Choosing the name of her company was the easiest aspect of Regina Honu’s journey.
It only took her a few hours to connect the dots. She wanted her business to be unique; the word unique in Ghanaian language Twi translated to Soronko, so she named her company Soronko Academy — the first coding and human-centred design school for children and young adults in West Africa.
“Some people take days to pick their company name, I tell entrepreneurs that they’re majoring in the minor. I say pick what you like and keep it moving, you can build a brand on it,” she said over a call.
Almost ten years after she made that decision, Soronko Academy has trained over 20,000 young people in Ghana and Burkina Faso and connected about 5,000 of them to job opportunities. She’s won multiple awards from brands such as Coca Cola and CNN for her contribution to tech in Ghana and Africa. She’s also a Mandela Washington Fellow and an Ashoka Fellow.
But the road to starting Soronko Academy was paved with many obstacles and difficult decisions. She has worked at two major banks in Ghana as the only woman in the IT department, participated in a reality show and even almost joined Microsoft but turned back to pursue her dream of ensuring that young ladies have access to the same opportunities that she did while growing up.
Playing PAC-man, flying with rockets and ending up in the Kitchen
Honu grew up in the 90s, a time where there were only a few reputable careers that people could explore. At the age of 12, she wanted to be a doctor until her father brought home a personal computer (PC). She mostly played PAC-man on it, which sparked her interest in computer science and inspired her to want to create her own game.
A few months later, she watched a movie about a man being able to fly with a rocket strapped to his back. So she decided she was going to build her own rocket. To show how determined she was to make this a reality, she sketched a rocket and showed it to her teacher who quickly downplayed her ambition.
“He said it’s impossible, girls don’t build rockets and I’ll end up in the kitchen.”
That experience made her shelve her ambition to build rockets and detest the fact that people always told her what she could do based on her gender. From then on she decided to become a computer scientist — the only one in her class with such ambition.
Failure is not final
In her first year in senior secondary school, Honu had her first taste of failure during an Inter-school quiz competition. She missed a question in the final causing the school to not clinch the winning spot.
“I told myself I wasn’t going to try anything again, I’m a failure in life.”
The experience left a sour taste in her mouth but being one of the brightest in her school meant that when another competition came along she was selected to represent her school. This time she was determined to go all out and win.
In order to impress the judges, she went as far as learning some Latin. Fortunately, she ended up winning the competition. This win was a huge confidence booster and a reminder that failure is not final.
The best part about winning the competition was that it gave her the opportunity to spend one year in Norway on a school exchange program.
A year in Norway
At the age of 16, Honu had her first exposure to a different culture. She continued as a science student but quickly found out that things were different in Norway. The focus in her new school was more on comprehension but she was used to memorizing and regurgitating information without necessarily understanding it.
“I found out that I didn’t understand anything. I could draw a very complex electrical circuit but if you give me two wires and a bulb to connect, I’ll be lost.”
In Norway the mode of training was different; students had access to formula books and calculators. All they had to do was understand how to apply the formula. She was initially lost but soon found her feet as she adapted to the more practical learning style.
Outside of schooling, she learnt how to ride a bicycle, rollerblade and climb mountains. She even got a taste of activism by joining a protest. The experience taught her that she could do more than she thought she could.
“I think that Norwegian experience has shaped the way I am. People always ask me, were you born and raised in Ghana you seem different. I came back with a different way of thinking. “
Getting into University
When it was time to choose where to get her first degree, there was some dispute between whether she should school abroad or remain in Ghana. Her mother opted for the former while she wanted the latter.
For Honu, she had lived abroad and wasn’t fascinated by the idea. She was also concerned about the prospects of travelling out and not returning. She didn’t want to be part of the brain drain phenomenon.
Honu won the dispute but was faced with one more challenge. She wanted to study computer science but wasn’t impressed by the fact that courses being taught in the universities in Ghana weren’t evolving quickly.
It seemed like she’ll have to concede to her mum until her dad spotted an advert in the newspaper for Ashesi University, a new school that was recruiting its first set of students. Asheshi promised its future students a world-class education with an up-to-date curriculum.
“I remember at that time, Ashesi was just a house at Labone. I walked in and saw that the university was a house but it didn’t matter.”
In 2000, she got into Ashesi to study computer science. At that time the total population of the school was 30 students, with 14 of them in the computer science program.
American futurist, Alvin Toffler is credited with saying that the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn. Honu definitely agrees with this quote as she spent her first year at Ashesi unlearning many of the wrong ideas she had.
Going through University wasn’t without its own struggles. In her second year, she found visual basics difficult to understand and considered switching to a business major.
But on her way to the dean’s office she had a rethink.
“I asked myself, ‘Is this how I’m going to give up?’ I decided to give it one more shot. I immersed myself in work. They’ll give us group assignments and I will do it myself. I carried the load on my head, I was doing all the work and it became easy for me.”
In her third year, she got her first internship at a software company. At this company, the stamina she had built for solving difficult problems came in handy, as Ashesi students were expected to go above and beyond.
