Tahar Ben Lakhdar is the CEO of Esprit, a private engineering school in Tunisia. The school trains students in diverse engineering and business courses.
1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
Probably red tape, again and again, right from the beginning of my career. In the early 2000s, when Esprit School of Engineering was still at its inception phase, my partners – 10 retired academics – and I came across the burden of bureaucracy: time-consuming administrative paperwork and gruelling legal hassles. Thus, we took it to heart to instil transparency on all levels.
2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?
When I reminisce about 16 years ago, back where we started, without a doubt, our best achievement is the elevation of Esprit to an educational institution in line with international standards.
We started small. We were retired scholars with a dream of creating an institution that thinks outside of the box, leaning on active pedagogy and modern teaching methods: a handful of instructors chipped in to share their knowledge with 40 students aspiring to become ITC (information, technology and communication) engineers.
Sixteen years later, Esprit has become a campus aggregating assorted engineering and business specialisations – ITC, electro-mechanics, civil engineering and business – [with] more than 6,000 students studying for an internationally recognised degree.
3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
As long as I can remember, the little shepherd from Makthar, a north-western town in Tunisia, pursued a deep-rooted dream to feed on knowledge and educate future generations. Ideas were a dime a dozen in my head and the sky was the limit.
So, diving in head-first is my top weakness. [I was] always willing to take serious risks for an upcoming venture because I firmly believed in my dream materialising and taking shape.
Surrounding myself with a support system: financial, scientific, legal – as a limited company with individual shareholder scholars from the scientific diaspora and engineers – has helped to take on the effects of economic fluctuations and business cycles. Private equity funds such as AfricInvest, one of the leading private equity investors in Africa, [have also been a source of support].
4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?
It definitely has to be “keeping your opinions to yourself” – we are the offspring of ‘‘the senior knows best’’ culture. If you want to solve problems, create a culture open to sharing opinions. This sparks constructive discussions, which lead to decisive solutions and, eventually, debunk the outdated cult of secrecy.
Another conventional business wisdom I oppose is: “Traditional education is everything.” Getting a degree is not enough without experiencing real-life situations. Young entrepreneurs should test, fail and try, along with their knowledge-based competencies. This is what I’ve been preaching for: a sound mix of life skills and hard skills through the PBL (problem-based learning) approach.
5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?
When we started thinking about creating Esprit, we were far from being businessmen – but we were eager to create an institution that could provide better and innovative teaching for the next generation of engineers. To that end, we were ready to face any risks. Clearly, some entrepreneurship fundamentals would have helped us have a clear sailing business venture.
In the beginning, we invested our time and money to start our business as soon as it was possible. I can assure you that we experienced some bumps along the way and we had to rely on our intuition and improvised on numerous situations.
Something I wish I knew before I started, would have been getting all of the legal structures that go into the governance of the company right and have all of the i’s dotted and t’s crossed on all of my legal documents.
‘The journey so far’ series is edited by Wilhelmina Maboja, with copy editing by Xolisa Phillip.