Isabel dos Santos, 45, is a businesswoman and the daughter of Angola’s former president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos. Her investments and previous position as the chairwoman of Sonangol, an oil company in her home country of Angola, have made her one of the most successful women in Africa. Today, she is deeply involved with philanthropic work regarding the economic empowerment of women, and she encourages African entrepreneurs to give back to their home countries to increase their impact on the world economy.
During this interview, she makes it clear that finding success in the male-dominated economy of Africa has been difficult. Each of her success has been marred by prejudice, but these hardships have only encouraged her to invest in philanthropic pursuits that pave the way for the next generations of young African businesswomen.
What challenges have you faced in Africa’s male-dominated society?
Women employed at any level of Africa’s business world know well that discrimination and sexism are very real concerns. Even during the height of my career, my opinions are second-guessed, as if being a woman makes me incapable of negotiating deals on my own.
At parties or in public, people often assume that I am a stay-at-home mother who must be married to a successful man. I often get the question, “What does your husband do?” and never “What line of work are you in?” This is an unfortunately common occurrence. Though disappointing, it isn’t as limiting as the prejudice businesswomen must endure when trying to raise capital for their businesses. Investors have far more confidence in projects overseen by men.
What opportunities exist for women in African countries to become successful businesswomen?
Despite the impairing prejudices at every level of the African business world, it is possible for women to become successful. It will take endurance, talent, and grit, but it can happen. I advise young women to think about their skills or passions. This is the best place to start, and it’s even better if you can couple them with Angola’s already untapped resources like tourism, minerals, agriculture, and manufacturing.
Agriculture is a particularly promising sector in Africa. Medium scale operations focusing on the production of produce, animal farming, and manufacturing are becoming more lucrative. The growing middle class in some African countries has also opened up opportunities to serve internal tourists. Africans with a disposable income are beginning to travel and stay at lodges and bed and breakfast hotels in the countryside. This gives small businesses an opportunity to cater to a newer growing market.
What men have supported you as a businesswoman? Do you have any advice for parents about raising strong women in Africa?
My father has always been supportive of me. Looking back, he treated me the same as my brothers. I was never told to act or speak a certain way nor was I instructed to go into a career that women traditionally went into. He stood behind all of my decisions and even encouraged me to enter computer science or become an astronaut. His motivation made me feel strong and competent enough to enroll in an engineering program and complete my education at a university.
I was not raised in a household that told me to wait until I met a man to marry and support me. I was raised to understand that hard work and perseverance through adversity is how you make a name for yourself. Having that type of upbringing gave me an independence and ambition that few African women realize they have. I advise all parents to strive to raise their daughters this way – by instilling in them confidence and ambition, you are giving them the support they need to become successful businesswomen.
My husband has also been deeply supportive of my career. He has always given me encouragement and advice, and when I need to work long hours or take business trips, I can always count on him to watch our children.
What actionable advice do you have for people who want to get started?
Leverage your pre-existing talents and knowledge. If you’re going into a field that you know or have past experience with then you have a competitive edge. Couple that with passion and ambition and you’ll be ready to hit the ground running. It will help to create a five-year plan and try to find ways to raise the funds to get started. Be as detailed as possible and try to anticipate as many problems as you can. Solving them in advance can save you from making bad decisions with enduring consequences.
Keep in mind that this will take a lot of time. Time is an investment and focusing on one thing means you can’t focus on another. Try to not let your business aspirations get in the way of family. It’s inevitable that you will have to make some sacrifices but try your best to balance your attention between the things and people that matter.
How do you choose which causes to support?
I focus my support on philanthropies that in some way benefit society. This is so important to me that in all of my companies I have established divisions tasked with sponsoring charities and programs that promote improving society. We run many initiatives to improve social responsibility like supporting a children’s pediatric hospital, financing the fight against malaria, bringing clean water to poor communities, and hosting “fun days” for sick and impoverished children.
I also believe entrepreneurs are the key to bringing prosperity to the countries of Africa. I am deeply committed to supporting small businesses with big dreams, and I cherish the opportunities I’ve been given to give speeches to young women at universities and institutions around the world. Education, after all, is on of the most important features of society. Just as my father educated me to be independent, strong, and ambitious, so should we establish an education system that gives all of the young women of Africa the confidence they need to succeed.
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