MIT Scaling Development Ventures Conference

By Kate Hirschboeck

Massachusetts Institute of Technology hosted the Scaling Development Ventures Conference on Friday, April 1st.

MIT’s Weisner building was packed with aspiring, freshly-minted, and long-established entrepreneurs from around the world, gathered to brainstorm responses to the question any successful entrepreneur will face at some point: after the incubation period, seed funding, and early successes, what comes next?

Hannes vans Rensburg, founder of mobile banking company Fundamo, opened the keynote address by describing a recent phone call he had with a young entrepreneur. Despite her early successes, a key investor had pulled out and she hadn’t paid her staff in two months. Midway through the conversation, she began to cry.

This reminded Hannes of a similar experience. Visa acquired Fundamo for USD 110 million in 2011. But a decade earlier, as Fundamo was poised to expand across Africa, the company was running low on cash. Hannes expected to sign a contract that would keep Fundamo running. The plane carrying the potential partners crashed, the likely investors were killed, and the contract went unsigned. After the initial shock, Hannes , too, began to cry as he realized the gravity of the situation.

Hannes’ point: scaling is terrifying, and there’s a very human, psychological dimension to taking your baby business and sending it out into the world.

Hannes’ advice? Embrace the fear, but be cautious. Balance vision with practicality. Instill confidence in employees, but be upfront about challenges. Immerse yourself in on-the-ground data, but know that every entrepreneur reaches a moment when she needs to take a leap of faith. A difficult task!

Thankfully, the rest of the day was filled with practical advice, insightful panels, and honest conversation over coffee and pastries.

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MIT students Tunde Alawode and Sam Bhattacharyya pitched their startup, dotLearn, a mobile platform that makes distance education more accessible.

Ricardo Londoño Ruiz, CTO of Clínicas de Azúcar, spoke about the discipline it took to stay focused on methodically expanding his affordable diabetes clinics across Monterrey and perfecting his business model, despite pressure to jump to the high-visibility Mexico City market. Michael Wilkerson, Co-founder of Tugende—a social enterprise in Uganda that helps motorcycle taxi drivers own their own bikes—acknowledged the challenge of expanding across borders into countries with very different political and regulatory environments. Angela Nzioki of Uhasibu shared her company’s strategy of partnering with lower profile banks as Uhasibu scales its cloud-based accounting services across Kenya. Compared to the established heavy hitters, these banks were more inclined to innovate and thought partner.

I had a chance to chat with Angela Nzioki after her panel, and asked her how her university experience in Kenya prepared her for launching a business. Despite taking classes in business and accounting, her professors were removed from the everyday realities of running a company.

“If I had business mentors who had gone through the process I am going through now, I would have paid more attention.”

This serves as a good reminder that our Youth Economic Participation Initiative grant recipients are engaged in critical work.

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Angela Nzioki, Kenya Country Manager at Uhasibu, explains the importance of cloud-based accounting for small and medium sized enterprises in Nairobi during the financial inclusion panel.