Njeri Wagacha talks to Sienna Dutkowski, Nonnie Burbidge, and Freda Rutere

In celebration of International Women’s Day, CDH held a high tea event hosted at the Capital Club in Nairobi, where CDH Kenya Partner, Njeri Wagacha hosted a panel discussion with Sienna Dutkowski of Lady Askari, Freda Rutere, Real Estate Development Manager, and Nonnie Burbidge, Venture Partner at Zephyr Capital as well as the co-founder and CEO of SideChic KE and Try Cooked. The panel is an example of a new generation of women learning to carve out their careers, manoeuvre the business world and own their own stories. Together with an audience of women, these powerful women unpacked their perspectives in their varying fields of work, as mothers, and how the celebration of International Women's Day resonates with them.

14 Apr 2023 30:27 Minutes Podcast

At a glance

  • In celebration of International Women’s Day, CDH held a high tea event hosted at the Capital Club in Nairobi, where CDH Kenya Partner, Njeri Wagacha hosted a panel discussion with Sienna Dutkowski of Lady Askari, Freda Rutere, Real Estate Development Manager, and Nonnie Burbidge, Venture Partner at Zephyr Capital as well as the co-founder and CEO of SideChic KE and Try Cooked.   
  • The panel is an example of a new generation of women learning to carve out their careers, manoeuvre the business world and own their own stories. Together with an audience of women, these powerful women unpacked their perspectives in their varying fields of work, as mothers, and how the celebration of International Women's Day resonates with them.
Njeri Wagacha talks to Sienna Dutkowski, Nonnie Burbidge, and Freda Rutere

Njeri Wagacha talks to Sienna Dutkowski, Nonnie Burbidge, and Freda Rutere


Njeri Wagacha talks to Sienna Dutkowski, Nonnie Burbidge, and Freda Rutere


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Njeri Wagacha: So let's kick off. Are you ready, First of all? Freda, you're ready? Okay, as Martha spoke about, the theme for this year is embracing equity, and really digital innovation for a gender equal future. Yeah. And just keeping in the theme of, we're a relatively young fam, we are young women, we're not of our mother's generations and we are doing different things. The first question that I have for you, Sienna, is do you think that the theme is relevant to us?

Sienna Dutkowski: Absolutely. That is the way that the world is going. Technology is ingrained in everything that we do. And so in order to be a part of the world and continue to contribute, we need to be allowed into the technology space. And even from a safety and security standpoint, that is becoming critical.

Njeri Wagacha: Let's talk about that then. Lady Askari is a business that is really in the digital age. It's of the digital age. How did you come up with it? How did you start it? Where did the idea come from? Even the name Lady Askari is really pushing that feminism angle. Tell us about it.

Sienna Dutkowski: So the idea for Lady Askari actually started in Iraq. My husband is a U.S. Marine who then moved on to do personal protection and diplomatic protection. A few years back, he was protecting a female ambassador. And she asked him a very simple question; "What's going to happen when I have to go to the bathroom?"

He said, "Ma'am, we've already done our advances, we've already done all of this", and started getting really technical.

She cut him off and said, "No, what's gonna happen is you're gonna call 30 men on the radio. You're gonna tell them that I have to go to the bathroom. You're then gonna clear the bathroom of other women. You're going to put a man at the door, and a man at the window. And I want you to understand that that's uncomfortable."

And it was in that moment that he realised that if he had one woman on the team, he would've been able to make security comfortable. And when you think about the world, 50% of the world are women. And the ideas and the approaches to security, like so many other industries, really focus on men and the comfort and the way of work of men. And so, fast forward, he continued to work in the security industry. I have a community development & hospitality background. And what Lady Askari really is, is it's a marriage of our interests in that I focus on developing the women, finding the right well-qualified women to come into our organisation and take up opportunities and take up space. I also find the men that are allies and that are ready to help growth through apprenticeship programmes, and ensure that women are treated well, treating safe spaces to work and things like that. The name in a lot of ways is just a conversation starter. We don't have askaris actually. So, we don't do guarding. We really look at a much more strategic approach to security, which happens to tie in well to technology.

Njeri Wagacha: A very good answer. Thank you for that, Sienna. I'm turning to you, Freda. Now, first of all, let's get it right. What is it that you do? Because I get confused. I thought you were a quantity surveyor, but then apparently not.

