The 6 Lessons of Building Influential Organizations—Strive Masiyiwa—GLS 2018 Faculty Spotlight
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Strive Masiyiwa is chairman of Econet, a global telecommunications group with operations, investments and offices in more than 20 countries. A Zimbabwean businessman based in London, he was named to Fortune Magazine’s list of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” in 2014 and 2017. Considered one of Africa’s most generous humanitarians, Masiyiwa and his wife are members of The Giving Pledge and have supported the education of more than 250,000 African orphans in the last 20 years.
Strive Masiyiwa believes entrepreneurs will solve Africa’s most pressing problems—and that we’re about to see it happen.
“There are a lot of Africans who are embarking on dangerous journeys across the (Sahara) desert and the sea in search of greener pastures. That doesn’t need to happen. You can build solutions that can stop that,” he said during his talk at the Accra International Conference Centre on the 7th of September last year.
Masiyiwa, a battle-tested serial entrepreneur and philanthropist, has built six multinational companies across media and telecommunications. The latest addition to his Econet Wireless group is Kwesé TV, a content company serving Sub-Saharan Africa. Econet started off as contractual business for carrying out simple electrical maintenance and plumbing work in Harare (Zimbabwe). It soon morphed into a mobile carrier and content distribution company, among others.
In recent years, Masiyiwa has devoted his time to mentoring African entrepreneurs, mainly through his Facebook page. The page has more than 2.5 million followers—his platform has one of the most engaged followings of any business leader in the world.
This year, Masiyiwa started a lecture series that has allowed him to interact with entrepreneurs across a number of African cities. The series, Town Hall Africa, is an extension of his Facebook page. Besides Accra, he has been to Lagos, Dar es Salaam, Lomé and Abidjan.
According to Masiyiwa, entrepreneurs are made, not born—and you don’t have to quit your job to become one.
“It is a mindset. It is about finding solutions, being resourceful. Making use of what you have.” This mindset, he believes, when coupled with the right skills, will transform the continent. He believes that Africa should be transformed through knowledge, not just through natural resources.
“We are sitting here, in a great cocoa and coffee producing country (with no major global coffee or cocoa brand), but Starbucks (based in a country that produces little coffee) is a billion-dollar business built on the back of a brand. Where is Ghana’s Starbucks? I want to drink Ghana coffee in Johannesburg.”
Masiyiwa asked producers in Ghana to think beyond exporting resources, about how they can go a step further to produce end products and enter the global market.
“We produce gold, we produce coffee, we produce cocoa. We got to be number one in chocolates. I do not want to hear that we are number one in cocoa; I want to hear we are number one in chocolate. It is our generation who must change that. It is not about oil any more. We can no longer measure our wealth with what comes out of the ground. We have to measure our wealth with what comes from our brains.”
Drawing on his years of building businesses in Africa, Masiyiwa has shared a number of lessons through the Town Hall Africa series:
1) Start with what you have
Masiyiwa started his first business with $75. The business recorded revenues of $3 billion in 2011. “I convinced my mother to let me use the phone for people to call for me for odd jobs. If I did the job, I never used the money. I used it for the next job.”
2) Have values and stick to them
Values determine your priorities, which in turn determine your business’ success level. This is something Masiyiwa learned after he got his first big contract and went to the bank to get a loan. He drove to the bank in a sports car.
“The bank manager told me to sell the sports car and buy a pickup for my business. In return, the bank would match whatever I got from the car’s sale.”
3) Focus on what you are good at
One of Masiyiwa’s first companies advertised expertise in electrical maintenance and plumbing. Masiyiwa himself was an electrical engineer, but he hired someone to handle the plumbing side. He realized the “plumber” he thought he hired wasn’t an expert at all. He ended up with a toilet splashing water in the wrong direction, an unpaid invoice and the realization that he should have stuck with what he himself was good at.
4) Know your numbers—raising money is the most important skill for an entrepreneur
You should have a clear understanding of how capital works. Entrepreneurs should know what they have and where to invest it. They should also know how long their company can run on what is available,. The ability to negotiate terms on credit is capital.
5) Avoid taking dividends early on if you’re building for the long term
Masiyiwa doesn’t take more than 25% equity in businesses he invests in. He also doesn’t pay himself dividends for the first four years, no matter how profitable the business is. “It is about values. Every entrepreneur should develop the discipline of having a salary. That means you avoid taking a dividend from your company for the first four years.
6) Ensure your business ethics
Masiyiwa says that business requires effort and sacrifice. Fortunately, the majority of people do business the right way. And he has one operating principle when it comes to ethics—if it harms anyone or society in any way, don’t do it.