Meet Odunayo Eweniyi: A computer engineer, entrepreneurial powerhouse, and, quite frankly, one of the most inspirational people in tech right now. Odunayo has co-founded several startups, including PiggyVest—the first ever online app for personal savings and investment in West Africa—and, most recently, FirstCheck Africa, an angel fund for women entrepreneurs.
I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Odunayo to hear all about her journey into tech and entrepreneurship. In this honest and inspiring interview, Odunayo shares some of the challenges she’s faced along the way, as well as the most valuable lessons she’s learned in her career. Here’s what she had to say.
Hi Odunayo! Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. Could you tell me a bit about yourself?
I’m the co-founder and COO of PiggyVest, a fintech company in Lagos, Nigeria, and I’m also co-founder and partner of FirstCheck Africa, an early-stage angel fund focused on investing in women who are in the very, very early stages of launching a startup. I also sit on the board of Village Capital, and I’m a venture partner at Rally Cap Ventures.
You studied computer engineering at university, right? What led you to that particular field of study?
At one point I wanted to be a doctor, but I have a debilitating fear of bodily fluids so I already knew that wasn’t really going to be feasible! I’ve always been good at the sciences, and my dad bought a computer before I went to secondary school, which I found fascinating. So from there it seemed natural that I would always do something in that area.
We know that women tend to be outnumbered in fields like computer engineering. How was it in your experience?
We were about thirteen women in a class of over 100 people, so it was definitely imbalanced in that sense. I was aware of that imbalance, but I wouldn’t say that it impacted my experience as such. That’s me talking from a very specific perspective; I was top of my class for the five years I was studying, so being outnumbered by men didn’t hold me back.
Why do you think the space was (and is) predominantly occupied by men? What do you think is missing with regards to getting more women into those fields of study?
I think it’s easier than most people think to get women talking about and interested in those kinds of topics. You just have to meet them at the point of their needs, figure out what they’d be interested in, and consider what angle we should approach this from. When I was studying, we had women who were willingly studying engineering, and at every stage in my life, I have been able to point to women in the sciences. So while there are cultural and societal pressures not to go into fields perceived to be dominated by men, I think that there are women who are there and are making great names for themselves—across banking, fintech, and many other fields. That’s the kind of representation we need.
What was your first venture into tech entrepreneurship?
I’ve been starting companies since 2013—some of which failed, some of which succeeded. The first company I co-founded was called PushCV, and it was mostly focusing on employment, human resources, and job placement. We started that in late 2013 and ran it until 2016 when we started to focus on PiggyVest. At that point, we handed PushCV over to a different team to manage.
So let’s talk about PiggyVest. What’s the main idea behind it?
PiggyVest is the first ever online app for personal savings and investment in West Africa. The purpose behind it is to empower people to better manage and save their money. Users can save and earn interest on their money through the Piggybank feature, and invest in pre-vetted investment opportunities.
Where did the idea come from?
Here in Nigeria, someone shared on Twitter a picture of a wooden box where she’d saved 1,000 Naira everyday for 365 days, then she broke the box and shared that on social media. It went viral, and my co-founder brought it to our group chat and said he thinks there’s a way we could make this whole thing digital. So we went to work. Two weeks later, we had an MVP (Minimum Viable Product), we released it, and that’s how PiggyVest was born. In terms of my role, I’ve always been responsible for operations in all of our companies, and it’s the same with PiggyVest.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced with PiggyVest?
Well, first of all, it’s a fintech company founded in 2016—a time when digital penetration and trust in digital apps was really low here in Nigeria. So we faced the very huge challenge of gaining customer trust. Then we faced the challenge of fundraising, because people weren’t convinced that the product could compete with the banks. The challenge of gaining consumer trust is ever-evolving, so I can’t say that we’ve completely surmounted that, but more people are trusting us every day. We have about 2.3 million people on the platform now, so that’s a great number, and we have to work hard every day to maintain that trust and also to gain more people’s trust to attract new sign-ups.
What’s been your main strategy for tackling this challenge of gaining and retaining consumer trust?
We decided to rely on peer-to-peer recommendations and word of mouth, instead of spending money on marketing. In December 2016, after about a year of operations, the early adopters who were using the platform were, kind of, withdrawing their money after a full saving cycle, and we saw an interesting thing happening. As soon as they withdrew money successfully, they would go to Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook to tell everyone, “Oh, I used this platform to save for Christmas, I withdrew the money successfully, earning interest is so quick” and other people were seeing that and asking “How can I sign up?” They would then share the link to the platform. So we decided to build on that, people experiencing PiggyVest positively and then telling their friends and family about it. We offer about 1,000 Naira for a successful referral.