Freda Rutere: I'm a real estate development manager, which means essentially that I help organisations, individuals really work through the development cycle from an investor perspective, from the onset right up to exit. For me,  it's wonderful to be in a room full of women because in the industry, in the construction sector it is predominantly a space where women are underrepresented. Yet, we really represent the consumer. When you think of the built environment, every space that you go into, whether it's an academic institution, a residential property, it's women that really are the end user. It's women that are buying curtains. It's not men. So for me, it's always been interesting to note that we're so underrepresented in a sector where we represent the primary consumer of the product.

Njeri Wagacha: Yeah. And so coming to that, when we think about the built environment, construction, etc, the focus is very much on the green environment and not necessarily on digital. So how does this year's theme for International Women's Day work with you? Or how does it tie into you? Do you feel an affinity to it?

Freda Rutere: We do, off the back of COVID. It's allowed for a space where collaborative working is possible. There's a lot less focus on the strength or the muscle that you bring to a project and more the thinking work, the design work, the collaborative approach to the built environment. So having digital tools really has opened up and allowed for more inclusivity of women in a space where traditionally they may be intimidated to participate.

Njeri Wagacha: Okay, great. Now turning to you, Nonnie. SideChic, by the way, is not a side chick business. It's actually a chicken business. Try Cooked is also a cooking and FNB business. You're also a partner at an investment firm. You also founded the East Africa Venture Capital Association. And so you started that. From then to now in all of the businesses that you've been involved in. What is your perspective on, first of all, getting women included? And second of all, making sure that when you are saying, there's a gender gap or not a gender gap or whatever, making sure that if you're defining success in an investment environment, that you are including women as one of those markers.

Nonnie Burbidge: Wow. Good question. So maybe firstly a little bit about me. It's a pleasure to be here. It's so nice to be in a room full of women. I love it. My background, I had an opportunity to found EAVCA, which is the East Africa Private Equity and Bench Capital Association. I probably did this about 10 years ago and that took me on a really incredible journey because it put me at the top of the conversations, i.e. with all sorts of partners, managing directors of PE or VC firms, with representatives from the government, with representatives from development finance institutions, etc. I was usually always the youngest in the room, and I was often usually one of very few women.

If I look over the past 10 years, the progress, one of the biggest changes I've seen is a lot more women in financial services. And when I say in financial services, I don't mean in the sort of typical departments that we might usually be found in. And what I mean by that is maybe marketing or business development. I'm seeing far more analysts, associates and general partners, which is amazing to see because 10 years ago there were very, very, very few.

On the flip side of this, I'm also an entrepreneur, which is just a really difficult journey. And this is where SideChic comes in, and I'll talk about that in a second. Part of the reason I wanted to become an entrepreneur was, I wanted to understand firsthand what a) entrepreneurs go through, in a bid to make me a better investor. Because the truth is, I felt at some point that actually I was sitting behind a screen or having high level conversations, but actually not creating much value for underlying investee companies.

And so I thought I would take myself off on an entrepreneurial journey, and I watched my husband do it, and I thought, "Oh, that's easy. I can do that." Lo and behold, it is not easy. It's incredibly difficult. So kudos to any entrepreneurs out there, but what really disheartened me was the fundraising environment for women. There's a lot of statistics out there, and one of them is that;

Globally women receive 2% of all venture capital. And now, if you can imagine, if you come bring it back down to Africa, it's definitely much, much, much less than the 2%, it's probably 0.1%.

I will get the statistic for you. And the reason this is disheartening is because:

  1. We're not being given a chance to show ourselves and to excel; and
  2. The barriers and obstacles to being able to be a successful entrepreneur are just so much harder for women because we can't actually get the capital in the first place.

And so I think that this event, but also the theme of today or of International Women's Day this year, I hope is shining a spotlight on women in tech, and why women in tech and women in entrepreneurship in general need far more support. They or we rather need a lot more championing and specifically from our male counterparts and male colleagues.

Njeri Wagacha: And therefore even in that, in saying that the theme is embracing equity for digital innovation, have you seen markers of success for that in venture capital or even in private equity as you've been in the business for the last 10 years?

Nonnie Burbidge: No. Okay. So, hang on, let me change the answer.

Njeri Wagacha: No, you don't have to change it if it. If it's true, it's true.

Nonnie Burbidge: I wanna soften it a little bit. There is a lot more focus on gender lens, which I'm really grateful for. Having said that though, it's not yet moving the needle significantly. I am super hopeful of it. But I think that this conversation goes way further back. And it really starts with feminism. And the reason I say that is;

Women have less money, less pensions, less investments, and then less access to capital. And part of the way that this will change, i.e. women receiving more capital for their innovations or entrepreneurship, is if more women are making the decisions on capital allocation.

