As co-founders of Brave Venture Labs in Nairobi, Jessica Colaço and Ibanga Umanah are the unlikeliest of pairings. Although they both agree on that stated fact that Brave’s mission is to ‘link great people to big opportunities,’ their approaches—and backgrounds—are very different.
They are both known to be key players in Kenya’s new tech environment. When I first met them back in April, at the MIT Africa Innovate conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jessica kept disappearing every time I tried to catch her for an interview.
I knew her reputation as Erik Hersman’s co-founder at Nairobi’s iHub—at one point the most innovative tech space in Africa–and gathered that she was always multitasking, managing multiple face to face (and online) conversations across continents, while also trying to focus on any immediate opportunity that might come her way on the top floor of the MIT Media Lab, where the conference was taking place.
Ibanga, on the other hand, was scoping out the conference participants, making eye contact with those he found unusual, and quietly approaching his targets in a very disciplined, self-assured manner. I had heard from my friends at MIT that he chose to leave San Francisco and Silicon Valley last year, for new challenges in Kenya’s Silicon Savannah.
There is a quiet elegance to the way he meets people and handles networking events, and I could tell that he was born a great listener, which is why I was surprised when he did most of the talking when I caught up with them again in June—this time for a scheduled interview—at a café above a Nakumatt supermarket in Nairobi’s Karen Shopping Centre.
Nairobi traffic being Nairobi traffic, I arrived more than 30 minutes late despite my Uber driver’s attempts to find shortcuts, and we jumped straight into a conversation about the future of tech in Africa, and the role that Brave (a startup celebrating its one year anniversary this month) might play in the continent’s digital revolution.
Revolution isn’t an understatement: it has been stated that the tech industry could surpass one billion dollars in revenue for Kenya, despite the country’s 40 per cent unemployment rate. Bloomberg recently reported that ‘Kenya is throwing all their eggs in the tech basket as they build a multi-billion dollar infrastructure in the form of a “Techno City” that will support 200,000.’
This is an edited transcript of a longer interview.
Where are you from?
IU: I was born in the US, then moved to Nigeria when I was a child. My mother’s side is Norwegian. After Nigeria, we came back to the US, and I lived in DC and New York and different places. Then I went to college in the Midwest before going to school in Denmark and starting a company in Cairo, and then moved to the Midwest again, moved to India and then California. San Francisco (where I lived for just under nine years) is the place where I spent the most amount of time.
When I was in the United States, I was always called black, as in African American, but my father is Nigerian, which means I grew up in more of an African household.
None of those sentiments that African Americans have about feeling like an underclass applied to us. If anything, my father considered that he was an elite, so at home I never had any feeling of being inferior or smaller than anyone else. Plus, when my parents split up, I was raised culturally as Norwegian, with a lot of skiing and ice-skating, so my cultural mix was always about being perceived as different.
When I went to Nigeria, they saw me the way they saw any other white person, mainly because of my hair, because they thought it was like a white person’s hair.
How did you meet?
JC: Let me call it intentional serendipity. I say that because a Nairobi-based colleague introduced us via email. Then, last year I went to San Francisco for a conference, and Ibanga and I met again in person at a Hive dinner table in San Francisco.
IU: When I was in Nigeria, I saw a lot of bad stuff. Abacha was there, there were a lot of protests around oil, a lot of killings, tear gas in the streets, just a lot of bad stuff, including citizen terror activity. Later, when I grew up and learnt that my country of birth, the US, was paying for half of Nigeria’s oil, I found myself in a confusing posture, and I tried to understand what is the nature of evil, how do groups become evil.
I didn’t believe that people are fundamentally evil, but that there is a way in which we can become evil, so I tried to understand that. Over time, I realised that creativity allows people not to think that way in organisations. I worked and worked, in Turkey, Brazil, China, India, all sorts of places, and never had a chance to work in Africa.
I started exploring different cities to move to, including market data on 11 different cities, and then I put a social graph on top of the market data, trying to find out not only where is a good place to build something, but also where is a good place for me to build something. Nairobi, Lagos and Johannesburg came out high on that list.
We both share a purpose, which is about unleashing the best in people.
It had to do with my ability to meet high level people quickly, and to have good density of international people. So I went to Nairobi as part of the vetting process, and met about 100 people over ten days, and continued to get introduced to people, but Jessica was not one of those 100 people I’d initially met in Nairobi. Within a week however, as soon as I got back to San Francisco, she was sitting across the table from me.
What values do you share?
IU: We both share a purpose, which is about unleashing the best in people. We both believe in honest and open communication, speaking with both mind and heart, in learning while pursing your passion. When we both wrote down what we wanted, we realised that we should build something around those values, around that purpose. What exactly? It wasn’t totally clear, but we knew that it should have to do with building companies fast.
I remember inviting Jessica over to my office in San Matteo after that dinner, and then after another session, within a couple of days, she called me and said, you should just call me your co-founder.
JC: I want to go back to serendipity, because throughout my life I have been able to meet the right people at the right time. Even during my undergraduate studies, or when we were starting the iHub, certain people influenced me, and encouraged me to go in certain directions.
I knew that the next thing I did had to be a game-changer, what people in computer science sometimes call a black swan.
