Season 1 “Aha” Moments: The Entrepreneurs Who Made Us Think
A look back at the lessons learned and powerful moments from the first season of Grit & Growth.
After a year of Grit & Growth podcasts, Darius Teter, our host and executive director of Stanford Seed, looks back on his conversations with entrepreneurs from Africa and India. He not only shares powerful moments but also some of the lessons he’s learned along the way about the struggles and opportunities of entrepreneurship in emerging markets.
It’s hard to pick favorites, but some stories held special resonance and, in retrospect, revealed key themes about the long, often lonely, yet rewarding journey of entrepreneurship. No surprise, grit is one of the qualities that stood out in the entrepreneurs Teter spoke with, especially in the face of unprecedented adversity. Kwami Williams, whose company suffered from two fires, the pandemic lockdown, and personal tragedy, talked about the importance of taking one step at a time to stay resilient and recover.
Working to solve important problems is a thread throughout many of the conversations.
“It got me thinking that much of what we take for granted are really fundamental human rights — access to food, water, basic health care, and information,” Teter explains. “The phrase ‘purpose and profit’ may be overused, but these remarkable people are solving important problems as a business, not a charity.”
Teter points to Dr. Shuchin Bajaj, who built a network of affordable yet sophisticated hospitals across India and staffed a 1,000-bed hospital in weeks during the darkest days of the pandemic, and Samuel Appenteng, whose company brings drinking water to seven countries in Africa. Often, just doing business in some of these markets is a problem worth solving, from providing access to markets or using machine learning to providing short-term financing.
From creating dignified work and highlighting the importance of mission to considering the role of governance and securing financing to scale their businesses, these entrepreneurs showed true grit and growth.
As Teter looks back and to the future of entrepreneurship in the region, he says, “What I have learned through my association with these incredible people is that the locus of innovation is rapidly shifting to these emerging markets, where a combination of necessity, untapped consumer demand, network penetration, and new technologies is leading to an explosion of business activity. And I learned that being an entrepreneur in these markets can be a lonely journey, and they value the opportunity to network and learn from each other.”
Listen to highlights and observations from our first season, tune in to the full stories of these amazing entrepreneurs, and get ready for Season Two.
Grit & Growth is a podcast produced by Stanford Seed, an institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business which partners with entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build thriving enterprises that transform lives.
Hear these entrepreneurs’ stories of trial and triumph, and gain insights and guidance from Stanford University faculty and global business experts on how to transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.
Darius Teter: For all the CEOs and founders who are listening, on April 1, we will start accepting applications for the 2023 class of the Seed Transformation Program. The 11-month intensive program will start in January and it includes a combination of face-to-face teaching, networking, and virtual learning. You’ll have the opportunity to participate in a cohort of 60 other like-minded entrepreneurs from across your region. founders and CEOs of companies based in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia with annual revenue of at least $300,000 are eligible to apply. If you are a company you know may be interested, please visit stanfordseed.co/apply to learn more.
We started this podcast last year based on a simple premise that stories of entrepreneurs in India and sub-Saharan Africa would be inspiring and instructive to a wide audience across emerging markets, but especially to entrepreneurs and those who dream of starting their own business. The world is awash in podcasts featuring the founders of billion-dollar unicorns. And now those founders have their own podcasts. So if you want to know how Uber or eBay came to be, you can hear those origin stories over and over again. And frankly, they’re becoming cliches, at least in my opinion. But what I could not find were many stories about people who started a successful $5 million or $3 million business in Ghana or Kenya or South Asia, about the unique challenges that they faced, or the unique ways that they tackle problems that might seem routine here in Silicon Valley.
What I’ve learned through my association with these incredible people is that the locus of innovation is rapidly shifting to these emerging markets, where a combination of necessity, untapped consumer demand, network penetration, and new technologies are leading to an explosion of business activity. And I learned that being an entrepreneur in these markets can be an incredibly lonely journey and that they value the opportunity to network with each other and learn from each other. This podcast became a rewarding learning journey for me, too. And so I wanted to take an opportunity to share some highlights from my conversations over the past year. So here it goes.
Darius Teter: As you can guess from the title of this podcast, an enduring theme of successful entrepreneurs is their grit and determination in the face of adversity. Author Angela Duckworth, who wrote an actual book called Grit, defines it as a personality trait combining perseverance and passion. Few people better exemplify these traits than Kwami Williams, the founder of Moringa Connect, which makes consumer products from the remarkable moringa tree and sells them locally in Ghana, globally online, and even in some major US retailers.