And so I think the two things are tied together. Women need to rise up to the top, but also we need more money in order to make these investment decisions, i.e. supporting our own, because we can relate to them, we understand what they're going through. And so I think the investment decision to invest, in say a startup or whatever coming from a woman will be so much easier, whereas coming from a man is just that much harder because of say, unconscious bias, for example.

Njeri Wagacha: Yeah. But I mean, I would say the same thing on all of the provision of services, not just in venture because actually the decision maker is not necessarily a woman yet. Or maybe we're getting there and you know, it happens even to me. As recently as yesterday, when a decision was made on who was going to provide the legal service, it's not gonna be me. It's gonna be a man. He has more than 10 years experience over me. I can't compete with that.

For you, Freda, in that male dominated, really the construction industry is male dominated, how do you deal with that? I read one of your quotes was saying that, you wanted, when she was studying for her masters or one of her masters, Freda was studying, she said that she wanted to be able not only to meet the investor at the decision making space, but also gain the skills that you needed in order to make the asset management decision. And so from that, You are overskilled! Some people don't even need that. The men may not even need half of what you have, in order to make it to where you have. Do you feel that?

Freda Rutere: I think you need to understand the investor mindset, to really understand, why do people embark on real estate or building projects or even infrastructure projects, why are governments embarking on the project? It's important to understand the payback, how they'll recoup the investment. And when it comes to a lot of the commercial developments that I've been involved in, really they're targeting women as a consumer at the end of the day. And so for me it's always been something I want to understand, is that why aren't women at the table making decisions about our patterns of movement around buildings, our habits around shopping, our preferences when it comes to residential spaces, yet ultimately we make those decisions.

Njeri Wagacha: I think my question, just so that we are on the same page, is you have so many skills. So you know about the investor decision. You also know about asset management. You also know, just to get it right, it's on the engineering fundamentals because you studied engineering. And so you have all of those skills. If the decision is still being made at the end of the day by a man with the power to make the decision, you are meeting him at a level where you have enormous amount of skill. Is it a fair game?

Freda Rutere: Unfortunately, you have to, in order to be at the table in this sector, you have to be overskilled. You've got to understand all the moving parts of the machine in order to get to a place where you're sitting at the decision making table.

Njeri Wagacha: Yeah. So we we're still not there in terms of equality at all. Sienna, the same for you. You could have done, you went to an Ivy League university, you could have done anything that you wanted. You worked at Global Innovation for Change. You could have done anything you wanted. Did you see that as a challenge? And is it because perhaps, and maybe that's an unfair question, but is it because of your husband that you've been able to build that business? Would you have been able to do it by yourself?

Sienna Dutkowski: Absolutely not. Um, first of all, I don't...

Njeri Wagacha: Thank you for the honesty.

Sienna Dutkowski: Let's be serious. I don't have a security background and I don't pretend to. I think that from a... I understand women and I understand the strength of women, I understand the role that they can play in keeping people safe. And so even though I'm not a former US Marine like James is, I understand enough in order to grow this, and I understand where the gaps are, how they have been created for women and what it takes for the women who do have these skillsets. Because I have a ton of women who... they have the security background and we look for the women who have that skillset and are oftentimes overqualified. So how do we help them grow? How do we help them rise? And that's where my strong suit is and that's where we're able to really make Lady Askari work. And it enrages people;

It enrages people that we are taking the time to focus on women and develop women in an industry that doesn't believe that women have a space.

I think that that has been the more interesting part of the journey. It's funny that you mentioned I attended an Ivy league. That's where I get my credit all the time. It has nothing to do with the fact that I was in South Sudan for years. It has nothing to do with the fact that I've, you know, I'm a girl from Brooklyn, to be very honest with you. So I've come into a space that I'm completely unfamiliar with and we've been able to do something here, and yet, I attended Cornell and therefore, what I think matters. And it's very interesting that you bring that up because I don't really care about things like that. I don't think about the fact that I attended Cornell, and anytime somebody says that, I'm like, "Oh, okay".

Njeri Wagacha: Okay, don't shoot the messenger.

Sienna Dutkowski: I was caught off guard actually.

Njeri Wagacha: But the reality is that it is a marker. People will look at it on your CV and say, she went to Cornell, she must have something to say, much like they would look at another person with less of a university skill and say, that person doesn't know what they're talking about and they may be the most skilled in the room. So that's a different discussion kind of, because it's less gender based and more just the way the world works.

But coming to that, have you been in situations Nonnie, where you've found that your femalehood and your power are incompatible in the same space?

