Agents of Growth

How Stanford Seed deploys alumni to lift the global economy.

April 13, 2021

| by Steve Hawk
A close up of hands holding macadamia nuts. Credit: Louis Nderi

Frank Omondi, CEO of Ten Senses Africa in Kenya, is one of hundreds of entrepreneurs who have benefited from the Stanford Seed Transformation Program. In this photo, Omondi displays the macadamia nuts that are at the core of his business. | Louis Nderi

On paper and on the ground, the two businesses appear to have little in common.

Multipart Feature

This two-part article focuses on Stanford Seed, which enlists alumni, faculty, students, and staff to help companies in emerging economies expand their businesses — all with the goal of creating jobs and lifting people out of poverty.

The second part is an interview with Darius Teter, Seed’s executive director.

One is called Ten Senses Africa. It buys, processes, and exports nuts grown by farmers in Kenya.

The other is called Zifo RnD Solutions. It’s based in India and provides complex R&D consulting services to science-driven firms worldwide.

There are a few areas, however, in which the two firms overlap. Both are in emerging economies. Both have much potential for growth. Both are run by leaders hungry for advice that will help them realize that potential. And in pursuit of that advice, the leaders of both businesses came to the same place.

Ten Senses and Zifo are among the 800 companies that have received guidance from the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies, better known as Stanford Seed, since it launched in 2013. Catalyzed by a gift from Bob King, MBA ’60, and his wife, Dottie, and since supported by many donors from the Stanford University and Stanford GSB communities, Seed enlists faculty, alumni, and student volunteers to provide “transformational” training to entrepreneurs in emerging countries.

The institute’s ultimate goal is to help small and medium-size firms grow into big firms, thus creating jobs, fueling local economies, and — most important — lifting people out of poverty.

“Taking a company from 50 or 100 employees up to 1,000 employees requires a very specific skill set,” says Stanford GSB professor Jesper B. Sørensen, who serves as Seed’s faculty director. “We focus on helping leaders work through the challenges of doing that.”

“Our value proposition,” says Executive Director Darius Teter, “is that we bring Stanford to you.”

The list of recipients is long and diverse. A metal fabricator in Ghana. A mobile banking app in Côte d’Ivoire. A dry cleaner in Nigeria. An engineering firm in Botswana. A juice business in Sierra Leone. A pharmaceutical chain in Uganda.

A high-tech consultancy in India.

A nut producer in Kenya.

Frank Omondi standing outside on a nut farm with farmers harvesting nuts behind him. Credit: Louis Nderi

“We may never beat China or America on making motor vehicles,” says Frank Omondi, CEO of Kenya-based Ten Senses Africa, which processes and exports nuts grown by local farmers. “But we can beat them producing food and macadamias.” | Louis Nderi

The Cash-Flow Queen

When Frank Omondi, the CEO of Ten Senses, first heard about Seed in 2017, via Twitter, he considered it a godsend. At the time, he faced a dilemma. He knew he needed to become a better businessman — his training is in wildlife biology — but he couldn’t afford to abandon his nut company for two years to get an MBA.

Ten Senses’ value proposition is easily explained: “We work with farmers with small pieces of land,” Omondi says. “We buy macadamia and cashew nuts and process them in a big factory in Nairobi, and then export the product to the U.S. and Europe.”

The company’s biggest challenge at the time was erratic cash flow, and Omondi was struggling to address it. “Cash is king,” he says. “When there’s no cash, there’s no music, and when there’s no music, you get off the dance floor.”

It’s unclear whether Omondi lifted that quote directly from the woman who became his Seed coach, Nancy Glaser, MBA ’85, but he very well might have. Glaser calls herself “the cash-flow queen.”

“I love cash flow because it’s so straightforward,” she says. “It’s money in, money out.”

As a venture capital and private equity investor specializing in retail finance, Glaser had spent more than 20 years in places like Poland, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan helping startups refine their financial strategies. When some Stanford GSB classmates told her about Seed, she quickly volunteered.

“I had just returned from Afghanistan,” she recalls. “It was hard coming back. America becomes boring.”

In 2015, Glaser happily accepted Seed’s invitation to move to Africa to coach a string of enterprises poised to grow. She spent two years on the continent, unpaid. Among the 24 companies she coached, she says, few had more potential than Ten Senses.

Shortly after she met Omondi and went through his books, Glaser saw that Ten Senses had all the ingredients for success: a good story, a strong leader, reliable suppliers, and hungry customers. But she remembers some of those customers calling from overseas, asking about shipments of macadamia nuts that Omondi’s team had promised to deliver.

“The phone would ring and someone would say, ‘Where’s my container?’ ” she recalls. “They were furious. They’d been promised shipments, but Ten Senses had run out of nuts. And they’d run out of nuts because they’d run out of money.”

