Maria is the current MD of the Oxford Seed Fund, a student-led VC (Venture Capital) body that invests in Oxford-affiliated startups every year. Maria leads a team of 11, and throughout the academic year, during the MBA, they scout and find, and invest into startups totaling up to £50,000. Maria’s work at the OSF revolves around building a team and working together to source, diligence, and award the investment in two Oxford affiliated startups, all the while making sure they continue to support existing portfolio companies as much as possible.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
My journey starts as a computer science undergrad; this was about ten years ago, after which I foyer into strategy and operations consulting for three years at Deloitte. I advised financial services organizations on their corporate strategy, operations improvement projects. Three years into consulting, I wanted to be closer to entrepreneurship, I tried to get my hands dirty. I wanted to do something a bit more involved. That is when I joined Uber as the Operations Manager. My role focused on analytics, designing incentives, and driver engagement. Shortly after, I became the Country Manager for Uber in my home country, Nigeria. My role then pivoted into partnerships development, regulatory engagement, and team management.
A short while after Uber, I joined a company called Branch. Branch [www. Branch.co] is a fin-tech that uses data science to credit-score smartphone data and then uses that to offer financial services, especially in emerging markets. Branch is in India, Tanzania, Kenya, and also in Nigeria. Branch was looking for someone to scale West-African business, and that is when I joined the team. I spent three years at Branch. I built the team from 3 to 40, designing processes, recruiting, and building a solid company culture. Under my leadership, the West Africa business grew disbursements from around $50k to $100 million. I raised and secured debt of up to $15m and managed the team across strategy, finance, marketing, compliance, people operations, and customer success and being a member of Branch’s global leadership team.
Currently, I’m completing my MBA and also now the Managing Director of the Oxford Seed Fund.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I bet you would find vastly different responses from different people! I think being an entrepreneur is pretty much being a creator, in a way. It is building something out of nothing. It uses innovation and a complex set of skills towards building something from a very vague state to something very defined, secured, which adds exponential value. I think it is also the awareness of how things fit towards creating that value. So, being able to use resources, be it capital, networks, infrastructure, name it, and then inspiring people to cohesive action. That is what being an entrepreneur means to me. You don’t have to start a business of your own to be an entrepreneur. It is about innovation, grit, and self-leadership. Going from zero to one, and from one to a hundred and so on. That’s what entrepreneurship means to me.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
It is impossible to do it without a vision, a clear view of what it should be, and a clear sense of a potential future state. Although it might change, that initial clarity is vital to inspire action. That comes with understanding where it is right now and the potential for where it could be. The second thing is being able to see how the pieces fit—seeing how people fit. You might have a clear view of where you’re going, but you are not going to do everything by yourself; you are going to need help. So really understanding how the pieces fit and getting people’s buy-in, getting them motivated. I do not know if that would be leadership, but that is a complex skill set, of actually learning and influencing people towards a collective vision. The third would be data-driven decision-making. I don’t often hear people talk about this. It can make decisions and quality decisions; using available data is a critical skill to have. Also, the absence of data is revealing in itself and an opportunity to experiment to gather data. Fundamentally, it is about having a discipline towards decision-making that optimizes for rounded, informed thought processes. That will draw a straight line to your decisions’ quality and the consequent trust that you have within your team.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I think there is something magical about the beauty of an idea becoming a real, breathing thing. Someone thinks of an idea that is so vague, so random, the chances of success are low. Still, through innovation, the sheer force of will, grit, collaboration, and some luck, they somehow make it into this giant value-adding thing, that would not have existed if they did not 1) think of it, or 2) rally a couple of people towards helping them build it. So, when I think about that, that is very attractive.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I think I take pieces of people in different areas. In terms of disrupting how we see the world, the big giant companies have changed how we do things. Uber, Amazon, even Facebook, Google, have fundamentally changed how we view the world. There is something about connecting people and systems to add value.
A few founders inspire me, Tope Awotona of Calendly, Shola Akindele of Paystack, Odunayo Eweniyi of PiggyVest, Nichole Yembra of Chrysalis Capital and Aisha of Bossy Cosmetics. These are African founders building global companies against all odds. It’s no easy feat, and I respect their clarity of vision and grit.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
Easy. My question would be: in retrospect, what would they have done better? If I could ask them a question, it would be, in hindsight, what would he do differently? What did he find out, maybe a little bit too late? So I could learn from his retrospective insights.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
The first thing I would say as an entrepreneur is that you cannot do it alone. If you are not people-focused, there is a lot you lose. Because people are so complex and nuanced, and when they bring their complete selves to things, it makes the work much more meaningful, colorful and impactful. . People are the most critical element, really, at the end of the day: 1) they need to feel that they are doing meaningful work 2) they are growing 3) they see the work that you do collectively finding expression and having an impact in the world, that is so critical.
