Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Andrea Pizziconi of Girls First Finance Is Helping To Change Our World

Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine
Published in
22 min readMar 27, 2023

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It will take a lot longer than you think to reach sustainability for your startup. When I say it will take longer, I mean possibly three to five times longer. So be prudent with your burn rate and make sure you have a cushion to cover your company AND personal expenditures because financial stress can lead you to make poor decisions. And if you can hold on to a few other forms of income, do so. Don’t go all-in just to make a point about your commitment. Do it when you must because the business has grown enough to sustain it.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrea Pizziconi.

Andrea Pizziconi, CFA, is equal parts artist, activist, and serial entrepreneur. She has raised and deployed tens of millions of dollars to pioneer education infrastructure public-private partnerships across North America, Europe, and Africa through her companies, the Christie Company and Africa Integras, and is also the founder of Girls First Finance, a fintech empowerment community democratizing student loans and empowerment tools for vulnerable young women globally. She is also an internationally-acclaimed songwriter, recording artist, and producer with her original music and latest releases played on radio stations across the US and Europe featuring multiple Grammy award-winning artists like Gregory Porter, Gary Clark, Jr, and Common. Her artistic work has been profiled in media including Billboard Magazine, JazzTimes, Voice of America, and BBC Radio.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Well, the story of how I ended up building universities in Africa is rather long, so I’ll share a colorful story about how I was inspired to create my latest venture, Girls First Finance. At Africa Integras, we were months away from starting to hand over a massive assemblage of buildings at the University of Ghana as part of a $64 million investment in expanding their classrooms and dormitories. The project would increase the university’s capacity by nearly 20,000 students, bringing opportunity to families and communities across West Africa.

Then the Vice-Chancellor retired, and his replacement had a different agenda. He wanted to change the terms of the contract and tried to justify his position claiming that it was not legally enforceable as it was obtained through my seductive womanly prowess. The absurdity of this argument was revealed when he lost at arbitration. Incensed, he lashed out in the media, repeating the lie that I seduced his predecessor into selling Ghana’s crown education jewel. While he lost a subsequent defamation court case, the damage to my reputation and company were devastating for years in between. I couldn’t believe such defamatory attacks, which failed when tested before judges and arbitrators, could nonetheless be spread so easily.

But it was exactly these difficult times that served as the genesis of Girls First Finance. I asked a Ghanaian diplomat what he made of the situation. He explained that those spreading lies about me expected to be believed. When I asked why, he explained that as many as half the girls in Ghana were pressured to trade their bodies for education fees, grades, or career advancements. In this context, it was easy to claim that a groundbreaking project initiated by a woman could only have advanced through a “sex for signature” exchange. The explanation, and many subsequent explorations of the issues, such as the BBC’s subsequent exposé featuring the University of Ghana, helped me contextualize what had happened to my reputation. I also realized that my ideas on how to best deploy my resources had to change. Building education infrastructure was not enough. My next project was creating Girls First Finance, a mobile app with multiple empowerment tools and student loans platform that helps vulnerable girls avoid sexual exploitation while getting into and staying in school. When I think of how much momentum we’re now gaining with GFF, I feel almost grateful to that Vice-Chancellor. He tried to bury me, but his efforts only seeded more important ways to spend my time.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

It’s hard to pick the most interesting because it’s been a pretty wild ride, but I am somewhat fond of recounting one memorable evening in Kenya. We had won a competitive tender out of six international and local companies to develop 10,000 dorm beds for a public university in Kenya. It was the first public-private partnership under the country’s new PPP Act, so it was heavily publicized. We were not the favorite of the Vice-Chancellor compared to a local company that offered a less affordable option to students but appeared more willing to accommodate other non-contractual incentives.

The law said you had six months to negotiate the final contract before it reverted to the reserve bidder (the Vice-Chancellor’s preferred partner). The university’s negotiation team had successfully stonewalled our ability to amend the contract into something bankable at face value, and it was now the eve of the six-month deadline. They were chuffed, assuming that I’d be forced to walk, and they’d be able to proceed with a company more willing to be understanding of their non-contractual needs. I realized there were enough mechanisms to get another chance to amend the contract later, and the only certainty of failure would be if I didn’t sign the contract that night, warts and all. After a long day of negotiating fruitlessly, we all met in my lawyer’s office, and, to their shock and horror, I didn’t bang on about the need to revise the contract, I just brought a pen. They had to act quickly, or their plan would be foiled. The university’s lead negotiator quickly grabbed the contract and tried to leave in a huff. I rushed to cut him off at the stairs (a spiral staircase) and physically blocked him from leaving. He had a choice between pushing me down the stairs and potentially to my death or turning around and going back into the room to sign the contract with us. He chose the latter. We kept the deal. Years later, I learned that the incident inspired a new law in Kenya that prohibited government negotiations from taking place anywhere but in government offices. I’ll confess, I’m somewhat flattered they went to all that trouble just to avoid my blocking moves!

