until I could make it happen. At one point I was prepared to leave my husband rather than give up on a business that he did not believe, but I knew would grow into a multi-million dollar company (which it did). Successful founders know their own power and draw their strength from within
- You need to be prepared to prove yourself. As a woman you will be underestimated, and you need to be prepared when people don’t take you seriously. If you are also young, a woman of color, and don’t have the prestigious degrees to back you up you have an even bigger uphill battle. To be taken seriously all women still sadly have to do more than a man would have to do to succeed, and oftentimes, they have to find ways around people who won’t give them a chance at all.
- You need Vision and Focus. There are 24 hours in a day. If you sleep for 8 hours that leaves 16. If you work outside the home subtract another 8. That leaves you 8 hours to focus to the point of obsession over everything related to the business you are starting. And for your business to work, you need to teach your mind how to focus so exclusively on your business idea that you are practically manifesting it into existence. Each time I start a business it begins with an idea. My next step is to focus my mind like an arrow on that opportunity and learn everything I can about it. If I’m watching tv I’m watching something related to that topic. If I’m on-line I’m reading everything I can about the subject. On social media I watch YouTube videos on experts in that area, read articles on the topic, find people in the industry on LinkedIn and read their posts. If I’m walking my dog or exercising I’m listening to audiobooks, TED talks or speeches on the subject. I focus obsessively on the industry or the opportunity so that I drown out everything else. Two things happen with this approach. First, I develop a singularity of purpose and focus, which leads me to visualizing my future self as the owner of a successful company that has developed this opportunity. Second, I educate myself on everything I need to know, which will be necessary later as I begin taking steps to start my business.
- You need to develop the ability to turn your emotions off. Business is a mind game, not a heart game. So many business development experts will tell you that you have to be passionate about what you do in order for a business to work. The thinking is that because you’ll have to spend so many hours focused on it and being immersed in it in order to start and grow your business, that you better really love what that thing is. The problem is that your passion may not lead to something that will actually be a money maker. Worse, your love for that thing will cloud your judgement and make you pour more time, effort and resources into something that’s not going to pay off. A successful business is run by your head, not your heart. Entrepreneurs don’t follow their passions. They follow the money. Passions are hobbies. Things that you do for free. Businesses are something that you do for money. And while it helps to build a business around something you don’t mind doing, it does not and should not be something that you love. This is not to say that you should do something you hate just because of the financial potential. If you hate cleaning you should not start a cleaning company. But if there is an opportunity, a customer base, and a potential for growth in cleaning, and you don’t mind cleaning, that is good business venture to try.
- You need to be resourceful and create your own opportunities. When I was in school back in Africa I had to walk extremely far to get back and forth to school. There were no buses, but there was transportation available in the form of freelance drivers of vans or minibuses, which would go around taking people where they needed to go . It was possible to get a ride to school, but only if you had money. I, of course, did not. The other issues with the drivers was that they weren’t reliable and didn’t have regular stops or locations. It wasn’t at all like an organized public transportation system. So even if you had money it wouldn’t guarantee that you could get a ride to where you wanted when you wanted. So, although I had no ride because I had no money, even the people who had money had the same basic problem because the transportation that was there was not reliable. This was a problem I saw as an opportunity. My answer was to start a transportation support service. I offered to organize transportation for my classmates at school. I collected the money from each student, and I made arrangements with a driver to pick us up and drop us off every day. The driver was happy because his income was guaranteed. The students were happy because their ride was predictable. I was happy because, with the service fee I collected from the students’ fares, I was able to pay for my ride to and from school every day. Plus earn a little bit of money for myself. A founder doesn’t wait for things to align or for an opportunity to fall in her lap. She has the idea then creates the conditions to move it forward. She doesn’t wait, she acts. Opportunity isn’t presented, it’s created.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have always done what I can to be generous and to take action that truly matters to the people I encounter. I’ve paid tuition for many girls in Uganda, built homes and created jobs specifically for people who I know are in need, offered no interest loans and given donations to my employees when needed, and generally give in a way that makes a difference whenever I can. With two of my businesses, I’m trying to build something bigger that has a broader impact. I also own a long -term care company that provides homes and jobs to adults with intellectual disabilities. When I first moved to the United States I was told of a woman who, because of the limited number of group homes and supported living agencies in her area, was forced to move an hour away from her family and loved ones into a home with an agency that could care for her. Within months, depressed and lonely, she died. Her story broke my heart. No one should die from lack of love! So, I founded and grew my own company, which is growing and thriving.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire all women to believe that their own fulfillment matters I believe it would change the world. Too many women continue to live under the restraint of a husband, or the limitations they believe they have because of their gender, or the belief that they must take care of everyone else before they take care of themselves. I wonder how many women dreamed of starting a business but never did because of fear of failure, worry about the risks, concern that it would come at the expense of the family, guilt, and other feelings that come from feeling like your position is last in a long line of other demands. What if Steve Jobs was a women with small children? What if Jeff Bezos was a wife whose husband told her not to let work interfere with the family? What if Bill Gates was a girl whose parents told her that wires are for boys and she should become an elementary school teacher? Somewhere out there is a little girl with an idea that will change the world. And we spend so much time dreaming up ways to open doors and create opportunities for her, whoever and wherever she is. But those things don’t matter as much as what’s inside her heart and her mind. What she really needs is to believe in herself and know that what she wants and thinks and needs matters. If I could flip that switch in the mind of every person everything would change.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Michele Obama is the person I hope to become when I grow up. Beyond her obvious intellect and class is a person who influenced the world just by being exactly who she was. She speaks to us with her actions and presence and uses her voice to inspire like no one else can. She invites us to be better people by holding the bar high then showing us what we can be if we reach it. She is truly a person I admire.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.