Dr. Ola Brown Is Breaking the Narrative of African Women
Medical doctor, entrepreneur, trainee helicopter pilot, author, investor and humanitarian are just some of the words to describe YPO member Dr. Ola Brown. Her inspiring story from medical student in the United Kingdom to founder of West Africa’s first indigenous Air Ambulance Service and venture capitalist is driven by passion and a desire for impact, a term she equates with “measurable improvement in people’s lives.”
The early years: Tragedy and inspiration
Born and raised in the UK, Brown decided early to pursue a medical career. “I came from a humble background and at the time getting into medical school was rare, especially that I did not attend a private school,” she recalls. “In my teens, I also began thinking about Africa and how I can help with aid development. That yearning to make a difference grew stronger in university.”
Then tragedy hit while she was in medical school. Brown’s 12-year-old sister, while on holiday in Nigeria, fell ill. “We tried to arrange an air ambulance but by the time we made all the arrangements, my sister had died and that was when it struck me that this can be a small area where I can make a big change,” says Brown. “She died not because hospitals were not available but because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, a misfortune of geography.”
After graduation, Brown worked for the National Health Service in the U. K. as a doctor before moving to Lagos, Nigeria to launch the first air-operated emergency medical service in the country, Flying Doctors Nigeria.
Building business skills
As Founder, Brown quickly learned that she needed to fill the gap in her business knowledge. “One of the most interesting things that happened to me when starting the business was the realization that all my academic medical training and the prestige that comes with the title of being a doctor was not enough,” says Brown. “There were significant knowledge gaps in the so-called soft but essential skills, like financial, marketing, creative problem solving, strategy, as well as skills in public speaking and alignment building, especially at the board level.”
As she focused on developing these skills (taking executive courses and adding a list of new certifications while authoring medical books), Brown intentionally built her social enterprise as a sustainable business not as a charity.
“I have always been a very impact-driven person. A lot of people in the medical profession think about vocation and impact,” she says. “But sustainability and profitability are also important as I recognized over time. There are not a lot of profitable companies in Africa and I definitely did not want to have another charity set up and rely on fund raising to create impact.”
While moving from England to Nigeria opened different opportunities for her professionally, it was not an easy ride to scale the business in the region. “You have to be shrewd as an entrepreneur working in Africa. Our economies are a lot more volatile then more developed economies, for example there is less currency stability and more corruption,” says Brown. As she navigated through the challenges, she began focusing all her time on leading the strategy of the business and managing the team of doctors and pilots towards greater efficiency and impact.
For Brown, YPO has played a key role in this journey. “It has given me a kind of family support, an alternative board of directors, providing me with a listening ear and valuable insights, a platform to freely discuss issues as peers without interest of stakeholders or board,” she says.
“Call me Dr. Ola”
A few years ago, a group of partners, which included Dr. Ola Brown, set up an investment company for Africa’s expanding technology startups, helping other people make impact through technology, one of the few women in Africa active in this field.
“I find myself continually trying to correct myths about successful women,” says Brown, recalling how in one occasion in an all-male meeting, she was referred to as princess but insisted that she be referred to as Dr. Ola. “The gender bias comes across in different subtle ways, including things like less likelihood to get bank loans for example.”
While acknowledging that there are more women leaders in Africa compared to a decade ago, Brown recognizes the need for more. One of the obstacles holding them back she sites is the “likability bias”, a term coined by COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg.
“There is a likability penalty for female leaders. The more successful a woman is, the more she faces distinct social penalties and this has been difficult particularly in Africa, which is generally more conservative towards female leaders.”
Yet Brown remains hopeful and confident in the future of women and young entrepreneurs in Africa, adding, “The hardest thing is discipline, focus and managing oneself. Once you can manage yourself, you can manage anybody.”