Sylvia Mukasa

Sylvia Mukasa, the Founder/CEO of GlobalX Investments Ltd/GlobalX Innovation Labs, is an award-winning entrepreneur focusing on emerging technologies. Her company GlobalX feeds into the innovation pipeline by closing the skills, funding and digital transformation gaps. In 2015, she earned a special mention at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) closing speech by Maria Contreras-Sweet, then US Government’s Lead Minister on Entrepreneurship and member of President Obama’s cabinet. She has been listed under 30 Most Influential Women in Tech in Africa by CIO Africa; among 130 women who break the bias globally by DiverseIn; a US State Department’s TechWomen Fellow and more. She is passionate about technology, entrepreneurship, women in tech, gender and racial equity. 

Here’s more about Sylvia!

What were your initial years of growing up like? 

I grew up in Kenya. I had a typical happy childhood, in my opinion. I went to all-girls schools from kindergarten to high school. My parents did not make this decision on purpose. It just so happened that boys and girls schools were separate where we lived. When I wasn’t at school, I spent my time climbing trees, playing football, doing somersaults, dismantling and re-assembling things, and making cars out of used blue-band tins, especially during the Safari Rally season with my siblings and childhood friends. My parents treated my two sisters and three brothers equally. I was never denied an education; in fact, I attended some of the best schools in the country. Neither I nor my sisters were kept at home doing chores instead of attending school. I did well in school and enjoyed mathematics! My parents both worked and did their best to provide for us, and I was well aware from a young age that a woman’s place was never limited to the kitchen. My upbringing in general shaped who I am today. A firm believer that if given the same opportunities and the right support, girls/women can achieve anything that boys/men can.

Tell us about your life before you decided to move ahead towards your passion/dream.

I worked in corporate Kenya for less than two years after finishing my university education in Kenya. Most of my managers, who were younger than me but older, appeared to be well-off and drove nice cars. They had received an international education. So I immediately thought that if I wanted to be like them or better, I needed to leave Kenya and do the same. That’s how I ended up doing my postgraduate studies in the UK. Because of my curiosity and love of adventure and trying new things, I opted to join the pioneer e-Business class, which enabled me to understand the fusion of business and IT at the time. That is what shaped my interest and career path in technology. I enjoy working in technology because I enjoy making a positive difference in society through innovations. I get bored easily, so I like to do things that keep me engaged and allow me to try new things, discover new things, and continue to learn. Being in technology allows me to do so. If I made it big, I thought I’d be a lawyer or a number cruncher on Wall Street or in the City, or an economist at The World Bank, but I’m glad technology found me!

My role models are women who are challenging the status quo. Starting with my paternal great grandmother (whose names I bear as my second and middle names), who refused to be inherited when she lost her husband as per cultural norms and returned to her parents’ home with her children, refusing to bow to a practice she did not agree with despite having no formal education; to my maternal grandmother, who also believed in education for the African child and pioneered the establishment of a nursery school where she taught; to my mother, who worked hard as a teacher impacting many children and even paying school fees for some of them to stay at school and; of course many more phenomenal women across the world.

Tell us about that turning point that changed your life? 

When I was working in corporate Kenya after finishing my first degree and just before leaving for the UK, I had an experience that traumatized me and shaped how I viewed employment. People who worked for a competitor literally lost their jobs over the weekend. They had a job on Friday, but by Monday, they were jobless. And who was in charge of making sure they didn’t occupy their now-defunct office and onboard the customers who would now be handled by the company I was working for? The young yours truly! When they realized they no longer had jobs, I saw grown men cry-burst into loud sobs at the door. That was a watershed moment for me. This was my perspective on work. It struck me hard that your fate was in the hands of your employer, and that things could easily change at the snap of a finger. Twelve years later, a nearly identical scenario of layoffs occurred at a different company I worked for, with people losing their jobs in the same manner. And images and sounds from my first job’s scenario flashed through my mind.

These experiences sowed the seed of entrepreneurship in me. I felt this was one sure way to control one’s fate by knowing exactly what is happening – whether the company will stand the test of time or fail – rather than receiving shocking news from management that you have failed and that you have no job when you thought you had one.