Nonnie Burbidge: Gosh, that's a really, really good question. And I have to think. I mean, the answer's probably many. And I'm gonna use one recent example. A couple of weeks ago I went to an event where I was on a panel with fellow women and I was talking about, again, access to capital and giving some of these statistics. And I said that one of the key differences with startup founders pitching to investors with women, we are more cautious and we are more risk averse. And so when we are trying to raise capital, maybe our revenue numbers are not as attractive for example, or our projections are not as attractive. And for an investor they might think, "Okay, well this is not gonna be a big business, so I'm not interested".

A man on the other hand, who's probably running the same business will have very different numbers and will literally shoot for the stars, whether he believes he can achieve that or not. Because they are naturally just slightly better salesmen, for example, or less risk averse than we are. And so I was saying, if you back a woman, chances are, and there's a lot of data around this, is they probably won't lose your money and they will deliver a fantastic return. And the male panellist goes, ""But statistically, you know, of course men are gonna fail more." And my response was, "Yeah, lucky you, as in you get the opportunity because we don't, we can't even raise the capital in the first place." And so I think there is still a lot of work to do to get men to understand what the problem is, so that we can get them on our side and championing for increased gender equality in general.

Njeri Wagacha: Speaking of which, if we go back to Sienna and Cornell University, the reason why it's so important or it was so important, and actually we have to have that discussion again, is because women were not allowed in the university in the first place. So even getting a space in a Ivy league was going to be a problem, getting a place in university was gonna be a problem, then Cornell, so it is a marker of the times.

Let's talk about the work that you do day-to-day, Sienna. For the ladies that you are training, for the ladies who are coming into your business, how are you empowering them with the skills to know that what they're delivering, first of all, is at par with what anyone else can deliver? And also just to know that they're on the right path?

Sienna Dutkowski: First of all, we don't hire people who don't have the skills, so we really dig deep, and we pluck the people out who do have the experience. We do have apprenticeships. When we identify gaps, we do have internships. But when we're looking to really place in key positions we have to have that skillset. So it comes right back to what we were talking about before. A lot of what I also do is champion for women and their capabilities. And so, I can have a client tell me what all of their security issues are. We can give them all of these mitigation measures and I can give them the perfect candidate. I know a hundred percent that they are the perfect candidate. Oh, but they don't have police background. Okay, cool. If the police were the answer, you wouldn't need my person. But that is literally one of those things that we face all the time.

Because there's not this traditional structure and this traditional trajectory that women are on. Oftentimes they're coming from criminology programmes. Or sometimes we have female guards that are just trying to find opportunities to grow and see, how do they become supervisors. I mean, we have somebody who was working as a guard, then CCTV operator for 16 years and never had the opportunity to be a supervisor. Like really? So when we took over this programme, we brought on our first female supervisor, and for us, this was obvious. She has 16 years of experience, but nobody else considered her because they weren't ready to champion, they weren't ready to change her trajectory.

Njeri Wagacha: And for you, Freda, on the engineering front, how do you empower Kenyan women to take up an engineering course and also go into construction, go into real estate management. Do you see them, do you identify with them?

Freda Rutere: Really I think the first step is sharing my journey, and encouraging younger women who are thinking about a course in engineering, architecture, apprenticeships in construction to embark on the journey. And then also on construction sites. There's a lot of intimidation around women being on site. You see them there, but they're normally very meek on typical sites. The jobs that they're welcome to do are usually around food and keeping the workers fed. And so we're trying to change the narrative and be more inclusive, right from construction sites, working with companies like Buildher, that offer apprenticeships to women. I think they offer 300 apprenticeships in construction for women. Hiring people from organisations like that so that you can see more women represented on construction sites, ensuring the facilities are adequate for women, tracking the number of women we have on construction sites. And then in the education space, really, seeking out and mentoring young engineers, young designers so that we can be better represented in what is otherwise quite an intimidating space traditionally.

Njeri Wagacha: Yeah. Excellent, Freda. I wanted to come to, in terms of the advice that our mothers would've given us, or even what their experiences and what they told us when we were coming into the workforce. How different is it, what are you telling your daughters? I think everyone here is a mother except for me. What advice are you giving them? Are you telling them, go into this space, make your mark? And I think that's what my mother said, so I don't think it's that different. What are you saying?

Nonnie Burbidge: So I have two daughters. They're twins. They're three and a half. They're crazy. My advice to them is: "You can do and be anything."

