May 27, 2022
Headshot of Paulina Koelbl

Meet Pauline Koelbl, UArizona Franke Honors Alumna and founder and managing partner of ShEquity. We recently chatted with Pauline to learn about her passion for female empowerment and entrepreneurship, her experience at the University of Arizona Honors College, and being a double Fulbright Scholar and Fellow.

Tell us about yourself?

I am a global citizen with a passion for entrepreneurship, innovation, and the economic empowerment of women and youth. Among other things, I am the Founder and Managing Partner of ShEquity as well as the Founder and CEO of AfriProspect. AfriProspect focuses on connecting African innovators with global markets, and ShEquity provides smart investment to impactful, innovative, and scalable African female-led and owned businesses. Before founding AfriProspect and ShEquity, my work focused on catalyzing marketable, scalable, and impactful home-grown innovations for African-led growth across the African continent as well as building strategic partnerships and innovation ecosystems that will invigorate economic growth across Africa. Before this, I worked for UN bodies including the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris.  

I am a double Fulbright (Scholar & Fellow) and I hold an Executive Education in Innovation for Economic Development from Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government; a master’s degree (MA) in Poverty and Development, Institute of Development Studies (IDS) from the University of Sussex, United Kingdom, and a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in International Studies (Honors) from the University of Arizona (UAZ), USA.

The great education I received opened many opportunities for me, and I decided to pursue a purpose-driven career. In line with this, I established an impact-driven business, ShEquity, aiming not just for profit, but also to have a positive impact on people and the planet. The vision behind ShEquity is about closing the gender funding gap in Africa (currently at US$42 Billion). My motivation is about Paying It Forward!

In what ways did being a Fulbright Scholar and Fellow impact your life?

I received a Fulbright Scholarship which allowed me to go do my graduate studies at the world’s best institution for development studies (ranked top for the last sixty years in a row), The Institute of Development Studies in the United Kingdom. When I finished, I was offered an opportunity to work for UNESCO in Paris as a Fulbright Fellow making me a double Fulbright, something that is not often seen! Beyond opening doors for me, the Fulbright experience instilled in me a sense of purpose which led me to where I am today.   

In what ways did your Honors experience impact your career path and who you are today? Who or what inspired you most?

I transferred to UArizona from Pima Community College and was a bit lost at first. I had just arrived in the USA a few years back as a refugee and was still adjusting to the new country and environment around me! This changed when I had my first meeting with an advisor at the Honors College who introduced me to Dr. Wayne Decker. Not only did Dr. Decker guide me towards deciding on a major and continued mentoring me during the whole time at the Honors College, but he also introduced me to the rest of the Honors College community. I got involved in different extracurricular activities which in return allowed me to make friends with other Honors students and start feeling at home!

I also got to meet the then Dean, Dr. Patricia MacCorquodale, and I was impressed by how accessible she was and how much she took interest in Honors students. In addition, I was introduced to Dr. Karna Walter, who was then in charge of competitive scholarships. By the time I was getting ready to graduate, I had full support from the Dean, Dr. Walter, and Dr. Decker, and they all advised me to go for the best competitive scholarships, including Fulbright. Somehow, they believed in me and saw in me potential I did not even realize was there! Initially, I was not confident I could make it, and they reassured and supported me at each step of the application process.

I had great grades (I graduated Summa Cum Laude) and had a good track record for extracurricular activities which helped while putting together my Fulbright application. By the time I graduated, I had received other great awards including the following: UA 2006 - 2007 Pillars of Excellence Recognition Program Award; UA Centennial Achievement Award, the UA highest undergraduate award given to only two graduating seniors (one female, one male) each academic year; Honors College Outstanding Senior Award, University of Arizona (UA), awarded to one student each year. 

I am where I am because of the great experience and support I had at the Honors College, which opened many opportunities and rekindled hope and a sense of purpose in me. I am super grateful for all my professors and mentors and hope they are proud of the seed they sowed when I was admitted to the Honors College. I believe I am a great example of how a great educational system can have an everlasting impact on those who pass through such institutions! 

As founder and managing partner at ShEquity, what motivated you to start this organization? What are you most passionate about in your work? What are some of your biggest challenges? 

As indicated above, I want to pay it forward! My story is about how many people supported me to get where I am! My life journey has not been an easy ride, but as the saying goes, “what does not kill you makes you stronger!” Now that I have options, I decided to build a purpose-driven business where I can impact the lives of others. The hardship I went through taught me resilience, determination, and perseverance, and this became handy while building my business! Combining my passion and purpose, I decided to focus on unlocking the potential of African female entrepreneurs and innovators because they are key drivers of Africa’s socio-economic growth. The trickle-down economics linked to investing in women is real! Women reinvest about 90% of their revenue in activities that benefit their families and/or societies compared to only about 40% for men.   