Kwami Williams: On January 1, 2019, a wildfire that had already burned about one thousand acres of woods jumped over our fire protection belt and burned up more than fifteen thousand moringa trees. There were, unfortunately, 25 mile per hour wind gusts that helped it do that. So day one I’m like, “This is not the plan.” Fast forward four months in April, a fire accidentally starts in one of our dehydrators, and unfortunately expands and burns down our factory. In October, our farm is nested at the intersection of two rivers and we’re about 100 feet above the water level. The government’s dam opened up and lets the water rise in over 100 feet in a matter of hours, flooding parts of our farm.
One of the things that’s been amazing is to acknowledge that life is hard. The hardest punch is the one you don’t see coming. I actually think we get too caught up in moments rather than in everyday choices. And so for me, it’s every single day that I wake up out of bed and just choose to try again. It’s every day that our farmers say, “We’re going to the farm and we’re going to take care of our trees.”
So much of how we’ve been able to be resilient in 2019, not to even get to 2020, has been just a conscious choice by the entire team to take intentional steps, intentional small steps, one day at a time. Let’s pause for a second and let’s ask ourselves the five Whys? “Why is this happening? What can we learn from it?” Let’s also pause and ask ourselves, “What can we start? What can we stop and what should continue?” And once those ideas materialize, we decide, “What is the smallest version of that we can commit to and be consistent with?” And that’s been powerful for our entire team. It’s been freeing for us. It’s helped us make intentional steps that have opened up incredible opportunities of growth for the business, and it’s also given us some amount of peace as we’ve had to make really, really hard decisions, painful decisions, as part of our resilience and recovery.
Faraz Ramji: So I get a call in the middle of the night, June 7, 2016, and it’s my sales manager who happens to live on site at the factory. I say to him, “Is everything okay?” He says, “No. The factory is on fire.” So I rush to the factory, it’s about 25 kilometers away, and there’s this eerie feeling as you’re approaching. There’s smoke and there are fire engines and police.
Darius Teter: Faraz Ramji, who founded a snack food company in Kenya, faced a similar disaster when a fire destroyed their factory. Faraz found strength in the practice of mindfulness, something he now teaches full time to other entrepreneurs.
Faraz Ramji: One of the things about mindfulness is I think a lot of people think it means, oh, you sit and meditate for an hour a day, and then you suddenly become some enlightened being. And you either don’t have any more problems or you don’t feel any more problems anymore. And it’s just not like that. But I think for us in the business world, and not just the business world, for us in this society that we live in, which is highly “volatile, unpredictable, complex, ambiguous,” to use VUCA as the term — we’re living in this world and we need a set of tools to navigate, and mindfulness gives us those tools. So what I’m saying here is you use mindfulness in every moment, you choose to show up. Mindfulness is not just about sitting and feeling zen, it’s about showing up.
I think this is where resilience really comes in. A friend of mine calls it psychological flexibility. And I wonder if we can call that yoga for the mind.
But basically, how do we explain failure or setback to ourself? And we can take, say, either an optimistic style or a pessimistic style. And the pessimistic style being, let’s say my revenues are down, or my business is failing. This is permanent. This is going to last forever. It’s all-pervasive. And we tend to personalize. “I’m a permanent failure.” And it filters into every area of my life. And maybe a healthier way would be to take an optimistic, explanatory style. And say, “Let’s look at this failure or this setback and say, what can I learn from this? Ah, maybe I could have done this better.” Not sugar-coating things, taking the lessons where they’re required, but also not over-personalizing things and not taking things as being all pervasive and permanent. “Okay. I can get over this.” Or, “We can bounce back and do this better next time.
Darius Teter: One of the first questions I like to ask my guests is: What drove them to the sometimes scary task of starting a business in the first place? Remember, Uber was originally conceived of as a limousine service. And Airbnb grew out of a few people trying to find a place to stay at a music festival. For our guests, I wondered, were they destined to start businesses? Was it an accident? Was necessity the mother of their inventions?
Lerang Selolwane: The stereotype of an entrepreneur is a 20-something-year-old whiz kid who figured out something at a university dorm. It’s not often the mid-thirties, married, with a family on the way, with a house and a mortgage. I certainly wasn’t a born entrepreneur. I had to learn this.
