Reading story after story of an entrepreneur overcoming obstacles–vanquishing doubts or persisting when all hope appears vain, then finally realizing a vision–is one of the great joys afforded by writing about the startup scene. Admittedly, sometimes entrepreneurs give me success burnout. They cause me to reflect a little too long on the condition of some of my dearest, sputtering projects. And then some one comes along that sets the bar for human achievement so ridiculously high that laughing at oneself, feeling all right with ordinary struggle, and going back to work is the only thing to do.
From The Ground To The Skies
At one point a refugee of genocide in Rwanda, Ashish J Thakkar began his career selling computers and parts to school friends in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Every week he would travel to Dubai for electronics, and because he couldn’t afford air shipping, he would haul everything back to Uganda himself. When he was 15-years old, he opened up an IT shop, and his business reach has been growing ever since.
Today Thakkar is the founder and Managing Director of the Mara Group, a global firm with 4,500 employees and operations in 18 African countries. His conglomerate deals in nearly every industry, including technology, real estate, telecommunications, and brings in nearly $100 million in revenue. As if his business accomplishments weren’t inspiring enough, Thakkar intends to become only the second African astronaut. He’s already been through rigorous physical training to prepare for a Virgin Galactic space flight sometime next year.
Hardly surprising, Thakkar is a busy advocate of providing other Africans with startup opportunities. With nearly 85 percent of the continent’s population under the age of 35, he’s determined to inspire young working adults into entrepreneurship. “The Launchpad,” the latest project from the Mara Foundation (the nonprofit component of his enterprise), offers funding and guidance to Ugandan startups. 110 companies will participate in the small business accelerator. In 2013, the plan is to open a similar center in Tanzania that will help grow another 40 companies.
The foundation is keen on nurturing businesses that introduce a positive environmental or social benefit. A favorite success story of Thakkar’s is a school girl who learned how to purchase raw materials, market herself, and went from selling a few homemade school uniforms to producing 700 a month and hiring classmates to help her.
While launching a company from a basement or garage might excite the Yankee heart, the home office remains taboo in Africa and damages a businesses credibility. The Launchpad provides a space in addition to capital to help entrepreneurs build legitimate companies. Thakkar visited the Silicon Valley to glean insight from other successful incubator and accelerator programs like Y Combinator and 500 Startups, and to recruit mentors for African business owners. How do you refuse a man whose projects literally shoot for the moon?