Interview with Dr. Leila Bouamatou, Mauritania

The challenges of succession in a family-owned business are as numerous as they are complex. From bridging the generation gap to walking the line between innovating and honouring tradition, succession is never simple even at the best of times.

What it is like for women in Africa to deal with all that in a culture where it is often frowned upon for women to show drive and ambition deserves separate consideration. All too often, business-minded women are put in the impossible situation of having to choose between a career or a family even if it’s a matter of choosing to join their own family’s business.

Dr. Leila Bouamatou is a next-generation family business member from Mauritania who has set out to study and better understand the challenges African women face when seeking to take over a business. Her recently published academic paper A Qualitative Investigation Of Female Family Business Succession In Francophone Africa was part of her DBA studies in Business Administration at Temple University in the United States.

Leila spoke to us about her research and the future for female successors in Africa.

KNOWLEDGE: Female Succession in Francophone Africa’s Family Businesses

What is the driving force behind your interest in this topic?

There were many factors that triggered my interest in the topic of women empowerment in general. Most African women are underrepresented socially, politically, and more importantly, economically. It’s hard to imagine how a continent can attempt to compete in such a fierce global competitive environment without the important asset that women represent. A second reason is the importance of family businesses in the African economy. Unfortunately, the majority of African family-owned businesses fail when the founder retires or dies. The long-term success rate in many African countries is less than the global average with only three percent surviving the third generation. This rarely involves female succession to a leadership role and reflects a very low level of gender egalitarianism. This exclusion has a negative impact on the productivity and longevity of family businesses because very talented and very qualified women are being shut out of the process.

What mostly prompted me to undertake this research is that I come from a family, where many of us are involved in the family business. The reason I decided to focus on Francophone Africa is that my home nation of Mauritania is composed of Arabs and Africans. I thought that the Francophone region could be used as an umbrella to study both.

You spoke to a group of women who were facing this female succession dilemma in Africa. What were the commonalities?

When I first conducted my research, it was pretty hard. Because it’s a completely different experience knocking on doors, trying to establish contact with these women. It can be quite intimidating to talk about your personal life, your experiences, the challenges you are facing within your family business. It’s really delicate, especially in Africa.

As for the commonalities amongst the women who did take over their family business, the first was that most of them were the oldest child and they all succeeded their fathers as the head of the family business. In most of the cases, the succession was complete while there were some cases where the succession was still in progress. Their business experience ranged between 3 and 22 years and their companies represented a variety of industries.

What were some of the common barriers these peers faced?

The first group of women that I interviewed reported a mix of family impediments to their succession. Some experienced resistance from their mothers which was very surprising to me as a woman. But mothers often believe that leadership of the family should fall to the male successor. This often due to the mothers’ lack of education and the continued stigma that only men can lead the family. Others found resistance from siblings and other family members, such as uncles or cousins. In Africa, when it comes to family businesses, a lot of family members are involved.

We found other types of impediments were commonplace in the form of institutional and gender barriers to the success of women. In the African tradition, society creates an institutionalised expectation that women should only support their children or husbands, rather than go into business. And due in part to this expectation, it’s pretty rare to see women in leadership positions. That has implications for their own families which was the case for some women that I interviewed. Many had to sacrifice, their whole lives, including their marital lives to pursue their careers.

The most striking institutional factor is the name taking convention where in some succession cases, women were asked to give up their husband’s name before working in the family business. They cannot be leading the family legacy and carry the name of another family. It just isn’t acceptable in their society.

KNOWLEDGE: Female Succession in Francophone Africa’s Family Businesses

What are the realities female entrepreneurs face in joining their family businesses in African countries?

Despite the growing level of education amongst African women in the last decades and the fact that they are perceived by the law and legally considered as equal to men, their entrepreneurship reality is still shaped by their historical context understood in terms of African cultural traditions.

Business is still considered as a domain reserved exclusively to men. Also most family affairs and important decisions are reserved to men. The African conventional norms and social expectations are not in favor of women succession in business.

