Chioma Okotcha, PayHippo’s Co-founder, on her journey and being resilient during tough times

Today, she's part of a rare group of Nigerian women in the tech startup space who have raised over $5m in early-stage funding.

Chioma Okotcha, PayHippo’s Co-founder, on her journey and being resilient during tough times

In celebration of Women’s Month and the theme #InspireInclusion, we've teamed up with Ventures Platform to share the stories of female leaders in the African tech ecosystem. 

This 3-part series, "Navigating Success: Stories of Triumph and Resilience", will focus on the experiences of three female leaders, highlighting their achievements, and the resilience they demonstrated in overcoming obstacles.

Today, we embark on the first leg of this adventure by meeting Chioma Okotcha, co-founder/COO of Payhippo.

Chioma Okotcha, co-founder/COO of Payhippo

Chioma Okotcha has been around the block long enough to know that mistakes and failures are only stepping stones on the pathway to success. 

After starting her career with a short stint in finance and consulting in 2007, she transitioned to the world of public policy and impact where she analysed social policies in Paris and Cape Town, designed programs to support the launch of an education non-profit start-up in Lagos and supported the NCDC through the Tony Blair Institute. For three years, she led development and partnerships at Teach for Nigeria raising $500,000 for the non-profit startup. Before that, she had short stints at founding two businesses – a stationery business and a beauty business – that failed but taught her a great deal about the importance of timing and the right business partners.

Today, she's part of a rare group of Nigerian women in the tech startup space who have raised over $5m in early-stage funding. With a passion for impact, she's leading Payhippo to provide millions of small businesses with access to clean energy. 

Throughout this conversation, we will delve into Chioma's unique perspective, the pivotal moments that shaped her entrepreneurial journey, and the invaluable lessons she has gleaned along the way.

Damilola Teidi: Hi Chioma, thanks for agreeing to be a part of this series and I can’t wait for us to dive in! It's great to chat with someone who's carved their path in the tech world, especially considering the underrepresentation of women in the field. I'm curious, how did you get into the tech startup ecosystem? 

Chioma: Thank you so much for having me!  It all started back in 2004, long before the current tech ecosystem took shape. I studied computer networking, and during that time, there were perhaps fewer than ten women in my year at university. What intrigued me then was the intersection of computers and finance. Alongside my studies, I started studying to become a Chartered Accountant (ACA) and would spend considerable time in the business school (they were much fun to be around). I’m lucky to have had a glimpse into both worlds that satiated my curiosity about finance. Fast forward, over a decade later, I’m working on a government policy project around housing microfinance and the learnings from this project will be the beginnings of Payhippo.

Damilola: That's fascinating! Speaking of Payhippo, what was that moment when you realized you were tackling a real problem, a problem that needed solving?

Chioma: I remember one of our very first customers who was an excellent entrepreneur. He had built up his business on his own and was trading large volumes. Unfortunately at the time, he was always losing out on time-sensitive business transactions. On his interaction with our product, his business accessed credit in under 24 hours and I still remember his call. “Chioma, how is this possible? I’ve just made a payment and closed out my transaction for more production and more money!!!”. If I close my eyes, I  can still recall this interaction clearly like it was yesterday. Fast forward many months later, he constantly provided honest feedback, highlighting areas where we were excellent and areas where we could do more for SMEs. As an early-stage entrepreneur, this feedback reinforced the importance of building a product that genuinely addresses the needs of our customers.

Damilola: Still on impactful moments, can you share an achievement you're particularly proud of and what factors do you attribute to that success?

Chioma: I’m very proud of taking that first step to ‘start’. I realise that this could have just been an idea in my mind that was never created because of the fear of the unknown or analysis paralysis (over-analysis).

I’m proud of experiencing a full business cycle. In 2019, we launched Payhippo and experienced exponential growth. We were growing 20% MoM, our technology was innovative, our team was expanding, we raised funds and even explored an expansion into West Africa. However, by 2022, we were in the red. We encountered a difficult business terrain and, in a few months, things were looking very bad. 

