Retrospective: Externing with Dare to Innovate

3.5 months ago, I accepted an offer to extern with Dare to Innovate. I was a little trepidatious about the prospect of picking up and moving to one of the world’s least developed countries (with less than 4 weeks to plan), but I am enormously glad that I did – working with Dare to Innovate allowed me to explore social entrepreneurship and more importantly to create product that directly help Guinean social entrepreneurs.

Before I jump into the experience, it probably makes sense to provide some background on what I worked on Dare to Innovate over my 11 weeks. My two primary deliverables were:

·       Market Research Toolkit: A DTI-guided, entrepreneur-completed product that shepherds prospective entrepreneurs through the completing due diligence on the desirability, feasibility and viability of their business idea through a series of market research activities.

·       Business Plan Guide: A manual explaining how to write a good business plan with a supporting financial model and template.

Now, onto my experiences working the Dare to Innovate Team in Guinea: the team was incredible to work with and my time in Conakry (and Kindia) materially enriched these deliverables. Meeting 30 prospective entrepreneurs, observing their training in social entrepreneurship, skimming their business plans and seeing their business pitches helped me understand the level these entrepreneurs are at as well as identify pitfalls to avoid (or design around) in both deliverables. More importantly, being in the market where your products will be used provides critical context. Having only done business in the US/Europe, I did not anticipate many of the obstacles that entrepreneurs face. For example, typical interest rates on loans can be in neighborhood of 24% (oftentimes significantly higher for those pursuing microloans). I anticipated that the internet writ large would be of little use entrepreneurs, but found that Facebook provides a meaningful alternative in many cases. I also did anticipate that weak property rights would be a hurdle, but being in Guinea helped me pick on compounding factors. As an example, one of our entrepreneurs had signed a lease for his school for a fixed term, but in a fit of jealously (over the success of the school), his landlord tried to unilaterally abrogate the lease. (That’s not to say all the experiences I heard were negative – I got to meet ~15 of DTI’s success stories – but the negative is what I needed to help solve for.)

I found this externship to be rewarding on multiple-levels. As a pre-MBA internship, it gave me a chance to apply skills from my old job (as a management consultant) in a different field. More importantly, my work with have an impact for Dare to Innovate and its social entrepreneurs: The Market Research Toolkit’s 24 activities will help Dare to Innovate offer business launch consulting services at prices affordable to Guinean entrepreneurs (as opposed to today’s fund and expat buyer). In addition, the Business Plan Template and Guide will improve the quality and consistency of the business plans submitted to Dare to Innovate making it easier to evaluate business plans during our annual competitions. More importantly, for our entrepreneurs using our consulting services, having a high-quality business plan will make it easier for them to find affordable funding – whether they are shopping on their own or asking DTI to turn to partners on their behalf.

Reflecting on the experience reminds of an old anecdote John F. Kennedy was fond of telling: “The great French Marshal Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow growing and would not reach maturity for 100 years. The Marshall replied, ‘In that case, there is no time to lose; plant it this afternoon!’” Ending youth unemployment in West Africa is a complex problem which will take many years (and approaches) to solve – starting now gives us fighting chance at making a meaningful impact in our lifetimes.

Neil Malani