Ablorde Ashigbi Looks Back On His Time As A Teaching And Incubator Fellow at MEST

Originally published on the MEST Africa Blog.

Please introduce yourself and share a little about your background.

I’m a half-Ghanaian, half-Gambian that has lived most of my life in the US (New York, Ohio, Texas, Boston, Los Angeles, and now Chicago!).  I went to undergrad at Harvard, worked in management consulting for a few years at Bain, and now work as an early stage venture capitalist in Chicago at the Pritzker Group.  I’m a nerd with an athletic streak – so you can typically find me either reading, trying to teach myself something new, or at the gym.

Before MEST, what would you say was the most pivotal or important role of your career?

Likely the 6 months I spent in South Africa after graduating college, working for Edge Growth – a social venture capital fund based out of Johannesburg.  There we spent our time looking to invest in companies that not only had strong business prospects, but also had a meaningful opportunity to drive job creation or other societal benefits.  It set me on a course of looking for roles that not only allowed me to learn and grow as a business professional, but also advanced a broader societal purpose that I cared about.

What drew you to a role at MEST?

A combination of my deep interest in early stage technology companies, my desire to continue to find ways to work on the continent (where a single successful company can have really large ramifications), and wanting to spend more time in Ghana in particular (given my heritage).  Also, I thought it would be fascinating to work alongside and learn from entrepreneurs who were building tech companies in such a different context.

Once I found out MEST existed and I could do all of these things in one place, I knew I had to figure out a way to get involved.

How long were you a Fellow at MEST and how would you describe your experience to someone who’s never been here?

I was a fellow for 3 months, with 1 month spent as a Teaching Fellow and the other two as an Incubator Fellow.  As a Teaching Fellow, I spent most of my time working with the student teams that were preparing for graduation – helping them refine their business models, financial projections, strategic positions, and investor presentations.  Once I transitioned to the Incubator, I was mapped to work with 3 companies (PaysailKudobuzz, and Dropifi) to help with specific projects (e.g., churn analysis, competitive landscape analysis, customer segmentation).   Outside of those projects, I was generally a resource for founders and other Incubator Fellows on data and market analysis based projects.

I really enjoyed my experience at MEST – the founders were extremely sharp and hard working, while also fun to be around. I still keep in touch with many to this day.

I had a great time with both the teaching and incubator fellow cohort I worked with – they welcomed me into their midst despite me being a part of the team for a short period, and were awesome to spend time with both socially and professionally.

Did you have any misconceptions coming to Ghana that you found to be completely false or what surprised you the most about Ghana and/or Ghanaians?

I had traveled to Ghana a couple of times beforehand, so I had a decent sense of what to expect.  I will say that the traffic in Accra was way beyond what I anticipated – getting around on some days requires real planning!

What are your favorite things about living in Ghana?

The food. I grew up eating jollof, peanut soup, etc., but rarely had easy access to traditional Ghanaian food while I was in college or afterwards.

Being able to have jollof, waakye, red red, goat meat soup, and so many other dishes I enjoy so regularly was amazing.

I also really enjoyed the opportunity to see family that is usually so far away from me.  The ability to go to Keta on a weekend to see my grandparents one weekend, and then Ho the next weekend to see my aunts and uncles was great, given I usually see them very rarely.

What’s your biggest lesson learned at MEST that you’ll take with you as you move on to other things?

Understanding your user means deeply understanding their context, and using that understanding to drive product and business model decisions.

For instance, with Paysail, many employers were unfamiliar with computers, which required significant training to allow them to get value from the product – which had implications on how quickly and cost effectively the business could scale.  I still go through this process today as I evaluate potential investments and it has been extremely helpful.

Who were some of the most exciting people you met while at MEST/Ghana, and what did you love about them?

I really enjoyed working with the 3 CEOs of the companies I was assigned to at the incubator – Kena, Kamil, and Precious.  I would describe all three, along with Osam Sarsah from Vesttracker, as heat seeking missiles – extremely smart and driven, and very focused on the mission at hand.  They wasted no time, and pushed themselves and their teams to move quickly and learn from their experiments.  Whether their current companies or ones they start down the line, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that any of them became leading tech figures in West Africa.

Please give one word of advice to potential MEST Incubator and Teaching fellows.

Jump in with both feet and take on as much as you can handle.

Take full advantage of the opportunity to learn a ton and build meaningful relationships with the smart, driven people that you’ll be surrounded by!