South-African born Alysia Silberg is one of the IOEE’s newest Fellows, and her passion, energy and entrepreneurial spirit is boundless. Describing herself as ‘an entrepreneur out of desperation, rather than inspiration’, Alysia has always been ambitious about making a strong positive impact in the working world since she was a child, and her determination has resulted in an extremely successful and diverse portfolio of roles, experiences and awards, including giving a TED Talk, being a UN Ambassador, and becoming a socially-aware Venture Capitalist. This month we chatted to Alysia about her motivation, the importance of honesty, and why she believes that the UK is one of the most exciting places to be an entrepreneur.
Alysia’s career has taken her all over the world, working predominantly in South Africa, Canada and the USA, but the UK’s support system for the field of enterprise and entrepreneurship has led her to plant her roots firmly in London. Alysia explains how the opportunities in entrepreneurship here in the UK rival no other:
“I am incredibly appreciative to the UK for its inclusionary approach to entrepreneurship. The Government is very pro-entrepreneur and people really champion it here. I’m so grateful to be able to be here and be empowering people to build businesses. The UK is also very socially-focused, the banks make an effort to be very fair with financial support, and if you need to look for something, such as support or information, then you can find it here without too much difficulty. I definitely feel like a Londoner. The UK is my home.”
Alysia initially established herself as an entrepreneur in the technology industry and had a hugely successful career, but it was her personal experience of the highs and lows and ‘the rollercoaster of being an entrepreneur’ that led her to discover her calling as an ‘entrepreneur’s champion’. She explained that her own experience of self-doubt led her to go to extraordinary lengths to feel that she was ‘worthy’ and ‘clever enough’, such as reading 500 books on business in just one year, but how this personal experience now motivates her to inspire other people to believe in themselves. Alysia says:
“You know, people aren’t lacking skills or talent - it’s self-belief. It’s one of those things that really inspires me about American culture, that sets them apart from other regions and cultures. Americans are conditioned to be confident, and they don’t realise how lucky they are and how much that helps. That’s not to say that they all are confident, but, even if they’re not, they project this confidence anyway. Not us! In other parts of the world, we tell each other that we’re smart, and we’re like, ‘really, you think I’m smart?’!”
“I was hugely lacking in self-confidence, which is why I went on this mad adventure of trying to shove every book known to man inside my head. By the end of the year, I’d consumed 500 books, and it was crazy! I broke my sleep, I was listening to audiobooks constantly, just trying to get every bit of information in my head and thinking that then something good would come out. And it was a very lonely journey, I was reading in silence because of these insecurities that were saying, ‘you’re stupid, you’ll never know enough’. I was learning, but I wasn’t sharing, and when I finally came clean on a show and opened up about my issues of self-worth, I actually became a true member of the entrepreneurial community. Because we can all feel like that, which is why this UK spirit of inclusion and bodies like the IOEE are so beneficial; they’re places where we can all recognise and appreciate each other and pat each other on the back and say, ‘I believe in you!’”
Honesty is Alysia’s ethos, and she believes that we need to debunk the stereotypical connotations of being an entrepreneur and be open about the reality and challenges of what it entails, but she also wants to delve deeper into the industry and expose and discuss issues that may be hiding beneath the surface and being kept out of the media. She hosts an online ‘Fireside Chat’ twice a week that reaches an audience ranging from individual entrepreneurs to global leaders in business and government, with four or five experts on each show to discuss a subject or topic that is critical to entrepreneurs. Alyisa says:
“I am proud to say that we keep it brutally honest, and that’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t take funding for it - so that I could have control and keep it that way. For example, we recently had a brave banker from the Caribbean on the show, discussing homophobia and racism in Caribbean banking - it’s a place that people often just see as a tax haven, but there’s a whole banking industry taking place there that is overlooked. We have also talked about such things as the serious issue of corruption in emerging markets in the Commonwealth - we have then started a dialogue, and start to see amazing things coming out of the community; people talking and having an honest conversation.”
“I also want to be humble and real and honest about how hard it is being an entrepreneur. There’s a perception of this ‘zero to hero’ character driving around in a McLaren, and people don’t see the brutality of what it’s actually like to be an entrepreneur; the pressure, the pain, the heartache, the suffering! And people need to talk about this, which is why I mentioned in my TED Talk how I just broke down and sobbed in one meeting - in fact, I had a full-scale meltdown two days ago, so get that into this article! Honestly, I was just thinking, ’what am I doing, I’m exhausted, there’s got to be an easier way!’ - but it just is hard, so we all need to be honest and say that.”
In 2015 Alysia was invited to do a TED Talk about her journey as a South African female entrepreneur working in the technology industry, and her openness, along with her evident appetite to make positive change, resulted in her being invited to accept a role as a United Nations Global Champion for Women’s Empowerment in Entrepreneurship, which she explains meant taking all of her own advice on board:
“When I first got offered this role, it didn’t feel easy. I’m naturally very shy, but I thought, ‘okay, you can’t be a hypocrite, you have to honour all these amazing brave women and practice what you preach’. I take the responsibility very seriously, and it’s a great privilege to be in this position.”
From entrepreneur to entrepreneur champion, Alysia has now also moved into the world of venture capitalism, working as a partner at Street Global Venture Capital, where she channels her positivity and ‘people power’ into making responsible investments in world-changing commercial businesses, choosing to focus on the ‘unsung heroes’ that are dedicated to changing lives for the better. Alysia says:
“Being a Venture Capitalist is not as glamorous as everyone thinks. It is one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life, so you have to do it for the love of it - and I do. The learning, community and the opportunities to make a difference are tremendous, but there’s a lot of deferred reward, and the economics are lean because we’re putting everything into our work.
“Who our firm chooses to invest in are the people and companies that are creating the greatest opportunity for change globally. For example, investing in businesses who are making it easier or possible to produce anti-cancer gene therapies at scale, or who are identifying and offering fair loans to small businesses, who manage hospitals and patient records, who catch preventable diseases early, or who are working to increase the global stocks of antivenom and other antitoxins.
“I travel a lot, and you see these problems in emerging markets, such as people losing their sight because they don’t have access to the right solutions - huge issues that come from the developed world, that we in the UK don’t have to consider. So, these are the people we’re investing in - these one or two-person extraordinary teams who are working to solve massive challenges and issues, because you can find a small and focused solution, and then with the right support you can make a huge impact in solving the issue.”
Three months ago, Alysia became a Fellow of the IOEE, and she is excited to bring her now almost-trademark ambition and inspiration for the powers of positivity to all aspects of her fellowship. Alysia says:
“I’ve known about you guys for quite some time, so I’m hugely honoured and really excited to be here. If there’s any value I can add to this awesome entrepreneurship community, I’d be proud to contribute whatever I can. I can’t say enough positive stuff about the UK and institutes like the IOEE, and I can’t wait to see what happens here in the next 10 years in terms of this entrepreneurial space. It’s an incredibly exciting time.”