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. 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?

Well, they say that failure is the mother of success, and I often feel I have multiple master’s degrees in mistakes! I was brought in to partner with a local investor to develop a group of boutique hotels across Sierra Leone. I was in Freetown to assess the project and create the turnaround plan. My investor grinned earnestly and showed me a host of construction materials; he told me I had free reign to suggest what to keep and what to resell in the market. My eyes immediately landed on a group of particularly gaudy tiles that looked as if they’d been removed from my grandmother’s guest bathroom. I confidently joked about the possibility of reselling the tiles, assuming one could find a buyer even at a discount. His smile became less bright. It turned out he had traveled to China and handpicked the tiles himself as a signature feature for his hotel. He was crestfallen that I didn’t share his snazzy retro taste. I ended up not developing the project.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Well, I have two companies dedicated to expanding education access. One focuses on building education facilities (Africa Integras), and the other supports young women accessing educational financing (Girls First Finance). Over the next decade, we plan to help millions of girls, particularly in the developing world, get access to affordable student loans while creating the infrastructure to support this increased educational demand. The infrastructure I am creating will allow women to separate from traditional paths that require them to sacrifice autonomy or trade sex for education.

One part of this project is sensitizing stakeholders on the urgency of the problem. Here too, I am heartened by our success; the UK government recently committed to working together with us and others to end the sexual exploitation of girls, and young women pressured to trade sex for education fees, grades, and jobs. Getting major G7 governments to call out educational sexual exploitation by name and pledge to eradicate it underscored for me how far we had come in such a short time. And we’re just getting started.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Sure. Since defamatory actions by the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana had put me in the headlines for weeks, I had realized that if I didn’t tell my own survivor story, I’d be leaving these lies unchallenged. But frankly, this was not the only challenge I had overcome; at that point in my career, I had survived a multitude of forms of sexual assault, abuse, harassment, and exploitation. I was just starting treatment for PTSD, which partly manifested from all the ways I hadn’t spoken up in the past.

Around this time, I was asked to speak at a Wilton Park conference in the UK about my experience in Ghana. The conference was on how to combat gender violence in tertiary education, and I had become known for my whistleblowing about the Vice-Chancellor. I gave my speech to a group of activists and decision-makers, and we carried on to dinner. After dinner, a woman approached me, asking to speak alone. She told me she was a women’s rights activist in her country. But her darkest secret was that she had been in an abusive marriage for nearly twenty years. She was ashamed because she spent her days telling other women to speak up and get out, but she felt she’d lose her reputation if she admitted to being a victim of abuse herself. She told me that I was the first woman she had met who told my story with enough dignity and strength that she could see herself in me and could see how starting a new life and being open about her journey did not have to stigmatize her. She had decided that day to return home and make that major change. I was incredibly moved by her reaction. In recent years, variations of this discussion happen often. What I’ve learned is that telling my own story without shame or fear is often the most powerful tool to impact others.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Thank you for asking! Definitely.

First, society (that means all of us) can stop accepting the practice of sex for education fees as a “necessary evil”. If three million sugar baby students in the US alone are signing up to a website seeking opportunities to find older male “mentors” to help with their school fees and living expenses while in college, we have a problem. We must change our mindset. Is it ok that millions of young women and girls are made to understand that the only way to get an education is to accept being sexually exploited by an older man to cover their costs? No. That’s tantamount to sexual servitude. We must pressure our governments and other stakeholders to find better solutions for young women to realize their education dreams.

