With dreams of becoming a tech startup founder, Kebone Moloko moved to San Francisco in 2017 to earn her Masters degree in International Business at HULT International Business School.
While there, she found something that she had never experienced at home in South Africa: an entire ecosystem of queer women entrepreneurs who helped and supported one another.
“I’d never been in an environment where I was able to be with openly supportive queer women in business,” she says, “Talking about business and it being okay to be my full self.”
While she didn’t think there was anything like this in South Africa, she had a feeling there were queer women in business there who craved community and support.
“The more [my cofounders and I] started talking to queer women in our network and our communities,” she says, “We realized they haven’t had these amazing experiences with other queer women in business. Because we weren’t connecting with one another.”
So, Moloko and her cofounders, Siyabonga Ntuli and Buyelwa Xundu, launched Queer Women in Business + Allies, an organization that focuses on empowering and advancing queer women, transgender, and nonbinary entrepreneurs across the African continent.
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In the past 18 months, QWB + Allies has launched three chapters in South Africa, hosting workshops and accelerators to help members build skills and also increase their access to resources and fundraising opportunities.
What’s more, the organization has already worked with over 1000 women, a number many people told Moloko she’d never reach.
“People said we won’t get past 500,” she says. “People assume we don’t exist because we’re invisible.”
Reaching this point has not been without its challenges, though. Despite the fact that South Africa was the first country in the world to make it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation, Moloko says the country is not as advanced as it should be when it comes to acceptance.
“In launching, initially there were a lot of doors shut,” she says. “Whether we were reaching out for funding, support, advice. There was even a point where we were trying to organize one of our events, and it was almost shut down.”
It was difficult to convince investors and other potential corporate partners why it was important for queer women entrepreneurs to receive more support.
Still, Moloko and her team refused to give up.
“We pushed on. What we chose to do is focus on the people we were catering to, our community and our members, and that’s how we were able to overcome that. When people started to see the call from our community, that’s when they started to realize this is something that is necessary, and I guess our passion spoke for itself.”
Moloko is proud that this passion has led to such high levels of engagement.
“Having built a community of over 1000 queer women specifically in business is a huge achievement for us,” she says, “Because these are the people we’re doing it for. The fact that they’re on board means we’re catering to what they need.”
As the organization has become more established, Moloko says that African businesses have also begun reaching out to them for advice on how to be more inclusive.
“We have now given more awareness to the importance of inclusion of queer people, specifically within the business sector,” she says.
Moloko hopes to eventually open chapters across Africa, as well as hold more summits and events outside of South Africa.
Accomplishing this will be difficult, she says, because in many countries it is not safe to be out and visible. In some areas where that is the case, the organization already offers support to entrepreneurs without having official chapters.
Still, Moloko hopes someday QWB +Allies will have established a supportive ecosystem of entrepreneurs, investors, corporate partners, and working professionals across the entire African continent.
“We want to see a society where African queer women are able to get access to equitable business opportunities,” she says, “and have a good supportive network of mentors and cofounders.”
Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Moloko attended graduate school at Stanford University