Africa's Female Entrepreneurs, Part I: Rita Ribeiro-Sales, Designing a Better World

In this new series, Pamina Mullins and I interview dynamic African female entrepreneurs to let them tell their powerful stories of persistence, hard-work and success in one of the world's fastest-growing economic environments. Our aim is to edify and inspire other female and male startups and entrepreneurs around the globe as they turn their vision into lived reality. Our first interviewee, Rita, runs a successful architectural practice in Maputo, Mozambique.

Pamina & OB: When did you first realize that architecture was your career choice?

Rita: When I was four years old I knew I wanted to be an architect--not just an architect, but The Architect! Although I had no one in the family to influence or mentor me in such a tough career choice, I never thought of being anything else but an architect.

Pamina & OB: What obstacles did you face in realizing this dream?

Rita: My first big challenge was fighting to get into the faculty of architecture in my own country, Mozambique. After three years of persistence, I succeeded, but in a different country--Brazil. Oh no! Now what, I thought? It was very scary to leave my family miles and miles away and go to study abroad. But like the old saying goes what does not kill you makes you stronger.

Pamina & OB: But despite your anxieties, you studied four years and graduated in Brazil. What drove and sustained you?

Rita: I wanted to be an architect known and cited by students in other universities. I wanted to design a better world where everyone has the right to a shelter, be it a big stunning house or just a humble compartment to live in. I wanted to be a mentor to others, as the great and inspiring Oscar Niemeyer [a celebrated Brazilian architect] has been for me.

Pamina & OB: And instead of staying in Brazil, you decided to return to Mozambique...

Rita: Right, and then I faced my next big challenge--finding a job in my country. I got nothing except empty promises. And then quite unexpectedly a South African architect asked me to be his office manager and startup the business. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for and I took it, and other opportunities that came along--I grabbed them all! Finally, I achieved the dream of my own architectural practice, although things didn't suddenly get easier. In fact, they got tougher.

Pamina & OB: What do you mean?

Rita: I live in a beautiful country, but there is political instability and an unstable local currency. Although my targets are not easy to achieve in this environment, I will get there!

Pamina & OB: Yes, the business environment is challenging indeed, perhaps even more so in your country, given its economic and political history. What are the keys to your success in spite of this?

Rita: I am very proud of myself for never giving up especially when things get very tough. The essential skill I believe is to be persistent no matter what circumstances you are in. Don't give up easily. It is often necessary to change your strategy, but never forget why you are doing it.

Pamina & OB: And there are operational issues as well...

Rita: Yes indeed. As a business woman, I needed to know not only how to create great architecture, but how to run a business, how to deal with people, how to adapt my business when the market makes a U-turn and things turn upside down, which they often do in Mozambique.

Pamina & OB: You have to be multi-skilled, resilient and agile...

Rita: Right. And flexibility is a vital skill, because when the market has a downturn in one area, you have a back-up strategy. With this in mind, I recently got my diploma in Health, Safety and Environment. Fortunately I have an in-house expert to manage the business finances -- my husband! Staying curious and seeking constant professional improvement is important.

Pamina & OB: What are your take-homes from your struggles, journeys and successes?

Rita: I have learned to accept things I cannot change and change things I can change, without diminishing who I am. My father always told my sister and me that when you wake up in the morning and look into the mirror you must not be scared or ashamed to look at yourself.

Pamina & OB: Wise words indeed. Rita, thank you for sharing your challenges, experiences and wisdom with us.

Rita: Thank you, too, and I hope my story will inspire others to remain focused on their vision and never give up.