Imagine you were an IT wizard and became millionaire at 35. Imagine you decided to invest in the future of Africa, without expecting any personal gain. Africa, a continent where you’ve never set foot. Why? Because you are convinced that the continent is a boundless pool of talents. Would you manage to convince your company to make that move? And once you’ve seen the ‘real’ Africa as opposed the one you had in mind, would you still go ahead with your project?
Today, I am inspired by Jørn Lyseggen of Norway. Contrary to what his name might suggest, Jørn was born in… South Korea! He was born in December 1968 and was adopted by a Norwegian family when he was just a toddler. He grew up on a small farm in Trysil, a town mostly known for its ski-fields. He had an uneventful youth, though he does recall how it was strange to grow-up in a town where absolutely no-one looked like him.
Upon finishing high-school, Jørn enrolled in Bergen School of Engineering (Bergen Ingeniorhogskole) to study Electrical Engineering. He didn’t really like the field, but there was a high demand for electrical engineers in those days.
Jørn was going to discover his true passion and life calling when he set foot in the university’s IT lab. Believe it or not, it was the first time he saw a computer up-close. It was in the eighties, homes did not have personal computers yet. Don’t you laugh, young people, I am describing our generation’s life…lol
It was also the early days of the internet, and the young man felt as though he suddenly awoke to a new world of possibilities. After earning his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering in Bergen, Jørn went on to complete a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering with specialization in digital signal processing and artificial intelligence at Iowa State University, in the US.
Back in Norway, he worked a few years as a senior executive in local firms, but his real dream was to venture on his own. In 2001, he created Meltwater, a media-intelligence company. For the laymen and women out there (like me), I did my little research and found out that media intelligence is the art of analyzing the image of brands in the media.
His initial investment was just 15.000 dollars and he set shop in a tiny office in an Oslo shipyard. His gamble paid off: within two years, Meltwater was earning more than a million dollars a year!
You probably thinking that he lived happily ever after? Not so fast. Just when he thought he had made it, Google started offering the same services ‘for free’: the google alerts! It was almost the end of his company. But Jørn didn’t give-up. He believed then and still believes now, success is tributary to talent and talent can be found everywhere. So, there he was, touring the world to recruit the best and brightest to save his company.
And he did: today, 15 years later, Meltwater is considered one of the world leaders in media-intelligence with revenue around 300 million dollars a year! Relocated since in San Francisco, the Meltwater Group has 55 offices across six continents, 1,500 employees and more than 26,000 clients including Harvard Business School, the Denver Broncos, and Coca-Cola.
Ok, you must be wondering: what does any of this have to do with Africa? I was getting there, alright? The fight to save his company made Jørn realise that nothing is ever granted. Plus, being an adopted kid, he always held the belief that one must find a way to pay forward everything you received. His dream was to create opportunities for young people to learn the wonders and possibilities of IT and guide them to create their own companies. But where to do that? He dismissed his birth country, South-Korea, and his country of adoption, Norway, as he deemed they were too technologically advanced and he would be able to make much of a difference there.
And then he thought: why not in Africa? His idea of Africa wasn’t idealised. He knew there were lots of “depressing news” from the continent – wars, corruption, unemployment, etc… – but he was fascinated by Africa’s fast-growing population. “Imagine the talent you can find in a population of a billion people!”, he said to himself. “If you could develop that talent, it could in turn develop software, companies, create jobs ad wealth and impact the world positively.”
Once the idea formed in his head, he started worrying, wondering if his company would accept to follow him on this path. Especially when he would tell them that he had never been to Africa and he had no idea which country would be suitable to host the school.
To his big surprised, everyone supported the idea. Some executives volunteered to help him develop the project. So, as he did when he was fighting to save his company, Jørn and a few of his colleagues, took that historical journey to a continent far, far away from the Norwegian Fjords.
They visited several countries, and at each stop, they interviewed people from all walks of life, universities, NGOs, students, businesses till they found the country they found the ideal country: Ghana. Why Ghana? They simply chose Kwame Nkrumah’s country because it was democratic, peaceful, safe, and a had a long tradition of educating its people.
Jørn likes to jokingly say that things happened in his life by accident. First, he became an accidental Norwegian, later an accidental Electrical Engineer and IT Specialist, an accidental millionaire. In 2008, he became an ‘accidental philanthropist’ when he created the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST), in Accra, capital of Ghana. Every year, about 6000 aspiring young entrepreneurs from across Africa apply to participate in the fully-funded one-year entrepreneurship training program, but only 60 will be selected.
In that crucial year, entrepreneurs-in-training will create start-ups from scratch and present them to other students and faculty. The final exam is a pitch session in front of Jørn Lyseggen and other investors. The most viable and original business projects will receive 50.000 to 200.000 US dollars in seed funding to launch their business in exchange for a minority stake in the business.
But don’t think that Jørn personally benefits from his investments in the start-ups. All the returns from the start-up, if any, are recycled back into the Meltwater Foundation and used to fund future start-ups. Investing in the start-ups is a way to show the young people that they so much believe in them, they are willing to share the risks.
In its 10 years of existence, the Meltwater Foundation has invested more than 20 million dollars in the program and over 40 tech start-ups. The program has expanded its reach to Nigeria, South-Africa, Kenya, and Côte d’Ivoire and is planning to have tech hubs in all parts of the continent.
Many former students are now successful entrepreneurs in different fields. Two companies, ‘Claimsync’, a platform that processes medical claims, and ‘Saya Mobile’, which provides a messaging service, were both acquired by foreign IT firms. Earlier this year, Ghanaian start-up ‘Kudobuzz’, a MEST alumnus which helps businesses generate verifiable reviews, drive traffic and increase sales has acquired another start-up, AdGeek, an ad creation tool used by online merchants.
Africa is on the move!!!