Zeenith Ebrahim is the founder of Jamii Life, a technology platform that connects health workers with people that can’t care for themselves in low-income South African and African communities (‘Jamii’ means community in Swahili). Jamii Life seeks to redesign home care delivery by providing expert care using nurses or health workers – rather than just doctors or other clinical experts – to provide care in homes and to track health outcomes and emotional wellbeing. In 2020, Jamii Life won the Skoll Venture Awards.
Zeenith was inspired to set up Jamii Life from personal experience. Her grandmother was bedridden for 16 years. She grew up in the South African communities she now seeks to serve. Before her entrepreneurial endeavours, Zeenith worked at GE in transportation and healthcare across Africa. She was a Harvard South African Fellow, with an MPA from their Kennedy School and an MBA from Oxford University.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I’ve also always wanted to create something. For young Africans and perhaps others regions, there is a strong desire to create employment, opportunities and your own path. When I came to Oxford, my admissions essay was about starting something, and part of the reason I applied was for the Skoll Centre. However, I then realised I couldn’t financially embark on entrepreneurship immediately. I come from a community where the cost of entrepreneurship is so high and the risk of failure is significant. Many South Africans don’t have a history of generational wealth and so can’t just leave university and start something.
I spent 14 years in the private sector, working mostly for GE’s transportation and then healthcare businesses. It was an incredible opportunity for personal development, and I got to travel to and live in different places in Africa. It also gave me a solid financial foundation. By the time I left to set up Jamii Life – a difficult transition to make and one that continues to be tricky – I had a safety net to provide for myself.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I view it as trying to solve a problem in a sustainable way, including a financially sustainable way. I wish my definition was more elaborate, but I think that’s it. Solving an issue relevant to your life that you feel will make a difference, and doing it sustainably.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I don’t think it was necessarily a set moment; rather it developed over time. In my corporate career, I was less and less excited about my path. I loved the team, but I didn’t feel it was my place in the world. Every time I came home to Cape Town (where I work now), I realised there were so many social issues I was drifting further and further away from, by creating a life for myself in a beautiful suburb in a different city. It felt very detached and torn.
Practically, I was in the transition phase at work and was having conversations about what my next role would be. I thought it would be great to do something on my own like a sabbatical or go back in academia, always with the intention of returning to GE, as I always found it a nourishing environment.
During this phase, I applied for a fellowship at Harvard. I put the application in, didn’t think much of it, but ended up getting the position which was incredible and a real milestone! I got the opportunity to think about different problems in the world and they also gave me funding through the Social Innovation and Change initiative, which helped me develop my early-stage idea. That was the same day I resigned from GE. I feel that was the moment I knew to go for Jamii Life.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
This question relates to some of the things I’ve been struggling with. People talk about testing, getting your product out there and other business sounding things, which I all agree with. However, for me, it’s really about having the courage to believe enough in your work, so you can say, ‘Okay we’re ready to test now.’ Going and moving forward even though you’re not 100% sure it’s the right approach. The struggle to make those decisions is true in any entrepreneurial journey, but I think the pandemic exacerbates it. We work in healthcare and go into homes where people are immunocompromised.
The second skill is about building a team and figuring out who the right people are to bring along. This is something I have always prided myself on through my career but its different as an entrepreneur where you don’t have the same resources to compensate people and people need to work across several traditional roles.
Related to this, the last skill I value is figuring out compensation and renumeration for your team. There is a difference between operating in our environment, where we seek to employ people from the communities that we service, people don’t have the luxury of working without getting paid for a while, versus say in more affluent communities where team members may have the capacity to work without direct income for an equity contribution in future. And then for our team members in the US, its been challenging to figure out what’s in it for them and what’s fair in the early stages for the time and effort they are investing.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I think the dream of what Jamii Life will look like in the future. Once people have access to expert care regardless of their income level quickly and communities become more prosperous and productive. Thinking about this is what has kept me going!