I worked for a company called De Beers, which is the largest diamond mining company in the world. It was a really interesting company to work for, gave me some fantastic opportunities. You can imagine a young boy from Botswana — you get to London, it’s fabulous. I went to most of the world’s great cities; New York, Miami, Toronto, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, Dubai, you name it, we got to go there.
At first, you’re impressed, and then you start looking and saying, “Well, these places are great. These experiences I’m having are great. But what about my people? Who’s going to build a London for my people?” And after a while, it goes from being a great experience to not being so great because you realize that this isn’t yours. Your people, people who look like you, don’t get to have this. My vision is simple. I want to bring water, power, roads, rail to my people. And that’s why I wake up every morning.
Darius Teter: That was Lerang Selolwane from Botswana. He went on to build a multi-million dollar mining services company that trains and employs hundreds of people in the region. It’s a business that is typically outsourced to international companies. But Lerang proved that it could be done locally. And now he’s focused on developing the ecosystem in his country to support the next generation of entrepreneurs. By contrast, Likitha Maddukuri was dealing with a much more basic problem at her home in India.
Likitha Maddukuri: I never really wanted to be an entrepreneur. My mom was farming in our family lands and it was her hobby to grow fresh produce. And she was getting all this produce back home and she was forcing us to eat all of it. We didn’t want to eat everything that she was growing. So we drove down to a supermarket next to our house and asked, “Would you stock organic produce?” And he said, “Yes.” And that’s how Terra Greens came about to be.
Darius Teter: I love that. It all started with you trying to get rid of some of the vegetables that your mom was putting on your plate. I think my kids would do exactly the same if they could figure out a way to pull it off.
And from that humble beginning, Terra Greens grew into a major producer and distributor of organic vegetables in and around Hyderabad. Still others seem born for entrepreneurship, like Arun Iyer, an insurtech founder in Botswana.
Arun Iyer: I was one of those people who has known nothing other than entrepreneurship my whole life. When I was nine years old, I grew up in a small town called Lobatse, just south of Gaborone in Botswana. I used to read Fortune magazine, the Economist, and so on and so forth. I read Warren Buffet’s biography when I was 10.
Darius Teter: Okay. That’s weird. Can we just say it right now? That’s weird.
Arun Iyer: It is weird. I didn’t think of it as being weird at the time, but it obviously was. And fortunately, I had a very supportive family when I was nine years old, I was dreaming about being an entrepreneur and those dreams never went away. I’m now 38 and I still dream about entrepreneurship all day long, except now the dreams are a lot more real.
Darius Teter: We teach at Stanford that successful entrepreneurs rarely start with a solution and then go out and find the problem. They solve problems with unique or better or cheaper solutions than the competition. But from the perspective of emerging markets, some of the so-called problems solved by the fastest growing companies in the US can seem trivial. Can I get my fast food delivered to my doorstep even faster? Can I use my watch to get my Tesla to pick me up in front of the mall? Do I really need a toothbrush subscription? Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate convenience just like anyone else. But that’s the point. Conveniences by definition are not essential for life. So I’m struck by the urgency of problems that entrepreneurs are solving in emerging markets. Imagine if your problem was not information overload or what to believe on Facebook, but what is a fair price for my crops today? Not who has the best price for organic food, but rather can I find food that’s free of toxins? What about water that won’t make my kids sick? Can I get emergency health care less than a full day’s drive from home, assuming I even have access to transportation?
It got me thinking that much of what we take for granted are really fundamental human rights; access to food, water, basic health care, information. The phrase “purpose and profit” may seem overused, but these remarkable people are solving important problems as a business, not a charity.
Dr. Shuchin Bajaj: When I was in Delhi, I used to get a lot of these calls saying, “Somebody’s sick. We are bringing him to Delhi. Can you reserve a bed for us in your hospital? Can you help us?” So being the only doctor in the family, it felt very nice that I could help these people, I could solve their problems.
Darius Teter: Dr. Shuchin Bajaj was a well established physician at a premier private hospital in India’s capital.
Dr. Shuchin Bajaj: But on the other hand, it was always very troubling that, why did these people have to travel four to five hours to reach me at the risk of losing their lives because ambulances were not easily available. But then I realized pulling them into my hospital didn’t really work because even those who came, were not really served exactly to what they needed. It was not like, even if they were saved, it was so expensive in these big private hospitals in Delhi that that was even a bigger debt if he did survive.
