1. What was your first job?
I was involved in student activism when quite young, in my mid to late teens. But my first real job was in media. I was employed by a TV station in Ghana’s second city, working on a show designed to appeal to young people and getting them interested in public affairs. I was one of the hosts of this TV show. I was 19.
And then the next thing I did was also in citizen journalism. When I left the country I took a part time job at OhmyNews… I was one of the features editors for the English version.
2. What parts of your job today keep you awake at night?
One of the biggest acute risks we face is cyber attacks on our infrastructure. We spend an enormous amount of time and energy trying to reinforce our infrastructure against cyber attacks of all kinds. We have just come out of a phase where we were defending ourselves daily on the telecom side… There was a group of people actively trying to bring down our short codes. They failed obviously, but we learnt a lot. So that is the biggest acute risk.
On the chronic side, talent is a problem. We need to be able to position ourselves to attract talent at the right price and quality. This is very difficult to get right, especially if you are based in emerging markets like India and Africa. A lot of people are looking for jobs, but not enough of them are willing to really give years of their life to become experts at what they do in that job. And if you find those who are willing, and have the capacity and the aptitude, then they often charge expat rates.
3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
I would say somebody like Steve Biko and Chinua Achebe – people who have a blend of artistic and political, a certain moral world view, and a strong sense of identity. Chinua Achebe in many ways represents the summit of identity I would like to reach. Somebody who was very cultural. He was very Nigerian and very Igbo, but at the same time empathetic towards other cultures. He was aware of English literature and when you read his books you see all his tributes to so many English writers – and yet he was still evoking a very unique Nigerian experience.
He was also a strong activist and a revolutionary in the Biafran war in Nigeria. He was the chief representative of the Igbo faction… But he was not a tribal ethnicist of some kind, or bigot. He was just deeply aware of his roots and the political dimensions of his roots. At the same time he was very keen about Nigerian rejuvenation and revival.
He was also a writer – that was what he did best. I have always said that looking for purpose in life is not a unified thing; it is about four dimensions. First is your ability. In the case of Chinua Achebe, it is very much his ability as a writer. Second is the necessity – what drives you because you believe it is a problem that has to be solved? In Chinua Achebe’s case it was Nigerian corruption and misgovernance. Then it is about opportunity – what are the instances where you rise to the occasion? And in his case I think it was the Biafra War. Then lastly it is about desire – what is it deep down you want to do? In my case I want to contribute original ideas that others can build upon.
So I think in those four dimensions I find Chinua Achebe to be impactful… I don’t really hero-worship, but in terms of somebody who inspires me from a distance and in various facets motivates me, I would say Chinua Achebe.
4. What is the best professional advice you have ever received?
One that definitely stands out from a business point of view was: you know you are really on the cusp of leadership when you begin to derive joy from the success of those you once considered followers. It is about when you are finally able to share the leadership burden and when you see your glory in other people’s achievements – meaning that you built a team that is strong enough to go out there and conquer and you take delight in their conquest.
The number one priority for business leaders, and I am sure it is the same for all types of leadership, is for followers to become leaders too. To see them rise and do things that surprise, amaze and delight you. Being in awe of your followers is the single most important pinnacle of achievement and the best advice I have received. I am not sure I have been able to live up to it yet, but it is about being able to share the leadership burden and to take delight in the achievements of followers when they finally become leaders.
5. What are the top reasons why you think you have been successful?
I wouldn’t say I have been successful yet, but I will say the reasons why we definitely endure, conquer adversities, thrive, and move from day to day getting stronger, has been due to three things. One is the awareness that a business is defined by… how often people rise to the occasion and do amazing things. Heroism is what I call it: champion heroism within a business – having people do amazing things, not for their own glory but for the glory of the team. I think we are heavily investing in building that attitude of heroism; of people rising to the occasion and facing great odds. That has been really important for us.
The second thing is being true to the virtue that we saw when we first set out… We still frame our own big questions, and because we do that, we tend to innovate. And I think innovation is very much the ability to ask those questions that nobody thinks is important, and then let them define your day’s work. It is the ability to not just look at a particular opportunity or particular niche, but to always ask questions that forces us to respond in unexpected ways… And we keep at it. Every day we look at our problems with different eyes and ask a different question. Why do these problems even matter? Why will our solutions endure? And why will they not change if the questions change? Because sometimes problems exist because people ask the wrong questions. So that has been really strong for us; that innovative edge of always asking what is important about an approach and why a question is still relevant. I think a lot of people get bogged down because the old questions that drove them from day one, still drive them. It is exploring for new questions that has been extremely important as a source of innovation for us.
The third is obviously seeing delighted customers. This is incredibly important to us… Our service must touch them in a way that changes them – so what delights them was not what they thought would delight them. It is the ability to change the customers’ perspective and world view, to influence them, to cause them to participate in a new cultural norm and induce a new behaviour. And that is because we are also partly activist. Imagine if we were interested, for instance, in pushing an environmental agenda – we wouldn’t want our customers to be as they are now. And a lot of the time I see the customer-focused mantra is defused because people tend to see customers as unchanging, unshifting and unevolving. And we see differently. We think our service can touch customers in a way that prompts them to change… The idea is that when you come up with a service that is profound, it has an effect on the customer and they change slowly, they evolve.