“There were times when my boss would give me tasks and I wouldn’t understand it or know what to do but how would I say ‘excuse me, sir, they didn’t teach us that in class.’ So I’ll take out time to understand the question first before even trying to answer it, then go on to solve it.”
After the internship, she was retained by the company while still in school. This experience was her first taste of independence as she had moved on from relying on her dad who was giving her pocket money.
Welcome to the Corporate world
After school, she returned to work for the software company briefly before joining Zenith bank.
Two things attracted her to the bank: an increase in the pay and the expectation that because the bank closed to customers by 5 pm, the workers also closed at that time. But upon joining the bank she found out that the latter was not the case.
She quickly excelled on the job and became popular after she built an intranet system for the bank. She was responsible for re-engineering the bank’s IT products used in Lagos for Ghana.
Being the only female in the IT department at the bank came with its own challenges. During meetings the men on the team tried to apportion the job of taking minutes or getting refreshments to her. She grew a thick skin to ward off such stereotypical remarks. She also had to learn to work with her male colleagues without bruising their egos.
“The male ego is very interesting, if we’re all working on a problem and I arrive at the solution first, I can’t announce it because it’ll come off as a show-off. I had to learn to bring everyone to my way of thinking and then have us arrive at the solution together.”
Everyone in the department got promoted
Having proved herself on the job, she decided to apply for an opening for the role of head of electronic banking — naturally, she expected to get the job. At the interview, she noticed something was off, the interviewer first verified she was in the right place and then went on to ask her non-work related questions.
“He didn’t give me the benefit of doubt. He felt that I couldn’t be the head of electronic banking. I was devastated.”
While sharing her awkward interview experience with a colleague, she mentioned her grade level at the bank. It was then she learnt that her colleagues were on higher grades than her and she was the lowest paid in the department.
“I was the lowest-paid not because I was female but because I didn’t know how to negotiate. They don’t tell women on the continent how to negotiate, you don’t ask for more. While growing up, you take what you’re given, smile and say thank you. There’s nothing like asking for more. That’s insolent behaviour.”
Armed with this information, she requested to be promoted to a particular grade or she’ll resign. Her request was granted but ironically, her colleagues were also promoted to make it seem like a general department-wide promotion.
The Apprentice Africa
In the midst of all this, she took unpaid leave to participate in a reality TV show The Apprentice Africa; for her, it was an opportunity to get an MBA training. She didn’t win the competition but it equipped her with a valuable understanding of business concepts and showed her a glimpse of how reality TV shows work.
“I was a resource person but I didn’t assert myself, I was a bit shy. The thing with reality TV is that they create characters. They only edit it and show places of you behaving in a particular way. If you’re loud, they show that, if you’re quiet that’s what they show.”
Upon leaving the show, she remembers that one of the crew persons walked up to her and said she’ll be a great team player but not a leader.
“I was like hmm, maybe it’s true.”
She got an offer to work for Bank PHB, headline sponsor of the show, but couldn’t imagine living in the fast-paced Lagos, so she returned back to Ghana.
Same experience at another bank and turning away from a job at Microsoft
She eventually left Zenith bank for Fidelity, another Nigerian Bank in Ghana. And it was the same experience all over again.
It was at this point that the idea to start her own company came but she shelved it at first.
“I always say I put a snooze button on my dream. I thought entrepreneurs are born but not trained. There are people who are born with charisma and are bold. I never saw myself that way.”
While at the bank, she got an opportunity to interview at Microsoft. She went through the process and got to travel to Seattle at Microsoft head office. While waiting for her turn, she made up her mind that she’ll return to Ghana to build something.
Resigning from her Job
The morning of the day Honu resigned from her job, she didn’t know it would happen. She was used to a certain comfortable life, earning a decent salary, but she wasn’t happy.
“I told my friends that I wanted to resign and they were like no, it’s a bad idea, don’t be stupid. Bonus is coming. I just had that feeling that if I didn’t do it that day. I won’t have the courage to do that again.”
So she took the jump, resigned, bought a computer and desktop to start training kids.
She also decided to move back to her parent’s house to reduce costs and increase her runway. That was the start of Soronko Academy.
Finding the right kind of love
After calling off a three-year-long relationship with a guy, who was putting up with her. Honu wasn’t sure she might find the right man and was ready to make peace with that.
“He felt that as soon as he put a ring on it, I’ll start behaving like a typical Ghanaian woman. I remember attending a particular event where everyone kept coming to me and it was as if he was invisible. He was so angry. I started seeing that he couldn’t deal with a woman who would outshine him.”
She eventually met her husband on an interview set, a South African who was on holiday in Ghana. In 2015, they got married.
“I always advise women that who we marry is important, it makes a difference. The fact that my husband is supportive allows me to be different.”
These days she spends her free time with her husband and daughter.
10 years and counting
It’s been almost 10 years since Honu started Soronko Academy, for her there’s still so much more to do. She’s looking to get a bigger space in order to accommodate more women and run a residential program.
These days her number one pet peeve is people asking her to do something else, that’s she has done enough.
“We’re now doing some programs in the other Ghanaian regions and some women don’t have an idea of what an email address is. So we still have a long way to go, we shouldn’t count the minorities and privileged as progress.”