Dr. Shuchin Bajaj: So the whole focus shifted from how best to get them into hospitals in Delhi to how we could go out and serve these people without completely breaking them economically. So this is how the project started on how to best get good quality health care, which is not expensive, as near to the community as possible without asking them to travel four, five hours and asking them to sell their houses or lands. Because in India, 60 million people slip below the poverty line every year just due to health care costs.
Darius Teter: From that basic challenge, and with little formal business training, Shuchin built a network of affordable yet sophisticated hospitals providing urgent care in secondary cities across India. He also built and staffed a thousand-bed hospital in a matter of weeks during the darkest days of India’s second pandemic wave, what he more aptly described as a tsunami.
Sam Appenteng is the founder of Joissam Ghana, which provides a host of services to bring drinking water to seven countries in Africa.
Samuel Appenteng: In sub-Saharan Africa, over 320 million people have no access to potable water. That tells you the scale of the problem. As we went more and more into the rural communities, and saw the kind of deprivation and denials of decent living, then I began to realize that, “Look, we need to bring relief to people. We need to bring some comfort to those who are really deprived, access to potable water in any community. What it means is that it has economic benefits and health benefits and life in general becomes improved. People are just, when they have the fundamental rights, life begins for them.
Darius Teter: Sriram Gopal is the founder and CEO of Future Farms, which builds vertical hydroponic vegetable gardens at commercial scale in rural and urban areas across India.
Sriram Gopal: The main reason why we do this — and this is very close to me — because in India, the standard of food is very, very low because there are no mechanisms to check where the food comes from. It can be very, very contaminated. In fact, there is a report that states that leafy green is four times more loaded with pesticides when compared to anything that is available in the developed world. There are alternatives. People can choose organic food, but they’re paying like three times more. What it actually means is only people who can afford to pay three times more can actually have access to clean food. To me, that just feels wrong, because I think clean food is not a privilege. If anything, it should be a fundamental right.
Darius Teter: Martin Stimela founded Brastorne Enterprises in Southern Africa to provide access to information for people with only the most basic phones and limited, low bandwidth connectivity.
Martin Stimela: For me coming from a technology background and understanding how to build solutions for the top of the economic pyramid, because that’s really the world that I lived in and then moving into the development space and realizing that there’s so many people who just don’t have access. They just don’t have access to the same technologies that we do, but the need is still the same. That really spoke to me. It struck a chord of how can we provide access? And at the core internet is such a luxury in some of these markets in Africa, where we operate. How do we provide internet? And what is internet? Internet is just access to information, it’s access to markets and it’s access to social communities. So how can we provide those for those people who don’t have smartphones?
Darius Teter: The argument is almost that access to basic information in community is a fundamental right, or we should think of it as a fundamental right.
Martin Stimela: That’s correct. I think we are seeing that internet is a necessity rather than a nice-to-have. Africa has some of the most expensive prices for broadband. Mobile phone users are around 620-650 million. And 77 percent of those use feature phones, so that means that they can’t benefit from the opportunities of being connected to the internet.
Darius Teter: All these inspiring stories share a common thread. They are businesses solving important problems for individuals, B2C companies. But what about the problem of just doing business at all in some markets, of merchants reaching customers beyond their neighborhood, or securing working capital to finance inventory? Two of our guests took these challenges head-on with technology-enabled B2B companies that may look familiar in well developed markets, but are pathbreaking in Africa. Juliet Anammah, chairwoman of Jumia Africa and chief sustainability officer of the Jumia Group, took on the challenge of bringing access to markets for even the smallest informal businesses through the largest e-commerce platform on the continent.
Juliet Anammah: If you are a seller in Africa many years ago, you only had two options on how you were going to retail your products to consumers. Either you had to pay very expensive High Street real estate prices for a modern retail shop, or you had no other alternative but to operate in the open market. Very informal open market is hot, it has no amenities or utilities, and it’s overcrowded. Those were the only options you had, especially if you were a small or medium enterprise, just trying to get by.
So Jumia solves that problem for a host of millions of SMEs and sellers and merchants on the continent because you don’t have to register on Jumia platform, you don’t have upfront capital expenditure in terms of putting up retail space, and literally in minutes, once you’re registered and going through the training for selling online on Jumia, you can start your business.
