“You can’t be what you can’t see.” As a black girl growing up in North America, I had very few visible role models that looked or acted like me. Today I’m a mother of three and COO of an African-based entertainment startup with a female-led team from all over the world. Every day I get to challenge the status quo of the a male-dominated entertainment industry and I’ve been thinking about what it really means for women in the workplace to be surrounded by female co-workers and leaders.

Every morning when our predominantly female team steps into the Nairobi office, a wall adorned with images of our own role models is the first thing they see. From Oprah, Serena Williams, and Wangari Maathai, to Michelle Obama, Ava Duverney and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, these trailblazers are women who have changed the world despite all odds against them and look over us everyday as a reminder that we can do it too.


Our superheroes, both sitting at their desks and adorning our wall, work hard for the simple privilege of being able to work in an environment that allows them to share the best of themselves with others. They are vulnerable. They are unabashedly successful. And they shouldn’t apologize for either. That’s why everyday I remind my team: If you see a door, don’t be afraid to knock. And if it doesn’t open, don’t be afraid to break it!


Many women may not realise how poised for success they are in leadership roles, but their potential and sheer abilities are undeniable. Here are six lessons I’ve learned from observing and empowering my own team of why female role models are important in the workplace:


1. Seeing is believing.

It’s massively important for women and other historically discriminated, underrated groups to be able to say “I can see myself doing that.” Creating a diverse workplace where employees look up to the leadership team and see people who look like them and observe how they manage situations, allows them to think they can get there too. Many women feel “I’m not good enough” to smash the glass ceiling because they see only men at the top, and that’s when we all lose. Simply put, seeing is believing.


2. Women are natural mentors.

Daily I’m privileged to experience the difference women leaders make in my teamy by mentoring their peers, both women and men. Women are constantly working to improve themselves and always find ways to share and transfer their learning along. This allows teams to accelerate their learning curve and for early stage companies to grow at much faster speed.


3. Women foster inclusivity and open communication.

As a female-led startup, I witnessed how easy it was for us to create a strong foundation of inclusivity where open conversations flourish. When even an intern feels comfortable sharing their out-of-the-box idea without fear of judgment, or a manager shares a bigger responsibility or problem with a junior employee , this creates a culture that makes everyone feel valuable and empowered to take action without being afraid of getting it wrong.


4. Women value work-life balance

Women are great leaders because they are able to lead both professionally and personally. As a COO and mother of three, I care about my team’s performance at work and nurturing their well-being. Avoiding micro-managing, schedule flexibility, working from home, and family-friendly team outings are some of the ways to integrate more “life” into “work” and see happier employees significantly increase their productivity.

5. Women dream big.

Dreaming big and being bold may not have been seen as ladylike ten years ago, but more women are owning their ambitions, challenging assumptions and inspiring teams with their vision. The rise of female founders shows how women are stepping up to execute on those big ideas and build successful companies around them. Our founder constantly inspires us with “moonshot thinking” and helps us evolve from seeing our ideas as too bold and ‘out there’ to believing that all crazy ideas sound impossible until they’re not.

6. Women are empathetic.

Some people view empathy as a weakness (we’ve all heard, “don’t be so sensitive!”), but I view vulnerability and fostering an empathetic culture as a secret sauce. This allows female-led teams to have a strong understanding of what drives and motivates others, and how to acknowledge different people’s contribution to the work environment. By taking the time to ask my coworker how they’re doing in a way that says “How are you, I see you, what’s going on with work and beyond?,” we can enhance the health and resilience of each employee and boost the productivity of our team as a whole.


Vanessa Ford, COO, Kukua