Africa’s narrative is often distorted because it is dominated by negative stories. ShEquity demonstrates the true Africa’s narrative: A narrative about how Africa is innovative, diverse, rich, with a youthful and ambitious population, and full of many opportunities. I am passionate about catalyzing smart investments that unlock the potential of African female entrepreneurs with impact across communities. It feels good to deliver profit to our investors while having a positive impact on people and the planet.

The biggest challenge is raising funds for business in Africa. This is mainly linked to the perceived risks that many investors have about Africa, combined with the existing gender biases. We are innovating around this challenge and giving up is not a part of my DNA! 

When the topic of climate change comes up, many people don’t consider gender bias as one of its many consequences. What can we do to create more awareness around this issue?

Women represent about 50% of the global population and raise the remaining 50%! Any decision or action that does not involve them is not sustainable and is prone to fail. Thus, the existing gender biases must be addressed first if we truly want to save our planet.

Also, different research demonstrates how women are more vulnerable to climate change impacts than men because, globally, women constitute most of the poor people, and they depend on natural resources threatened by climate change. The existing poverty is exacerbated by the existing gender pay and funding gap and other gender discriminatory practices that make it harder for women to compete equally in the marketplace. Specifically, with regards to climate change, the existing gender biases lead to women being excluded in climate change discussions and actions even though they possess important local knowledge and play important roles in many societies. 

Beyond their ability to implement sustainable practices at the household level, empowered women can also decide on the number of kids they want to have and decide about sending their girls to school or saying no to child marriage. Having fewer kids addresses not only the overpopulation concern but also lower carbon emissions. Thus, involving women in climate change and associated mitigation strategies is the smart thing to do if we are serious about keeping our planet safe. 

SHEquity logo

What is one of the most inspirational success stories you have witnessed in your work?

Fortunately, I witness many inspirational success stories through our work at ShEquity! Those are about women seeing challenges and instead of complaining about those, they decide to solve them by creating impactful, innovative, and scalable solutions. All our investees are inspiring in many ways. Their solutions range from creating a platform to address issues related to the safety and accuracy of medicines (Medsaf); addressing mobility challenges in one of the biggest cities in Africa (Shuttlers); building a circular economy business focusing on a waste to value model (Ecodudu); seeking to accelerate commerce by democratizing creditworthiness for over 100 million small businesses serving more than 3 billion individuals annually, starting in Africa (Superfluid). More of our investees are here: 
My goal is to back more of such inspiring founders who are solving societal challenges while also creating jobs and contributing to inclusive growth on the African continent. 

What advice do you have for students (specifically women and underrepresented students) who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs and how to best navigate that journey?

Remember, it all starts with an idea. Once you have a clear idea, find ways to test it and get feedback from peers and other people within your network. If still convinced your idea is worth pursuing, then either join an incubation or find resources to build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and get it validated in the marketplace. Depending on the outcomes of your market validation, proceed or start from zero or pivot! If on market, keep listening to your customers and aim to continue to delight them with the best you got to offer!

Also, remember that failing is a part of the game and learning process. Don’t give up if you fail. If you failed once, you are well equipped to avoid the same mistakes. Lastly, find a support network because entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey!

As a proud UAZ Honors Alumna, what were some of your favorite college memories? Is there anything you miss about Tucson?  

I was not a traditional student because I was working while going to school (I needed to pay my rent and support my family back in Africa); therefore, I did not get to enjoy the party life on the campus much!

With regards to academic assignments, I would say I enjoyed having to read The Economist every week and being ready to discuss specific sections that are linked to our interests. This allowed us to stay updated on world affairs, which was important for someone like me majoring in International Studies. Also, it allowed us to bond as students, and I am still friends with many I met during that class. 

Regarding extracurricular activities, being involved in a community project that was supporting refugees in Tucson was great. This was even more important for me because I was a refugee before joining UArizona, so being able to help other refugees was kind of rewarding!

Tucson will always be my home! Even though I now live in Zurich, Tucson occupies a special place in my heart! I have many friends and families who made me feel at home when I just got there as a refugee and restored my faith in human kindness. Also, I am still friends with my Franke Honors College family including Patricia, Karna, Wayne, and David! Outside of the Honors College, I have other family friends who are part of my Global Village. Before COVID19, I tried to come back to visit once a year.

Any words of wisdom for young alumni who are just starting in their careers?

Congratulations, you made it! Be grateful and proud of what you achieved and remember there are so many opportunities waiting for you, so, don’t just settle for an average career path. Seek more than a paycheck! Seek opportunities that will allow you to utilize your full potential. Work on finding your passion and purpose and leverage those to contribute to building a better world for yourself, your family, and future generations! 

My favorite African proverb is that “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” No matter how small you think you are, you can have an impact! Count your blessings; you can always do more with what you have.

Note: Pauline will be in Tucson on Saturday, June 11th, and will be hosting a happy hour at 4:00 pm (venue to be determined). If you are interested in attending and learning more about ShEquity, please contact Pauline at