But what I actually find extremely interesting is the number of women sellers that we have on Jumia. So we have at least in Nigeria and Kenya, which are key markets, about 51 percent of our sellers are actually women. And why do women find it attractive? It’s a gender-agnostic environment. You could be a fashion seller, you could be an electronics seller, and you don’t have a … it’s not a physical market where someone can make those kinds of gender-related decisions or whether I want to buy an electronic product from a woman or not. So that gives them access to different categories that they could perform in. Two, it’s also giving women flexibility to be able to manage their homes and at the same time run a business of their own.
Darius Teter: Tunde Kehinde, co-founder and CEO of Nigerian fintech Lydia, is using machine learning and artificial intelligence to provide fast, short-term financing for SMEs, something traditional banks are unable or unwilling to do.
Tunde Kehinde: We saw actually a bigger problem the businesses said, which is, “Look, when I have something that’s working, I don’t have access to the capital to scale to the next level.” Because in this part of the world and in a lot of emerging markets, because there’s no real credit system where I have a credit score that can be used to unlock mortgages, auto loans, etc., it means that to get a facility from a traditional lender, I need cash or land or machinery to back against that loan, which excludes 99 percent of businesses.
A typical customer of ours is a retailer. Either you are a grocery store company, you’re a gas station, you’re a pharmacy, and typically they come to us looking for working capital. I already have my location, I need some money for inventory, but I need a decision quickly. I don’t have three months to compile a bunch of paperwork. I don’t have three or five years of financial projections, I just have my data. Literally, by integrating or sharing some information with us, we can make a decision the same day and we can disburse that capital same day as well. That’s the power of what we’re doing and what we’re offering our customers.
Darius Teter: The primary reason that Stanford Seed is committed to supporting the growth of businesses in emerging markets is the evidence that small and medium enterprises are the primary engine of job creation and prosperity. And not just in emerging markets. It’s a commonly held belief here in the US that Amazon and Walmart and a few other mega companies account for the lion’s share of employment. But the truth is that 45 percent of US GDP and 50 percent of all jobs still come from companies with less than 500 employees. And the data is even more striking for sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 80 percent of jobs come from SMEs. And over the next 30 years, more Africans will enter the workforce than all other countries combined.
Over the past year, we have seen power shifting to workers as they demand more flexibility, a living wage, and some reasonable benefits. Access to decent work is even more pressing in emerging markets with high levels of unemployment, fewer worker protections, and striking inequality. The concept of decent work is enshrined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It means having an opportunity for work that pays a fair wage with some security in the workplace and the potential for advancement. Decent work can be particularly elusive for disenfranchised and marginalized people, for unskilled workers, and especially for women. And each decent job accrues benefits to everyone in the household, a multiplier effect that raises the standard of living for many. Linda Ampah, who built a garment and fashion company in Ghana, went to the streets to find employees, and in so doing touched many more lives.
Linda Ampah: In Ghana, in the market places, there are women and girls who sleep on the streets. So we went out asking them whether they’ll be interested to come and train. And the response we got was just amazing. So we invited them over and then we started training them. Now the challenge there was that because they didn’t have a place to stay, they get raped, they have children, very, very real stories of such women and girls. So we decided, you know what? We add housing to it. So we rented a place and then we gave them the accommodation. So those who wanted to stay, they would come and stay, finish their training. And usually after a year they’re able to rent their own place, and then they move from the hostel.
Currently we have a girl who came to us through an NGO. She was picked off the street as a, I think maybe six or seven years old then. And as we speak now, this girl is able to do patterns. And for the garment industry, I find the pattern making is the most challenging. This girl is able to do patterns from scratch to finish. It’s just amazing.
Right now, the American embassy has decided to give her a scholarship to come to fashion school in the US. We are very aware that giving somebody a skill and employing them in Ghana, the ripple effect, you’re touching the lives of about six to 10 people just by employing one person.
Darius Teter: Ankit Agarwal, who built a business recycling tons of discarded flowers from temples in India and turning them into a host of consumer products, started out by employing people at the very bottom of the social pyramid.