What’s the plan for PiggyVest going forward?
The focus is on growing the platform. That means adding more features to further the vision for the product, which is to give people the power to better control their finances. We started with microsavings and then we branched into micro investments, and so we’ll definitely be looking at other aspects of financial services and figuring out how we can break it down, how we can make it more accessible, how we can make it more affordable. That’s definitely the direction the company will be going.
Exciting! Now could you tell me about FirstCheck Africa?
FirstCheck is a very recent venture. We launched in January this year (2021) and it’s mostly about holding the door open for women founders who are following in our footsteps. My co-founder, Eloho Omame, has worked in venture capital for a bit, and I’ve been a founder for about eight years as well, and one of the most glaring things to us is, when we ask people “Why are there not enough women in this cohort?”, especially when it’s Black or African women, they are usually saying there’s no pipeline of women. So we want to establish and build that pipeline. We want to find women that are at the very early stage, way, way before they get discouraged by the process of fundraising (a process that’s not very friendly!) and give them some money to raise and build an MVP, before sending them off to raise seed-stage funding. It’s an angel fund that’s mostly run by me and my partner, Eloho, right now, and so the first year is all about experimentation for us. If we give these women these funds this early on, can we improve the participation of women in technology? Can we increase the amount of money that’s going to women founders? We’ll see.
How does the process work?
Essentially, women who are interested can submit an application, and we’re trying to create a system where we answer women on time, we don’t throw them for a loop, there’s no back and forth. We see your application and if we like it or want to learn more, we set up a meeting, we deliberate for a couple of days, and then we let you know if we’re proceeding, if we think there are still some improvements that need to be made before we can be involved, or if it’s something we can’t be involved in. We’ve just started looking through the pipeline, and one thing we’re very, very conscious about is to be very clear on the kind of feedback that we’re giving to the women—like what exactly do we think needs to be improved or changed, or if we think a complete pivot is needed. Those things are very important, and it’s just easier when people tell you what they agree with or don’t agree with. That’s where we’re headed.
What are the main challenges you’ve faced in your career so far?
I think it’s mostly the sexism which comes across in the day to day, for example when fundraising, and all those other related things. One instance I can think of is when we were working on PushCV, the employment startup. There was a coalition of employment startups that was being formed at the time, and we were the only ones excluded. We were new, and we were fairly popular—so it was kind of weird that we weren’t involved. I can only conclude that it was because I was going to the meetings. There have also been offhand comments and microaggressions that make you question “Was that sexism or am I being sensitive?”
I would say that it’s been a long time since I’ve had those “in your face” experiences, so I’ve been lucky. Despite these experiences with sexism, I try to make sure they don’t color the conversations I have with other women because it can be discouraging, and it doesn’t represent the whole experience, which is actually a very interesting journey. The plan here is to make sure that we build up a space or an ecosystem where women are more comfortable, and where people don’t have to go through that.
When you compare the beginning of your career to now, do you feel that things are changing?
Things are changing, but they haven’t completely changed. I also think that, as you grow within the ecosystem, you get a bit more comfortable in your own skin. Once you’ve been around [in the industry] for a long time, people just realize that you’re not going anywhere and they have to get used to it. Things are changing; there are several more women in the space now, and people seem committed to making sure that the women who are entering the space don’t have to go through that.
What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned on your journey so far?
I’ve learned to always enjoy the experience, and like I said, it’s been a very interesting one. I work in a vastly different ecosystem than, say, Silicon Valley—our ecosystem is very nascent, and very young, it’s in Nigeria, Africa. So one thing I’ve learned is to always expect the worst that can happen, because when it does, you’re always in solution-finding mode, which is a very interesting way to be when you’re running a company. I learned to embrace failure and to be ready for it: it will happen at some point, so it just depends on what you do with it. You learn that failure isn’t personal, it’s not about you as a person; it’s the business.
What are you most excited about in the tech industry right now?
I love reading about new startups, I love seeing when someone has come up with an idea that I haven’t thought about before and launched it. I find all those things really interesting and exhilarating. The daily grind of us as an ecosystem, and finding solutions to infrastructural and economic challenges—that never gets old. The environment constantly finds new ways to challenge you, there’s always something fresh to tackle.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
I’m proud of every stage that we’ve been through as a team, as a group, and as a company. All of the highs have been very high, and I loved them, and all of the lows were very low, and now we can look back and laugh because they were kind of formative. I’m really proud of the whole journey that we’ve been on. Wins are very fleeting—they come, they go, you move onto the next thing, but the experience in and of itself is one that I wouldn’t trade.
