Women in Finance & Investment – Lise Birikundavyi

Our guest is an innovative finance specialist who has worked with several international institutions. Welcome Lise, as she talks about her journey in Finance and Investment;

Hi Lise, I am honored to have this session with you today. Thank you for accepting to speak to us about your journey
Thank you for inviting me, Winnie. I commend you for the good work you are doing – it is much needed.

Our audience would like to know who Lise is
My name is Lise Birikundavyi from Burundi. I am the Co-founder of BKR Capital. We are a Canada-based venture capital firm that’s focused on investing in technology. The key differentiator we have is that we are investing in Black-led startups. Our goal is to invest 90% in Canada and 10% in the rest of the world.

I am a financial professional who started my career in the hedge fund industry before transitioning to direct investment, venture capital, private equity, and impact investing – with a focus on emerging markets. For some good reason, I believe that financing equals empowerment.

I also always felt extremely passionate about the disconnect between what I was seeing concerning the black community at large and its image. When I look at the black community I see leaders, extremely resourceful, smart, beautiful, and intelligent people. I see people who are accomplishing so many things. But this is often not how North American society portrays it.

I grew up in Montreal, and this misperception was a bit challenging for me to accept. Therefore I decided to be part of the solution and contribute to empowering people who had fewer resources to build what they can build. When I transitioned into the impact investing space, my eyes were initially set on Africa. The goal was to invest in change-makers that were building solutions for themselves and their societies.

For me, it was a win-win type of equation. At the end of the day, we are making money out of the process and the entrepreneurs are building the solutions that they want to see in their societies. These entrepreneurs create job opportunities for the youth and become role models for younger generations. When they see people that look like them and that have accomplished successes, it gives confidence. They know they can do it too. The wealth creation that is generated through this process stays within the community and more businesses are created.

I have worked for a few years in Ivory Coast and Ghana. I returned to Canada at the end of 2019 because I wanted to be close to family for the delivery of my second child. That’s when the world stopped working after the pandemic hit.

My baby was born in February of 2020, the same year George Floyd was murdered. I saw a lot of hurt and pain in people around me. The continued lack of consideration for people in my community caught my attention.

Wanting to be part of the solution, myself and my business partner, Isaac Olowolafe, decided to create this venture fund and invest in Black-led companies. We have an understanding that this will not only be impactful in Canada as most of the Black population in Canada are immigrants from either Africa or the Caribbean. In most cases, their businesses have a link between Canada and the innovators’ home countries. They are building something that makes sense for them with a good understanding of the broader impact they want for their home communities. We hope that this will generate the same impact I mentioned earlier in terms of empowerment and sustainable solutions.

Initially, we were targeting our fund to be at USD 10M but it has been over-subscribed. This means more investors are willing to invest and we now have a target size of USD 20M. We have been meeting with hundreds of entrepreneurs since our official launch in June 2021. It’s a highly selective process, we will invest in 18 companies over the next 4 years.

As an African female entrepreneur in tech, walk us through your journey; how has it been like for you?
That’s a very interesting question! It’s been an experience where what I was told would be easy doors were not as easy as I thought they would be. Putting all that aside, I am naturally driven by the end objective. For me, the path can be very flexible as long as I know where I am going. And, I have not followed the very traditional way of climbing up the corporate ladder. It is not something that would interest me per se. When I am faced with barriers, I found other ways to get to my destination.

I am someone who always has a plan A, B, C, D,…. If one door doesn’t open, I am already onto the next one and I immediately stop thinking about that one first door. Generally, I have never really stopped and tried to think too much about being black, female, and young – and what that meant in terms of obstacles. My focus is always on what I am trying to achieve and on helping my people.

As a child, did you ever imagine doing this kind of work?
I didn’t know about investment while growing up. I have always been a fan of Mathematics and sciences for sure, but I have also been a fan of arts in general. Curiosity is something that always defined me and is very useful in my field. I love learning about what people are doing, finding out the different resources, and creating connections.

I wouldn’t have said this before but now I see that there’s a clear link between my passion for Mathematics and my working in Finance. It was only in university that I decided to go into finance. And it was after learning about impact investment through a friend that I decided to transition toward direct investments.

Tell us about the most challenging point in your life
It’s making decisions that sometimes take me away from family. So, following a path to achieve certain things and the best option is to move to a different place that’s far away from family and friends. It is hard because it creates separation on a personal level.

At the end of everything, it’s important to invest in relationships that matter because even with the distance, your closest relations will understand that you had to do what you had to do.

You have mentioned your motivation as always being goal-oriented; what else keeps you going?
My children too. I grew up a feminist – I am still a hard-core feminist. I believe in the equality of men and women. However different we are, no one should be stepped on! I believe in freedom in general. This is stronger for me because I have two sons, haha. I have to think more about their place in the world and shape them into becoming responsible men. This is part of my “why”.

Let’s talk about moments when you felt that your work was appreciated
Hhm! I have never had this question, haha.

There’s a lot of information you can find online where people celebrate your achievements without exactly knowing who you are. These times might be prestigious but what makes me feel appreciated is when I see my work being useful to an entrepreneur. You know we invest in companies, in people really, and I see the hard work that they put in. Being an entrepreneur is very hard! So being able to not only support their hard work with financial capital but also be able to provide resources and help them in any way is very rewarding to me. These are the moments that remind me why I do what I do.

How do you spend your out-of-work time?
Haha, I am an entrepreneur myself with this fund, so work takes a lot of my time. When I can, I love spending as much time as possible with my children and husband, and I also love going to brunch with my friends.

What is your favorite quote?
The one I wrote for my website: ‘Everyone has the power of changing the world, how are you using yours?’ It’s a good reminder for me that you always have a choice button in front of you. Even when you feel stuck.

What is your piece of advice for a young girl who is passionate about STEM?
Create your pathway. Everyone that has been there before and all the people we look up to have at some point had to be creative. They have had to open doors for themselves. It’s not about wanting to be perfect and to understand everything. Just start doing, be the action, and don’t be afraid to create something that suits you best.

Thank you very much for sparing time to speak with me, Lise. It’s a privilege to know you and look forward to what BKR Capital is doing for Africa.

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