The 10,000 farmers who sell their crops to Ten Senses were also displeased. They had product to sell, but their favorite buyer, Omondi — who bypasses unscrupulous middlemen and pays a fair price — was leaving them high and dry.

Ten Senses’ suppliers own, on average, six acres of crops apiece, according to a 2019 Seed-funded analysis. They are “wealthier” than most Kenyans: 46% of them earn more than $5.50 a day, compared with only 29% of the people nationwide.

“If Frank doesn’t have the money, everybody loses,” Glaser says. “All the good guys lose.”

“What Keeps You Up at Night?”

When the founders of Zifo RnD Solutions, Raj Prakash and Vanchinathan, first heard about Seed in 2018, they were skeptical that the program could help them. Their consultancy was growing at a steady clip: Deloitte had just named it one of the 50 fastest-growing technology firms in India — for the seventh consecutive year.

“They came into Seed as A students,” says Aaron Finch, MBA ’90, who served as Zifo’s in-country coach for just two months before the pandemic forced him to return to the U.S. early last year. It was Finch’s second tour as a Seed coach; in 2014, he and his wife had moved to Accra, the capital of Ghana, where he’d spent a year assisting a diverse array of West African firms.

At first, Finch found Zifo to be a bit of a puzzle. For one thing, the actual work it does can be hard to decipher. Most of Zifo’s clients are in the pharmaceutical and medical-device industries, and the descriptions of its various data-driven services sometimes seem written in code: “Our CDISC consultants provide all the required inputs … from CRF design as per CDASH standards to creating submission and analysis datasets using SDTM and ADaM standards.”

Also, among its seven primary services is business consulting — helping other companies plan and sustain strategic initiatives. Which raises the question: Why would a firm that has business consulting as one of its core offerings need a business coach like Finch?

Raj explains why. He and Vanchinathan both have backgrounds in engineering and middle management. Overseeing a burgeoning global enterprise was uncharted territory for them. So they were constantly on the hunt for opportunities to learn more about how to become better leaders.

Finch had been a cofounder of Coinstar and COO of OtterBox — both entrepreneurial success stories — and he knew that even thriving firms face ongoing, stressful challenges. So, shortly after he met the Zifo cofounders, he asked them, “What keeps you up at night?”

He remembers Raj mentioning one particular concern: that he was spending too much time, as CEO, helping Zifo’s sales team expand its business, when he should have been dealing with long-term strategic issues.

In response, Finch helped them craft a plan to cultivate “champions” inside companies that were already using Zifo’s R&D informatics and data-analysis services: customers who regarded the consultancy as an asset within their vertical and would spread the word to coworkers in other departments, thus expanding Zifo’s sales.

But Raj says the most important thing he and Vanchinathan learned from Seed was more holistic. It taught them how to view their organization as an ecosystem.

“Seed gave us the opportunity to benchmark ourselves,” says Raj. “Where do we stand in terms of sales? Where do we stand in terms of governance? What is our leadership capability? We were pleasantly surprised to realize that we do a lot of things well, but we also realized that we have lots of room for improvement.”

It turned out that one area specifically in need of improvement was HR.

Learning the Art of the Pitch

It was clear to Glaser, the cash-flow queen, that Omondi needed to secure strong investors if he was going to grow his nut company. It was also clear that many investors were already interested in Ten Senses.

“He had a pack of business cards two inches thick,” she recalls, from VCs and private equity fund managers who wanted to invest in Ten Senses. To Glaser, that only seemed logical, because she’d come to know the company and the man behind it. “If I had a social impact fund, I would have been hungry for investing in somebody like Frank,” Glaser says. “He’s a great manager. He’s a great leader. He’s a great, good man.”

The problem, she says, was that Omondi didn’t have — and couldn’t find — anyone with the expertise to create financial projections that meshed his current operation with his long-term vision.

“What was holding him up was the ability to put together the financial projections that would satisfy an investor doing due diligence,” Glaser recalls. “So I said, ‘OK, let’s tackle that first.’ ”

I looked at what I was doing and realized I was just making money. I was just making money and spending money. But I wasn’t doing anything for the world.
Claudia Salvischiani

Although venture capital and private equity firms are increasingly interested in investing in Africa, Glaser says, owners of many midsize companies on the continent still find it challenging to obtain the funding to scale their businesses. Unlike in the United States, where the art of the pitch is taught in many schools, such preparation is new in Africa, she says. So Glaser set out to help Omondi “learn how to tell his story in a way that conveyed professionalism and confidence to potential funders.”

That was in 2016. Two years later, after much due diligence, a Netherlands firm called DOB Equity closed a $2 million deal with the nut producer. Ten Senses also recently negotiated a working capital line of $1.5 million from Common Fund for Commodities, an intergovernmental agency also based in the Netherlands.

“It’s all been very, very helpful,” Omondi says.