6. In your opinion, where is the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?
I think everybody should have some activist background of some kind. It doesn’t have to be radical or revolutionary, but there must be something that you are moved to change purely because inside you something passionate is roused, some beast is stirring – something that makes you a bit angry or frustrated. If you haven’t really fought against or stood up for something, and if you’ve never lived for anything bigger than your own dreams, then I think it is very difficult to run a business with a profound mission. Because you need to draw on something deep within you in those moments, often called the long winter of the soul, when you are really down and nothing makes sense or seems to matter. Those reserves of strength that you will need to draw from, I think, comes from having worked in some context of fighting some injustice or something that you thought was so ridiculous, that it has to change.
And then there is the [experience] of coming up against those forces with an vested interest to make those idiocies endure. I think when you introduce an innovation to the marketplace that is obviously needed, you will be stunned to find it resisted by people you thought would know better. Some of the smartest people in the world will oppose something that is obviously needed. And to be able to drive on from day to day, believing in that vision and pursuing that mission, you need to draw on reserves of strength from somewhere very deep within you.
So I think the best way to prepare for any leadership role is to have played a small part in some activist movement… something that taught you about standing up for what you believe in. It is the best preparation you could have.
7. How do you relax?
I am very moved by artistic stimuli of various kinds, and movies are big for me… I look out for really crazy moments in the arts. So I watch a Stanley Kubrick movie when I really feel like I am up against a wall and I need to break through it. I like harnessing anger for the right reasons, and some artistic moments are good for that. Some of Kubrick’s best works are amazing. Movies are great because they can exploit the visual in ways that really excite your emotional core. I need to be in touch with my emotional side while at the same time being highly analytical and methodical. So how you combine the two I think is best expressed in art forms like film.
So I relax with not just watching movies, but also exploring the craft, and studying how they achieve these emotional tapestries they are able to weave. For me, relaxation and stimulation have to be in sync – otherwise I get very nervy. I can’t just relax, I have to be stimulated. So I relax by doing things that enable my brain to do those two things in sync, while also getting away from the day to day hassles of work.
8. By what time do you like to be at your desk?
Most of our production and logistic activities take place in Asia. So when I wake up around 5am to 6am, our employees and partners in Asia are already deep in work. So I start with connecting with them, and as the day wears on our other markets come to life. East Africa is next to come up three hours later, and then obviously my own time zone. So most of the early mornings are hyper-intensive for me. Most people wake and meditate in the morning and slowly build themselves into the work day. For me it works the other way round. I get up in the morning and can’t even think, because I have a lot of emails and stuff to do.
But as the day wears on, like mid or late afternoon, I find that I can begin to meditate and go look at more strategic stuff. Then after hours I will do more social things and then sleep. I sometimes wake up around midnight to prepare for the Asia onslaught of work that will come. It is a very funny day… but it is never a usual pattern.
9. What’s your favourite job interview question?
I always like questions that are most likely to be unfamiliar to a person. So I remember asking somebody to convince me that they are not a brain in a vat. A brain in a vat is a really famous, but not always widely known, metaphor in philosophy for determining whether any other minds exist, apart from your own mind. And I like to see people who are extremely technical and genius try grapple with that… And that unfamiliarity is when I think people are most vulnerable and a lot of their traits show, such as aggression, defensiveness, and trying to be smarter than they are. A lot of the bullshit of what people do when they are unfamiliar with things comes out. People often reveal their deepest characteristics when they are vulnerable. So I like questions that are highly unfamiliar to people and seem completely out of place.
10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring young entrepreneurs?
First of all, they have to gauge themselves by their ability to work with people they consider either better than, or at least equal to, themselves… What I have seen a lot is this inability for smart people in Africa to work together, to build teams. If they have to put together a ramshackle team to go get a deal and then leave, then people typically struggle to align.
And I always ask others: why would somebody work for you? If you can’t sincerely answer that you believe you are offering them the best chance of realising their personal vision, by asking them to participate in a collective vision, then I don’t think you have any business being in entrepreneurship. I think that is the number one thing. Entrepreneurial leadership really is about knowing why somebody better or equal to you – whether intellectual, emotionally, or morally – would work for you.
If you cannot think of your mission in terms of how others will find fulfilment in it, I struggle to see how you will grow your business. And a lot of it is not just what you say or write down on paper, but it is how you actually go about achieving that mission day to day… If they cannot put their mission in your mission and actually realise its potential, then in my view you are going to have a lot of difficulty truly building something giant and magnificent… which is actually what we don’t do very well in Africa. There are a lot of rich people and a lot of successful people, but there are not a lot of successful organisations.
So I think people must see your mission as the canvas against which they can draw their own successful mission and find fulfilment in it.
Ghanaian Bright Simons is the social entrepreneur behind mPedigree Network, a company he founded in 2007 that uses mobile and web technology to combat the sale of counterfeit products – most notably fake medicines in African countries.
The enterprise currently has operations in 12 countries, with offices in nine, including India. In addition to pharmaceutical companies, clients include manufacturers of veterinary medicine, electrical products, baby food, cosmetics and high-yield seeds used in agriculture, to name a few.