‘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.
Erik Hersman, tech entrepreneur, Kenya
1. What was your first job?
My first “real” job was in my first year at university [in the US]. I worked as a security guard on the graveyard shift (12-8am) at the university, doing rounds, making sure doors were locked and so forth. It was a boring, tiring job, since I still had a full day of classes. However, I guess it did teach me to take every job seriously, and do it to the best of my ability, even if it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
There was a senior vice president, named Paul Lewis, at one of the first tech companies that I worked at who took me under his wing. He mentored me on how to deal with customers, how to talk on the phone, how to craft an email and how to prepare a ‘deck’ (presentation) for a client. Paul spent an inordinate amount of time on teaching me how important every word was, and that the details mattered a great deal in how we crafted our messaging to decision-makers in large organisations.
These lessons from Paul have had a long-lasting effect on me, permeating through my style of writing, as well as underscoring how important it is to pass this on to those who work with me daily.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
There are any number of things that could keep me awake at night, as a leader there tends to be a lot on your shoulders all of the time. I’ve tried to compartmentalise this though, and feel that if we make good stuff, that good stuff will happen, alleviating that never-ending anxiety cycle. Instead, I think a lot about the people I get to work with, my team. Their well-being and sense of purpose is what I care most about, and if something is wrong there, that’s worth staying up for. Other than that, just the normal worries of making sure we have enough capital, and that we’re winning.
4. What are top reasons why you have been successful in business?
It’s hard to be objective about a question like this. My guess is that there are a couple reasons. First is communication, my ability to do that effectively inside and outside of the organisation helps us all a great deal. Second is that I’m fairly stubborn, so when a problem presents itself, I either push back harder and longer, or find a more creative solution to get what we need.
5. What are the best things about your country, Kenya?
Well, I guess it is that there’s a great deal of entrepreneurial spirit here, that people keep trying and work hard to get things done. I love being surrounded by people who are hungry, and are making a go of it. There’s a community feel to who we are, and though sometimes that is a negative, it also is one of the reasons why we do so well here in Kenya. When we come together, great things can happen.
6. And the worst?
I’m speaking to the choir when I say that the worst parts of this land are brought about by greed and selfishness. If I was given a magic wand to fix one thing in our country, it would be transportation, as I think it would have the biggest impact on our society and business.
7. Your future career plans?
To keep building things. It has taken me a long time to realise that I get the most enjoyment out of life when working with a great team of people where we’re building something that makes the world a better place. Whether that’s Ushahidi, iHub, Gearbox or BRCK, I like to see things come together and see something happen – to see the work of our hands making a dent in the world.
8. How do you relax?
I read a lot. I also like to play PC video games for the distraction that they provide. Both of these get me out of my “work” mode, which I have to be careful to not always be in. I also like a good game of rugby, though I’m getting a bit old to play it seriously any longer. I still hit the basketball court quite a bit, and enjoy riding my motorcycle.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
Don’t talk about what you’ll do, do it! Build something and ship it.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
This is too large of a question to answer in a short Q&A like this. There are many things that would take this continent forward faster, but my thinking revolves around generating wealth and jobs through business creation. The more we are trading across our own borders, manufacturing our own products, and hiring our own people to do the highly technical jobs that we tend to outsource, the faster we’ll move and reach our potential.
Erik Hersman is the CEO of BRCK, a technology company that recently launched a mobile Wi-Fi device aimed at overcoming internet and electricity challenges in emerging markets. An avid tech crusader, writer and speaker, Hersman is also involved with numerous other initiatives, including Savannah Fund that invests in African technology startups; Nairobi-based technology innovation space iHub; and non-profit software company Ushahidi. Hersman runs two technology blogs: WhiteAfrican and AfriGadget.