Why founders are the lifeblood of global tech ecosystems

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The founders on Rest of World’s inaugural list of global tech’s changemakers share common traits of resilience, grit and adaptability in the face of political and economic uncertainties.

It’s been exhilarating to have spent the last few months with my colleagues across several different time zones poring over details about the nominees for RoW100, our our inaugural list of global tech’s changemakers.

The list we’ve come up with includes policymakers, activists, venture capitalists, and investors, all of whom play a vital role in the technology ecosystems where they work. But above all, it’s made up of founders: the true driving force in tech.

More than half of the nominees on our list are founders or co-founders. In truth, it’s probably closer to two-thirds, because we have chosen to make a distinction between founder-operators and, for example, the founding partners of venture capital firms who invest in these businesses or the founders of influential think tanks who help shape policy. We see these founders of globally disruptive businesses, like Indonesia’s Xendit, Nigeria’s Paystack, or Brazil’s Nubank, as some of the world’s most daring entrepreneurs, some of whom have had to build their businesses in difficult economic circumstances and unfriendly regulatory terrain.

The stories of these founders have many common themes, from Venezuela to Vietnam, from South Africa to South Korea. They demonstrate resilience in the face of challenges and the adaptability to seize opportunities when they arise. They’ve often had to defy the odds, to build businesses and products that solve real problems for real people. 

“As an investor I want to understand if founders have social-cultural intelligence, and passion. I often ask, ‘How important is shame to you?’”

Sangu Delle, the executive chairman of Golden Palm Investments in Accra, who has backed startups including Ghana’s mPharma and Kenya’s Wapi Pay, said he asks founders many of the same fundamental questions about total addressable market and revenue models as investors elsewhere. But because of the peculiar and specific difficulties of growing a business in emerging markets, in the African context, he asks a bit more of them. “I want to understand if they have social-cultural intelligence, passion, and often ask, ‘How important is shame to you?’” he told Rest of World. He asks these personal questions because of the uncertainty and, at times, instability in some markets where a mix of regulatory overreach or economic surprises asks more of your average Western startup founder than managing your cash burn rate. 

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Several of the most successful founders on our list are on their second or third run of starting new, disruptive businesses. In India, Sachin Bansal is best known for building e-commerce player Flipkart into a $16 billion business, before he sold it to Walmart in 2018. Now he’s building Navi Technologies, a fintech startup that simplifies loan processing and disbursement for small to mid-sized businesses. In Uruguay, Sergio Fogel built the country’s first unicorn, dLocal, a fintech player that operates across the region. Since then, he’s co-founded another fintech startup, out of Montevideo, called Datanomik, an open banking platform to connect financial institutions.

And, as we’ve noted before, many founders end up backing other founders because they understand the market conditions and business challenges better than anyone else. In younger tech ecosystems, like Lagos and Nairobi, this need for better-informed, homegrown investors has driven two hugely successful founders to turn this into a full-time role. Nigeria-based Iyinoluwa “E” Aboyeji helped co-found the developer training platform Andela and fintech giant Flutterwave, which are both unicorns today. By his own admission, he’s obsessed with developing and supporting African talent at scale and is now doing that through his venture firm Future Africa. In Nairobi, Ken Njoroge founded fintech pioneer Cellulant back in 2004 but has set up a boutique investment firm, called Pani, to coach and invest in exceptional African founders. 

A similar phenomenon happened in Pakistan after Uber bought local rival Careem. “Many people who worked at Careem started their own companies, and they already have a network to reach out to,” Kalsoom Lakhani, co-founder of i2i Ventures, told Rest of World last month. She said that those new founders have been a massive boon to a local ecosystem that had long lived in the tech shadows of its much larger neighbors in India. “There’s a massive network of ex-Careem people that are angel investors now. These young people have had significant experience working in a high-intensity, operationally heavy business and the exposure that others before them did not have,” she said.

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Endeavor, a community for “high impact entrepreneurs” outside Silicon Valley, has supported some 2,500 founders in 40 markets including 64 unicorns over the last 25 years. The firm’s co-founder/CEO, Linda Rottenberg, is a big believer in the role of founders in building local ecosystems. “These entrepreneurs need to demonstrate a willingness to pay it forward,” she told Rest of World. “As I like to say: A unicorn that doesn’t breed even more unicorns is just an endangered species.”

In general, investors who back founders in these regions are looking for some of the same characteristics wherever they are. Every startup plan doesn’t have to be the “first ever” in the world, but certainly there should be a vision of how that business will work in its local context, regardless of how a similar business might work in other markets.

“We look for founders that have unique lived experiences as Indonesians — and, as such, are building companies that address the Indonesian context in a new and exciting manner that only an Indonesian can conceptualize,” said Eddy Chan, founding partner of Intudo Ventures. “For the founders that we ultimately choose to back, a transfusion of global ideas is being reinforced with an intimate understanding of the Indonesian way of life. We believe that this has been the case for the early generations of many emerging markets, and Indonesia is no exception. | YINKA ADEGOKE

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