Isabel dos Santos: “I was taught to make my own way in life, and never to depend on any man, be it father, brother, or husband.”

‘People just assume that as a woman and a mother you are less able to negotiate and build your own business.”

Angolan entrepreneur,  Isabel dos Santos may divide opinion in business and political circles, and has been in the news a lot lately. We revisit this (abridged)  interview in which the daughter of former president, José Eduardo dos Santos who is considered Africa’s richest woman, talks about how she keeps steaming forward despite everything that is thrown at her. 

In a male-dominated society, what are some of the biggest challenges you face as a female businesswoman? 
In the business world there are very few female peers, and it is still undoubtedly a very male-dominated society. Discrimination and prejudice exists. On various occasions in business meetings it has happened to me that the other party with whom I am negotiating will look solely at my male adviser or male lawyer, to see what he has to say, even though I am the owner/shareholder of the business and have already clearly stated my decision. 
Your opinions are frequently second guessed simply because you are a woman. I am also often asked: “What business does your husband do?”. People just assume that as a woman and a mother you are someone less able to be negotiating at the table or  to build your own business. The toughest thing for women is to raise capital and investment for their business, as the financial system has ‘more confidence’ in male-led projects.

Are there particular challenges that you face as an African woman? 
Being very often the only black person in the room is a challenge… people tend to treat you differently. Africa has unfortunately been marketed in a very poor way. The narrative around African economies and African business isn’t favourable, it’s full of negative connotations. Africa needs better marketing in order to promote its success stories better. There is very little knowledge of African businesses or key business players out there. 

What opportunities exist currently in Angola or other countries in the continent for women who wish to make money and build successful enterprises? 
Opportunities for me always start with a simple question: What are you good at? That is where  you will find your opportunity. 
Angola in particular has many untapped resources from minerals to agriculture, manufacturing to services and tourism. Each one comes with a different level of complexity, different need for investment, but all are strong and possible starting points. 
The more complex the business, the more it will require you to be experienced and skilled, and the need for more capital. Today, the Angolan banking sector offers financing and loans for good projects and businesses, and it is true that interest rates are still high, and that some collateral or partial guarantees are required, as well as some starting capital (savings or land) as equity from the investors. Angola imports over $9 billion of food commodities and consumer goods. Today Africa as a whole continues to import vast amounts of commodities and consumer goods.
A good opportunity in Africa would be the medium scale production of agriculture produce or animal farming or manufacturing. Also, in some countries, there is a growing middle class with a growing disposable income, and thus internal tourism such as lodges and countryside bed and breakfasts are also a developing opportunity for small, family-owned businesses. Good quality private education and private healthcare clinics are also sectors of potential business growth in Africa, as people want to invest in education for their children.
Bigger opportunities, for more capital-intensive investments and bigger deals, lie in industries, such as glass or steel manufacturing for construction, or mineral exploration.

How can we get started? 
Your best business bet is you, your skills, your motivation, and your passion.
You must have an idea, make a five-year plan, prepare your money, ground your idea in detail, be persistent, and partner yourself with a trusted team. Stay passionate always and execute – don’t delegate. 

What tips and tricks can you share with young women about managing time, juggling responsibilities and self-care? 
Time unfortunately is one of those things that none of us has enough of! We always end up sacrificing something, whether it be time with our family, or our friends, or having our social life. Or even less time at the gym!
It’s a challenge. Priorities are key. You must allocate your time to your priorities, and your priorities must match your life expectations.  

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How have the men in your life (father, husband, others) supported your growth as a female leader in business, and what advice can you give men to help contribute to the growth of female leaders?
I realised quite late in life that my education had been quite rare for an African girl. My father raised me exactly as he had done my brothers, and never told me “girls don’t do this” or “girls cannot be that”. At age 18, going to university, I was undecided on what to apply for, and I remember my father persuading me to become an astronaut or a computer scientist. It never crossed my mind that this is something that African girls don’t do and cannot be. Finally, I chose to study Engineering at university, and there was only one other girl – Chinese – in my class. 
I do not ever recall hearing things like, “Don’t worry, your brothers will work and take care of you”, or “you are girl, one day will marry and find a nice man to take care of you”. I was taught to make my own way in life, and never to depend on any man, be it father, brother, or husband. 
This built in me a strong spirit of independence. My parents were both insistent on an education that focused on confidence and competitiveness.
As a woman I have also been lucky to have found and married an open-minded man who is also African, and who never saw my personal career or success as a threat, and who allowed me the time and space that I needed to dedicate to my work. 
My husband has been a pillar of support throughout my career – crucial to my success. He has provided me always with honest advice and encouragement. He is a great father to all of our four children, being there for them when I am absent, during my long work schedules and overseas trips.
The advice I would give to parents is to establish very early on a sense of confidence and responsibility in their girls. Teach them to fend for themselves and to rely only on themselves. Teach your daughter life skills. Teach your daughter the skills of how to manage her finances, her salary, and her investments wisely. And moreover, treat her as an independent person and whole human being with a true role in society, equal to that of a man’s.

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