MARKET MAKERS SERIES: Brunch with Ashish J. Thakkar.
“I get annoyed when companies say there’s no skills in Africa. I meet at lot of entrepreneurs with energy and the ideas they have are unbelievable. It’s not that Africans don’t have ideas; they need an enabling environment to thrive. No country is born with skills. Every county has to develop their skill force,” Ashish J. Thakkar.
As founder of Mara Group and Mara Foundation, World Economic Forum Young Global Leader Ashish J. Thakkar, who recently was appointed to Dell’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence Global Advisory Board, is helping to create a new global African brand tied to entrepreneurship and mentorship. THE AFRICA BAZAAR met with him one morning in early June for an interview. During our conversation, he talks about his company’s latest product, Mara Connect, his vision for the Mara Group, Mara Foundation and his passion to help develop young entrepreneurs in Africa.
Dressed in a plain long-sleeve black T-shirt and dark blue jeans, Ashish J. Thakkar pivoted his heels toward me as he spotted me waving at him sitting near a window in the lounge lobby of Todd English’s Ca Va restaurant at Intercontinental New York Time Square hotel in Manhattan.
Though I had seen his pictures in magazines, in person he wasn’t what I had expected or imagined him to be. After all, as the founder of Mara Group and Mara Foundation, the 32-year-old is reportedly one of the youngest billionaires Africa has produced and often with this notoriety, at least from my experience with some of these young billionaires, comes an air of arrogance and narcissism.
I found out pretty early on in our conversation that the fame hasn’t gone into his head and was further pleasantly surprised to learn how humble he is despite all the accolades he has received. Unlike some of his counterpart billionaires, he dislikes the conceited celebrity lifestyle and doesn’t much like being in the spotlight either, except if it means that he can help shine light on young African entrepreneurs.
“All these lists about the wealthiest people … I think there should be a list about who is the world’s wealthiest in terms of creating an impact,” he tells me when I mention his billionaire status as we sit down after exchanging pleasantries. “The measurement should not be wealth but the most impactful; how many lives are you changing? How many have you changed? That should be the form of measurement and ranking. It should not be materialistic things,” he explains.
His aversion to the ostentatious lifestyle that comes with fame and his need to impact and connect with young African entrepreneurs stems from his background as a very young entrepreneur.
Born in Rwanda to Indian emigrants, his family flew to Uganda during Rwanda’s civil war. It was there that he, due to economic hardship his family faced as refugees, quit school to work to support his mother and sisters. He started his first business at the age of 15 with a $5,000 loan selling computers and has since built an empire. He’s been named a Young Global Leader by World Economic Forum, received an Executive Certificate from Harvard and was recently appointed to Dell’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence Global Advisory Board to help advise young entrepreneurs and lend strategic insight to Dell’s entrepreneurial initiatives around the globe.
“I love to meet other entrepreneurs who are just starting out,” he tells me. “When I went to the WEForum in Cape Town this year, I traveled 20 minutes away into the slum area of the city to meet entrepreneurs. I spent time with them, speaking and asking about their challenges, how they started, what they are doing and how they think they could make it [their business] better,” he says. “I am more myself in that environment because I can relate to them. It keeps me grounded.”
Not only does this keeps him grounded and appreciative of what he has, it also gives him new ideas on how he can better support them to reach their own dreams, he explains, which is a subject he is very passionate about: Giving back and helping other entrepreneurs; something he wished he had when he was starting out: “People stayed away from me when I started out because I was a very young entrepreneur, leaving me with no ability to network,” he says.
Despite those early business handicaps, he persevered and has transformed his business into an empire.
Transforming his computer business into the booming African brand [Mara Group]—with investments as diverse as call centers, IT business, online brands and a glass company—has taken him 17 years to build. He started off with no partners, no business knowledge or marketing skills and didn’t have the ability to network effectively back then the way most young entrepreneurs in developed world do when they’re starting out.
“I was kind of very isolated in my own world. There were a lot of trials and errors and struggling. I collapsed a few times. What kept me in it was I saw people were treating my family differently because we were Rwandan refugees. My family needed my help,” he says.
With his family depending on him for assistance, he persevered to help support them financially.
However, he didn’t imagine all of his efforts would pay off as it has. “It’s always my dream to be successful—dreamt of it—dreamt about it—I don’t think I am there yet. Did I think I was going to get here? I think I wanted to but I didn’t think I would. It’s always an uncertain thing where you can’t be confident and say I’m going to make it. I was positive. I wanted it. I was determined. To what extent I would reach? I had no idea. I knew where I wanted to be, whether or not I could reach there, I didn’t know. I have faith in myself and not give up, always keep on trying but I think there’s a higher energy above that kind off make it all possible. I think it’s God’s grace. Spirituality kept me going.”