Second, governments can make it easier for the private sector to make more educational loans available for those who need them. This is how we can banish the evil of sex for education and expand access at the same time. One way that can work in the United States is through the Community Reinvestment Act. This legislation, which has been around since the ’70s, creates a mechanism for the federal government to underpin the risk for banks to provide student loans to vulnerable young women. While the law already exists, it’s rarely used by banks. Governments can review why these opportunities are not being taken, and create stronger incentives or enforcement mechanisms, recognizing the research that shows investing in a woman’s education is the best possible investment for long-term GDP growth. Women save more, invest in their communities more, they show higher returns to shareholders when they run companies, and they show lower default rates when they borrow. The GI Bill in America yielded an 8x return on investment when the federal government paid for vets to go to college. If that applied to women today, I think the evidence suggests it would be a 10x return.

And that’s the third thing that can happen — banks can start to lend to more girls taking a bet on them knowing that they will make fantastic future customers if they are educated. Today, the biases against women in the underwriting process for lending is the root cause of why so many women are harmed by others. My parent company has existed since 2007 with years of seven-figure revenues, but I could barely get a mortgage because I am single, a woman, and an entrepreneur. Let’s play that out. That means many women are pressured to remain in abusive relationships (to stay married to address the single woman bias) or exploitative jobs where they are harassed (to hold on to tax stubs from salaried jobs), so they can get a loan for school, a mortgage, or a business opportunity. That’s awful. I often joke in a not-so-funny way that, based on experience, fundraising is the most dangerous activity I undertake. So what is life like for a vulnerable young woman trying to get the world to bet on her, but the only person who will invest in her is an older man who will only support her if she submits to him sexually? That’s the norm right now. Banks can change that overnight by seeing women as the amazing borrowers and customers they can be if someone gives them a chance. Evidence in microfinance proves this thesis well. But these loans need to start earlier when girls are heading to school. That one tweak in the system, where financing is given to girls and young women early enough to enroll in school and graduate, and start their careers protected from exploitation, will change the world as we know it.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, true leadership is the willingness to take uncomfortable positions to solve genuinely complex problems. And then it’s showing the commitment to persist on that path until you’ve truly solved those problems for all, not just some. That path is often uncomfortable and unpopular — but leadership often means accepting that the easy path is not always the best.

There’s nothing wrong with choosing to solve simpler issues that don’t take you out of your comfort zone. That makes you a good citizen or business person. But not necessarily a leader. My definition of leadership requires the willingness to be uncomfortable when striving for the best outcome for all. Second, you must define for whom you care to solve the problem. There is legitimate good in those who subscribe to the proverb “charity begins at home” and “if we all do a little good, then no one needs to do a lot.” But both approaches are safe and limited to making good citizens

True leaders prioritize the well-being of the many who are in need over the well-being of the privileged few. That means making sacrifices and working towards serving those who do not look like you or share your values out of respect that they are also human beings who deserve to live with dignity. We all have biases. Leaders recognize that and actively overcome them because they serve many more than just their own. But it also means that the solutions they pursue require uncomfortable collaborations that cannot be realized without putting the well-being of the greater good over your ego, pride, vanity, greed, or many other trappings that often come with striving for public praise. That motivation often prevents true leadership. Indeed, if everyone is patting you on the back, you are likely not digging deep enough to address the uncomfortable root of the problem.

That’s particularly true when structuring a good solution to a messy social issue. Our knee-jerk reaction is often for either government to sort it out or for charities can handle it. But can they? Do they? Whenever a social issue is complex and affects a lot of people, by default, governments weren’t able to throw enough money at the problem, because they don’t have enough money to fix it. And charities have less money than governments, so they’re not the answer either. Who’s left? The private sector. Regardless of your political persuasion, this practical conclusion applies. Aid is scarce and insufficient. Only investment is evergreen.

That’s why I approach education access problems through public-private partnerships. That causes immediate points of friction with others and often the public. I’ve been accused more than once of exploiting young people by suggesting others should profit from providing education as a product rather than a basic right. It IS a right. Except, there’s not enough money to give that right to everyone, so we need to make it easier for those who demand an education to be entitled to pay for it if they wish. Otherwise, you liberate “some” youth with aid and relegate most young people to fend for themselves. Is that more just? This is especially true for girls.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1 . It will take a lot longer than you think to reach sustainability for your startup.

