There is no doubt that the past year has been incredible for African women in leadership. More African women, than ever hold powerful national and international offices; we have a second female president, women at the helms of the African Union and the International Criminal Court and many more. This development is not limited to politics. More African women are venturing into the technology space and setting the pace for the future of women in technology. Farai Gundan is one such woman. Farai is the co-Founder of Farai Media, an Africa-focused online mobile and advertising platform, and co-Founder of AfricaTripDeals, a global distribution system for travel to Africa. This technology entrepreneur is also a media and entertainment guru. She is a radio and television producer and presenter for several stations in both the US and South Africa and has interviewed some of the hottest African celebrities. Farai has also been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show! She shares her remarkable story with Ventures Woman.
VW: Welcome! Can you tell us a bit about your early days?
FG: Hi, and let me say, thank you so much Folake Soetan for this amazing opportunity to chat with you. I was born and raised in Zimbabwe and but I decided early on that I wanted to pursue my tertiary education out of Zimbabwe. I didn’t want to go to the United Kingdom because that was where everyone went, so I settled on the United States because of the great institutions they had and the opportunities I saw for African women. In the final years of high school [A levels] when I didn’t have any classes, I would sneak out to the American library or embassy to inquire about universities. My younger sister and I were raised by a single mom and she worked really hard to put us through private school, so sending us to college in the US was a stretch for her financially. However, she gave me her blessings which is all I asked of her. After hard work, determination and persistence, I was awarded a $24,000 scholarship annually to a private liberal arts college in the US which covered my tuition and board. I also raised money for my airfare and living expenses. I have always been a go-getter but that was really shaped by having a mother that believed in her two girls. My mother taught us that education was our ticket to a bright future. So I came to the US and pursued my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I spent about 6 years working in Corporate America and then stepped into what I felt was my calling, media and technology.
VW: So tell us about your new businesses, AfricaTripDeals and Farai Media
FG: My co-Founder and I initially launched FaraiToday.com as an entertainment blog that celebrates the success stories of Africans worldwide, particularly women and girls because we saw a void there. The blog was an extension of the work I do in television and radio and we felt we needed to take advantage of the internet. We soon found out that African blogs and websites were not monetizing to the scale of American blogs. So we decided to take advantage of this gap and that led to the birth of FaraiMedia. It is an online and mobile advertising platform that targets African audiences. We had a soft launch at the beginning of this year. Call us crazy, because at the same time we looked at the African travel ecosystem. My co-Founder had previously worked on a project that built a successful online travel reservation platform but due to extenuating circumstances that particular project came to an end. We decided to pick it up and go forward with it because we felt there was a huge market opportunity there and from this AfricaTripDeals (ATD) was born. Those are two projects that really excite me, particularly as I establish myself in media and technology as an African woman.
VW: So how do you think being an African woman has shaped the choices that you’ve made in your career?
FG: Great question! I think that African women are the world’s best kept secret. I value the wisdom of my mother, my aunts and those that came before myself. I really look up to African women that are blazing a trail, from the first female President to personal friends that are doing amazing things in Africa. Also, I was raised by a single mum and despite all of the challenges, she put my sister and I through one of the best schools in Zimbabwe, she simply would not compromise. My mum came to the US and she recently got her nursing degree! So she had actually put her own dreams on hold to give us the opportunities and I’m really proud of her. Their drive to achieve inspires me to do more.
VW: I know they just started, but where do you see these businesses going in the next 5 or 10 years?
FG: I love that question! I have a vision board and I really believe in meditating and visualising what I desire to manifest in my life. I really want FaraiMedia to be a leading online and mobile advertising platform. Our goal is simple, be the #1 ad delivery platform where brands trust us with their marketing message for their online and mobile audiences. Also for the travel startup, we want to be a global distribution system that supplies the world with African travel information. Right now there is no database that has all the hotels, airlines and all things to do with African travel so we want ATD to be a global brand within the travel ecosystem.
VW: There are other mobile advertising platforms in Africa, so what do you think Farai Media brings to the industry that isn’t there right now?
FG: That’s an excellent question. What we bring and how we position ourselves is really the one-on-one attention we provide to both our publisher partners and to advertisers. We work with our publishing partners on a one-on-one basis to understand their goals and objectives for their digital properties. The brands that we work with, know that we know African consumers and their consumption habits. Also, being based in the US affords us fast access to innovative solutions which benefits our publisher partners and brands. Whether it is understanding social media marketing, mobile devices used by Africans or really understanding what the best way is to target audiences for our advertisers.