Ankit Agarwal: When we started at that point of time, we would struggle finding people who would want to work with us, pick up flowers, segregate them. One day, these two women, they came and they were very happy to work with us. This went on for a month, and they happily completed all the work. I asked them, What motivates you to be here? So then they told me about the job that they were doing, that they were manure scavengers. They’ll go home to home, pick up human excreta, keep it up on their heads, and dispose of it. They said that no one ever gave them another option to work. They had to do this and even their children will have to get into this. And when they started working with us, first of all, they don’t have to go home to home. They just have to come to a single workplace, that’s one. Second, they felt good about themselves, that they’re working with temple flowers, and they felt that they’re helping, doing some of God’s work, and they’ll help clean the River Ganges, which is a goddess.
Darius Teter: Another recurring theme from the last season was leadership: what it takes to bring your team through thick and thin to establish a strong culture and the importance of a clear and compelling mission. We heard earlier from Dr. Shuchin Bajaj, who established an emergency COVID hospital at the peak of the Delta wave at a great personal risk.
Dr. Shuchin Bajaj: I think the main thing is that they look to us for an example. So I need to make sure that I am there on the front lines as well. I am not just talking and saying that you need to do it. When we set up the thousand-bed hospital, I was there. I admitted the first patient myself. So they do look it up as an example that if this guy is standing there, it must be safe. If this guy is standing himself and seeing all the patients and wearing the same kit as we’ve got, even in vaccination, when vaccine hesitancy was there, the entire top management team, I think we were the first ones to go and say that, “Okay, now we are also getting vaccinated. So come and you should all get vaccinated yourself as well.” So leading by example, I think, is an important part of the entire culture.
Darius Teter: We also heard from Kwami Williams as he navigated a series of disasters with his team. Culture was important, but so, too, was his faith, and his own sense of identity.
Kwami Williams: I was really encouraged by The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz. In this season of crisis management, he talks about how, when you have a crisis, building a healthy culture really matters to being (in his words) a good company. It’s not just nice to have, but essential. And so we literally just went down to the fabric of saying “this is who we are: our mission is to improve lives through moringa. These are the values that we have and how can we take these intentional steps together?”
As we think about this question of faith, for me, it is absolutely essential to who I am and I think that our crises actually intensified and amplified my commitments to making it a part of my every day and a part of not just who I am, personally, but also how I lead our team. I realized when I looked at the jar of ashes and I looked at the videos of our factory burning that it was so crucial for me, and I think really any entrepreneur, to figure out who they are separate from what they do. When your entire identity is wrapped up in something that just disappears, when that thing goes, which happened for us, you get to a point where you have no idea who you are. You get overwhelmed by just incredible, weighty, painful thoughts and emotions. For me, experiencing these crises became an opportunity to say, “Who am I, beyond the co-founder and CEO of MoringaConnect?”
Darius Teter: As businesses grow, taking on new markets, new products, partners, and staff, they also become a lot more complex to manage for the founders. We heard in Season One about the important role that governance plays in scaling business. The International Finance Corporation found that companies perform better, over the long term, after they have adopted strong governance practices. For some, that means creating a fiduciary board, a step that makes entrepreneurs nervous, nervous about losing control of the very thing that they built.
Elo Umeh, founder and CEO of Terragon in Nigeria, offered a powerful counter-argument. It might sound simplistic, but at its foundation, good governance helps companies build accountability and trust, trust with their employees, partners and investors.
Elo Umeh: I needed to get more comfortable with the idea of governance. Culturally in Terragon, we throw ourselves in the deep, we take big challenges. And as a leader, I can’t say I want to set up a board and we set up a board of people who have been coming to have coffee with me in the office. It needs to be with people that when my colleagues and co-founders look at the board, we set ourselves straight. I’m bringing in more people who I thought could drive performance and do all sorts of things. But I think that the board is there to do that, to do exactly that. And it’s very, very important that you have a board, not of friends, because your friends will not tell you the truth.
Darius Teter: Fear of losing control can dissuade entrepreneurs from both establishing strong governance structures and seeking funds. So I wanted to dig in a little deeper with Elo about how key decisions are made in Terragon. When it comes to approving budgets or key hires, auditing, does the board have the power?
