I love Silicon Valley. It’s not just about being at the epicenter of new technology. Or the fact that every time you go out to lunch, you have a very real chance of sitting within earshot of someone designing the next Google, Facebook or Twitter on the back of a napkin.
What I love most is its amazing culture. It is the shared spirit of innovation and endless possibility that celebrates curiosity, collaboration and the courage to dream big. This spirit is perhaps best embodied by the iconic Apple campaign that hailed “the crazy ones, misfits and square pegs”; it’s everyday people who changed the world because they had the courage to “think different”.
If you build your career in Silicon Valley as I did, that spirit of innovation and possibility forever colors the way you look at the world. Capturing the best aspects of that formula to help people in need was very much on our minds when we started Elevate Africa, a non-profit that seeks to break the cycle of poverty in some of the poorest regions of the world by helping people start vibrant local businesses. These are businesses that raise the standard of living for entire families and communities by helping them pay for “luxuries”like clean water, medicine and school fees.
Inspired by the “startup accelerator”model that launched so many great tech companies, we designed Elevate Africa to provide our entrepreneurs with an innovative blend of microfinance, mentoring, networking and technology.
But we also knew we were missing a key part of the formula. Much of the success of Silicon Valley can be traced back to world-class universities like Stanford and UC Berkeley that create an environment of higher education and produce a steady flow of aspiring entrepreneurs ready to take on the world.
When we looked for a partner who could help us deliver that same kind of world-class business training for our entrepreneurs, one name stood above the rest: Village Enterprise. While there are many great organizations delivering entrepreneur training for the developing world, no one else we talked to came close to the level of proven impact and shared vision we saw from Village Enterprise. So we signed a licensing agreement, shook hands, and packed our bags for Uganda to learn everything we could from their field team up close and in person.
Seeing the Village Enterprise model in action was a fabulous experience. Their program, team and entrepreneurs were inspiring in every sense of the word. As we said our goodbyes and ventured on to train our own team in Mali and Burkina Faso, it was with a renewed passion that our dreams for the people of West Africa were indeed achievable, for we had seen them displayed before us in living color in the villages and mud huts of Uganda.
Less than one month later, Elevate Africa has more than 200 entrepreneurs in five cities across West Africa actively engaged in our new business training program, with hundreds more on waiting lists, anxious to get started. Watching our business coaches come alive as they poured themselves into the examples, case studies and role playing exercises embedded in the Village Enterprise curriculum was trumped only by seeing the response from our entrepreneurs.
In every city we kicked off on our trip, our entrepreneurs were fully engaged —listening, laughing, debating and asking amazingly insightful questions every step of the way. As exciting as Silicon Valley can be, nothing can prepare you for the magic of seeing people in some of the poorest countries of the world light up as they realize their dreams of a better life may not be so far out of reach after all. And that maybe, just maybe, they’re not the only ones out there crazy enough to believe they have what it takes to achieve something great.
So here’s to the crazy ones. To the teams at Village Enterprise and Elevate Africa who pour their time and energy into helping others. And most of all, to the courageous, talented, innovative entrepreneurs across Africa who have the vision, optimism and tireless energy to elevate their world every day. And who are just crazy enough to share our dream of a world where hope and self-reliance really do triumph over poverty.
Chairman, Elevate Africa