Ex-banker trades cushy Bank of America job for the family business in Kenya

For six years Adarsh Shah worked at Bank of America in Philadelphia. But although he had a good job and had climbed the ladder to become a vice president, a short visit to Kenya a few years ago prompted him to quit his secure job and relocate to Nairobi.

Adarsh Shah

Adarsh Shah, CEO of Designwear

“I came back to Kenya for a summer, and as I walked through Nairobi saw signs of opportunity everywhere. I was very happy in the US, but felt the upside potential in Kenya was a lot more. Here I can be a big fish in a small pond and make a more meaningful impact in people’s lives,” he recalls.

Breathing new life into the family business

Instead of starting his own business, Shah (who grew up in Kenya) joined his father’s furniture company. For more than two decades Designwear, started by his father, was known for quality office furniture.

When Shah joined the business, he decided to leverage the company’s strengths in logistics, sourcing, importation and project execution. New divisions were introduced focusing on road construction, solar street lighting and distribution of health supplies and equipment.

“We are well known for being able to execute large projects in excess of US$10m. When we looked at our strengths we saw the opportunity to leverage them and expand into other impactful areas such as infrastructure and health,” explains Shah.

Designwear has since done a number of road construction and lighting projects, and handles healthcare equipment needs for a suite of clients. The company has also maintained its office furniture division. “Office furniture has always been our forte and we have a good reputation in the market,” he says.

Professionally challenging

The 31-year-old, a graduate of Wharton business school, says adapting to social life in Kenya after a decade in the US was easy. However, the professional side was more challenging.

“I had switched from a bank that employs 200,000 people with everyone having a specialised role, into a small organisation where I had to know everything.”

Designwear introduced new technologies in both solar street lighting and road construction, which simultaneously lowered costs and improved the customer experience. However, it was a challenge to gain acceptance, and competition was stiff. In solar energy, he adds, there are many naysayers opposed to new technologies due to previous unpleasant experiences with poorly-engineered products.

“As a result we had to slow our market entry,” he says. “I also had to understand the Kenyan consumer mindset which is different to the US. People here focus a lot on value. It took me a while to realise the importance of that.”

Overly optimistic

In the early days, Shah says one mistake he made was being overly optimistic and not anticipating these challenges. “We overestimated the speed at which we would be able to get jobs, and along the way had to scale back. There were also practical considerations as clients took time to get funding. This process took years not months, but acceptance of our unique products is finally taking off.”

Other challenges were customers tending to choose cheaper short-term solutions as opposed to a more pricey long-term option. But despite setbacks, Shah says he remains optimistic and energised, confident growth prospects in the region are good.

“The emergence of an educated middle class with increasingly sophisticated demands means Kenya remains a fertile ground for opportunity,” he believes. “And from a humanitarian point of view it’s important to see our population get lifted out of poverty. Simultaneously it increases the robustness of our internal market. Our governments must continue to focus on policies which grow the middle class, supporting education, reducing corruption, and empowering women to become wealth creators.”

Bank of America lessons

Shah notes the skills acquired at Bank of America have helped his entrepreneurial journey. Professionalism is one key thing he mastered. At the bank, Shah and his team helped manage a loan portfolio of $180bn, and produced “hundreds of pages of documents full of numbers”, with no room for error.

“Even though I don’t produce reports anymore, in whatever we do I expect our work to be 100% perfect. I do not tolerate mediocrity, not from our staff, not from our products, and not from myself. It takes years of training to have that mindset.”

Learning opportunities at the bank were vast, thanks to a team of highly competent managers and peers. For one year he was posted to India to build a new team.

“It was like a start-up culture there. For three weeks I did not even have a computer but eventually I built a whole new highly-functional team. That experience alone taught me a lot about management and expansion.”

Shah advises aspiring entrepreneurs to have more than just a big dream. “The crunch is in being trustworthy, working hard, and having grit.”