Signal Fund is bridging critical funding gaps for social innovatorsLEARN MORE

UpStart with Sara Leedom and Julienne Oyler

UpStart, Echoing Green’s morning talk series features inspiring presentations of our Fellows’ work and Q&A led by a guest from our community. July’s UpStart featured Sara Leedom ’15 and Julienne Oyler ’15, founders of the African Entrepreneur Collective. They were joined by Natalie Africa, director for Private Sector Engagement for the UN Secretary General’s Every Woman Every Child movement.

The African Entrepreneur Collective (AEC) was founded upon the strongly held belief that African solutions will solve African challenges. While the continent is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world, the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest continues to grow. Perhaps for youth, this story is starkest: 60 percent of people without jobs in Africa are 15-24 years old and less than one-fifth find work once they enter the workforce. On a continent where 40 percent of people are under age 15, this is a long-term challenge that many are working to address.

Echoing Green Fellows Julienne Oyler and Sara Leedom and their partners choose to look at the opportunity this reality presents for engaging promising talent around entrepreneurship. They founded AEC to maximize the potential of high-potential local entrepreneurs by providing them with mentorship, technical assistance and capacity building support, and access to affordable capital–most importantly, they’re meeting young entrepreneurs where they are to provide them with the customized support they need.

AEC sees entrepreneurship as a high-impact tool for addressing economic challenges by helping existing entrepreneurs to run better businesses and create more jobs. They launched their work in Rwanda, where government and people alike see entrepreneurship as a pathway that transforms not only the economy but also culture. There, ideas and people are transforming communities across the landlocked country where human capital spurs industries across the nation. From cayenne pepper producers to magazine publishers, AEC helps entrepreneurs earn money and create jobs in their communities.

Now with the launch of an entrepreneurship program for refugees in Kigali in partnership with UNHCR and AEC’s recent expansion to Tanzania, Julienne, Sara, and their team are thinking about how to encourage innovation and job growth in new contexts. On hand to probe deeper into these questions was our  UpStart Asker Natalie Africa, director for Private Sector Engagement for the UN Secretary General’s Every Woman Every Child movement. She drew upon her experience with engaging entrepreneurs and businesses across the globe (including Rwanda) in support of women’s health to ask Julienne and Sara about their work.

Inspiration from AEC

 Understand systemic barriers to create adaptive solutions.

By supporting approximately 100 entrepreneurs annually, AEC is able to test ideas that work for different communities. For example, although Rwanda is landlocked with limited natural resources (making importing extremely expensive), as a country, there is a deep commitment to supporting human capital and making it easier for business to enter formal markets. In other contexts, AEC understands this may not be the case, so they work to understand both the systemic expectations and the perspectives of their entrepreneurs to provide the support they need to grow their businesses. Because of their values, AEC believes it’s important to work in places with more risk rather than providing additional support in regions where others are already comfortable investing. Part of creating adaptive solutions in this context is to create meaningful local partnerships with people and businesses who are deeply invested in the communities. 

 Set intentions around what you hope to achieve.

While unemployment is generally high, this tends to affect women most as it can be more challenging to get jobs in formal sectors. For AEC, this means setting expectations and goals that they can shape their activities to meet: if it is important to AEC’s values to support women entrepreneurs, they believe their activities and measurements need to be designed to help them achieve those goals. 

 Meet people where they are.

AEC works to lengthen the runway for the promising entrepreneurs they support. Yes, this means providing patient capital and helping entrepreneurs to focus on attaining goals for their enterprises. But it also means designing support that addresses the immediate and short-term needs of the entrepreneur as they simultaneously aspire toward future growth. As Julienne put it, if you’re an entrepreneur working in a rural area who has yet to manage a budget, they may learn to work with a paper ledger before jumping to Quickbooks. Their most effective support engages the entrepreneurs where they are and evolves as they grow.


Leave a reply

Your comment has been submitted and is awaiting approval.