MIT Africa Innovate 2017

Highlights from the MIT Sloan Africa Innovate Conference 2017

With a theme of ‘Ideas to Impact’ you would be forgiven for assuming that MIT Sloan’s Africa Innovate Conference, held on 7-8th April, 2017, was simply another opportunity for smart people to talk Africa and do little. Far from it.
In true MIT fashion, this conference provided not only insights and inspiration with key notes from the likes of Her Excellency Ameenah Fakim-Gurib, the first female President of Mauritius, and TED style ‘Vision Talks’ from the likes of DJ Sbu and Yomi Awobokun, previous CEO of Oando Downstream, now CEO of Service Liquids & Gas; rather it also showered the audience with practical steps for converting ideas into reality via their Design Thinking workshop, provided a platform for early stage start-ups to share their vision and work via a pitch competition, and enforced a policy of ‘less talk more action’ by asking each speaker to make a public pledge and appointing audience members to hold them to account.

MIT Sloan Africa Innovate team with key note speakers

The event kicked-off with an intimate dinner of around 70 invitees on Friday 7th April, featuring key notes from Oke Maduewesi, CEO of Zaron Group, and Zim Ugochukwu, Founder & CEO of Travel Noire. Zim set off an impressive array of speakers across the weekend, by sharing her story of struggling to find images and stories of young black travellers such as her. She launched Travel Noire with a mission to provide black travellers with resources and a community.
Zim was shortly followed by Oke, whose poignant experience of founding her business after the devastating death of her husband left her 7 months pregnant with a 2 year old child, and being pushed by the desire to give her children more than her employment could afford her, left many of the audience members in silence – a true story of resilience. When asked about their fears, the enviously well-travelled Zim surprised us all by admitting her fear of flight, whilst Oke continued her brutal honesty by talking of love and her children missing a father-figure.
The main conference day on 8th April, attracted an audience of several hundred, from students to senior executives. As the participants took to their seats, I asked one man why he attends MIT Sloan’s African Innovate conferences. He responded by saying “they’re different… MIT is full of people who want to change the world, not just talk about it”. Hopefully my 3 highlights from the event will help demonstrate what he meant.

“They’re different… MIT is full of people who want to change the world, not just talk about it”

Highlight 1: Ideation Workshop – Design Thinking

The Design Thinking workshop invited participants to explore how to use a creative problem solving approach to reach creative outcomes, and provided a tangible framework those wishing to create innovative solutions to some of Africa’s challenges. The workshop used a real life case to bring life to the theory. Workshop guides (MIT professors) were accompanied by Claude Grunitzky, Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of TrueAfrica, a media-tech platform featuring content on culture, music, sport and innovation in Africa and the diaspora. Claude shared the challenges of his company in expanding their reach on Instagram, as the facilitators walked an engaged audience through the three steps of Design Thinking:

Ideation Workshop – Design Thinking

  1. Inspiration: Framing the challenge as a “How might we” statement, and thus reframing a problem as an opportunity.
  2. Ideation: Team based brainstorming with a clear set of rules, to ensure that all participants are fully engaged in the conversation and that ideas are not discarded. At this stage, the aim is to think of as many ideas as possible, ignoring any resource constraints, and building in each other’s ideas by using a “yes, and” approach to encourage continual conversations.
  3. Implementation: Arriving at a hypothesis for a solution, and designing a prototype to test it.

The session was somewhat of a tease, as 1 hour alone did not enable participants to complete all the steps. Instead it left them all energised and thirsty for more! I wouldn’t be surprised if MIT had a few applications for study off the back of the workshop!

Highlight 2: Vision Talk – 5 steps to a sale by DJ Sbu

Another story of resilience came in the form of a Vision Talk by DJ Sbu. DJ Sbu told his story of being fired twice and repeatedly being told that his voice was too ugly for radio, to later proving his doubters wrong by becoming a Media Celebrity. A man of great energy and enthusiasm, he also shared how his expensive habit of drinking energy drinks led him to launch MoFaya – an African energy drink brand. As he placed a can of the drink in the hands of an audience member sitting in the front row, DJ Sbu shared his 5 steps of making a sale:

  1. Introduce yourself and make the potential buyer feel comfortable. “Hi I’m DJ Sbu” he said, before complementing his chosen participant’s scarf.
  2. Present the product you are trying to sell.
  3. Expect and prepare for one of 3 answers from the potential buyer:
    • They do not want the product
    • They can’t afford the product
    • They have the product already
  4. Tell the buyer a short story that encourages them to focus on all of the positives of the brand.
  5. Close the deal! Before they have a chance to think about the price, and ask questions, make the sale. “If they can buy 1, then they can buy 2. If they can buy 2, then they can buy 4. If they can buy 4, then they can buy 10” he continued.

Clearly inspired by Sbu’s tips, I’m sure I saw a few participants using this technique to sell themselves in later conversations with fellow participants! Despite sharing his sales technique DJ Sbu warned us of the toil of pursuing money first and foremost as a goal, sharing a quote from motivational speaker, Tony Gaskins: “When money is your motive you’ll always be lacking. But when purpose is rooted in serving others, money chases you.”

“When money is your motive you’ll always be lacking. But when purpose is rooted in serving others, money chases you.”

Highlight 3: Vision Talk – Advice on success from Yomi Awobokun

Yomi Awobokun

Mr Awobokun provided inspirational pearls of wisdom for us all to consider in the pursuit of our professional goals. Never a man to simply accept his station, Awobokun told his story of pushing his career boundaries, making opportunities for himself and putting himself forward for roles that many would consider him as not quite ready for, before becoming CEO of Oando and later founding Service Liquids & Gas. He left us all with 3 pieces of advice:

  1. Know your values: Awobokun argued that those who focus purely on just earning a good income often find themselves feeling unaccomplished mid-career. He warned us all to not fall into this trap, and to set our sights on goals beyond cash.
  2. Don’t be governed by your fears: Instead, Awobokun urged us to take our fears and greatest concerns, accept them and watch out for them. Let them guide the things we respect, he warned us, rather than totally ignoring them.
  3. Don’t just take options in front of you, make them: Awobokun is certainly a man who has never been afraid to stretch himself – going for huge promotions just months into roles, and taking the leap to interview for a role in Nigeria despite his boss’s threat of making him redundant if he left the country. “If you don’t create your own options, you’ll be subject to their outcomes.”

Congratulations to the MIT Sloan Africa Innovate Conference team. Same time next year! #IdeasToImpact

“If you don’t create your own options, you’ll be subject to their outcomes.”

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