When Haoua Cheick Seip looks at the room full of eager Malian women entrepreneurs, a feeling of familiarity washes over her. It was not long ago that she was building her own business, an import-export venture that has grown to be highly prosperous. Although she received her degree in chemistry in the Ivory Coast before immigrating to the United States, the entrepreneurial spirit has always been a part of her. Seip’s grandfather was a successful businessman in Mali and she grew up watching him balance ledgers late into the night. It is this passion and her years of experience that make her especially well poised to help pilot the USAID-funded mentorship program as part of the Finance for Food Security and Women Entrepreneurs (FFSWE) Program. Seip recently returned from her volunteer assignment in Mali to talk with us about it.
Twenty women make up the pilot group—four mentors and 16 mentees. During the twelve-week program they meet regularly in groups of five broken up according to sector, such as agriculture or textiles. Together they talk through topics that include the importance of saving, marketing and simple accounting. The overall goal is that by the programs conclusion, the women will have the skills and confidence to take their enterprises from the informal sector to formal, thriving enterprises.
Having grown up in Mali, Seip understood some of the challenges and cultural sensitivities that these women entrepreneurs needed to overcome.
“They face lots of discouragement,” she says. “As a woman, no one tells you to study. So they need to be able to turn to someone who has experience.”
In March, Seip facilitated an informal, two-day launch meeting between the mentors and mentees, giving them the opportunity to ask each other questions and establish expectations for the program. To ensure everyone would benefit from the program, Seip followed-up with participants to discuss their individual strengths and weaknesses, as well as skills and competency levels.
While speaking to us, Seip expressed how enthusiastic the mentees were to be learning new techniques and skills from their peers.
“They not only learn from me, but they learn from themselves!” Seip explains. “The fact that they are together in one room, they offer what they have together. It’s a way for them to sit down and talk and learn. They help themselves.”
A particular focus of the program is on financial skills that would make the women-owned businesses less of a loan risk for banks. The groups spent training sessions on the importance of keeping a ledger, how to pay taxes and the advantages of growing a business.
Once the pilot program concludes, International Executive Service Corps (IESC), who implements the USAID-funded project through VEGA, will conduct an in-depth evaluation to inform a plan to effectively scale the program and share it with other organizations. Seip knows one woman who is already eager to volunteer her time on future mentorship programs.
“One of the mentees says to me, maybe one day I can be a mentor! And that’s exactly what I love to hear because that means they are already envisioning themselves to be successful.”