When I left the iHub, the idea was not to just get a corporate job or just move on to the next thing. It had to be the right thing, because I’d been at the iHub for six years. That’s a long time, and I wanted to do something new, a new challenge with new people. I’d met so many young people who required a lot of nurturing and mentorship, and I believed I could continue to do this outside of the iHub, on a bigger scale. And I think just meeting Ibanga, we just clicked, and aligned, on a value-based level, on the first and second conversation.
My journey of leaving the iHub had started a year before, and I knew that the next thing I did had to be a game-changer, what people in computer science sometimes call a black swan. It was a sort of problem that cannot be solved overnight, or even in six months.
What are you actually building?
IU: The simplest way to think about what we are building is to think about a network. We’d like to build a million-person network, and the input for that is all sorts of different events and services. And that starts with meeting people, and telling them what we are doing. The output is investable projects and startups. So, in a way, it’s like an investment firm. In a way, it’s like a venture builder, but the main asset is the network, and the technology is the ability to mix that network in different ways that we consider to be the most productive.
We can get paid in different ways. The primary way is as an investor. The angel invests, and we also kick off our own projects. In a sense it’s like a community VC, where as a VC you’re finding portfolio companies and bringing them into your network. The traditional VC model is two or three really smart people who pick investments, and as they pick more and more companies to enter their portfolio, you simply have less and less of that VC’s time applied to any given company. Essentially you’re getting diminishing value for the companies in the portfolio over time.
The community VC model is the following: as you add companies to the portfolio, you increase the number of connection points to investors, to advisors, to collaborators, to business partners. Community VCs actively encourage people in our portfolio to do business with each other, they actively encourage mentorship and advising across members of the portfolio, including things like peer-to-peer lending.
This is where we are starting off. We work with a company, and give them access to everyone we know. And we make sure that from everyone we’ve met and from everyone in our network, we’re deploying the best resources for each individual company that we have a relationship with.
You can be a great entrepreneur in San Francisco, but not a great entrepreneur in Kenya.
In terms of the science behind that, there’s tons of work being done around social graphs, network theory, psychological testing, and figuring out which people would work well together as a team. It’s about understanding how individuals function among each other, and also within a particular ecosystem. You can be a great entrepreneur in San Francisco, but not a great entrepreneur in Kenya. We’re looking for the qualities that help people to become great entrepreneurs in Kenya, and pairing them with other people who have those qualities. We’re doing a pilot right now, by starting three companies this year and picking three people to start those companies with.
One company is based on our intuition that marketing should be free. There is so much data and information out there, and we should know enough now not to have to charge big upfront budgets before we engage in marketing. There are a lot of people collecting data, and publishing it freely, or at a reasonable price. In Africa, very little is known about actual consumers, which means that those consumers are invisible to the market. Companies cannot reorient their products or reconfigure how their products are distributed, in order to meet their customer’s needs. The market doesn’t function when there is no transparency or visibility about huge portions of potential consumers.
What is done now, most people think of it in terms of economics, bottom of the pyramid, top of the pyramid, and the middle. It’s not based on lifestyle. We know that the people who drive Land Rovers in Kenya are not necessarily the wealthiest, whereas some of the wealthiest people in Kenya drive the oldest Toyotas. Spending money is more about the psychology of the person.
Currently, what the marketing companies do is gather large data sets about potential consumers and try to target specific groups of people. For us, and our new company, with the team currently in place, it’s about finding a business model that allows us to have very deep profiles, that have longevity, across many companies and sectors.
The second company is an education business, a career accelerator. This applies more broadly into sub-Saharan Africa, but in Kenya, out of the 22 universities, 15 of them fail their accreditation, because less and less government money is available, even though enrolment is growing at 30 per cent a year. Students are accumulating more and more debt, and more and more students are going into non-accredited institutions that are not worth much. Meanwhile, companies are trying to find specific profiles that are just not available in the market, because graduates that are coming out don’t meet the requirements of an entry-level job.
We’re studying the job market, figuring out exactly what the companies need, building a screener that allows us to understand what it would take to do well in certain positions, behaviourally as well as functionally, because it’s not just about the workflow, but also the psychological match. Once we know that, we try to figure out what does a learning program need to be.
We design the learning program around what it would take to do well in a specific job, by running the students through experiential, project-based content where they work together, work by themselves, work in larger groups. After that, we place them in those positions where they can get on-the-job coaching for six months, and then we go back and run analyses on our screener based on their performance on the job. The idea is to understand how we can accelerate the performance of this person. Our objective is to create a lot more placements into jobs that are not currently being filled, while not costing the students a lot of money, because now they will be going to school for three or four months, instead of three or four years.
JC: The third company is about work environments. We believe that, by putting all these different stakeholders together, knowing that each one of these stakeholders produces data and content, we can learn more about the workplace. When you tie this data and content into the workspace environment, you see that a lot of people are asking how do we make data more meaningful in helping to understand how people engage with each other in the workspace. We want to measure the interaction.
IU: It’s like a small world network, where we measure who is interacting with who and when, in order to better understand the loose connections within the network. For instance, the iHub cannot activate its 17,000 members without running an event, not to mention the 300 plus hubs across Africa.
No one knows who is doing what, so there needs to be a way to collapse all these networks into one, and figure out how connections can happen freely, across the network.
Find out more about Brave Ventures Lab.