Heshan de Silva, CEO, De Silva Group
Meet the Boss is a How we made it in Africa interview series in which we pose the same 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
1. What was your first job?
I made coffee when I was 17. I had a job at the university in Miami and I was making lattes and cappuccinos and espressos for people. I was earning US$6.50 an hour
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
I think seeing how my partners work in New York inspires me. They look at numbers as just that and they have no emotions tied to money. Having that attitude is brilliant when you are running a business.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
Nothing. Honestly, I believe that if you are unable to sleep at night because of worries then you are not doing it correctly. If you are doing it correctly then you have planned for it, you know what is going to happen and how you are going to fix it. If you don’t plan correctly, you will have those sleepless nights.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I am very good at reading people’s body language. I can ask you a question and see how your mouth opens or your eyes widen, how you are sitting and how you place your arms. Everything means something… 80% of what we say isn’t coming from our mouths, it comes from our bodies and how we react. If you can read that and know what it means, it’s gold.
5. What are the best things about your country?
The opportunities… it is incredible that a kid who has no university degree can rise so quickly. What a great country Kenya is; the opportunities here are unlimited.
6. And the worst?
I can’t say that. I am very close with our president and I can’t say anything bad about our country. I believe that if you are going to say something bad about a place, you should accompany that criticism with a solution. If you don’t have a solution, don’t complain.
7. Your future career plans?
I want to keep growing our businesses. I never get tired of it. I want to be better every night than I was in the morning. I am addicted to work. I love it. I wake up at 5am and I feel like I have woken up too late because work is that much fun. The goals are limitless. I set ridiculous goals for myself.
8. How do you relax?
Yoga every morning from 6am-7:30am. On the weekend I like to have a takeaway and watch a movie with my girlfriend. I have just got into Downton Abbey (British TV series).
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring businesspeople and entrepreneurs?
The first thing is to identify an actual need. Don’t wait for financing. Plug in with what you have and address that need. Build a business and the money will follow. The youth make a mistake when they view money as the main goal of doing business. Money should never be the goal when you are in business. It should be about how you are going to grow the business and scale within your means. You will find that money will follow. If your aim is to be a billionaire, you are not going to get there. If your aim is to impact thousands of people with a product and you can actually do that, you will get there. Always look to scale and you will find that success will follow you.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
I saw something really interesting that Strive Masiyiwa (founder and chairman of Econoet Wireless) said. He was saying we should change the perception that money in Africa and business is done by the old guard. The truth is we have 5,000 millionaires in Kenya and that number is set to rise to 15,000 within the next 10 years. That is not only old people making money. We need to stop making excuses and saying that certain things are reserved for the old and find ways to plug into what is currently existing. It is so rare in a lifetime… to be in a continent that is about to explode, a continent that is going to grow so fast. What a [continent] we are sitting in right now. Why should we sit back and wait for handouts when we can actually do something and grow with it.
Heshan de Silva, 25, is the CEO of VenCap, a venture capital fund invested in 17,000 businesses. De Silva first tried his hand at business with less than $200 and has built a multi-million dollar enterprise over the last seven years. The portfolio of companies under the De Silva Group spans various sectors including commodities, technology, renewable energy, insurance and agribusiness. In 2008, De Silva was selected by the US Congress as one of Kenya’s Brightest Young Leaders. The university dropout seeks to use his businesses to reduce poverty in Kenya from 60% to 40% over the next five years.