Sienna Dutkowski: I have two boys and a girl, 2, 4, 6, and our girl is the baby. My mom's advice was "Own your own." She also attended Cornell, now that we're mentioning it. And she was one of the first black vet students at the University of Pennsylvania where she went to vet school and she wasn't allowed a lot of opportunities. And so the idea of "own your own" build, create those opportunities, and that's what I'm doing and that's what I hope my children will do as well.

Freda Rutere: I'm a boy mom, so I'm not doing anything different. I don't think I would do anything different if I had girls as well. I started going to construction sites as a young person with my dad. I guess I'm just trying to pass down that habit of being inclusive, whether they're boys or girls, that you belong here. Everybody gets the opportunity in their lifetime to build something, whether it's for themselves, for their parents. And so I just encourage him to come along. He gets to play on the diggers and the tippers, which is great for his adrenaline.

Njeri Wagacha: And so what advice would you give a woman looking to come into the VC space, the PE space?

Nonnie Burbidge: Don't be intimidated. There's nothing that you can't learn on the job or outside. But the key thing is don't be intimidated because I think... I believe that the perception of this industry is that it's quite closed, that maybe you need certain networks, maybe you need an "in" somewhere. But again, yeah, it's just:

Don't be intimidated, knock on doors, talk to people. Literally when I say talk to people, I mean continuously. Don't stop when you don't receive a response. Irritate them until they are forced to respond to you. So yeah, just be persistent, and not intimidated.

Njeri Wagacha: Just an additional question just for you, because you are so confident, not everyone has that level of confidence. Where did you get it from?

Nonnie Burbidge: Well, that's a really good question. Um.

Njeri Wagacha: As you pondered that... Sienna?

Sienna Dutkowski: Don't be intimidated. I mean, you can't go wrong. People in the security, you will be bullied. People do not believe that you should be there and therefore, continue to take up space and don't be intimidated, and understand the value that you bring to the industry.

Freda Rutere: I would just say everything that you are that is feminine, is precisely what you need to bring to the table in the real estate space. It is that asset that you bring to the table. It's an important perspective that's been left out historically, and that's what we need to bring to the table. There is a lot of bravado when I sit in these male dominated teams and they sort of egg each other on, when there's risk on the table, when there's financials on the table. Women, we bring a softness that tempers things and that's so important for the success of any project.

Njeri Wagacha: I love that. Just even in your tone, which is very different from Nonnie's. Nonnie, have you got an answer perhaps?

Nonnie Burbidge: Yeah, I think I do. I think confidence comes with maturity and growing up. But also confidence comes with knowing who you are. And when I say knowing who you are, realising that what other people think about you has nothing to do with you. It's actually not your problem. And so, provided you know exactly who you are and you're not afraid to be yourself, then I think confidence comes from there. But that also comes with maturity and life experiences, and being willing to meet yourself, if that makes sense.

Njeri Wagacha: Yeah, I mean, it makes perfect sense. I think it takes time to get to know yourself and I think definitely you are there. Okay, so I'm gonna do a quick fire round, which we normally do at the end of the podcast. So I'll just ask quick, no thinking, just answer the question. No back talk, Sienna. Okay. First question, Megan Thee Stallion, feminist icon, yes or no?

Nonnie Burbidge: For sure.

Freda Rutere: I have no idea.

Njeri Wagacha: Female dinner party guest. Who would you invite? Who's at the top of the list and why? Should we start with Freda?

Freda Rutere: No.

Njeri Wagacha: Okay, let's start with the Sienna.

Sienna Dutkowski: Viola Davis

Freda Rutere: Blank.

Nonnie Burbidge: I'm still blank as well.

Njeri Wagacha: Okay. Should we do another one? Life motto, one word. Two words.

Nonnie Burbidge: I am.

Freda Rutere: Get through today.

Njeri Wagacha: Okay. Are we at the female dinner party guest? No one? Just say me then. Anyone.

Nonnie Burbidge: No, still not. I have so many I can't put one to the top

Njeri Wagacha: Okay. Just give us a few.

Nonnie Burbidge: Okay. Hilary Clinton, Oprah, Serena Williams, the late Queen, her Majesty the Queen, my mother and my grandmother.

Njeri Wagacha: Controversial, the Queen.

Nonnie Burbidge: That's why though. Yeah.

Njeri Wagacha: There's no Kenyan women.

Nonnie Burbidge: I said my mother and my grandmother.

Njeri Wagacha: Oh, I see. Yeah, that's true. Okay. Alright. And thank you so much ladies. That was really good. Really, really good. I think everyone has learned a lot from you guys.

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