Straight after college, I moved to The Republic of Guinea to serve in the Peace Corps. The country is full of paradoxes and really pulled me in. How can a country have such rich soil for agriculture and mining, 2 deepwater ports, and enough hydropower to power the continent and yet be home to some of the poorest people in the world with a youth unemployment rate of more than 70%? My journey started with me working with my peers in Guinea to start businesses. With some colleagues from some of my partner organizations in Guinea and Peace Corps Volunteers, we launched Dare to Innovate, Guinea's first business accelerator. We are a social business accelerator meaning that our companies consider their impact on people, profits, and the environment when making managerial decisions. Out first cohort graduated in 2013 and it's been incredible to see their businesses grow over the last 7 years. Some are now running significant businesses creating many jobs. The organization grew as well, We have now worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs in Guinea and Benin.
What ignited the spark in you to start a new business venture or to make significant changes in an existing business?
How did the idea for your business come about? The success and challenges that we were having at Dare to Innovate actually inspired my latest entrepreneurial venture, OZÉ. While our programs were high impact and, for what we do, some of the most inexpensive job-creation programs on the continent, they were still too expensive to reach the scale we need to reach to really make a dent in youth unemployment. Second, our entrepreneurs were innovative in so many ways, but still using basic management tools. They, like their fellow entrepreneurs across the emerging world, keep their records in notebooks and so the value of that data is locked-up. It's not used to make decisions and it can't be used at the bank to secure a loan. These thoughts were in my head, but the real spark rose from tragedy. The Ebola epidemic started in Guinea. As a result of the epidemic, the Peace Corps left Guinea and we lost all of our funding to run Dare to Innovate. The original groups of Peace Corps Volunteers came together and put ourselves through our own ideation process, the one we use in our accelerators, to overcome the challenges of supporting entrepreneurs remotely and at scale. OZÉ was born from that retreat. What were the biggest initial hurdles to building your business and how did you overcome them?
My co-founder and I are not technical. We did not come to the solution by thinking, "What can we build?". We came to a problem and found that technology had an integral role in the solution. So in the early days, we always had to convince people to build prototypes for us. Until we recruited our tech lead, probably 4 different people had a hand in developing our tech as side projects. OZÉ is a for-profit business and we believe that there is a massive market opportunity here, but we also are trying to build the tools that support small business growth so that small businesses can create jobs and drive inclusive economic growth. Luckily we were able to find other people who were also animated by that mission to help. What books are you currently reading? And your recommendation for entrepreneurs to read?
I just graduated from a three-year-long Master's program so I am taking a break from reading books related to business, entrepreneurship or public policy. Recently I've read Born a Crime, Trevor Noah's biography and The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.
I do listen to podcasts related to entrepreneurship though! Some of my favorites are Planet Money, 99% Invisible, How I Built This, Equity, and The Pitch. Did you ever deal with contention from your family and friends concerning your entrepreneurial pursuits?
How did you handle it? What would you do differently in hindsight? They are supportive, although I am sure they wish I was pursing entrepreneurship a little closer to home. I think they are supportive because as risky as starting a business is, I have derisked it as much as possible. We launched our product into the market and had a full year of data while I was in grad school. By the time I graduated I had enough feedback from my customers to know we were on the right track and enough money in the bank to pay salaries for a year. What would you say was the single most influential factor in your business success?
Persistence. "Not taking no for an answer" is only a small part of what it means to be persistent as an entrepreneur. It's your priority to get partners to work with you, to get customers to try your product, to get investors to put capital behind your idea. It's not necessarily their priority to find new partners, test a product, or invest in you. Persistence is staying organized so that you can follow up on every offer or piece of communication without letting any of the balls you are juggling to drop to the floor. What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started as an entrepreneur?
If you are still on Plan A after a year you are probably not being honest enough with yourself about the feedback you are getting from the market.
What advice would you give to an upcoming entrepreneur locally and internationally?
For entrepreneurs, no matter where you are, care deeply about the problem you are solving. It's lonely and I guarantee that there will be days when you are not sure you'll be able to get out of bed. Visualizing what the world looks like without that problem has to be enough to get you going even when you are running on empty. Specifically, for entrepreneurs innovating for markets other than their home market, you can't come up with the solution. Create the right frameworks and opportunities for your customers to develop the solution. Your job is not to have the ideas. It's to triage their ideas into a solution that's desirable, viable, and feasible.