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Ashish Thakkar’s Twitter biography doesn’t identify him as “Africa’s youngest billionaire,” or “CEO and founder of The Mara Group,” a globally renowned multi-sector investment group — the first word is “refugee.”
Thirty-four-year-old Thakkar’s family is Indian by heritage, but has lived in Africa for four generations. Thakkar was 13 and living in Rwanda when the 1994 genocide forced his family to relocate to Uganda.
His family’s efforts to rebuild their lives inspired him to drop out of school at 15 and start an IT business, buying and selling computer parts. That business eventually evolved into the Mara Group, a company that spans the technology, banking, manufacturing and real estate sectors.
“I wanted to become an entrepreneur and support my family, who had lost everything,” he told The Huffington Post in an interview.
Twenty years after starting in a shopping mall in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, Thakkar’s company now employs more than 11,000 people in 25 countries. He also serves as the chairman of the United Nations Foundation Global Entrepreneurs Council and founded the Mara Foundation in 2009, which serves as an online mentorship portal for young African entrepreneurs.
HuffPost spoke with Thakkar about the future of entrepreneurship in Africa and the inspiration for his success.
You argue in your book, “The Lion Awakes: Adventures in Africa’s Economic Miracle,” that entrepreneurship can change the perception of Africa. How is it doing so?
As Africa we are 54 different countries, 54 different jurisdictions, laws, policies, parliaments, governments, opposition parties, etc. We’re a billion people collectively. ...We are physically as a continent larger than North America, Western Europe, India and China put together. We’re huge. And then the other factor is that 85 percent of our population is under the age of 35. ... [Y]outh unemployment is a bit more of an African issue because of our young demographics.
And when you think about where is the engine of growth for the economies, for [small and medium enterprises], for job creation, it’s not going to be large projects. It’s not going to be large investments, because those projects are going to be automated in order to compete with global quality. It’s not going to be government-created employment. It’s really going to be nurturing small and medium enterprises in the true sense. And if we truly enable, empower and inspire young entrepreneurs specifically, that’s going to be the engine of growth and job creation that our continent needs.
You’ve described your parents as “top entrepreneurs.” Tell us how they inspired you.
My father’s family moved from India to Uganda in 1890, purely looking for trading opportunities. Similarly, my mother’s family left India in 1920 and went to Tanzania. My parents met and got married, lived in Kenya, lived in Rwanda, and then in the 1972 [the Burundian genocide] took place and they got kicked out, moved to England and started from scratch. They literally lost everything. So my father started working in the Ford factory, my mother started working in the Walkers Crisps factory. They built up a little bit of capital, set up a small business, built up some more capital, bought a small home. But in 1983 they missed Africa, they missed home. So they sold their business and moved to Rwanda. I was 12.
And 9 months later, unfortunately, the genocide broke out. My parents, my sister, and I were refugees for 35 of the 100 days of the genocide. When we came out — we luckily came out alive — but unfortunately everything we built as a family between ‘72 and ‘93, we lost.
But my parents really kept this positive mindset and this positive attitude that they didn’t make us feel like we lost everything, they didn’t make us feel like our life was at risk when we were in Rwanda during those days. They were playing games with us, keeping us very occupied mentally with other sorts of stuff.
… And when I then wanted to quit school and set up my own business — letting your 15-year-old son quit school is not a normal thing. The fact was that they saw that passion that I had, that drive that I had.
Refugee is the first word you use to describe yourself in your Twitter profile. Why?
It’s always been the first word in my profile. The reason is frankly that was the redefining moment of my life. ... I was at an age that I remember everything, and seeing what we went through and a million people were killed in 100 days. And the world watched.
Going through that and seeing that and experiencing that really changes your perspective on life and on the world. ... It’s because of that that I wanted to become an entrepreneur and support my family who had lost everything and had zero hope — a second time.
What’s next for the Mara Group?
It’s a big year for us. It’s the 20-year anniversary for Mara in August. But the amazing thing about it, as cheesy as it sounds, I think we’re just getting started as Mara. Everything that we’ve done in the last 20 years has gotten us ready for what’s going to happen now.
I think as the Mara Foundation with the whole overlap of so many different things and how people are realizing that job creation, something we’ve been shouting and screaming for a long time, is that nurturing small and medium enterprises, focusing on young entrepreneurs and women entrepreneurs is so important. Giving them a platform to work off of is so crucial. There has been in the last few years more and more appreciation from governments and organizations and from institutions in general. So the Mara Foundation has even more of an opportunity to play a role. I want to hopefully move the needle a little bit in my own little way, our little way as Mara. And I think probably public policy is a really important angle that I would love to participate in down the line.
Do you think you’ll ever to throw your hat in the ring for public office?
No idea. But I think it is something that requires whole focus ... I advise quite a few heads of state across Africa as a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Africa, and I think the important part is that it’s very easy to criticize from the outside. So I think people who are very critical of the public sector in general do need to play their part then if they think they can do it differently.
Africa is in such an exciting place. It will leapfrog in so many different ways, it doesn’t have to follow the trend path of the West and can learn from [the West’s] mistakes and do it better — and skip a few steps in-between.
What would be your advice to a 15-year-old looking to start a business?
My advice would be to follow your passion, follow your gut. Absolutely give it a shot, don’t be scared to fail. But remember, it’s a journey, not a destination. You will get knocked down so many times. You’ve got to get up, dust yourself off and get back to it.
There will be opportunities to cut corners and do things in a way that will fast-track your growth. Don’t, because that never lasts. Do it in the right way — have the right values, have the right ethics, have the right morals and follow your dream.
I think that’s the last part to that is dream big — you’ve gotta dream big. This is our time as young entrepreneurs around the world, so absolutely dream big. But start small.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.