When I say it will take longer, I mean possibly three to five times longer. So be prudent with your burn rate and make sure you have a cushion to cover your company AND personal expenditures because financial stress can lead you to make poor decisions. And if you can hold on to a few other forms of income, do so. Don’t go all-in just to make a point about your commitment. Do it when you must because the business has grown enough to sustain it. One time when money was tight early on, I had to get my laptop fixed, which cost an annoying $500 I didn’t have lying around. I started chatting with the guy running the repair shop while waiting for him to fix my laptop, and he ended up asking me if I would consult him on how to grow his business. That couple thousands of dollars in consulting fees helped me pay my rent. I’m now on to my fourth company, and I’ve yet to see any of them go bankrupt (knock on wood)!

2 . You will be put in a lot of positions where you are pressured to compromise your values to get what you need. Don’t take the bait!

Just don’t do it. No deal is worth it. Never, ever, ever compromise your values to get to an important milestone. It’s a slippery slope. You will flag to your stakeholders that you’re willing to compromise on fundamental matters, and then the scenarios that force you to compromise will just get bigger and bigger. So you always need to have a plan B and be willing to walk, as hard as that may seem. Luckily, I have never budged on this point at all, and so, when the accusations start flying from those who hope to profit through innuendo when they could not succeed in commerce, I am always vindicated. Even in Ghana, they had to make up a tale about my wicked womanly wiles because the accusation of me paying bribes would be less believable since I’ve developed a reputation for never budging under such pressure. At this point, no one even tries anymore.

3 . Arm yourself with as many mentors as possible with as many different perspectives as possible.

Whenever I meet a funder who can’t name at least one mentor with whom they have a close collaboration, I flag them as having decision-making risks. You will never get completely honest feedback from someone who relies on you to pay their salary. Nor will you get it from customers or partners. The most honest feedback will come from someone who has been there at least once or twice before and doesn’t have a dog in your fight but wants to see you win. I’ve had more than a dozen people whom I consider significant mentors to me. Four of them took a very deep interest in our company and helped shape me to be my best. Incidentally, most of them were men. Their willingness to tell me when “my baby was ugly” saved me from taking poor decisions out of emotion or exhaustion many times.

4 . Being CEO will not help you win a popularity contest.

A good CEO, a leader, must persist in doing the right thing, with humility and acceptance that many will not like you along the way, if ever, and some with vocally hate you. But you have to take hard positions, often publicly, so that many more will benefit from your efforts than if you stayed in your comfort zone and aligned to popular opinion. I would get plenty of praise by giving scholarships to 200 girls. But what happens to the millions of girls I can’t afford to support? They are sexually exploited by older men. I know it seems absurd to imagine that charity for some can lead to sexual exploitation for more, but the numbers just don’t lie in this case. It’s not that we should stop being charitable. But we need to recognize that the only stakeholder with enough money to sort out the financing of education for young people and particularly young women, is the private sector. So, if I’m genuinely committed to solving this problem, I better get comfy being unpopular because the most scalable solutions to this issue are.

5 . Don’t drink the Kool-Aid when they tell you to stay in your lane.

I am an artist and a businesswoman. And within those two buckets I’m also a real estate developer, a private equity investor, a songwriter, and producer. Many people have spent a lot of energy trying to figure out which one I am more of. There’s even a website some journalist once made that attempts to analyze that one question. I get that it’s confusing because we’re often only allowed to be one thing. This is especially true for women and BIPOC. Now, you can’t always do everything at once. I’ve had to set releasing new music aside for years at a time to focus on major projects in Africa and vice versa. But I now regret the desperate efforts I made for many years to keep my artist and business networks separate, to the detriment of both. I started using Drea as my artist name to make it easier for fans to find my music without other Google-alert distractions and to make it harder for government ministers to find my latest performance action shots. It never worked. Invariably, investors squealed with delight at their great investigative find when their due diligence sleuthing revealed that, not only was I also a singer, but Billboard Magazine had premiered my last record release. Sure, some music execs passed me over saying, “What the hell happened in Ghana?” That was frustrating. But I also developed a special group of super fans among some fairly influential business executives, which eventually led to even more doors opening for my companies. Artists must be vulnerable. There was something about listening to music I had written inspired by my business life that made them feel they knew me, and even trusted me. When you know and trust someone, you are more likely to work with them. Now I fully integrate my artist and non-artist personas and use the two networks to reinforce the impact we can make toward our mission. I just wish I had done that a long time ago.

6 . (Bonus track! Because I don’t stay in a lane! ☺ ) Do something you love.

