Twenty-eight-year-old trailblazer Aisha Addo moved across the world at age 14 and quickly shook off societal expectations. The self-proclaimed accidental entrepreneur is a mentor and CEO of two companies, which support marginalized women and girls.

“Frankly, this was all by chance,” Aisha Addo confessed from the TEDx stage at the University of Ghana in Accra, where she was born. Addo was referring to the circuitous path that led her to become, as she put it, “an accidental entrepreneur.” She is the founder of the nonprofit Power to Girls Foundation, a mentorship program for marginalized girls in Toronto, as well as DriveHER, a women-only rideshare app. Addo walked casually across the stage as she spoke—confident yet accessible—and emphasized the serendipitous nature of her career.

But how much of an accident her turn to entrepreneurship truly is is debatable.

Addo left Ghana for Canada at age 14, to live with an aunt, leaving her beloved parents and two brothers behind. Within a year, she ended up in foster care, where she remained for two years. Addo often tells the story of her foster mother, who told her she was expected to be a teenage mother, expected to be a drug addict, expected to drop out of school. “The system doesn’t expect much of you as a young Black girl,” Addo recalled her foster mother saying.

For someone else, such a comment might have landed like a slap to the face. But the foster mother did not say it with malice, said Addo. In many ways, Addo was grateful to have heard it.

“Everytime I share that story, I wished I had told her, ‘I’m not going to be the stereotype,’” said Addo. “That was not something I said out loud to her, but it’s something I said to myself. It was a defining moment. It got me thinking, there are people who expect so little of you. As a person, how can you get to a point where you are expecting so much more for yourself?”

A seed was planted. Addo didn’t have anyone to tell her that she was more than just another immigrant, more than a ward of the state. And that’s the piece she wanted to change.

Addo left foster care at age 17 to live on her own. She studied business administration accounting at George Brown College and earned her degree in 2012. And while still a teenage student, she conceived of a way to help young Black girls understand that they mattered and that they could be more than narrow stereotypes. During these early musings, she dreamed up Power to Girls Foundation, which she has run for almost a decade.

An ordinary incident inspired the organization. In church, Addo watched as an older woman, an immigrant not unlike herself, laid into a 12-year-old girl about 12 years old about what she was wearing. “There was no love, no understanding of where the girl was coming from,” said Addo. The woman spoke at the girl, not to her. When the elder left, Addo walked up to the girl. “I said, ‘You’re beautiful. Don’t listen to her.’” They decided to meet again that following Friday. Soon, other girls came—four, then six, then 10. Then they put together a conference and invited nearly 70 people. Said Addo, “It just kept growing from there.”

Today, Power to Girls partners with the Toronto Catholic School Board and is in schools across the city, working not just with girls from the Afro-diaspora but marginalized girls from all backgrounds: “immigrants, Black girls, Afro-Latinas.” There’s an in-school program, as well as camps and conferences, even mother-daughter events to help girls and women heal their primary relationships, and, starting last year, a sister program in Ghana. Addo was uniquely positioned. As she said, “I was able to understand the immigrant girl struggle and the Canadian girl struggle. She knew the older generation’s beliefs about how a girl is “supposed to be” from growing up in Ghana. “I could say, ‘This is why your parents are acting this way.’”

Although Addo is now in the leadership role, less in the day-to-day, the experience has been profound and deeply personal. “I look back at what was I doing at 17, what was I doing at 16. Now I get the opportunity to work with these diverse girls. For me, I experience 14-year-old Aisha again, 15-year-old Aisha again.”

When you ask the entrepreneur about Power to Girls Foundation, she will say, humbly, “It started as a result of my own experience.” And just three years ago, Addo transformed another personal experience into a resonant business idea. 

One night, Addo was in a taxi driving back to Mississauga, the Toronto suburb where she lives. The ride started off cordial enough. Then the male driver’s questions turned from a seemingly innocuous “How are you?” to an invasive “Do you live alone?” and “Do you have a boyfriend?” Addo called a friend, and explained the situation in her native Twi as a way to calm her nerves and avoid having to respond to the driver. She got out of the taxi a few houses away from her home safe, shaken, and fired up to do something about it.

So, without technical experience, Addo set out to build a better, safer way for women to get from point A to point B: a ridesharing app for women, by women. She muddled through tangled municipal regulations, the male-dominated tech industry, the racism and sexism coursing through the world of start-up funding. “A lot of it is systematic and subtle,” said Addo. “Unless you are really deep in the work you might not feel it.”

DriveHER launched in March 2018 to much fanfare and glowing press. The app not only connects women riders with women drivers, it is peppered with empowering, inspirational quotes, and safety tips for women. The app also provides employment opportunities for women in an industry that is overwhelmingly male. 

“Entrepreneurship was never something that we actually considered to be a career choice,” she said. But there’s something to be said about forging a new path—if you had never considered it before, how could you know where it might lead?”

There are five surefire signs that someone has what it takes to be an entrepreneur, according to Thomas Oppong, writing in Entrepreneur.

  • You can execute on your ideas.
  • You genuinely care about what you do or want to do.
  • You are able to get over failures in life and business.
  • You are a passionate life-long learner.
  • You can you handle risk.

Addo can certainly check off all of these traits for herself. At just 28 years old, Addo is a CEO two times over, one of 100 Black Women to Watch in Canada, and among the 150 Black Women making history in Toronto. And this is no accident. Consider her journey. Consider her resolve in the face of limited expectations. Consider her passion for change and her belief in the power of community. None of those things were left to chance. Each is a critical building block for a young entrepreneur.

“As we grow, it’s not, What is the next thing?” says Addo. “It’s, What’s the need? What’s the dire need, now? If you asked me 10 years ago, Aisha, where will you be? I would say, I don’t know where it’s going to end up.” And that, perhaps, is the point. You don’t always have to know where exactly you will land, as long as you believe in yourself enough to get there.

Laura Lambert is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. You can read her work on Facebook.