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Stanford Seed Program Builds on African Success, Expands to India

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Like many children in Nigeria, Femi Oye grew up looking on as his grandmother prepared food for his family. Like many women in Nigeria, tragically, Oye’s grandmother was diagnosed with respiratory problems—the result of indoor air pollution caused by the fumes created as she cooked. Mamma Kike, as Oye called her, died as a result. But thanks to her grandson’s entrepreneurial spirit and Stanford Seed—a project of the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB)—millions of others have been spared a similar fate.

Losing his grandmother gave Oye the resolve to create a simple, inexpensive cooking stove that would burn ethanol gel, a fuel created from plant biomass that is safe to use indoors. Participating in the Seed Transformation Program in 2014 provided Oye with training and expert coaching that helped him scale his businesses, which today include several renewable energy portfolio companies within SMEFUNDS, an international NGO dedicated to increasing access to finance, renewable energy, affordable housing, food security, and technology services to disadvantaged low-income individuals across Africa.

“I grew up with my grandmother, and I loved her so much,” Oye said in a phone interview with Clear Admit. “When I lost her, everyone around me told me there was nothing I could do. But there was something inside of me that kept telling me that I could make things happen if I could only believe in myself.” A friend recommended the Stanford Seed program to Oye, and he applied and was accepted. “That was a very exciting day, but I never imagined how much impact it might have.”

African Seed Companies Have Raised $11 Million in Funding
Oye’s was one of more than 500 small- and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) that the Stanford Seed program has helped since its inception in 2011. In 2013, it launched the Seed Transformation Project in the West African nation of Ghana, and in 2016 it expanded to Kenya in East Africa. The training and mentorship Seed has provided to entrepreneurs and senior staff members has helped participating companies raise almost $11 million in funding. Not only that, 79 percent have grown their customer base, the school reports.

Since participating in the Seed Transformation Project in 2014, Oye has received a $1 million investment from Acumen and sold more than 600,000 stoves and more than 7 million liters of biofuel, impacting the lives of more than 3 million individuals.

Building on its success in Africa, Stanford yesterday announced that Seed is now expanding to India. “The impact of Seed in West and East Africa has been astounding, with nearly two-thirds of participants reporting increased revenue and job creation,” Stanford GSB Professor and Seed Executive Director Jesper Sørensen said in a statement. “We are five years into our journey, and just getting started. We believe—and have seen first-hand—that this unique model can help some of the most dynamic business leaders in these regions drive the kinds of firm growth that underlies sustainable regional prosperity. We are very eager to see its impact in India.”

Seed Brings Stanford Expertise, Research to Aspiring Emerging Economy Entrepreneurs
The Seed Transformation Program that Oye took part in forms the core of Stanford Seed. But the leadership program is just one of three complementary components of the overall initiative. Also falling under the Seed umbrella are Seed Student Programs, which provide educational opportunities and summer internships for Stanford students at participating companies, and Seed Research, which funds research devoted to finding revolutionary solutions to fight poverty and promote prosperity throughout the developing world.

Over the course of the nine-month Seed Transformation Program, participants take part in four intensive, week-long immersion sessions taught by Stanford GSB faculty. Topics covered range from leadership and strategy to business ethics, accounting, marketing, and value chain innovations.

“Through my participation in Seed, I learned first-hand what design thinking is—what a powerful tool it can be,” said Oye. “I learned to use simple solutions to address a complex problem. It gave me the knowledge to experiment, attempt the unthinkable, and make great things happen.”

Not only that, Seed also helped Oye train his management team. Between the immersive sessions, Seed facilitators travel to participants’ companies to help them share the skills they are learning and create detailed plans to transform and grow their organizations. “They come into your business—they are working with your customers, with your value chain,” said Oye. “That was really one of the most amazing moments in my business and entrepreneurship journey.”

Stanford decided to implement the in-company workshops based on key learnings in West Africa, before launching in East Africa, says Davis Albohm, Seed associate director of global operation. “The program was having a big impact on our CEO participants, but we found that when they came back to their companies and tried to share what they were learning with their management teams, they hit a bit of a wall because the rest of the team wasn’t in the classroom,” he said. “So we introduced company workshops, delivered by Seed facilitators, to better position the companies for transformation and broaden the impact of the program by touching the entire management team.”