The incentive of making a lot of money will not be enough to get you through every tough day. And the days will sometimes be very tough indeed. My first mentor, my high music teacher, used to read a passage from “The Prophet” on the last day of school that began with the line “Work is love made visible.” Another mentor, my first boss, used to say, “If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.” To get through the grueling hours, the sacrifices, the risks, and the loneliness that all founders face, your comfort will be knowing that you are doing this because you love it, because you believe in it, and because whatever it is you are trying to materialize will bring others joy, help make their lives easier or, in some cases, change their lives altogether. That’s a powerful feeling. That’s your extra fuel when your gas tank feels empty.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Well, I’m hoping it will be this movement we’re working on now to end the sexual exploitation of young women and girls who are pressured to trade sex for education fees, grades, jobs, and advancement.

It sounds big when you think about how it affects at least a billion young women. I’m a repeat survivor of sexual assault from my youth and early career, and I started with many advantages compared to other young women. Studies suggest more than half of women, by their early careers, have already been harmed and made to play it smaller than they would if they were allowed to just go through school and work without being commodified or vilified if they don’t bend to the rules that were not written for them. Anecdotally, it seems every woman has at least one story. If you had a team and 50% of your players were playing at anywhere from 10% to 70% of their full potential because they’ve been repeatedly injured and benched, that wouldn’t sound like a team that will win. And it’s not just women; young men and nonbinary young people are too often sexually exploited too.

On the bright side, as daunting as the scope may feel, it’s totally, totally possible that we change this status quo within five to ten years. That’s how long it took Oberon Sinclair to shift kale from a garnish to a superfood. One woman did that. If we make financing accessible, we can stop brushing under the rug the likely reality that the most prominent form of private financing for women’s education worldwide is older exploitative men. This takes speaking up and sometimes being a broken record about it, but there are great examples of other campaigns that have quickly changed the hearts and minds of millions with some stubborn, obnoxious messaging. Take PETA. No one thought it was necessary to throw tomato soup on the Mona Lisa to make a point, and many people thought they were irresponsible brats when they did. But do those people wear fur coats today? No.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Sure. I have one quote I lean on consistently more than others. I sometimes print it out and carry it in my wallet to remind me to keep going when things got really, really hard.

It’s (ironically) the Man in the Arena, from Teddy Roosevelt, which he adlibbed during a speech at the Sorbonne in 1910 when he started losing his audience.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” — Teddy Roosevelt

This quote gave me a lot of comfort when I was going up against governments, corporations, and defamatory public opinion that led even many close to me to treat me like I was covered in kryptonite. I had to take on three arbitrations in three years, including one against a government and a blue-chip multi-billion dollar publicly listed company, all of which I eventually won. I had to wait for a defamation case in a foreign country to vindicate me of charges of corruption and accusations that I seduced my way into making a large project happen rather than what actually happened, which is that I worked really damn hard to implement an idea I had in graduate school and finally got it over the line with the help of an amazing team. If I gave more weight to the critics, I would have stopped pushing a long time ago. Eventually, I was vindicated repeatedly, and now we have even more momentum to do what we need to do.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 😊

Melinda French Gates. We’ve never met, but she gave me a scholarship to go to graduate school where I researched the ideas I’m now implementing today to solve education access at scale. Now, there’s a healthy dollop of hypocrisy in the fact that I got a full ride to go to Cambridge University as a Gates Scholar, and now I advocate for a solution that happens to highlight the unsustainability of scholarships to make education accessible to more young people. I try to resolve that hypocrisy by continuing to repay my own scholarship through my investment in solving this problem. I’m now more than 15 years and many millions invested and still just past getting traction for our proposed solutions. Still, I’m more convinced than ever that the approach we’re taking is the right one or one of the right ones, and I wouldn’t have had the luxury to sit and think about the problem with an open mind and no financial pressures if it weren’t for the investment that Melinda and Bill Gates made in me back then.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’m on social media with the same handle across the usual platforms @dreapizziconi, and they can check in with our latest venture Girls First Finance on our website here. Even better is if readers can fill out the ten-question survey on our website about how safe the journey has been during their education and early career years. Men can respond too. We need feedback from everyone. What I can promise is that their responses will be taken straight to the highest levels of power and included in a report we are publishing with the UK government this summer that will lay bare the extent that sexual exploitation of young people seeking education takes.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator