Many people around the world are familiar with Aliko Dangote, a Nigerian who is often described as Africa’s richest man. But Isabel dos Santos, 45, an Angolan businesswoman, is Africa’s richest woman and the eldest child of Angola’s former President José Eduardo dos Santos, who was in power from 1979 to 2017.
In 2013, according to research by Forbes, her net worth had reached more than three billion US dollars, making her Africa’s first billionaire woman. Five years have passed ever since and her wealth has continued to grow.
But being a woman in a male-dominated business world is not always easy, especially for African women.
In this interview, she talks about business, being a woman in a world dominated by men and how she keeps steaming forward in spite of daily challenges.
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 to 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 can not be.
Finally, I choose 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 a 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 being 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 opened-minded husband 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 on how to best 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.
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 exist. 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 advisor 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 that you built 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 aren’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.
How do you maintain your strength to carry forward?
As an African person, I was lucky to receive a top education. In this way I am privileged, and this provides me with a great sense of duty, to do more for others, for my country and for our people. To inspire and help others build their dreams, build their business, get good jobs, and educate their children.
What opportunities exist currently in Angola or other countries on the continent for women who wish to make money and build successful enterprises?
Opportunities for me always start with a simple question: What do you know how to do? What are you good at? And there you will find your opportunity.
Angola, in particular, has many untapped resources: from minerals and agriculture, manufacturing to services and tourism. Each one comes with a different level of complexity, the different need for investment, but all are strong and possible starting points.
The more complex the business, the more it will require, for 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 is 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 are some tips and tricks you can share with young women about managing time, juggling responsibilities, and self-care with all your different ventures and responsibilities?
Time, unfortunately, is one of those things that none of us has enough of! We always end up sacrificing something, whether it be less 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.
How do you manage your time with all your different ventures and responsibilities?
Because you are the richest woman in Africa, many people must ask you for charity and support for their social ventures.
Have you established a formalised way to give back?
Supporting social ventures has always been a priority. From the start, I have installed in my companies a specific division for social responsibility and sponsorship programmes. We sponsor several charities, and we run our own programmes.
My vision is that to have a better society; it’s important for us to give back and help others. Today, giving back has become part of our company culture, and we have thousands of employees that are volunteers and help run our programmes in the community.
We created a culture that engages people, and each person has the opportunity to play an active role in our social ventures. We finance and run a large and diverse programme of social responsibility initiatives such as: supporting a children’s Pediatric hospital where we are one of the largest donors and partners; we finance and run the largest nationwide campaign for the fight and prevention against Malaria; we sponsor a charity for clean water initiatives in poor communities; with our volunteers we run a “special day “ programme for underprivileged or sick children in which organise special play days and fun adventures, for over 10.000 children in all the country, to give them the experiences they would never otherwise have. Last year, I have started the first Christmas telethon, on the national television network, it allowed us to partner up with several companies and businesses to further help and support communities needs.
I have encouraged all our employees to be part of our social responsibility programmes, as volunteers, as I believe we need to multiply our efforts and together we are stronger. I am personally very involved, as a donor, but also personally taking part in these actions, as well as in organizing social ventures and engaging with the community directly, as this is a firm commitment I have made to help improve our society.
How do you decide what causes to support, and when to say no?
I choose to support those initiatives that are focused on the needs of children, and with education and healthcare at the core of what I do. The fight against malaria is a cause that I carry very close to my heart and I am very committed to helping its eradication.
My commitment is for one day to see Africa brimming with entrepreneurs, from businesses small and big, with ambitious initiatives, full of perseverance, support and opportunities. In my vision, I believe that we have a true lever for change in Africa, and it’s not our resources, but our education. The quality of education we are able to give our children will determine the future of Africa. Anyone that dreams of changing Africa, education is the key. We must educate our girls, as they are the future mothers and an encyclopedia of knowledge for their children.