What do you think are the biggest challenges and hurdles that women face in tech at the moment?
I still think that we have a long way to go in funding women in tech, and that then feeds into attracting women into tech—it’s a vicious cycle. People need to know that, when they do commit to doing this, when they work to get those things, that they can actually get it. Those are still problems that we need to solve, and making this space one where women can thrive, because it’s been designed for so long to cater to men. That’s something that, as an ecosystem, we all need to work at.
What values do you apply to your life and work that you think help you to succeed?
I take most of my life philosophies from my dad. If something needs to be done and I don’t know how to do it, then I’m going to make sure I learn it—especially if it’s something I want to do or be involved in. I will absolutely do whatever it takes to equip myself for that role, if I want it. There’s something that my dad used to say, well, many things actually, but I’ll share a few! When I would come home and report things to him, he would look at me and just say: “Odunayo, you are all you have. No one is coming. So what are you going to do about it?” And that kind of stuck with me. When you have a problem, the problem is there, and it’s not going to go away. You can cry, you can be sad, but the problem will still be there. So I have this philosophy where I take the time to process the emotion—sadness is okay, anger is okay, crying is okay. All of these emotions are very valid, but I also think that they can only be productive when they end with you looking for a solution to that problem, because again, no one is going to come solve it for you. That’s a value my dad left us with.
Another thing he’d say is “Aim very high, work very hard, and care very deeply.” So we would set incredible targets for ourselves, then work as hard as we could to achieve those, but we don’t do it to the exclusion of humanity or without caring about the next person or the users or your team. And I think that, regardless of where your venture takes you or where it ends, just being able to say I did my best across those three things specifically is always enough for me. We’ve had several failed startups, and if you do a post-mortem, you know, you find out what went wrong and think, what was my fault, what could I have controlled, did I care? Did I do everything I could? If yes, then I’m okay with that kind of failure.
What do you think companies need to do more of in order to support diversity, inclusion, and equity in the tech industry (and everywhere)?
People are unaware of their own implicit bias, the heuristics they already have ingrained in them when they start hiring. People tend to hire people who look like them, and when they do that, they also optimize for people who look like them, or people they’re comfortable with. To have a workspace that is diverse and equitable and inclusive, you need to be able to step out of your own head and out of your comfort zone to bring all those people in. If you can’t, that’s perfectly okay; get people who can. If you’re a white man, for instance, there’s no reason why you can’t have a Black woman or a Black man or a white woman on the team to balance out the perspectives so you make sure that you are giving a potential candidate the shot that they deserve. It’s all about being deliberate about building those particular factors into your hiring process. You can say that the hiring process is objective, and it might well be, but it can already be biased from the get-go. So as you move through the process, a diverse applicant or someone who doesn’t fit your opinion of the ideal can fall out of the funnel just by the processes put in place, so it’s important to prevent that from happening.
What advice would you give to any women reading this who are thinking about starting a career in tech?
I would tell them not to give up. If you look at a certain environment and it seems inhospitable, try not to see that as a reason to give up. Of course it’s highly discouraging, and one would hope that you’d be welcome or comfortable anywhere you want to work, but unfortunately that’s not how the world is set up. If being an entrepreneur is what you want, and if working in a particular company is what you want, just go for it. Continue to be yourself, and continue to go for what you want. Eventually the world will adjust.
Great advice! Before you go, what’s next for you?
There’s always many things I want to do. I don’t think there’s any day that passes by without me being interested in a new thing, but FirstCheck and PiggyVest will always be my priority. I’ve worked on PiggyVest for the past five years, and there’s still so much to do there. FirstCheck is new, but it’s something I’m really committed to, so no matter what I do, no matter what other side projects I get into, those will always take precedence over the rest.
What a remarkable woman! We can’t wait to see what’s next for Odunayo, for PiggyVest, and for FirstCheck Africa—and we’re expecting great things. If you’d like to learn more about Odunayo and her incredible work, follow her on Twitter, check out PiggyVest on Medium, and take a look at this article exploring the amazing work Odunayo and Eloho are doing with FirstCheck Africa.
Feeling inspired? Keen to launch your own career in tech? Read this post to figure out which tech career path is right for you, or try out a free short course in UX design, UI design, web development, or data analytics. And, if you enjoyed this interview, check out the following: