Q+A with Ayesha Ofori
Founder and CEO of Propelle
Ayesha Ofori is the Founder and CEO of Propelle, a female focused investment platform designed to empower women to invest regularly and build wealth. In this Q+A, Ayesha discusses female entrepreneurship, the importance of mentors, and how property investing changed her life.
Can you tell us a little bit about what Propelle is and what the company does?
Statistics show that women invest less than men and invest less than they should. Considering women earn less (the gender pay gap), spend less time in the workplace (as they often take time out of work to be carers), and need their money to last longer (because they live longer than men), not investing what they do have is a big problem: some will even reach retirement age in poverty. Propelle’s mission is to empower people, especially women, to invest and build wealth.
Propelle is designed for and focuses on women (but we do have some male customers). We operate through three key pillars: community, education and investment. We’re building a platform that will offer investors and those who would like to start investing, an easy way to better understand their financial goals and trajectory, to learn about investing and investment opportunities, and to feel comfortable investing and managing their investments. One of our key unique selling propositions, the first asset class we started with, is property investment. Specifically fractionalised, direct UK residential property investment. Typically direct property investments aren’t offered to investors via mainstream platforms, wealth advisors or IFA’s. I find this quite surprising given real estate is the largest asset class in the world.
You run two other businesses, Axion and BPN, which are also situated in the real estate space. What led you to start those businesses and what synergies do you see between them and Propelle?
Property investing changed my life and I wanted to help others use it as a tool to have positive impacts in their lives. I no longer have day-to-day involvement in Axion or BPN – my sole focus is Propelle. Running a start-up is hard work and to really build something meaningful, it takes all your attention…at least that’s my experience. The key theme between all the business I’ve started is property investment, specifically, enabling people to make fractional investment into UK residential property. This means people can invest as little as £100, enabling those who typically can’t afford to buy a whole house to participate and benefit from property ownership.
Before you became an entrepreneur, you worked in wealth management at Goldman Sachs. Can you talk about what that transition was like, and how you leveraged your Goldman Sachs experience while starting your own company?
The transition was harder than expected, in a number of ways. I was at GS for almost six years… it was home. I met some of my best friends at GS, I met the now God-Mother to my eldest daughter at GS, I found mentors at GS (who I’m still in touch with today)… my identity was tied to GS. So resigning wasn’t so easy. It took me a few attempts to formally hand in my resignation. And I remember that evening, I kept wondering if I’d made the right decision. With hindsight, I know it was the right decision for me and although I’m no longer an employee, GS is still a part of my life and a part of Propelle. Propelle is part of the Launch With GS programme, some GS employees are investors in Propelle, some of my closest friends are still GS employees and I continue to seek the advice of my GS mentors who are also still there. So in many ways it feels like I haven’t really left, at least not fully.
A key feature that also factored into my transition, was that I had built up a financial safety net. While I was at Goldman Sachs, I started investing in property, which allowed me to build capital so that I could afford to leave my full-time job and not have to rely on a salary for a while. Looking back, this was the trigger for property investment having such meaning to me and why the three companies I then started all focused around property investment. Property investment allowed me to have flexibility, freedom and more choice in what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be able to give that back to others, particularly those from underrepresented groups - I wanted to help those who are usually left behind.
The learnings from my time in PWM that have helped me with Propelle are too numerous to mention individually. But they include: learning how to manage and motivate people, understanding and operating within financial regulations, knowing how to invest, knowing how to strategise, and problem solving, even when it seems impossible. I’m fairly certain had I not been a private wealth adviser, I wouldn’t be building a platform that focuses on financial education and investment.
What’s something you want people to know about your entrepreneurship journey as a female founder, and specifically founding a company that works to uplift other women?
There is a huge barrier for women starting out and trying to grow businesses. I was a bit naïve when I started Propelle and assumed that because I have a Master's degree and because I've worked at top financial institutions, these statistics wouldn't apply to me. Not only that...I expected fund raising to be quite easy. To say the opposite was true is an understatement. Starting a business is incredibly hard, frustrating, and sometimes ugly. Not only am I a Black woman, but I’m building a platform that focuses on women. Let’s just say that neither of those things sat well with some would-be investors. In some cases it was very clear to me that because I didn’t look the same as some of the investors I sat in front of, I wasn’t getting the money – Propelle’s great traction and progress didn’t matter. But… I did raise funding. I refused to give up and I changed strategy and used different tactics once I’d accepted that the prejudice was real and that I wasn’t immune to it. In the end, I raised more than I set out to, closed an oversubscribed round and actually had to turn some investors away, telling them I’d be in touch for the next round. But that wouldn’t have been possible without allies, both individuals and companies, helping in various ways.
You’ve talked before about how as an entrepreneur you have to reframe failures as learning opportunities. What have been some of your best learning opportunities while starting Propelle?
I’ve always been a bit of an overachiever and sought success in pretty much everything I did, but I never really learnt to accept or deal with failure until starting my own business. A failure is only a failure if you get nothing from it. If you can take something from it then it’s a lesson. I’ve yet to come across a failure that hasn’t taught me something, especially with hindsight. One of my greatest learnings has been around people. I've learnt that people are the key to a successful business, in some cases, more than the actual product or service a company offers. Focusing on the customer and building something they love is the best way to drive growth and profitability vs. solely focusing on the bottom line.