The first decades of Isabel dos Santos’ career — marked by successful investment in a diverse range of economic sectors — saw her accumulate enough wealth to make the Angolan native Africa’s richest woman. She is now continuing to develop her business activities in Europe, especially Portugal, while also expanding her philanthropic work into areas that are a natural outgrowth of her professional life.
Among her passions are creating opportunities for young talent in Africa — especially women, who continue to face challenges in entering the business world. This includes expanding the role of the African agriculture sector as a path for both indigenous business expansion and a way to create a more localized, environmentally friendly, and stable food supply. Much of her work revolves around the education that will make such transformations possible.
Dos Santos sees Africa as not only an area rich in natural resources, but one with vast untapped human resource potential. A strong believer in diverse teams in the workplace — which expand the perspective and agility of any business — she is increasingly focused on laying the groundwork for successful entrepreneurship opportunities for those following in her footsteps.
As someone who built her wealth in telecommunications and other sectors of the modern global economy, Isabel dos Santos sees vast potential in the modernizing trend sweeping Africa. She seeks to support the expansion of African entrepreneurs — especially women — in the modern global economy, regularly speaking and supporting initiatives to bring talented young Africans into positions of opportunity. Ultimately, she argues that increasing the quality of life for Africans is deeply tied to economic development.
“What kind of world do we want to build? Who are we going to be in the future? I think we do all have one common concern — that we don’t want to leave anyone behind. We want to make sure that we make an inclusive world, a world where everybody has a role.”
Much of dos Santos’ thinking on development is intertwined with valuing and supporting community. That can take the form of global digital communities that Africans are gaining access to, but also rural communities that are struggling with development issues while also offering vast opportunities for agricultural-based growth and development. Inclusivity is a key concept.
“What kind of world do we want to build? Who are we going to be in the future? I think we do all have one common concern — that we don’t want to leave anyone behind. We want to make sure that we make an inclusive world, a world where everybody has a role,” she explained during a break while attending the 2018 Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York. “Africa this year was really on the highlight. There were a number of entrepreneurs and politicians that were present at the Bloomberg event. What worries me is that we are debating investment and strategy for the future. If there is not [the] outlook of Africa, decisions that will actually include and involve Africa, [then] there will be decisions that will be designed around the concerns of the Western world.
Building out layers of community is something dos Santos is firmly committed to. In some cases that means supporting programs that enhance the basic physical infrastructure that any stable community requires — access to the essentials, such as safe drinking water, viable sanitation, medical facilities, food access, and education — and in others welcoming young businesspeople into what she often refers to as the “great family” of African entrepreneurs.
“Entrepreneurship in Africa is becoming more and more vibrant. Yesterday, we didn’t even recognize the faces or names of the African entrepreneurs. They are now familiar faces that are recognized around the world and have become a model to follow,” dos Santos writes on her webpage. “I believe that success creates success and many more Africans will end up joining this great family.”
Her work mentoring future business leaders of Africa is a “pay it forward” process that dos Santos sees as creating a value chain — one both monetary and civic. This is often done with focused projects and direct relationships with people just entering business at the “on the ground” level. Concentrating on small communities is a strategic choice. Creating prosperity there, away from urban centers, will bring business activity into areas that have not shared access to much of the recent economic gains in Africa — while also creating opportunities for women to immediately gain positions of leadership.
“I believe that social responsibility starts within our homes, our companies. I am grateful to our employees who are very involved in volunteering and [who] participate in several campaigns, giving their time and knowledge,” she reports on her webpage. “We want to make a difference, together, knowing that the real gain is the improvement of life quality in our community.”
Isabel Dos Santos finds that agriculture serves several purposes as a source of philanthropic investment. It’s already a sector where women are actively involved, is rooted in rural areas, and has natural markets in African urban centers — where a rising middle class is creating demand for higher quality foodstuffs.
“Supporting national production is now one of my major sources of motivation, as an entrepreneur and a citizen – helping to change people’s way of life while at the same time responding to one of the continent’s main challenges, how to devise alternative forms of subsistence based on its natural riches,” she writes on her webpage.
Women in Business
One of the continent’s richest resources — and one traditionally underutilized — is its women.
“First the seed, then the future.”
A favorite phrase of dos Santos is, “First the seed, then the future.” As with her focus on building up cooperatives and other forms of agricultural businesses, creating a support network and advocacy system for women in the African business world is also building for the future. It represents a form of steady, intrinsic change that is deeply embedded in the development process.
“It is still very difficult for young girls to have the same job opportunities as young men. It is very difficult for women to have access to finance. If a woman wants to borrow money to start her business it’s very hard; it’s easier for a man to borrow money to start his business,” dos Santos explains in a YouTube video in support of UN Women (United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women). “This kind of inequality we need to work on.”
As a woman who built a successful career while facing a traditionally male-dominated professional world, dos Santos understands both the challenges of making a place for oneself in business and the cost of excluding the potential that women will bring to the world of commerce. As Africa seeks to expand and modernize its economy, excluding women cannot really be afforded.
That’s the focus of much of dos Santos public advocacy and philanthropy work. It is both personal — given her trailblazing career — while also meant to avoid the clear societal cost of denying talented individuals the ability to share their talents.
“We need to change practices, we need to have human resource policies where we really say ‘you have to evaluate women fairly, you cannot discriminate because she’s a mother or because she’s expecting a baby,’” explained dos Santos at an open session of the 2017 London Business School Africa Business Summit. “We need to create that through policy. It’s not enough just to tell people. You actually have to implement serious policies about that.”
This extends into educational and training opportunities for women in the digital economy (an issue for African men as well). While building up the local agricultural sector is one target of dos Santos’ advocacy work, she also sees the concurrent integration of Africa into what she refers to as the “digitalization” of the global economy.
Also tied to her personal history — she holds a degree in electrical engineering from London’s King’s College — dos Santos is a passionate advocate of bringing educational opportunities to Africa. While local agriculture builds on women’s traditional role, the digital sector is a wide-open sector offering new opportunities to women who embrace the task of learning.
“Although bringing literacy to people is still very important, we need to focus on quality education: vocational training programs, highly specialized university education, and research,” dos Santos writes on her webpage. “Young people who receive good university education become independent adults, capable of thinking for themselves, of creating their own projects, generating wealth and, consequently, purchasing power and savings awareness. These are the people who will drive their countries and the continent.”
Dos Santos sees a future in which the traditional strengths of Africa are harnessed while it takes its rightful place at the table of the world economy.