How Ghanaian Entrepreneur Roberta Annan Built A Business Blending Cultures
It is possible to monetize being multicultural, and Ghana-born entrepreneur Roberta Annan is proof.
An Accra native, Annan is an impact investor, global development consultant and fashion entrepreneur who has managed make a living from her multicultural education and experiences, which started when she left Ghana as a teenager.
Annan, 33, splits her time between London, Accra and New York, running a property advising business that works with high net worth individuals to manage their assets, and a fashion consultancy and charity focused on ethical fashion.
Earlier this year, Annan announced a joint venture consultancy – LJ Africa Advisors – that will work with individual African countries to support their impact investments in areas of opportunity such as infrastructure, women’s empowerment, oil and gas, agriculture and affordable housing.
Educated at universities in Canada and the U.S., Annan was exposed to cultures outside Africa starting in her teenage years. Her stepfather — a Navy commander — became a Ghanaian ambassador and the family moved to India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldvies and Burma.
“I understood the nuances of being in African culture,” Annan said in an Interview with AFKInsider. “(Living outside Africa) gave me a different level of exposure to culture and I became very accepting and understanding about how people live socially.”
Annan’s mother, a child rights advocate, worked for the Ghanaian government for 30 years and helped implement a policy making child trafficking illegal. “She was always fighting for rights for children,” Annan said.
Annan spent two years in a boarding school in Ghana based on the SOS Hermann Gmeiner College model for orphaned children — an experience that had a huge impact on her work ethic. At boarding school, Annan cleaned orphanages and taught street children.
“Having grown up in a diplomatic setting and used to having everything, it was a huge learning curve and grounded me,” Annan said. “I developed a great appreciation for hard work. My entrepreneurial drive started there.”
Annan earned a degree in biotechnology from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, and a master’s in biotechnology from Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. She completed her master’s in a year. More recently she enrolled in the Program For Leadership Development at Harvard Business School.
After graduating from Georgetown, Annan was recruited to the U.N. as an intern. She worked her way up to consultant developing fundraising strategies.
After working as a business development IPP officer (portfolio manager) at the U.N., Annan left in 2012 to start her own consultancy. She was instrumental in bringing U.S. President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative to Ghana.
Annan spoke to AFKInsider about how exposure to different cultures helps young African entrepreneurs improve their businesses in Africa.
AFKInsider: What motivates you?
Roberta Annan: I’m so passionate about the development agenda in Africa. I work hard to bring investments to the continent. (It’s) why I went into fashion. There’s so much culture (in Africa) but it’s really how we package it that makes it attractive. It’s become a place where people go and they know they have access to luxury. If you compare us to other places, we have natural resources, arable land and great talent. Why can’t we combine all these things to develop our continent? We also have the worst record when it comes to disease, poor education — how do you position yourself to bring in partners and create value? I’ve made myself an ambassador for Africa. Nobody has appointed me.
AFKInsider: Describe your work with African fashion.
Roberta Annan: I have a fashion charity called African Fashion Fund. It’s an educational platform for designers from Africa to work with U.S. brands so they can learn the business of fashion. I’ve also done some grants. Part of it involves placement into incubator programs.
Frallain is a fashion consultancy which has done a lot of work with sales and distribution. I invested personally into the Mo Saique brand. We did a production of her new collection. You can’t find a store like Macys that sells African brands in the U.S. We’re trying to disrupt that. I’m trying to create opportunity for people to walk into stores in the U.S. and find African brands. I’m trying to integrate African fashion into global fashion.
AFKInsider: What’s your involvement with Obama’s Young African Leaders (YALI) Initiative?
Roberta Annan: I was very instrumental in bringing the Young African Leaders Initiative to Ghana. (Read more about YALI here). I launched (the North American chapter of) Africa 2.0. We were part of the process to identify an institution that would host the recruitment and training programs, including what would happen on the ground when a YALI student returned, and how people not accepted to the program could still be exposed to YALI.
I was part of the team working with Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration, a public university in Accra (GIMPA) which received the grant money for YALI. The USAID grant of $25 million total was to set up regional leadership centers in three countries (Ghana was one of them.)
AFKInsider: How does U.S. exposure help young African leaders?
Roberta Annan: I wasn’t a YALI fellow but having grown up in Africa and going to school in the U.S. gave me an understanding of the culture of doing business, time management, project delegation. It was a combination of academic and other things like field trips that gave you a different way of thinking, being sensitive to other people. Being well traveled and experiencing different cultures gives you a different level of appreciation for business.
What I see with the YALI fellows, is once they get that exposure overseas it changes mindsets. I’ve seen how YALI has transformed businesses. Their businesses have picked up and they’re doing things in a very progressive way. They may be entrepreneurial and creative but this gives added value. Being out of your comfort zone helps you. When you’re doing business you need to be very confident.
I took some formal training with some (U.S.) institutions on just how to put your bio together, resume, follow up on an interview — we don’t learn those things here. It puts me in a different category. These young fellows learn how to approach someone and start a conversation about the weather, how to do an elevator pitch. I’m very successful at doing that. I’ve learned how to present myself in a way that people will want to approach me about doing business in Africa. That has worked for me, one referral after another. Growing a web presence came later.
AFKInsider: How have you leveraged your multiculturalism?
Roberta Annan: The culture here (Ghana) is very different. You’re told not to speak — not just women. I grew up here. My formative years were here. I saw how things are done differently. You become used to the system. Everything is based on that social setting. In Ghana the social setting discourages people from putting themselves out there. You’re supposed to be modest. In U.S. you’re more outspoken. You need to market yourself to survive. You can combine your different cultures — its a blend of two cultures. Its a huge advantage. That blend (puts you in ) a great position. People here can relate to you, people in the U.S. can relate to you — that’s how my business has grown.
AFKInsider: How exactly does that work?
Roberta Annan: It’s not easy. You have to be willing to adapt. Its a great skill to have to be adaptable based on environment — to be able to acclimatize. You have to really master it to be successful. Investors coming from the West always have a specific mindset and they always want to impose the mindset in Africa. That doesn’t work. You need someone like me who has that different exposure. I can get you guys to meet in the middle. My position is to blend cultures so business can be conducted legally without any corruption. I got this exposure at a very young age. I was malleable, still developing my ethos. Being allowed to travel to India … getting the European, African, Asian culture, I developed a skill set that’s almost impossible for someone who only lived in Africa.
AFKInsider: What do you mean when you say “global mindset”?
Roberta Annan: YALI takes young entrepreneurs at an early age and allows them to adapt and acclimatize. They transform their businesses when they return because they don’t apply a Ghanaian mindset any more. They apply a global mindset.
It’s important to have a global mindset. The world is becoming smaller because of technology. (In the past) very wealthy families were giving money to Africa through aid. Now millennials are doing impact investing. Young people can now communicate across borders. Instead of sending money to a village in Accra, a young American woman can come to Accra and set up a school , or start a clothing line in Accra. Technology has changed us.