Here’s how MIT is backing African entrepreneurship

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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is one of the most renowned universities globally, and through its Sloan School of Business it is having an impact on Africa as well.

The Sloan School of Business provides its students and entrepreneurs with a number of programmes and fellowships that provide them with the resources and support necessary to launch startups and solve business problems.

Adetayo Bamiduro, co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Metro Africa Express (MAX) and a Legatum Center Fellow at MIT Sloan, and Tunde Alawode, co-founder and chief operating officer (COO) of DOT Learn, who participated in MIT Sloan programmes such as Legatum Seed Grants and the Trust Center’s Delta V Accelerator, are two of the African entrepreneurs that have benefitted from MIT’s assistance.

Disrupt Africa caught up with Fiona Murray, associate dean for innovation and co-director of the MIT Innovation Initiative at MIT Sloan, to discuss the school’s approach to supporting entrepreneurship, including the programmes that have been making an impact for Africa-focused and global entrepreneurs.

Disrupt Africa: Tell us about MIT Sloan’s approach to supporting entrepreneurship.

Fiona Murray: MIT Sloan’s mission is to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and to generate ideas that advance management practice. Our specific approach is focused on equipping students with the skills, mind-set and values they need to succeed as entrepreneurial leaders; not just focused on their venture today but also tomorrow. We’re teaching our students how to fish, not just giving them a fish.

We also have a few things that are key to our classroom experiences. We try and have academic faculty and practitioners teach together so that we can balance theory and practice , individual stories and experience with more broadly applicable advice and evidence. We try and mix management and technical students together so that people learn to appreciate different skills, build teams and work in an multi-disciplinary context.

We take a problem-oriented approach so that we focus on real problems not just problem sets – and we build up from small but open ended problems to larger and more challenging ones.

DA: What is so valuable about the MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme (REAP) and the partnership with the Legatum Center?

FM: The Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT is a community for MIT students, faculty, departments and entrepreneurs who are passionate about improving lives through principled entrepreneurial leadership in the developing world. We are committed to providing education, funding and community resources that will equip our students with the skills, values and critical thinking they need to succeed as entrepreneurial change agents in the world.

Our active programmes include fellowships, seed grants, EIR, regional conferences, the Zambezi Prize, podcasts, help with thought leadership, Open Mic Africa, and the Legatum Award.

The Legatum Center works closely with MIT REAP when REAP has regions who are focused on innovation ecosystems in the developing world in places such as Lagos, Morocco, and Thailand, among others. The support that we provide is to share specific regional knowledge as well as an appreciation of the specific ways in which new policies and programmes need to be designed to support emerging market ecosystems.

DA: How have these impacted African entrepreneurs?

FM: REAP Lagos is fully active, recently signed an MOU with Abu Dhabi Global Market and hosted the MIT Open Mic Africa event on July 26-27. REAP Accra was recently formed and will be working closely with the Legatum Center on building up the Ghanaian entrepreneurship ecosystem.

The Zambezi Prize awarded US$200,000 to 11 African companies, many of which ended up raising rounds and scaling beyond their starting markets. Regional conferences helped African entrepreneurs network and engage with local investors and MIT alum.

The Open Mic Africa tour will allow more than 1,000 local African entrepreneurs to meet with the Legatum Center, engage with our mentors and apply for funding through the 2017 Zambezi Prize edition.

DA: What benefit do these programmes offer MIT Sloan?

FM: Stronger local alumni and stakeholder engagement, and it creates a learning loop/feedback mechanism. Long-term impact, and increasing the number of African students at MIT Sloan.

DA: What have they achieved so far? Do you plan to scale them up in the future?

FM: Increase in awareness and in the number of inquiries from African entrepreneurs and students, and more opportunities for collaboration between MIT Sloan and African stakeholders, such as incubators, universities, and venture capitalists.

DA: How important is social entrepreneurship within today’s global marketplace?

FM: Let us first better define what we mean by social entrepreneurship: While it is true that building a venture with the aim of solving a social problem is generally considered social entrepreneurship, we do not use this term when referring to our entrepreneurs.  

We simply consider them to be entrepreneurs because when you really think about it, all entrepreneurship is social if they are focusing on big important challenges. If they are successful, their long-term impact will be to create some sort of socio-economic value such as job creation and infrastructure development as well as solving the problem they have set for themselves. We believe that the greatest leaders of the 21st century are those whose ventures have a global impact.

DA: What kind of challenges are your entrepreneurs looking to solve?

FM: The entrepreneurs we serve and support are passionate about improving lives through principled entrepreneurial leadership in the developing world. They do this by focusing on specific challenges and problems and finding new and exciting solutions that will be effective as well as appropriate to the region.

DA: Are such entrepreneurs more or less attractive to investors?

FM: We try to shatter the notion that focusing on solving social problems will prevent you from attracting funding. The entrepreneurs we support are world-class leaders who understand the direct correlation between creating solutions that improve people’s lives and building sustainable ventures.

DA: What more needs to be done to help them?

FM: Helping change the perception surrounding entrepreneurs that solve social problems is critical so that they receive the support and guidance they need. Redefining some of the key components of social entrepreneurs such as financial inclusion. Creating better opportunities for African leaders to benefit from MIT’s and other’s academic and entrepreneurship opportunities. Strengthening pathways and understanding between MIT and the African entrepreneurial communities. Celebrating African role models and innovative business models that benefit society especially that benefit communities across Africa in measurable ways.

 

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent’s most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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