Question Everything

As Zifo’s sales have briskly grown, so has its worldwide workforce: from 300 to 1,000 in the past four years. That kind of expansion brings its own set of challenges — especially when many of those employees live in different countries with different cultural norms.

From Claudia Salvischiani’s perspective, Raj and Vanchinathan were already far ahead of other Seed companies she’d assisted with HR issues, so she, like Finch, was surprised when they asked her for help.

“They were absolutely willing to question everything that they were doing,” she recalls. “They said, ‘Just have a look and give us feedback about whatever you think needs to be improved.’”

Salvischiani, SEP ’18, had volunteered for Seed shortly after finishing the Stanford Executive Program, which had inspired her to reassess her life and career. An Italian, she’d spent most of her career in Europe overseeing HR strategy for German companies with multinational reach.

“I looked at what I was doing and realized I was just making money,” she says. “I was just making money and spending money. But I wasn’t doing anything for the world.”

Six months after receiving her SEP certificate, she quit her job. She first joined Seed as a volunteer consultant, which is different from coaching in that it entails meeting with entrepreneurs remotely rather than moving to their country. Her first clients were in Ghana and Botswana. She loved the work and signed on for more, eventually connecting with Raj and Vanchinathan at Zifo when Seed expanded into India in 2017.

One of Raj’s missteps, Salvischiani realized, was that he was being too prescriptive with Zifo’s foreign offices when it came to imposing guidelines for certain HR issues, such as goal setting and performance evaluation.

“In my career, I came to know how a subsidiary feels if headquarters just rolls out a new policy without asking, ‘Would you like to do it in a different way? Will it affect the culture there?’ ” Salvischiani says. “As CEO, it’s important to decide what is negotiable and what is not. I told Raj, ‘You decide on strategic stuff, because strategy is nonnegotiable. But there are a lot of things that are negotiable, and you should let the subsidiaries decide how they do certain things.’ This was very new for him.”

Says Raj, “We are engineers, so we are very good at solving problems. But sometimes we are not very imaginative. With Seed, we learned to see that we are part of an ecosystem, part of a group. Now, when somebody has an idea we might not agree with, we stop and say, ‘Wait. Why not?’ ”

“Let’s Build Something Useful”

Farouk Grissom was essentially in the dark about the kind of work he’d be doing for Ten Senses when he arrived in Nairobi in the summer of 2019 for his 10-week Seed internship.

At the time, he was a sophomore at Stanford, pursuing a major in management science and engineering and a minor in computer science. He signed up for Seed mainly to “fill in my own personal knowledge gaps.” He wanted to learn about Kenya, and he wanted to learn about the business of agriculture.

Grissom spent his first 10 days at Ten Senses asking questions, trying to get a sense of the company’s pain points. He learned that Omondi needed help developing new blockchain-based supply-chain software — a critical tool for suppliers and customers alike.

One of Ten Senses’ biggest selling points with its overseas customers is that its macadamia nuts and cashews are certified fair trade and organic — which are designations that require a verifiable tracking system. As Omondi puts it, “We trace the product from the farm to the shelf.”

And one of its biggest selling points with the small-plot nut suppliers is that it pays them immediately via their smartphones.

All of which meant that working on the supply-chain software gave Grissom the opportunity to examine the business from end to end. “We talked to farmers, we talked to employees — anyone who could help us understand what kind of information needed to be captured at what stages,” he says. “It was a great learning experience because you actually come to understand the whole chain.”

Omondi says he remains deeply grateful for Grissom’s efforts: “He worked like a horse and was good to the team and was willing to go to the ground. And he gave us a good solution.”

Grissom says his time at Ten Senses left him feeling more empowered than he’d expected. “I just came in very strongly with the attitude of, ‘I’m here, here are my questions, I’d like to use my time here to build something useful,’ ” he says. “And then that kind of actually happened. It was cool.”

Grissom’s last project at Ten Senses involved helping Omondi’s team optimize a side business of selling macadamia tree seedlings to farmers. It was a self-perpetuating idea with great promise: You make money off the seedlings while also creating a more secure and ever-growing pool of suppliers.

The problem was that Omondi and other executives were spending an inordinate amount of time monitoring the nurseries and the health of the seedlings. So Grissom helped create a basic inventory-tracking system that made the process more efficient and that enabled the seedling side of the business to grow.

Omondi says his company’s annual revenues have doubled since he reached out to Seed five years ago. He currently employs 300 workers but expects his workforce to grow to 3,000 within 10 years. And thanks in part to its new inventory-tracking app, Ten Senses has become Kenya’s largest supplier of macadamia tree seedlings.

Omondi has hopes that this seedling business will fertilize growth of a different sort. His long-term goal is to expand, by a factor of 10 — from 10,000 to 100,000 — the number of farmers who get paid to supply the nuts that enable his company to thrive.

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