Female African entrepreneurs in the diaspora are promoting change back home. They’re mentoring other African women, supporting startups, and championing philanthropic causes.
AFKInsider is shining a spotlight on five inspiring and influential U.S.-based female African executives and entrepreneurs in the diaspora. All were recently featured LadyBrilleMagazine, but they also show up in numerous other publications including Entrepreneur and Forbes.
“These are the game-changers and trailblazers, women who are overcoming all kinds of barriers to build successful businesses in industries ranging from e-commerce to fashion and technology,” said Elfonnie Inokon Anusionwu in LadyBrille.
Founder and executive director of the Diaspora African Women’s Network in Washington, D.C., Semhar Araia was named after the highly symbolic coastal Eritrean province of Semhar.
The daughter of Eritrean immigrants, she has become a voice of the African diaspora, of children of African immigrants, and she’s one of the best-known community organizers in the world, according to StThomas.edu. Her personal contacts list includes names such as the late Nelson Mandela, President Jimmy Carter and other world leaders.
An international lawyer, activist, and professor, Araia consults on U.S.-Africa affairs. Her experience in conflict resolution, international law and policy led her to found the Diaspora African Women’s Network, whose mission is to support the next generation of African diaspora women leaders.
Araia’s mother left Eritrea in 1968 during the war of independence from Ethiopia, earning a nursing degree in the U.S. She married, had children, but continued war stopped her plans to return home.
Instead, Araia’s parents became activists in the diaspora, compelled to what they could in the U.S. to help family in Eritrea.
“Today we see a lot of spaces where the diaspora are organized,” Araia said in StThomas.edu. “But in the ’70s, it was so new. Brown people and immigrants were just beginning to organize.”
Early in life, Araia thought globally. Her parents brought her to activist events supporting Eritrea’s struggle for independence. “I would go to demonstrations and would be the only child there,” she said in StThomas.edu. Her parents, she said, embodied the “Afro-hippie” lifestyle of the 1970s and 80s. “I’ve always felt connected to Eritrea because it was our reality and our existence.”
With 240-plus members, the Diaspora African Women’s Network provides mentoring, career development workshops, and other empowerment programs, according to LadyBrille.
Araia’s outstanding contribution to the African diaspora community earned her the African Union Diaspora Award and White House Champion of Change Award. She has huge influence as an authority on U.S.-Africa-related matters.
“Semhar is a living example of the hope in our struggle as Africans in the Diaspora and indeed in our continent,” DAWN member Fatima Wahab said in the comments section of an article at StThomas.edu.
At age 27, Adenah Bayoh of Liberia became the youngest-ever African-American International House of Pancakes franchisee.
By age 8, war had forced Bayoh from her home country of Liberia into a refugee camp in Sierra Leone. That’s where her entrepreneurial skills kicked in. She and a cousin would go back to Liberia for vegetables then return to Sierra Leone and sell the vegetables to people in the refugee camp.
“I learned that there is always opportunity even in the worst possible circumstances,” she told Entrepreneur Magazine.
Bayoh immigrated to the U.S. with her family as a teen, according to Entrepreneur.
Bayoh has made money from more than just pancakes and syrup. Her business portfolio includes $200 million in urban redevelopment projects.
Her grandmother was her greatest entrepreneurial inspiration, she told Entrepreneur Magazine, instilling the idea that there is no substitute for hard work. “You have to put the work in if you want to be successful,” she said. “My grandmother would always say, ‘You have to wake up before everyone else gets up and do more than everyone else.’ I watched my grandmother navigate her way through almost any challenge because of her willingness to put in the work.”
In 2001, Bayoh graduated from Farleigh Dickinson University with a bachelor’s degree in business. She as a bank teller while at university, rising through the ranks to become an executive at Bank of America executive, and then PNC Bank, according to LadyBrille. She saved money and bought several properties in New Jersey and South Carolina.
Her first investment was a three-family home. She lived on the first floor and had tenants on the other floors. The rent from the tenants covered her mortgage payments, leaving her with some cash flow.
She leveraged her properties into a multi-million dollar real estate portfolio, according to LadyBrille.
A native of Lagos, Nigeria, Adiat Disu is spreading awareness about the value African fashion brings to international markets, according to LadyBrille.
When she saw African designers weren’t represented at the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week New York, Disu decided to do something about it.
She founded Adirée, a branding and communications firm, in New York for African and global business leaders in multiple industry segments from fashion and entertainment to media, government and politics.