Elo Umeh: Yes. That’s the case now. Absolutely. But since I’m speaking, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think that if you take somebody’s money, I think it’s a good idea to have transparency with audits. But forget about where the money comes from for a second, and let’s talk about the entrepreneur, control, and the very nature of chasing a dream. If you have auditors and you have a board committee that the auditor is reporting to, it doesn’t stop you from dreaming. What it does is that it provides common sense to your dreams. And it helps you, like I told my direct reports that, “You guys make my work harder, but I love you guys for it.” Because the quality of interaction improves and the decision making of the CEO, which the CEO’s job at the core of it, is to make the best decisions. The quality of the decisions to be made is enhanced 10X because of these dynamics. But in my experience, I don’t feel that there’s a hand brake on my ability to perform as CEO and as entrepreneur in the Terragon business. Pre-fundraise and post-fundraise, there hasn’t been that. In fact, I can argue that maybe my power, I now have a true appreciation for my position as CEO.
Darius Teter: The mother-daughter team of Naomi Kipkorir and Annette Kimitei, who lead the security company Senaka East Africa, learned the hard way that a high-powered board can also lead to ruin without the right checks and balances. And they lacked the confidence to take a stand for what they knew was right.
Naomi Kipkorir: There’s a time that we merged with a European company, and we had an independent board and we had expatriates on the board. And we were presented in so many countries in Canada, in Europe, in Ireland. And when it came to the board, we were so naive because we were just learning, a small family business that now was almost swallowed by the big company from Ireland.
Darius Teter: So they came in and bought a majority share. You were minority owners, but you had no representation on the board.
Naomi Kipkorir: Me, Annette, and my husband, the three of us were on the board, but we were toothless.
Annette Kimitei: It was a very painful lesson, but a lesson we needed to learn all the same because when we merged, we didn’t even sell, we gave majority shareholding and we took a step back and some of us went to pursue other businesses. It started out very well. We started getting now high-profile clients. We had expatriates working with us. But what happened is, not everything that works in Europe is a copy paste that you can just cut it and paste it in Africa, and particularly even what we do in Kenya is not what we do in Uganda. The guards in Uganda we have are armed. In Kenya, they’re not armed. So one of the mistakes we did was, as a board, we didn’t ask bold questions. We didn’t give that governance element to be able to ask, is this the right solution for this market?
Darius Teter: So the European company didn’t understand the local market, but you didn’t feel that you had the voice or the stature to stop these guys in the board meeting and say, “Hey, wait a minute. This idea’s not going to work in Kenya.”
Naomi Kipkorir: Well, we tried to highlight it, we did papers, we did comment. But again, what mom was mentioning was, we either did not respect our positions as directors and probably took our back seat like employees giving a report. So the result of all this was that the business ended up being overburdened financially. The partners from Europe, when they realized the debt was too much and what they owed the government, especially when it comes to taxes and loans and auctioneers were coming on board, they just packed their bags. Literally, this is a funny story, but they packed their bags and resigned on an email and sold the shares at a very, very minimal amount.
Darius Teter: I’m happy to say that the family rescued their business once the foreign partners had left, and it is growing and thriving to this day.
Darius Teter: Another crucial ingredient for business growth is capital. We did a whole series of episodes in Season One to explore how entrepreneurs in Africa and India raise capital at every stage of their business, from friends and family to angel investors, to series A, series B, and beyond. Confidence, persistence, personality, they all played a role in their success, and a recognition that fundraising is not a destination, it’s an ongoing part of every founder’s job.
Aditi Shrivastava: So we know that it takes time. We knew that it takes effort, and we knew that we have to tell a story and really, at the seed stage, it doesn’t matter what you already have. It matters what you want to build and how you’re able to convince anyone of it. And you just have to be a good storyteller.
Darius Teter: Aditi Shrivastava of Pocket Aces, a leading Indian digital entertainment company, takes the same approach in every funding round.
Aditi Shrivastava: So the advantage of starting early — and I tell all entrepreneurs, please start early. People are very shy to show their product to others. I don’t know why, because when you have a minimum viable product, you should be extremely proud of it because that itself takes a humongous amount of effort, luck, all of that. We went very early to people, and during our conversations, we started some revenue. So what happens is you’ve gone to them at this point and say after a few months you are here, then you’re here. This delta means a lot to people. If I had gone to them at this point, they would still think we were early.
Darius Teter: They always want to see the delta no matter what your starting point is?
Aditi Shrivastava: Exactly. And that was key because even if we had gone to them with like $50,000 of revenue, who cares? It’s $50,000 of revenue. But we went to them pre-revenue so then even 50,000 in like five months was like, “Oh cool, so you’ve started monetizing.” And then we launched another small channel and it was like, “Oh cool, you’ve launched another channel.”
