Rwandan Entrepreneurs of all kinds

And here I am, in Kigali, Rwanda in a very “comfy” leather couch in a coffee shop where there is fast enough to blog WIFI and - for the record - “the best ginger honey lemon” tea of the world.

Yes, I have been since last 24th of May in Rwanda mainly living in the countryside in a small town called SAVE, in the south of the country.  I have tweeted a lot always using the hashtag #WLPRwanda2012, which is the Program though which I am here: the Babson Women’s Leadership Program.  Yet nor the Tweets neither the pictures I have managed to post of Facebook are enough to capture all what has been lived.  Luckily despite the technology, we humans will always have hearts and minds where all can be stored forever.

There are too many angles from which I could write about Rwanda, and hopefully I will. But being a Babson MBA student, of course I need to start with our DNA topic: ENTREPRENEURSHIP. Specially because just few minutes ago I finished a pleasant Sunday morning meeting with one of them, and get so motivated that remembered that I needed to blog.

Babson celebrates Entrepreneurs of ALL kinds and my short stay in Rwanda has been a playground to meet Entrepreneurs of all kinds. I want to introduce you some of them.

1. Alphonse, the evidence of the power of Corporate Entrepreneurship

I might be over-excited with the whole idea of Corporate Entrepreneurship as one of the most effective ways to create high impact ventures, just because I just started (my first ever!) independent academic research called: “Anatomy of the Colombian High Growth Entrepreneurs: making the case for Corporate Entrepreneurship”, supervised by Babson Professor Jay Rao. The research is inspired in the need of  Innpulsa Colombia, where I will be doing an internship in the second half of my 2012 summer.

But coming back to Alphonse, he is just one of the many cases we expect to find in my research. Alphonse (who is the father of the only Rwandan undergrad student at Babson!) worked for 15+ years in big organizations, being Heineken one of them. He has done Talent Management, Marketing and Corporate Development functions and now he is focusing in developing a conglomerate of Education/Career Development companies, as I see it! Partly with support of Babson he launched already a Business Language Institute in Rwanda, which he put into action right after a team of Babson students helped him with the Business Plan some years back. Heineken is being a true Anchor Firm for him, not only was Heineken his first client, but also they even gave him space in their premises to host the business. “I talked directly to the CEO and he loved the idea”, “I have the network” – are some of the aspects he shared with me and show the powerful role of Anchor firms.

Now Alphonse wants to move on with a Career Development firm, by the way totally in synergy with his current a Business Language Institute. We meet to see how I could help him developing the product and we do have a roadmap for that! I was too passionate since I am also passionate about Education and the opportunities in this space in countries as Rwanda and my own Colombia are infinite. The developed world has so many models that are just waiting to be adapted to our realities, and as Professor Isenberg says, many times is all about “minnovation”.

Me and Alphonse, in Kigali

2. Geraldine, First Rwandan Woman in the Supreme Court

Geraldine was the first Rwandan leader we met after we landed in Kigali. Ben, one of the country directors of the Babson Rwanda Entrepreneurship Center whispered to me after we sat in the table in Heaven Restaurant with Geraldine the following: “She is a very modest person, but she has an amazing story behind being the first Rwandan Woman making it to the Supreme Court”.

My lesson from Geraldine: Balance and family. Although you expected her to talk about all what it took her to make it to Harvard despite her humble origins, she was very emphatic sharing her conscious effort to be a “A” wife, “A” daughter and “A” mother. “I shower my kids, just to make sure every day there is nothing wrong in their bodies”  - she said. And her agenda does look like the one of someone that is even in town enough to do that, but she does. Another inspiring aspect is how she talked about her parents, even if not with her, everything she does is oriented to make them proud.

Me and Geraldine

3. Robin Smyth, The social Entrepreneur behind African Bagel Company

Robyn, a nurse by profession, and his husband moved from the USA to Rwanda with their 4 kids to drive social change. I can’t find a simpler way to describe it. She had her family had always been involved I social initiatives to support Africa but at some point they felt they could and needed to do more. After few visits before to Rwanda, they decided one day that they would stay for a longer period of time to see if they could adapt and establish there. And they indeed did adapt and establish. 

Roby founded the AFRICAN BAGEL COMPANY (ABC), that is “THE” place to go in Kigali if you want “American style” bakery goods, specially bagels, doughnuts, cakes, chips, sandwiches and all that goodies that seen “common” to us but a rare treat when you are an expat in Rwanda. You have to see how full this place was on saturday. Insane!

Well, but that's not the real success of ABC. Behind ABC there is an institute to train and empower Rwandan women in cooking and customer care - Rwandan hands are the ones that bake, package and sale the goods and they have found in this new activity a gateway out of poverty. It is still a relative small model in terms of the quantity of women supported, yet the more I am in Africa the more I realize the High Scale Change is an oxymoron. You start with a small community and then you replicate. And this is more and less how Robyn sees it happening. 

My lesson from Robyn: Impact is to be done in the ground and if you feel that the place where you are at is not close enough to that playground, you need to find ways to get closer, even if it implies leaving your whole life behind for a while. Understand first the people you are trying to help, only through doing that you will be able to support and empower them better. 

The Babson WLP Team with Robyn

Life is good. When you are around role models anywhere in the world, nothing can just go wrong.
Hope to have time to blog even often, since certainly the list of entrepreneurs to talk about goes on. For now, it’s time to pay for the delicious tea and go back to my students!

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