What’s so special about entrepreneurs?

A few weeks ago I was a panelist at an event on entrepreneurship organised by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. It took place soon after the much publicized Global Entrepreneurship Summit, so it was very timely in keeping the momentum from that energy-filled going. Indeed in this Kenya of ours that is so filled with restless, energetic and ambitious men and women, the topic is always appropriate.

In a way I felt somewhat of an impostor, as from the time I graduated from university till the dawn of my third age I was assured of receiving a monthly salary. Being too old even to qualify as a Baby Boomer, and growing up as a middle class boy in post-World War II London, it was obvious that on obtaining my degree I would apply for a job in a large corporation and gradually climb up its management ladder. After some years I might jump to another big company, continuing my progress towards what we now call the C-Suite, till retiring gracefully at sixty.

Yet now here I was, at three-score years and ten, being invited to sit on a panel of entrepreneurs, and when it was my turn to speak I confessed I only became one when I turned sixty and reinvented myself as a management consultant. And yet, I reflected, what I took into my sixties is what I had been developing and practicing all through my career in employment: the same attitudes and behavior. I guess I was something of an intrapreneur (a term I really like).

Lawyer Charles Kanjama, speaking on a television panel at the time of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, described himself – the senior partner in a law firm – as an entrepreneur, as indeed are all professionals. The only difference between us and manufacturers or bankers or traders is that we carry no inventory other than what is in our heads.

For me, whether you are an employee or an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur – or anything else successful for that matter – you need the same qualities and strengths. It’s just that entrepreneurs have an infinitely greater appetite for risk. They truly believe they can, as it were, defy the laws of gravity – and the amazing thing is that sometimes they actually do.

Another of the panelists at the CIMA event was Myke Rabar, the founder CEO of Homeboyz. Myke never meant to be a businessman; he just had a love for music. Yet, without at the time describing it as such, he started his first business at the age of 15, offering cassette tapes of music he had copied to matatu crews, initially in exchange for free rides.

Before long he owned the market, and found himself with plenty of cash as a result – cash that even his parents didn’t know he had accumulated. By the time he graduated from university, with a vehicle and other equipment, he had enough money with which to buy his own house. He went off to the UK to get a degree in sound engineering, worked for a while with the BBC and at music festivals, before returning to Kenya and starting up Homeboyz.

He’s built it into a fast-growing multi-media business that employs 200 young people, and his purpose was never to make money. But it flowed in, the consequence of his passion for music. Still, he admitted with a boyish grin, he doesn’t know what he’ll be doing tomorrow, finding the uncertainty scary.

We also heard from Dan Awendo, CEO and founder of Investeq Capital, who told us he was the first-born of seven, as a result of which came certain responsibilities. He started playing football as a hobby, but later it also generated revenue, as at the age of thirteen he was playing for his country: at the end of each practice session he would get Shs.50 and Shs.200 after each game.

He began his first business when he was 16, being at Kikomba market by 4am to buy mitumba clothes, which he would then wash, iron and sell. In the years between then and now he has started over twenty other businesses – some of which, he readily admits, failed. He learned it’s not enough to come up with good ideas, but that you must have a passion for execution. Now at Investeq, an angel investor in SMEs, his passion is to see start-ups grow to the point that they can be listed and become local multinationals, breaking glass ceilings.

Then coach Sonali Shah showed us an apple and told us if they are authentic each one is different – just like each entrepreneur must be genuine, not standardised and polished. They must have passion, and “ego strength” – the ability to face reality, and fear. With her clients she explores their relationship with money – like one who was held back from earning more simply because he believed that money was bad, and scarce. Happily, once he got over this hang up the money started to flow.

Peter Mbui, Director and Founding Member of Rift Valley Machinery, offered a related thought, that we have far greater capacities than we think – in the absence of which we’re likely to hold back from even getting started with some bold initiative.

Among the questions moderator George Mathenge asked us was how we could reduce poverty and unemployment. “Transform the education system,” we chorused, given that, as one of us put it, the current one was built to breed employees – going back to the colonial days, when Africans were being prepared as labourers on farms and in factories.

But let us not fool ourselves into imagining that lots and lots of young people have what it takes to become successful entrepreneurs. Far from it. There’s a good reason why only 5% of the population head in that direction, and so it will always be – even in Kenya, with the high energy and ambitiousness of so many of our people.