Culture is essential, and it starts much earlier than you think it does. As a founder, it has a lot to do with your personality as well: it is about being very deliberate about the culture you create and knowing that, over time, it is exponential, and at some point, like a virus, you cannot control it anymore, like it has become this self-replicating thing within your organisation. You want to be deliberate about what that looks like, and how you shape that early on.
You can’t be too much of a perfectionist. It would help if you were okay with things going wrong every now and then and learning from that experience. You are at the stage of optimizing for progress, not perfection.
Finally, stay truly customer-centric through the company’s life. It is easy, especially in the initial stages, to build a product that people want, to be very consumer-centric, and then later down the line, start creating what you think people want, not necessarily what they want. I believe that customer-centricity, linking it back to the culture, is super important. It is easy to start building things that people do not want. So keeping your pulse on the customer experiences of your product and services is essential. Sometimes it means going out and talking to the customers themselves, or maybe surveys, but just making sure that your pulse is on your customers’ experiences of the product.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
The Oxford ecosystem is impressive, especially with the Entrepreneurship Centre. There are a lot of resources right there. Reaching out to the Entrepreneurship Centre, their events, hosted by the EC, and by subgroups within the Entrepreneurship Centre. For example, the Seed Fund hosts certain events for founders, the Oxford VC (Venture Capital) community, including the Foundry. These are incredible resources for people to be part of the conversation. There is also the Founders and Funders event, the network by Sorina Campean of the Entrepreneurship Centre. Oxford is just teeming with resources, and I know that there is an entrepreneurship ecosystem map that helps with that, I find that super useful.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I think, over time, I am inured to them, but I’m aware that they continue to affect women like me. Some are intrinsic, like the tendency to hold back, because you have been socialized that way, maybe not be as vocal, things like that. I think I have overcome those by being deliberately assertive and being comfortable with being uncomfortable! If I am in space and want to speak, I will talk because I’ve got something to say. A lot of it has been almost re-socializing myself to doing what I think is right to do, without over-thinking how I am perceived and being very kind to myself.
I would say that being in a room and being the only woman or seeing too few women. It infuriates me because many perspectives are missing in places that matter due to a lack of diversity, and it is such a shame. I try to deliberately amplify my voice and the voice of the women around me. I also write about my experiences on www.glossywhitepumps.com as a way to amplify my voice to other women.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
There are quite a few! To understand world affairs and financial news, I tend to read financial papers, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Specific to entrepreneurship, I find individual books helpful, both from the VC and entrepreneur angles. Books like “Zero to One” “Lean Start-ups’ ‘, those types of books have helped me over time. On the VC front, “Venture Deals” has helped me think about the business from a VC’s perspective. I subscribe to a few women-focused newsletters. Fortune’s The Broadsheet, and RaceAhead by Ellen McGirt
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
That’s a good question! I guess there are two ways. Initiatives like what we are doing now, chatting to women entrepreneurs, spotlighting it, are so helpful. I think that is important because the pool itself is shallow, so it is essential to amplify who is there right now just so that others who are coming up do not feel so alone and have more confidence to speak out.
Then, I think it is also about normalizing having women in spaces, in entrepreneurship spaces. If you have a panel, make sure there is representation! If you discuss any topic, it does not need to be just about women regarding entrepreneurship. Normalizing having women mentors, who are mentoring both men and women, normalizes putting women who build exceptional businesses in the spotlight, just as we would do the men! That is how I think about it. I think it has to be both push and pull, where we are taking access steps and consciously reinforcing the narrative that women are great entrepreneurs.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Yes! I once asked Matthew Flannery, the founder and CEO of Branch and someone and an entrepreneur, I respect: “what would you advise an entrepreneur in retrospect?” And he said: “just start!” I think this is excellent advice. Inertia is an intense thing, and sometimes it is hard to fight it. Just start; you learn a lot more starting than not starting, so that is it, start.
Also, connecting with people, leveraging people’s experiences of the world, that are wider and deeper than yours, towards informing things that you want to do is such a gift. Use it.
Any last words of advice?
You are not just enough; you are more than enough. Have the courage to make mistakes and learn from them, be okay with occasionally being misunderstood or even disliked as you walk your path. Do not fear failure; it is part of the journey. Overcome the inertia of overthinking, and have a bias for action.
One of my favorite quotes is by Theodore Roosevelt:
“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.”