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Not being clear or upfront about what is in it for the people contributing. Who is on the founding team, and if they are not what does that look like, especially when you don’t have the funding to pay everyone what they would usually earn?
Also, bringing people on too early in their career to help us. We’ve had some wonderful interns who have contributed emotional support in their investment to Jamii Life’s mission. Still, it took more support getting their work processed than we had time. It’s a tricky process as you can’t afford to pay people with a lot of experience, but I struggled investing time with people who don’t have the right skill set to do tasks independently.
Not testing earlier. As an entrepreneur you’re selling your vision, not a product from a multi-national. It requires a strong self-belief, or confidence. Opportunities like the Skoll Venture prize is helpful validation that we’re on the right path.
How have you funded your ideas?
We’re operating on a very low-cost structure. We have funding from Harvard Social Innovation and Change Initiative, the centre for African Studies, and we recently won the Skoll Venture Awards.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I don’t think that I have yet. I struggle with saying that because when I look around at successful start-ups, and very few are women-led. I anticipate challenges in fundraising in future.
I have questioned whether I would be able to do this if I have children and a family. I wonder how that impacts women more generally, juggling multiple things and the responsibility for caregiving.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
Being reconnected with the university since we won the Skoll Venture Award has been very valuable. I’ve felt I could reach out and ask for help if needed. Creating some structure and institutions you can reach out to would be great because before the award I wouldn’t have reached out as I wouldn’t have known where to go!
An accessible entrepreneur-in-residence programme that includes diverse (in gender, race, sexual orientation) representation would be helpful. It allows those who have run successful ventures to commit their time to help others. I would not usually have access to these people because I’m in South Africa and they are likely all over the world. Establishing some kind of mentorship system to talk about the entrepreneurial journey rather than any specific subject matter could also be useful. This could be gender-specific too, as the people I’ve connected with have both been women with similar family backgrounds that have moved through them.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
I struggle with advising because I don’t know if I’m at a place where I have advice to give! The nature of entrepreneurial work means there’s so much uncertainty, especially given my earlier career, which was comparatively structured. Doing everything as an entrepreneur from buying hats with our logo to figuring out our vision, I think there’s a complexity there that I’ve struggled to navigate. I think given the uncertainty, creating certainty and structure in areas more in my control has been helpful for me. I am best able to navigate an uncertain day when I know what I will eat, what I will wear that day and what I will do for exercise. This may not be specific to women, but I think creating structure can be very useful.
Secondly, finding other women in a similar place. People have gave me this advice before and I think now I’m only starting to get it. I always felt other entrepreneurs are more advanced than us, so I didn’t know if they’d get where we are, or if I could ask certain questions because they might sound silly. I realise that this is a challenge for many entrepreneurs. You need to present a version of yourself and your business that has ‘it all figured’ out. Recently, I’ve found two women entrepreneurs who reach when I need advice or help. For example, one messaged me the other day saying she was thinking about the problem I was having when she woke up! Because I don’t have a co-founder, it’s been incredibly important for me to have those kinds of people who reach in and offer support.
Lastly, when I transitioned from a very corporate, structured world to being an entrepreneur; I often asked myself: who am I to be doing this work? I’m not a clinician, I’ve lived away from the community I’m trying to serve for so long even though I’m from here. I’ve realised there are differences as a result. I didn’t know if I connected as much with them as I could have if I hadn’t left, so I had to really figure out what I bring to this work. I think women often question their transferrable skills. Writing down how my education and work experience help me bring resoruces to communities like mine has been very helpful on this journey.
Any last words of advice?
University is an incredible time to start something because it’s a safe structure with plenty of resources. If you have thoughts and ideas, try something out.
Have a plan of your personal runway. Know very clearly how much money you need to sustain yourself because the first couple of years will probably not be income-generating.
It’s hard: set yourself up for that. It’s hard in ways you can anticipate but not fully grasp until you’re actually going through it. For me, I’ve had to navigate the self-doubt, questioning and need for others to validate an idea has been especially challenging so setting up a support system for these difficult times is essential.