Darius Teter: Just as entrepreneurs are trying to sell their vision, they’re also selling themselves.
Early stage investment. And I’ve actually heard this from a number of investors, too. They said, “Look, when you’re talking pre-seed round, you’re investing in the person. Who knows? The idea is a crapshoot. It’s like a one in 100, it’s a moonshot, whatever it is. But this person has something. And if this idea doesn’t work, maybe the next idea’s going to work.”
Arun Iyer: Exactly.
Darius Teter: That was Arun Iyer, who we heard from earlier. He reminded me that it is just as important to make sure you have found the right investor because investing is not just about money. So he built up a relationship with Launch Africa founder Zach George long before they started talking about investment.
Arun Iyer: So now even with VCs, what I do is I’m looking more at the type of person that I’m dealing with because really they are partners. So even with Launch Africa, I had everybody around me giving me their opinion of Zach as a person, not as Launch Africa’s GP or whatever the story is. I simply wanted to know, “Is this guy somebody that I can trust and I can partner with, and we can take this journey together, whichever way it goes?” The journey may go great. It may not go great. But the point is, “Is this the kind of guy that I really can believe in and trust, and who’s going to stick with me as we go through this?”
Darius Teter: Aditi Shrivastava of Pocket Aces takes the same approach in every funding round.
Aditi Shrivastava: So I think that’s one thing that maybe for other entrepreneurs, whoever will listen to this podcast. I think it’s important to kind of know that, you’re on it. You’re always raising. We are in the market again, we’re raising our next round. Again, we’re evaluating different types of investors based on our growth plans. We’re also evaluating international investors, etc. So again, you never stop raising. And it always takes time no matter how big you are.
Darius Teter: Elo Umeh of Terragon goes a step further and notes the importance of investors and founders playing their respective roles.
Elo Umeh: Venture is about risk taking and expecting outside success. So patience at the beginning is super, super important. Sometimes investors want to be entrepreneurs, while sometimes when an entrepreneur gets money from an investor, he kind of like starts to defer to an investor. And I have to say, initially, I made that mistake. But over time, I think I’m coming out of it. You need to continue to be an entrepreneur, that is what will get the business to where the business needs to be. And the investor needs to also respect how to be an investor; governance, direction, providing support, a sound board, staying focused on the market and the opportunity. Those things, investors are very good at.
Darius Teter: Financing is not the only path to growing a business. Adam Abate, co-founder of Ethiopian technology firm Apposit, describes the process of negotiating the acquisition of his company by Paga, a Nigerian fintech led by Tayo Oviosu.
Adam Abate: I think, Tayo, you articulated it for me. You said, “Negotiations go like this, which means that you just got to keep pushing through it.” I had the first conversation with Paga’s board member, and I listened quietly and I took it back to the guys. And we were like, “No, it’s not going to work. Let’s just write an email saying, forget this, let’s do it this way.” And then we got a call from Tayo and said, “Hey, hold on, hold on. This is not how it works. Let’s keep going.” And we talk, once a week, once every two weeks. The picture could look very different from one week to the next, in terms of how the deal was structured.
In terms of advice to somebody considering it, the decision actually, as complicated as it sounds, often boils down to a few principles. In fact, I think the reasons why you’re selling should not be over-complicated, but those few reasons would be very important. We mentioned some, for example, as a company why we sold, we wanted to focus. We wanted to put all our energy into something really big.
But also on a personal level, there were some principles. For example, I knew that probably more than the others, my role could potentially have the most change, but at that particular point in time, I said, “This is the next level of growth for me personally. I want this challenge. I want to push myself outside of my comfort zone.” So that was an important consideration for me.
Darius Teter: Well, that wraps up our Season One retrospective. I hope you found these vignettes as inspiring as I did. And if you haven’t listened to the full episodes, check out the Grit & Growth library on your podcast app. Today we focus on our guest entrepreneur stories, but the full episodes include insights from Stanford faculty and global experts. And we have masterclass episodes that feature deep dives just with them, on a wide range of important business topics. But before we go, I thought we’d end with one more inspiring snippet from Elo Umeh.
Elo Umeh: I think entrepreneurs need to know that they should have confidence in their journey. Sometimes that journey, it’s super lonely. Everybody’s going to be against you. Those long and sleepless nights, your dream and your vision is valid.
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