My education in all-girls schools helped shape me into a strong woman who believes in herself. Nobody ever told us in primary and secondary school that Math or Science were not for girls, at least not that I recall. Children’s values and beliefs are shaped by what they hear during their formative years. I’m glad I heard those kinds of statements later in life, when my personality, values, and beliefs were already established. However, not all of the girls were fortunate enough to have had similar experiences, so their perspectives differed. I was also fortunate to work in positions where women were underrepresented, as were black people. I used to believe that no one worked in those fields because they were simply not good enough.

My time in the UK exposed me to another monster in the room: racism. I wasn’t completely unaware of it, but having grown up in Kenya as a black majority, I hadn’t been exposed to it to the extent that the UK had. Some white people avoided sitting next to me on buses during my first few weeks in the UK. I assumed it was because they preferred to stand. I quickly realised it was a racial thing…some white people simply did not want to sit next to black people. Then it hit me…race was taking place right in front of my eyes. What a startling awakening! So I bought a car to get around to avoid that! However, there would be other subtle macroaggressions at work and in other places. This has shaped my advocacy for racial equality, particularly responsible technology that does not exacerbate gender and racial inequities.

I have a mixed educational background, but as previously stated, my e-Business studies opened up the world of technology and business to me like never before, and I have a strong desire to continue on this path. My previous work experiences shaped my goals as well. However, my work at Ericsson exposed me to global trends and advancements in communications and technology. Ericsson’s ambition was to create networked societies via smart cities, mobile broadband, Machine to Machine (M2M), Fixed Broadband & Convergence, Managed Services, TV & Media Services, Consumer and Business Applications, Communication Services, and operations and business support systems (OSS/BSS).

So, when I left Ericsson to found GlobalX, I knew I wanted to work at the intersection of technology, telecommunications, and emerging trends. 

Based on my work experience and education, I knew that technology could have a significant impact on businesses and societies. Given its dynamism, it also allowed a curious mind like mine to experiment and try new things.

Tell us something about your initiative/ or current role. What is it about and what impact are you trying to bring?

I am passionate about using technology to make a difference at both the societal and business levels. I’ve always enjoyed building things and coming up with new ideas. When I can’t do something by myself, I prefer to be a part of a team that can. So starting a business that would allow me to do this was a no-brainer for me. That is what prompted the formation of GlobalX. GlobalX’s mission is to Make Innovation Happen, with a focus on emerging technologies. We know that technology has solved many problems that humans have faced since the beginning of time. For example, technology has enabled us to communicate across the globe via email, to entertain ourselves on Netflix, and to build robotic arms that assist those with disabilities and much more! It brings me joy and fulfilment to be a part of the solution in bringing about meaningful change through technology.

At GlobalX, we work to close skill, funding, and digital transformation gaps. While we’re at it, we’d like to advocate for inclusive and responsible technologies that don’t perpetuate gender and racial disparities.

Aside from GlobalX, I am involved in other initiatives that deal with gender, race, and entrepreneurship. All of this is done to raise awareness, increase representation, drive equity, inclusion, and diversity, and empower people while contributing to the SDGs.

For instance, I am a part of the Women in Leadership Working Group and member of the Gender Alliance, a cross-network initiative bringing together feminists from the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt’s Responsible Leaders Network, the Global Diplomacy Lab, the Bosch Alumni Network and Global Leadership Academy Community (by GIZ). Through this, she and I have hosted and participated in events like the Gender Summit where I co-hosted a session on Investing in Women-Led Businesses, a discussion on Imposter Syndrome for Women Leaders. I have also spoken on media channels like BBC on women leadership in technology among others. In 2021, the BMW Foundation launched the Equity, Diversity and Belonging (EDB) publication which featured my work on racial equity and highlighted The Anti-Racism Manifesto, which is a co-created declaration drafted by myself  as founding member of the (Un)Learning Journey towards Racial Equity with contributions from my co-leads.

What were the challenges faced? Are there any now? How were the last 2 years for you?