Fast forward to 2023, and we emerged stronger, having developed a product to address an even greater challenge within our ecosystem. What changed for us? We had to make a choice: ‘die’ or ‘pivot and survive’. Through tough brainstorming and valuable counsel, we found our pivot product and refused to ‘die’. What were the factors that played a role? Being an honest founder, having a strong leadership team and the determination to drive and push towards ‘profitability and sustainability’.

Things aren't always smooth sailing, and as you mentioned Payhippo faced some challenges in 2022. What strategies did you use to stay resilient during those tough times?

Happy to share three key strategies I typically rely on, in and out of tough seasons.

  • Margin Growth: Keeping our focus on our customers through appropriate engagement and ensuring that they understand the value we’re bringing to them so they become fully paying customers. Keeping an even closer focus on our operating expenses.  
  • Working Capital Efficiency: I ask myself and my team about the resources we truly need to deliver value. Who on the team is a ‘must have’ versus ‘who is a ‘good to have’? I’ve learnt that if you’re going to lay off staff, especially in very difficult situations, pull the bandaid at once rather than multiple times as that can affect trust. 
  • Technology Adoption: Ensuring that our scale can be automated and easily adapted by the users. This also applies to in-house processes and policies.

We all face moments of doubt and uncertainty. What keeps you motivated and pushing forward when things get tough?

In 2014, I completed a graduate school internship at the Tony Elumelu Foundation, working on a concept called ‘Africapitalism’ – pondering the true meaning of profit with a purpose within a business environment. Throughout my career journey, I’ve always been impact-driven whether through launching a non-profit, advising government agencies, or spearheading innovations in the private sector. 

During moments of uncertainty or doubt, I find my true north by assessing direct and indirect impact. For instance, at Payhippo, hundreds of SME owners were able to access vital financing needed for business expansion which indirectly provided jobs and facilitated a business ecosystem for GDP growth. In particular, I think about the number of women who accessed finance and were able to grow their families and communities on a small or medium scale. This second part is very important to me. Most recently, providing access to renewable energy is a 100% win for individuals and the climate.

I love that phrase “find my true north”. It speaks to having an anchor that reminds you of your purpose. This leads me to my next question, especially with the demands of being a founder. How do you prioritise self-care and maintain your mental well-being? What techniques have you found helpful?

To be honest, I believe there's always room for improvement in this area. Thus far, what has worked for me has been having my personal “board of directors” consisting of close friends and family who are personally and professionally invested in my success. This group holds me accountable to ensure that I prioritise balance and health. 

For actionable steps, I calendar moments for nothingness and coffee at least once a week, strength training three times a week and football on Saturdays. For undiluted joy, I enjoy playdates with my son and cherish quiet moments with my husband. My faith is also an anchor whether I’m full or depleted, I can always replenish by drawing deep.

Chioma and her son

As we wrap up, I'm sure many aspiring entrepreneurs, especially women, would appreciate any pearls of wisdom you have to share.  So looking back, what key lessons or advice would you give to your younger self or others starting?

When I look at my journey, I think of these five things:

  • Train and trust your instinct.
  • Be audacious and do not be intimidated by what you may not know.
  • Governance and accountability are extremely important.
  • Be comfortable with mistakes and failure but have a path to getting back up.
  • Build a ‘real’ business that’s profitable and focused on true impact.

And lastly, in the spirit of this year’s International Women’s Day theme - #InspireInclusion, I'm interested in your approach to building a diverse and inclusive team. Why is it important to you, and how do you go about achieving it at Payhippo?

As a business leader, you have to be very aware and address any biases you may have. This acknowledgement is the first step to building a diverse and inclusive team. In our case, our founding team is one-third female (me), our leadership team is at least 60% female and the rest of the company has a healthy balance of gender diversity. With our leadership meetings and decision-making, the inclusion of both men and women brings about an impressive balance, allowing for diverse perspectives to be considered when deliberating company issues. Our portfolio has at least 30% female entrepreneurs represented. We continue to challenge ourselves to be inclusive, especially in a difficult economic climate. 

Thank you, Chioma!

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