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Peace and Stability in Kenya

I recently returned to a subject that is very dear to me: conflict resolution and peace building, and it came through participating in a one-day event organised by the World Faiths Development Dialog (WFDD), a programme of the Berkeley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

The idea for WFDD was born in 2000, as a result of discussions between then World Bank President Jim Wolfensohn and Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey. Both men were concerned about the Jubilee 2000 campaign that called for the cancellation of third world debt by the year 2000, for which Carey was an active supporter, and the two agreed that as they both represented the interests of the poor they would benefit from engaging in dialogue with each other. Since then the challenges have become even more acute, and the World Bank has continued pursuing faith-development alignment – including through supporting the work of WFDD.

Kenya is one of the countries where WFDD is active, examining the role of religion in supporting peace and stability, and the event I attended gathered a wonderful collection of peace-builders, so engaged, so constructive, so wise. I loved being with them, and I loved being inspired by their dedication to that worthiest of causes: peace.

“Religion is meant to help us reconcile people to their God, to themselves, to their neighbours and to nature,” suggested one speaker, who identified violence as “an outpouring of negative emotions that comes from denying the identity of ourselves and others”. Religious leaders must help us with acceptance and forgiveness, and hence healing, he said, pointing out that leaders must first heal themselves. He contrasted the case of Mandela, who had healed by the time he left Robben Island, with the angry, bitter Mugabe, who has never healed.

Another speaker told us that when people of faith have got together on matters of life and death, they’ve been able to find ways of solving difficult problems. Individually they haven’t gone very far but with unity of purpose, they were listened to as trusted leaders.

We were told about BRAVE (Building Resilience Against Violent Extremism), through which the Muslim community has been mobilised against violence by their youth. “Violence,” we heard, “is just violence.” And where religion is misused to support it, that must be resisted.

Several speakers told us how charismatic, radical self-styled clerics have been misrepresenting the Koranic scriptures, peddling the narrative of “the hatred of others”. They use belligerent language to support their versions of Islam, but the response by moderates has been at best muted, with the militants ahead of the curve. There needs to be more assertive leadership in promoting the counter-narrative, acknowledging that Muslims who have stood up to fight for moderation have sometimes been accused of “diluting Islam”.

What was clear from the day is that the needed conversations have begun, through both inter-faith and intra-Christian dialogue. But many who are joining Al Shabaab are university students, and many are non-Muslims. So why has this been happening? Too many young people feel their grievances have not been heard and that government, at both national and devolved levels, has not been listening to them. They feel disenfranchised (many have not managed to get IDs), and the problem is eating into the national fabric.

Speakers worried about “the socialisation of violence”, justified by protecting against “threats to our community”. It is this that becomes one’s identity, and that has led to the ethnic clashes, not least around the time of elections. And it’s not just the poor, the ill-educated, the underprivileged and the unemployed who fall prey to the narrative.

One issue is the “securitisation of peace” – the dominant response to terrorism threats through applying security solutions, like the herding of many Somalis into Kasarani Stadium, and the building of the wall at the border with Somalia.

We’re told of a powerful documentary, An African Answer, about the work of two Nigerians, Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa, who in the 1990s led opposing armed militias defending their respective communities in Kaduna, northern Nigeria. In pitched battles, Pastor James lost his hand and Imam Ashafa’s spiritual mentor and two close relatives were killed. Now the two are co-directors of the Muslim-Christian Interfaith Mediation Centre in their city, leading task-forces to resolve conflicts across Nigeria, and they also came to Kenya to help reconciliation in the Burnt Forest area.

At their essence every religion espouses the same values. But too often these values are lost and perverted when religious teachings are misused by leaders – political as much as religious ones. Religion becomes a mere means to an end, and the end is often to do with power and wealth, with ego and glory, with the need to control and be praised, to be beyond criticism.

My mind was full of other thoughts too, about our schools and universities, at so many of which neither staff nor students have been exposed to “the other”, and the need for visits and exchanges to get to know each other. About the need to develop in students the skills of constructive engagement and not just of adversarial win-lose debating. About using interactive theatre – including with puppets – to stimulate open conversations in safer and more enjoyable ways. And about the inevitability of the media focusing on conflict rather than harmony – with all the consequences thereof.

I worry that it’s too easy to preach to the converted, leaving those who really need to change untouched. It’s why we must go way beyond problem definition, and the mere raising of awareness of these critical issues. We must strain to change attitudes, and ultimately behaviour, particularly targeting those who most need to have their attitudes and behaviour changed, and those who are most influential as change agents – our politicians and sometimes our religious leaders.

