Hema Vallabh is the Co-founder and CEO of WomEng and the more recently created WomHub. The organisation is committed to assisting women in engineering and across STEM fields in order to combat gender discrimination – something that Vallabh has experienced herself as one of few female engineers in her area. Beginning as a humble project in South Africa, WomEng has become a global platform which provides help to women across the world.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I grew up in South Africa where I came from a disadvantaged background, but my journey started when I received a scholarship to study Engineering at the University of Cape Town. It was a very male dominated space so I was one of few females in my class, but I had the mindset that I wanted to do something about that instead of complaining about it. I wanted to make changes so I created a platform for female engineers to come together and discuss things and, from this, WomEng was born. After WomEng’s success, I later founded the spinout WomHub which is more of a social enterprise and took the company into an entrepreneurship space.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
In my opinion, entrepreneurship is about seeing a problem and wanting to do something about it. It’s about having a vision and painting the world how you’d want it to look, and then dedicating yourself to making that a reality.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
The professional answer would be when people are willing to pay for your product but, personally, I realised my idea was good enough when I saw the first girl graduate from the WomEng. By the time I left my job, I had reached 10000 girls in STEM, so I saw that there was a clear market. Organisations were willing to impart money in my idea so this made me realise how necessary it was.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
I’d definitely say resilience because it’s important to have a thick skin and the ability to bounce back. Failure is not a bad thing so don’t be afraid of failure. Also, determination is key as you need to have a clear vision, and this means knowing your why and what motivates you. Another important factor is surrounding yourself with the right people, not only in terms of your employees, but also your board of advisors. There’s a famous phrase that no man is an island – you need to consider the whole ecosystem around you.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
My work feeds my soul and I’m unapologetic about wanting to build an empire or a global business. There’s no shame is making money because the more you make, the more good you can do.
What individual, company, or organization inspires you most? Why?
I’d say Nike but not because of the brand, but the fact that the company is willing to take a stand despite the risk of losing sales. They use their voice and their platform for social justice and they’re not afraid to talk about issues like racism and sexism.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I’d ask how they harness the power of good because they’re such a big organisation with so many personalities so I wonder how they harness a common goal.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures, or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
There have been so many moments where I’ve been ready to give up because doors constantly close on you. There’s been so much failure along the journey, but the biggest lesson is owning your worth and knowing your value. There came times where I was so financially stretched shortly after quitting my job in 2013, but I refused to believe that money should stop me so I worked on repackaging my idea so it was taken more seriously by investors. I didn’t come from wealth so making the decision to leave my job was a big move, and I made a lot of sacrifices – including selling my property because I believed so deeply in what I was doing. You need to really believe in your idea and stick with it.
I also faced some personal challenges because when you believe so deeply in an idea it can scare other people, but it’s okay if they don’t get the vision. You can’t be everything to everyone. As a female in particular, the world is not used to trail brazing confident women who are financially secure and are willing to take charge. I ended up going through a divorce with my husband as I didn’t fit the role of a traditional wife. I could have given into norms and conceded but I’m glad I didn’t because I feel more fulfilled as a woman now.
How have you funded your ideas?
WomEng is quite unique as it was a non-profit but then became a spinout. Many people see non–profits with a charity mentality and they take you less seriously as it seems like asking for handouts. But a non-profit doesn’t mean you can’t generate revenue so I combined a business mindset to sell the idea to sponsors and receive funding. It’s easy to just say yes to funding but you should always give thought into which type of partners you want as they should be in line with your values.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
As a start-up, it’s important to think about prizes and awards. I took part in a programme with the US State Department Most Powerful Women in 2013 and this is what gave me the courage to leave my job and pursue my business. I was 1 of 25 women from around the world, and we spent a month in New York where I was exposed to some strong, powerful women. This developed my leadership, and was a good networking opportunity, so it was a good kickstart for me.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
I love being able to experience both worlds as I work between South Africa and Oxfordshire. When I was a student in Oxford, I loved the fact that it’s like a bubble where you’re surrounded by other dreamers and people looking to do big things. The energy is infectious and everything feels achievable.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
It’s important to apply for pitch competitions – it’s one of the hardest things to do but it helps you learn to pitch ideas. You only need to do a few but these should be springboards for your business.
In Oxford particularly, there’s so much support like the Foundry, OSI, OUI. This hub of support enables you to reach so many tools and networks. I almost wish I could have spent more time in Oxford to fully take advantage of this, but budding entrepreneurs have this unique advantage so definitely make the most of it.
Any last words of advice?
Something that is overlooked is selecting the right cofounder. You need to be with someone who has your back and who sees you at your best and your worst. My cofounder is my soulmate. Also, you need to know that you can’t be everything to everyone. Some people want to see you fail but you can’t always worry about what other people think.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I’m used to being the only female and the only minority in a room so people make judgements straight away. Even when I’m the senior engineer in a room, people will sometimes look at the younger white intern when they’re asking questions. I’ve had doors closed on me without even saying a word just because I don’t look the part, but the minute my credentials are involved I’m suddenly taken seriously.
Engineering is hard enough but being one of few women of colour makes it so much harder. I’ve seen females drop out because of discrimination. That’s why I was so motivated to kickstart this organisation because I want to see changes and I want to make sure other women don’t have to go through the same struggles that I did.
Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
You need to build your tribe with other women who you can count on. Don’t try to change the narrative, create your own. Don’t be afraid to have your voice heard and don’t let people say you’re too driven. Do what you need to do and nothing else should stand in your way. I know it’s cliché but the world is yours for the taking. Another key factor is to lift as you rise because that’s the only way that it will become normal for females to be in entrepreneurial roles.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
Networks are very important and there are so many initiatives that are female focussed. These are amazing but don’t only expose yourself to these. Apply to the non-gender specific programmes too so that you can work with the other networks where you’re seen as equal with males. It’s important to be holistic in your approach and part of both networks.