Entrepreneurship is a difficult path to take. There are numerous obstacles to overcome. Throughout my journey, I have faced financial difficulties, unconscious biases as a woman in technology and entrepreneur, a lack of mentors, and periods of illness. I’ve failed several times, but I’ve always been able to pick myself up and try again, aiming to do better and learn from my mistakes. I was also fortunate to have mentors along the way.

COVID-19 has been the most difficult challenge for all of us in various ways over the last two years, both personally and professionally. Those who were not prepared with business continuity plans struggled, and some businesses even shut down, resulting in the loss of many jobs. My previous struggles with illness, bereavement, and other challenges had, however, prepared me for times of adversity, and I was able to cope better during the pandemic thanks to the lessons I had learned over the years.

What have been your remarkable achievements/accomplishments?

When I do things, my end goal is always to make a difference for the better, no matter how small. It means a lot to me when someone, especially a stranger, tells me that I have made a difference in his or her life. Nothing compares to that as a feat!

What change would you like to bring in the world, if given an opportunity?

I believe in an equal and fair world, so I try to make a difference in people’s lives by making things better for everyone every day. This is why I advocate for both girls and women, as well as racial equity. So far, I have had a direct and indirect impact on over 25,000 girls and women in the field of technology. I have co-created initiatives such as the UnLearning Journey with the BMW Hebert Quandt Responsible Leaders Network to raise awareness and push for racial equity around the world based on my lived experiences as a black person and knowledge about how technologies such as Artificial Intelligence can perpetuate racial injustices.

How do you look at failure, from your experience and perspective?

Failure is natural and should not be feared. Only those who learn from their mistakes and strive to do better succeed. Consider the late Albert Einstein. In his childhood, he was thought to be a complete failure. Albert did not learn to speak until he was four years old, and at the age of sixteen, he failed the entrance exam to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School. Einstein’s father died convinced that his son was a complete failure. People did not trust or believe in him in general. To cut a long story short, Einstein became a theoretical physicist through unwavering perseverance and a never-ending iron will. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential physicists of all time. He eventually proved the scientific community wrong, including the physicists who thought he was crazy when he claimed light could bend. His work altered scientists’ perceptions of space, time, gravity, and light.

Nobody believes me, but I believe in myself and have walked many lonely roads. I’ve won some and lost some. And such is life. There is always a failure story in the background when you see a winner. Some talk about it, some don’t, and many don’t. Most of the time, people only see success and assume it is all rosy a path. 

So friends, never give up, even when no-one else believes in you. It is better failing trying rather than failing to try at all. Sometimes breakthroughs come when we are just at the verge of giving up, so why not try just a little bit more? Just in case there is a sweet ending!

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your life?

We should never set limits for ourselves. It is acceptable to begin small, but always aim high. Nothing is out of reach, and anyone can be anyone! I never imagined my name would be mentioned on a global platform as an example of a woman making a difference in the tech space through her entrepreneurial efforts. Growing up, I was a top student who received numerous accolades for my academic achievements. I did well enough to be admitted to one of Kenya’s best and most prestigious high schools. I knew I could do well locally, but I never considered global platforms. So when Maria Contreras-Sweet, former CEO of Google, mentioned my name in her closing speech at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2015, I was thrilled! President Obama had launched the Summit and there were top global entrepreneurs in attendance including the likes of Daymond John of The Shark Tank, whom I had only seen on TV. I should have realized much earlier that the world is for anyone to conquer, and we should never limit ourselves to local contexts.

Your personal motto in life?

Never wait for anyone’s validation.

Give a motivational message for the audience/women who are reading this.
The world is all yours to conquer. You can be anything you want to be if you put your heart and mind to it, because gender does not define what or who you should be or can be.

What are your thoughts about women leadership today?

So many women have gone before us and fought hard for women to be in positions of leadership in ways we cannot imagine. Slowly but steadily, the glass ceiling is being shattered, and women are finding their voices, sitting at tables, and making their own when necessary. We still have a lot of work to do. But we must remain focused and continue to improve things for future generations in the same way that those who came before us did. Their efforts should never go unnoticed. Let us not be the women who bring down others, but rather the ones who hold the ladder for others to climb. The candle must always be lit and never burn out.