Courageous and unified leadership are needed, bringing together religious institutions and leaders in peace-building, and particularly engaging youth in ways that bring them hope.

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Rehearsing pays – and it’s fun

Together with a trio of colleagues, I recently developed a two-day leadership workshop to be run for several groups of managers. It was an interesting challenge, as several of the prospective participants had already attended various leadership programmes, and so we had to find ways of defying their expectation that this would be “just another training”. We all know what that means: people readily assume there will be negligible consequences – other than being handed a certificate confirming they had shown up. Oh, and given that we’re talking about public sector folk, that they will have benefitted from those precious daily allowances.

We’ve already run the first two events, and I’m happy to say they went really well. But that’s not what I want to write about here. I want to share with you how we rehearsed for what were to be highly interactive workshops, whose success would be measured by the extent to which the participants did indeed perform better than they had before. How, in just two days, could we launch a process that would deliver on such ambitious expectations?

Too often there’s no time to rehearse – or at least we don’t make the time. But as we found in this case it was well worth the investment. For here we were creating something from scratch. We were actually writing script for what were to be two days of interactive theatre, where the “audience” would join us as actors and where the outcomes were far from predictable.

Each of us came to the early rehearsals ready to share our ideas for the components we had volunteered to script (one of mine was on stimulating bold decisions – about which I will write separately), and now these needed to be tested, further developed and strengthened, and integrated into a seamless flow.

Unlike in a rehearsal of a play or a musical concert, where the challenge merely is to interpret a fixed text or musical score, here we were also the playwrights, the composers, not to mention that we would be enrolling the participants to join the cast, and playing very prominent roles at that. So the joy of creation – of co-creation – of bouncing ideas off each other and building a powerful and cohesive entity that would achieve what was intended (after the event) was very exciting indeed.

For now though, we had to build a robust enough engine to test drive, to prepare for our actual performances, where we would integrate the participants into the production. We had to maximise the chances of them swiftly absorbing the subject matter we’d come up with – about the process of flow-charting, about defining performance improvement indicators and targets, and about figuring out root causes of problems and how to overcome them. We had to get them to already try out all these tools within the event, in an “Action Learning” style. And we also had to prepare them to motivate themselves and their colleagues beyond our time together, creating an environment within which bold decisions could be made and great results achieved through the processes they would select.

Our terms of reference also not only required us to produce a workbook for the participants to take away with them to use, but in addition a much more detailed one that would enable other facilitators to run the programme. So the workbooks too would need to be tested, to ensure they were fit for purpose.

Having adequately panel-beaten our production to our own satisfaction, we were now ready to expose it to those who had charged us with its creation and delivery, to get them to play the part of the intended participants and to make their own contributions to further refine the product. So we would run elements of the programme as it would eventually be conducted, with this “tame” group role-playing the actual participants, and seek their reactions and their input.

Interestingly, as we were planning this phase of the development, a misunderstanding arose as to what exactly it would consist of. Our sponsors assumed they were coming for a full “dress rehearsal”, where our “cast” or “orchestra” would perform the entire “show” just as if it were the real thing. Had we been rehearsing a play we would have been wearing our costumes and make-up, and the props and lighting would all be in place. They imagined they would simply attend as if they were the real audience.

It took a little while for us to explain that we were still at a stage of testing and learning, of connecting and aligning. But they swiftly became part of the creative process, and together we thoroughly enjoyed the business of stretching ourselves to the limit, determined to deliver something of serious impact. Our clear aim was to launch a change process, and this could only happen if the participants – in a mere two days – acquired not only the knowledge and the skills to undertake the journey, but also a whole new mindset that would enable them to reach some important destinations.

To further encourage you to invest time in rehearsing critical activities, I suggest you access a wonderful family of YouTube clips that show how the celebrated “Three Tenors” went through the various stages of rehearsing for their spectacular operatic performances, together with a great conductor and a huge combined orchestra. See how they loved every minute of their polishing time together, and what glorious music resulted.

I leave you with that well-known definition of luck: “the cross-roads between preparation and opportunity”. So identify your (ambitious!) opportunity and, like the Three Tenors and like us, thoroughly enjoy the process of preparing to put on the show of your life. Others might say you were just lucky. You know that, like the swan, while you seemed to be gliding so easily along the surface of your water, you were still paddling like mad underneath. But not half as frantically as if you would not have rehearsed.

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