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Sunday, 7 September 2014

Rehmat Sumra - The Kenyan Female Entrepreneur Who is Standing Firm in a Man's World

Meet Rehmat Sumra, the 27 year old Kenyan entrepreneur who is holding sway in a very male dominated industry. She teamed up with her husband last year to start Aayat Enterprises, a construction company in which she is the head of operations. Sumra says having lots of confidence has been handy in her career, especially when handling people suspicious of women doing what they consider ‘men’s work’.

Sumra who has previously cut her teeth in another male-dominated industry as a teenager, was just 19 when she became CEO of Roma Scrap Metal Dealers, a family business that supplies scrap metals to lead manufacturers and steel mills.  As boss at Roma, Sumra has overseen the firm’s expansion and growth from a turnover of Ksh. 40m (US$450,000) a year to over Ksh. 400m ($4.5m).

She grew up like most girls playing with dolls, wearing bright clothes and reading Cinderella stories. But looking back, she says her family background impacted on her career goals. Watching her parents run the family business drew her towards entrepreneurship“I loved going to work with my mum from as young as 13. Every time she would buy me a soda and sweet potato. So going to work with her was tempting to me because I knew I would get a reward. I did not know it, but was acquiring skills for my future.”

She notes that solving Africa’s “role model problem” by celebrating successful women entrepreneurs is critical in getting young girls into traditional male-dominated industries. “I think African women are the most hard-working the world over. There have been years and years of bias of making us believe we are not worthy of success. It is only recently that people have begun to accept women can perform just as well as men. The mama mbogas (roadside vegetable vendors) you see are often women who did not get a better opportunity because of stereotyping and general gender bias.”

She urges would-be women entrepreneurs not to listen to negative voices, be ready to learn from mistakes, build a support system and not shy away from being ambitious. “You need to have that drive inside you because at the end of the day, if you don’t want it you are not going to get it.”Sumra lists confidence, an eye for opportunities and her ability to make sacrifices, as some of the reasons behind her success. And learning vital business lessons from her parents. She recalls how her father started Roma in 1994 after spotting unused bottles at a friend’s home.

“He knew someone else was buying used bottles so he negotiated pricing with the buyer and the seller, paid a transporter and after the deal went through he had made Ksh. 60,000 in profit. That is how he started with no capital at all!”And her father, now a member of parliament in Kenya, taught her to “never take on a crooked deal”. I have really appreciated that lesson because when you start business it is difficult to avoid short-cuts, but in the long-run you come to realise they are never a permanent solution. Your reputation tends to take a hit if you are not honest and straight. Don’t always be plotting how you are going to make an extra buck by taking short cuts, or worse cheating, because they are not sustainable models.

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