In addition to the classroom and in-company workshops, participants also take part in leadership peer groups that offer additional networking opportunities, resources, and ideas for realizing their organization transformation plans. And upon successful completion of the program, they can apply to receive one-on-one mentorship from Seed coaches, as well as access to Stanford student interns and Seed consultants.

Stanford GSB Alum, Other Top Executives Serve as Seed Coaches
Stanford GSB alumnus Hans Nilsson (MBA ’83) serves as one of the Seed coaches in Ghana. After a successful career including serving as CEO of a global publicly traded industrial technology company, he was looking for a way to give back and heard about Seed at a GSB alumni event about four years ago.

“I have been skeptical about giving money and handouts to the world in general,” he told Clear Admit. The Seed way of doing things was much more appealing to him. “Through Seed, you are giving your time and experience to help people build businesses. Through that, you are helping create not just jobs, but better jobs, proper jobs that people can plan their lives around,” he said. He served as a coach for a year in Ghana, advising roughly a dozen companies. After he returned home to London, a handful of the companies asked him to continue on with them. Now he returns for two-week stints every couple of months, serving as a mentor and business coach and as chairman to two of the companies. “It is really brilliant to be able to do at this time of my life,” he said, noting that a typical alternative would be to work as a non-executive director of a company. “In other words, to be generally useful and specifically useless,” he said. “Here I can be specifically useful, because there are a lot of things I can do that I know they directly need.”

James Crotty, another Seed coach, responded to an Economist ad for the position. “I’m the only person I know who has ever applied for a job out of the Economist and got one,” he told Clear Admit with a laugh. A native of Ireland, he holds an MBA from Manchester Business School and spent the majority of his career at American Express. Like Nilsson, the opportunity to give back in a tangible way appealed to him.

“I have a lot to be grateful for in my life—I’ve had a successful and enjoyable career, a wonderful family, I enjoy good health,” he said. “Up until now, my whole life has been about building my career, but in recent years I have felt this nagging need to give something back,” he said.

Like many, he has at times been motivated to reach for his checkbook and make a donation when hearing about the plight of others. “But working with Seed has given me the opportunity and privilege to do much more,” he said. “There are many programs targeted at alleviating the symptoms of poverty, but to my mind that is not enough. To make a lasting impact on poverty, we need to help people help themselves.”

As part of the Seed program in Kenya, Crotty works with six companies, ranging from a flower farm that grows roses for export across the world to a company that manages parking lots to a retail fashion enterprise. “The general principle behind SEED’s thinking is that you can apply business disciplines to multiple different industry segments and sectors,” he said. “Typically, the focus of my efforts is on bringing a more systematic approach to how the companies look at and conduct their business,” he said. At American Express, he took for granted things like having a standard cycle of strategic planning, budgeting, and target setting. “I try to bring that discipline and standardization to the companies I work with without quenching their entrepreneurial flair.”

Stanford Seed’s Ripple Effect
Crotty believes the  Stanford Seed program is making a difference. “I am quite convinced that the six companies I am working with are going to be fundamentally better organizations as a consequence of participating,” he said. “As more and more companies go through this program, there is no doubt in my mind that it will build the capacity of the country, fueling economic growth and the growth of the middle class, which in effect becomes almost self-perpetuating.”

“Seed’s grand hypothesis is that this will work, and you can actually see it beginning to take impact,” Crotty added.

Through expansion to India, Stanford hopes to increase Seed’s ripple effect. “India has always been on our mind,” Albohm said. “Not only is it one of the world’s leading emerging markets, but the GSB also has very strong ties to India,” he noted, adding that many GSB faculty are from India and there is also a very strong Indian alumni base. “Engaging back makes a lot of sense.” Not only that, the economy is growing quickly and the current government is focusing more on business development priorities, he continued. “We think it’s absolutely the right time to be there.”

Based in Chennai, the India Seed program will serve entrepreneurs from across the country. Applications for the first annual program, which will run from August 2017 to August 2018, are now open.

Oye, too, sees the ripple effect of the Seed program. “Our goal before joining Seed was to build one of the largest energy companies in Nigeria,” he said. Today, his company GoSolar Africa provides affordable, pay-as-you go renewable energy services to residents of seven countries where access to electricity is unreliable. It is on track to become the largest African energy company in the world. “That is the result of Seed telling me, ‘You can do more.’”

Learn more about Stanford Seed here. For more on how to apply to be a Seed coach, click here. The application period is now open for the Seed Transformation Program, with applications in India due May 26th, and applications in East and West Africa due June 30th.