VW: Fantastic! Now although technology is fascinating, we all know entertainment really draws the crowds. You’ve been on Oprah’s show! Tell us about that.
FG: It was an amazing experience! Oprah is very warm, she genuinely loves Africa. When she meets someone and you tell her you’re from Africa, you can see the energy and excitement in her. I got a chance to be on the Oprah Winfrey show where I talked to Oprah about her school in South Africa. At the time she was getting a lot negative press because of the curfews and some of rules and regulations taking place at her school. Being someone who was educated in a private school for girls in Africa, I could relate to many of the experiences her girls were going through in terms of having a curfew, wearing a uniform etc. I never had a perm, we wore uniforms and it was very structured. So I went on the show to dispel the negativity. I will always say that that particular show for me was very pivotal because I was still deciding at the time whether I should leave corporate America and pursue television and radio full time. Through divine intervention I got on the show and we engaged for about 20 minutes one on one. She is a master communicator; she controls the conversation, but when she started asking about some personal things that I didn’t want to talk about on TV, I gently steered her back to the topic which was the school in South Africa. I realised that If I could engage with Oprah on this level I could step out and begin to fully pursue television and radio. That was my AHA moment. After the show she came over to hug and thank me for appearing on her show. I thought that was really nice of her.
VW: I can imagine! And you also do some radio work in South Africa, can you share more about that?
FG: I’ve been blessed because through the various outlets I’ve worked for whether it’s BlackTreetTV in LA, Afrotainment, or eTV in South Africa, I meet some really amazing people and of course celebrities. One of them was a top DJ in South Africa whom I interviewed. Our meeting was so divine, that we have remained friends ever since. He has a radio show on Metro FM in South Africa that has 6.2 million listeners on any given day. I do the entertainment report for his show and it is so much fun! It’s great to talk about latest entertainment news, celeb scoop as well as breaking news such as the US elections and what that means for Africa or hurricane (Sandy) that devastated the East Coast and how some of the Africans were affected on the ground. It makes it real for everyone. I am now on Kaya FM which is really exciting! So the brand is growing….
VW: And how do you keep it all together?
FG: (laughing) I have a great team! The key thing with any startup and any business is identifying people that are smarter than you and passionate about their specific area and partnering up with them to execute. I’m able to execute at the level that I do because of the team. For example, my technical co-founder is a PhD candidate here in the USA. It’s also about really managing your time, so on any given Sunday I’m cooking dinner, checking my blackberry and running the TV in the background. But to be honest I’m also not much of a sleeper. During the week, 4 hours a night is enough for me and I’ll rest deeply on the weekend. As I’ve studied successful people like Oprah its obvious that waking up early and using time well is really important. I’m also very quick to go out and have fun. I love manicures and pedicures and yes, I love relaxing by the poolside with friends. I think it ultimately comes down to discipline and time management though.
VW: What advice would you give to any aspiring entrepreneur in the media or tech space?
FG: First, make sure that it is what you want to do. Startups and media are not as glamorous as they look. Especially in media everything looks fabulous but behind all of that is really hard work. Getting up at 4am to be in hair and make-up, getting your nails done. It’s also making sure you understand your subject matter. Especially being in the US and being an African, where it’s so competitive! You really need to know your stuff. So not only is it about talent but its also about discipline and working really hard. You get so many “no”s for every yes but you can’t give up for that reason. Keep knocking until the no becomes a yes!
VW: Brilliant advice! So is there anything else you’d like to share, anything exciting coming up for you?
FG: Yes! I am excited that I’ll be speaking for the first time at the Wharton Business School Forum in Philadelphia. I will be on the African tech startup panel. I was also invited to speak at the African Media Leaders Forum in Dakar, Senegal. For me all these opportunities, are a way of putting an African woman’s face on technology and media, and saying, we are here and we are adding to the narrative. Africa is a youthful continent, so personally, it is imperative that young women and girls, see an African woman in technology, in media, and say, “I can do it too…”
There is no doubt that Farai has been successful so far! We look forward to seeing what this amazing young woman will do in the future for media and technology in Africa. Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole have many women to be proud of and Farai is one of them. Follow her on Twitter at @FaraiToday.
Remember, Nothing ventured, nothing gained…