Management Consultant Mike Eldon

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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