Now many talented African women are excluded from the succession of their family businesses because of African norms and traditions and in addition to that some women are excluded because they lack interest or confidence. Others live in the shadow of their brothers or husbands or think that being successful in business means giving up their femininity and having to act like a man. Some women also think that men prefer women who can be managed and controlled.

To be clear I think African women still have a lot to do and a long way to go in their battle for succession in family business. They have to dream and persevere as well as be ready to make sacrifices and apply emotional intelligence to these difficult situations.

In the cases of your respondents, have their fathers championed the causes of their daughters?

In many cases where women were going through a father-daughter succession, one of the most important factors present was the strong support of a modern thinking father. Having a good and a trusting relationship with their father was crucial because, without it, it would appear nothing could be done.

There are some other factors that are really important for those women for them to succeed and to survive in this environment. First, they all strongly believe that women, now more than ever before, have the opportunity to aspire, and occupy leadership positions within their family businesses. Secondly, education is an important factor. Most of the respondents, they were all very well educated. Many had at least three degrees. Also most could speak at least two to three languages. Thirdly, those who were successful displayed individual traits such as determination, ambition, emotional strength and adaptability. And what I mean by adaptability is the ability to stand up for individual rights, while still being open to compromise. When you have a husband that does not like to see you succeed or insists on all these concessions, it’s very difficult. As a fourth point, they all spoke about the fact that there is a great need to have more female entrepreneurs as role models to encourage other women in business. So, we need to be strategic and to develop more solidarity between women.

It’s true that the female succession in a family business is affected by the social context and African norms and traditions. But, now they have the freedom and the social obligation to contribute to the construction of their own future, and to better shape the future generation and of African girls. And in a way, redefine the African norms and social expectations.

You spoke about the importance of progressive fathers in this social transformation. Is there any sign that husbands are following suit?

As far as the husbands are concerned, he can either be a constraint or an enabler for his wife’s succession within family businesses in Africa. From the women that I interviewed, there are cases men were very supportive of their wives. While in other cases, the succession led to divorces and even family divisions. Some African men do not accept the name taking as I mentioned earlier. There are cases where a husband did not accept the idea of having a successful wife, and preferred one that would stay at home, take care of children, and remain completely under their authority. There are other cases where some ambitious women aspiring to leadership positions within their family businesses chose not to get married as a sacrifice.

KNOWLEDGE: Female Succession in Francophone Africa’s Family Businesses

How can an ecosystem in francophone Africa be created that is increasingly supportive of female successors?

I think the first thing is to show that women are improving the financial situation of the businesses. Proving that we can add value will go a long way to help foster acceptance. Because for us to succeed, we have to make sure that the family business can survive to the next generation.

The second point is to try to keep the family unified. We have seen that is one of the most important impediments or challenges that family businesses constantly face. And this means finding a balance between the family business and our personal lives. Because as women, we have to take care of our lives, we have to take care of our husbands and our children. And to ensure that future succession does not discriminate against girls and young women entrepreneurs.

Has the experience of doing this research impacted your own perspective of your family business?

Definitely. I learned a lot about myself through exploring this topic. What I discovered is that it’s a subject that I want to further develop and teach. I feel a strong pull to teaching not only the subject of family businesses but emotional intelligence when it comes to family businesses. And women leadership in family businesses as well. Partly because this will allow me to grow our family business and partly out of a sense of civic responsibility. I am very optimistic that when it comes to female entrepreneurs that are involved in the African family businesses, we’ll find a way to develop it further. Because Africa is changing, and so is the mentality. Women are getting more and more educated and becoming more and more ambitious. Fathers are more and more supportive of their daughters and more open minded, compared to previous generations.

I believe that the current generation of young African women has a great responsibility to encourage younger women and girls to consider business careers. Especially, within the field of family businesses. I consider my generation of young female entrepreneurs as a transition between the previous era where we were relatively scarce and the future generation of successful women in business. We are in good shape. We can do it.