Off all his investments, the one dearest to him is his group’s foundation, Mara Foundation, which he hopes to use as a platform to transform the lives of African youths, women and young girls by enabling, empowering and inspiring them through mentorship programs.
“My mother has worked hard her whole life and I have a lot of respect for women. I trust them a lot. They work hard, yet they are not necessarily taken seriously as men are, especially in Africa, where it is still psychologically men’s game. The numbers of women entrepreneurs we have in Africa are amazing but I still feel that they don’t have the right as much as they deserved; it’s not an equal landscape in that aspect.”
To fix the inequalities, he hopes to leverage his brands to support the foundation and mentorship program to serve as an incubator for women and young entrepreneurs, supporting home-grown businesses and helping them to develop relevance work, plus entrepreneur skills in Africa.
“I get annoyed when companies say there’s no skills in Africa. I meet at lot of entrepreneurs with energy and the ideas they have are unbelievable. It’s not that Africans don’t have ideas; they need an enabling environment to thrive. No country is born with skills. Every county has to develop their skill force,” he says.
He’s not just talking the talk but he’s also doing something about the plight of unemployment on the continent. His company is among one of the domestic companies in Africa leading the charge to invest in developing Africa’s human capital. They do knowledge transfer, whereby they take employees from one area and plug them into another area to learn new skills and then bring them back to use and teach those skills to others. For his new glass manufacturing plant located in Nigeria, the company sent six Nigerian engineers to the Middle East to learn how to manufacture glass. He has replicated this example in several previous situations involving developing needed or new skills in employees.
“There are young, educated Africans looking for opportunities,” he explains. “We invest in them by training them, paying them well. Invest in human capital; in return, your investment will turn quicker. Maybe out of the six we sent for training, all or four will come back.”
That’s fine with him, he tells me, “because those who come back will pass along the knowledge they have acquired. It’s how we can build skills and reduce unemployment and poverty on the continent.”
Thakkar has also set his sight on making his brand a global African brand. “As a pan-African brand, we at Mara group have always been debating about the fact that when you think of a global African brand, unfortunately there’s nothing that comes to mind instantly. You know you get De Beers but we don’t have anything truly global, so this is a way to show to people that there is potential; we can push the limit.”
He plans to achieve this through his company’s various brands. His latest, Mara Connect, which he acquired from a Swedish company and then rebranded, is a VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) product similar to Skype that he hopes will change communications, taking it to the next level in Africa.
For someone who doesn’t like showiness, he chartered a helicopter to fly a large banner across the sky to announce the product to Silicon Valley. “It’s a way to show an African product can take on a global challenge. It’s a way to show [America] it’s possible to create a two-way street, instead of just having things [products] export to Africa.”
His advice to companies and executives looking to expand into Africa is to follow the examples of companies such as International Business Machines, which has established its business footprint across Africa by adapting locally to each region.
“IBM is a fantastic business example of how business should go about doing business in Africa. IBM is involved and becoming more local on the continent,” he explains. “Foreign companies coming to Africa should support Africa by supporting home-grown businesses, partner with them to see what they are doing and how they get it done and then find a way to encourage and support them.”
He hopes young entrepreneurs on the continent could relate to him and see him as an example of what is possible if they work hard at their dreams. “I am African. I am home-grown. I have been there and done that with the same circumstances that many of them are facing today,” he says. “It wasn’t like my grandfather had a lot of money and made me start my own business.”
Asked what he thinks about the naysayers who still think Africa is a country filled with corrupt leaders and extreme poverty, he answers, “Many people don’t understand my part of the world [Africa] and so they make comments and give advises based on their own experience on the other part of the world, which is completely different,” he says. “In Africa, every country is different. Each country has its own political situation, history, culture, mindset, approach, business system and people; they are different. Zambia is different from Ghana, for example. Many of what works here [U.S.] doesn’t apply to Africa because it’s a different situation. You can’t just read about it or say because you have read about it you now understand the people and the situations.”
For role models, he counts Richard Branson of Virgin Group and Bill Gates of Microsoft among those whom he admires.
A fussy vegetarian, when he is not traveling for business, he likes to spend time at home with his family, enjoying home-cooked meal prepared by his mother and two sisters.
His advice to new entrepreneurs is to think big, start small, work hard, maintain who they are, don’t give up on their dreams but keep at it and be prepared that it would fail again, which is part of the process. “Nothing comes easily. You have to work honestly and don’t think by making a quick buck it’s going to solve all your problems. What goes around comes around,” he explains. “The world is very small.”
This interview conducted by Kemi Osukoya. The article was first published in December 2014.
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