The firm launched Africa Fashion Week New York in 2009 as a platform to re-brand Africa and position it as a continent that also produces luxury products and services.
In 2009, she launched Africa Fashion Week New York to showcase Africa’s burgeoning fashion industry. It has grown to become one of the largest fashion events outside Africa focusing on African fashion.
Disu’s No. 1 goal as a brand strategist is to rebrand Africa by promoting its luxury goods and services, LadyBrille reports. She plans to take Africa Fashion Week to other major fashion cities including London, Milan, Paris and Tokyo.
Africa Fashion Week attracts more than 1,500 industry insiders, according to the Africa-America Institute. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the event promoted tourism to New York with 70 percent of designers coming directly from Africa, and it helped foster a relationship between the U.S. and Africa.
In a BlackEnterprise interview, Disu talked about how she has used fashion to dispel myths about Africa. “Adirée…has taken exclusive brands from Africa and placed them on nationally esteemed and recognizable stages via media placements including CNN International, Los Angeles Times, Destiny Magazine (South Africa), Elle (Bulgaria), Black Enterprise, Washington Post, and Huffington Post exposing emerging luxury brands from Africa. Through partnerships, quality productions, digital/social campaigns, and media placements Adirée is establishing the way consumers should view products from Africa (i.e. Made in Angola, Made in Zimbabwe, or Made in Nigeria),” she said.
As a child, South African-born Yolanda Sangweni left the country with her mother, a freedom fighter, to escape apartheid. Sangweni spent her formative years in Harlem, New York.
She became an editor, writer, blogger, and culture curator, working for for magazines including Oprah (South Africa), Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, Arise Magazine, and Time Out New York, according to LadyBrille. Now she’s a senior editor at Essence.com, a leading publications for black women in the U.S. She co-founded AfriPOP! an “Afropolitan” e-magazine focusing on music, film, fashion and culture.
Sangweni made the Forbes list of 20 Youngest Power Women In Africa 2012.
Oprah Magazine (South Africa) listed her one of 21 African Women Who Are Rocking the World.
As an editor and on-camera personality at Essense, she interviewed Lupita Nyong’o, Jada Pinkett Smith, Nate Parker, Anthony Anderson, and Morris Chestnut.
AfriPOP! is an online destination celebrating what’s new and what’s next in global African culture. As a culture curator, Yolanda most recently co-curated the After Afropolitan exhibition, featuring works of more than 20 artists from the African diaspora, at The Weeskville Heritage Center in Brooklyn.
An optimist, Sangweni describes herself as an Oprah-phile.
American fashion fans got to know DRC-born fashion designer Kahindo Mateene in 2013 when she competed on Season 12 of Bravo TV’s “Project Runway.”
Mateene came to the U.S. in 1995 at age 17 to study international business and economics, according to LadyBrille.
She was taken aback when classmates “couldn’t stop asking where she got her clothes,” HuffingtonPost reports. Her vibrant, multi-cultural, hand-made designs earned her a reputation for fashion design long before she earn a fashion degree from the Illinois Institute of Art.
Eventually she launched her label, Modahnik, in 2009. It’s “a sophisticated, sexy couture collection that features bright colors and bold prints for the every-day, modern woman,” HuffingtonPost reports.
In 2011, she completed Chicago’s Fashion Incubator at Macy’s 2011 Residence Program.
Mateene extensive travels in Africa, Europe, and North America inspired her designs, but they are especially influenced by Congolese art and culture.
In 2011 Kahindo created a line in Kenya using fair trade practices, HuffingtonPost reports. In 2014, she recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for nonprofit MamAfrica to develop a Clutch Handbag Initiative aimed at creating sustainable employment opportunities for Congolese women, according to LadyBrille. She supports the Hubbard Street Artistic Community and the Boys and Girls Club of Chicago.
“I know that I’m blessed to be in the States to pursue my dream,” Kahindo said, according to HuffingtonPost. “My hometown of Goma has been the epicenter of the conflict in the Congo since 1994 and is where a lot of women have been raped. I truly believe in the healing power of the arts, and I would love to use my craft to help empower women healing from trauma.”
She said she hopes there will be more demand for African-owned brands that put money back into local economies. Since almost 99 percent of African textiles are imported from overseas, she said her dream is to help revitalize African textiles by producing quality clothing for export. And with her ties to different countries throughout Africa, she said she hopes to collaborate with other co-operatives in the future.