Global startup accelerator Techstars, in partnership with Lagos-based innovation ARM Labs, has announced Oyin Solebo as its managing director for the new ARM Labs Lagos Techstars Accelerator Program.
In April 2022, Techstars announced the launch of the ARM Labs Lagos Techstars Accelerator Program focused on helping fintech and proptech startups with products that serve an African audience. Since then the programme has solicited applications from startups and has hired Solebo to lead the programme which is due to commence its inaugural three-month cohort in January 2023.
From working as an Investment Associate at Goldman Sachs to co-founding Movemeback, an organisation focused on connecting African opportunities with overseas talent, Solebo says her experiences have primed her for the role. “It trained me to have critical thinking skills,” she tells TechCabal. “To be able to juggle multiple things and not let any of them drop.”
Solebo was born and bred in the UK to Nigerian parents. She describes the values that took precedence in her home: “My values have carried me to where I am now,” she says. “My parents grounded me in education, ambition, and the belief that your role in life is to make the world a better place. My mum is an entrepreneur and businesswoman, and she built in me the idea of problem-solving and creating solutions.”
Solebo holds an executive MBA with distinction from London Business School and a BSc Hons in Economics from The London School of Economics and Political Science. After leaving Goldman Sachs to follow her passion, she began working as a strategy consultant for global management consultancy firm Roland Berger in sub-Saharan Africa. “Ultimately, I wanted to do more,” she said. “I wanted to be able to contribute more to social and economic change, and business was a great vehicle to do that.”
Her position at Roland Berger gave her a better connection to Africa, and in 2010 she had the opportunity to live and work in Nigeria for the first time. “I was part of a team dedicated to financial services in Sub-Saharan Africa. That was my first foray into fintech in Africa, and understanding the ways technology can increase financial inclusion,” Solebo says.
A few years later, Solebo noticed a shift in the African tech ecosystem with Africans in the diaspora returning. She co-founded Movemeback in 2014 and worked there for 8 years before joining the team at Techstars. “It was just a question of what I wanted to do next,” she says. “I didn’t have anything specific in mind. I just knew I wanted to marry three key things: my passion and desire to work in Africa, my belief that startups make the world a better place, and my experience with capital—I mean both financial and human capital. So when someone put this role in front of me, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do.”
Solebo also expressed high regard for Nigerian entrepreneurs, seeing her role as that of an enabler. “These founders are the ones building amazing companies that not only drive Nigeria forward,” she says, “but the whole African content and beyond. I see my role as a facilitator of this program as a privilege. I am an enabler—that is how I see myself.”
A brainchild of the collaboration between Techstars and ARM Labs, the Lagos Techstars accelerator program, will select 12 startups to receive capital, one-on-one mentorship, customised programming, and access to the Techstars worldwide network on an annual basis. Solebo views the programme as a logical next step. “It shows that Techstars acts on what it believes in,” she says. “We believe entrepreneurs can come from anywhere in the world and create a better future for everyone. And how can you really believe that if you don’t have a program on the African continent?”
The programme will offer the selected startups the opportunity to meet and work from a physical office in Lagos. Solebo is optimistic about the benefits of a physical work programme. “A lot of them have never worked physically together because of the pandemic,” she explains. “They’ve worked remotely, many having created their businesses during or just before Covid-19. So I feel there is more to gain by being in person. There’s value to be found in shaking hands with someone, and seeing their reactions to the things you’re saying.”
As a female founder, Solebo prioritises the issue of gender inequality in the tech ecosystem. She attributes the low number of female entrepreneurs in programmes such as these to self-limiting and networking issues. “Women who are ready to apply aren’t as likely to do so, and the men are more likely to hear about these programmes from each other,” she says. Since taking on the position, she has made outreach efforts in hopes of diversifying the applicant pool.
Solebo is excited about the prospect of upscaling the Techstars accelerator program in Nigeria and across Africa. “One thing I’m very passionate about is job creation,” she adds. “That’s what has driven my career choices in the last decade. I think startups are such a powerful tool for job creation, so I want to see these startups go from employing two or three people to employing hundreds, if not thousands.”
The programme will be holding its demo day in March of 2023. With the active role they’ve played in Africa’s tech space for over a decade, Solebo believes Techstars has been outstanding at shining light on the potential for African startups. And by investing in 12 businesses every year, she says, they can now do more.