Business across Borders: Former employees turn to entrepreneurship
Many former SPARK employees have used their knowledge and expertise to start their own companies. Here they share their stories and provide advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs.
At SPARK’s core is the goal to promote entrepreneurship in fragile and conflict-affected countries in order to create new job opportunities.
Our employees are highly skilled and experienced in entrepreneurship development and, naturally, many have transitioned from a career at SPARK to initiating their own companies that provide innovative goods and services, as well as hundreds of jobs in fragile regions. Here are the inspiring stories of six former SPARK staff turned entrepreneurs, including helpful advice for those who wish to follow in their footsteps.
1. Renewable Energy Tech company, West Africa
Richard van Hoollwerf is the former SPARK Country Manager of Liberia. Living and working in Liberia, Richard was able to spot the needs of local people and build a strong network to serve those needs. “I noticed harmful fumes coming from the tuk tuk drivers parked across the street from SPARK’s office in Monrovia”, says Richard. This led him to wonder if more energy efficient vehicles could improve air quality, safety and perhaps even increase driver’s income. “I was able to develop a network that was beneficial in transitioning into the private sector”.
Eventually, these experiences led him to found Emergi, a renewable energy technology company focused on West Africa. As with any venture, funding was an impediment, but a recent, successful crowdfunding campaign helped to overcome this common entrepreneurial obstacle. From this experience Richard leaves the following advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs:
“Be creative and daring, but also do the hard work and have a detailed understanding of your sector.”
2. Female-run Football School, Kosovo
As a Country Representative for SPARK in Kosovo, Valentina says she hoped to “find a way to create a healthier society for the youth of the country”. She was able to do so by founding Kosovo’s only female-run football school (for male students), Top Football.
Valentina’s relationship with SPARK started as a student as the organisation helped her to continue her education after the war. Valentina credits this support as leading to both personal and professional development. Since 2015, her school has invested in football infrastructure, while providing an inspiring example of a woman excelling in a traditionally male-dominated field. Valentina says:
“Entrepreneurship is difficult, so make sure you have a passion and commitment to what you choose to make the hard work a challenge, rather than a burden”.
3. Skincare company, Uganda
While working as the Country Manager for SPARK in South Sudan, Lauren Servin was introduced to a local wild tree called the Desert Date. The nut from the tree became a daily snack of the whole office! She found research that suggested the oil from the nut is good for the skin. As women are the harvesters and processors of this nut, she also saw an opportunity to create exciting new jobs for women. Together, they are building a new industry and creating a market for this new beauty oil, while building sustainable prosperity for women and protecting the trees from deforestation.
Lauren states: “Building a value chain and a new market has many moving parts, you will find yourself struggling to make all the parts function together, especially during COVID”. Her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs:
“Expect for it to be scary, do the personal work on yourself, lean on your team and learn to channel that fear into action – and don’t always jump to quit your day job!”
4. Consultancy company, Myanmar
While working with SPARK in Myanmar developing higher education and TVET programmes, Karina noticed the need for consulting services to help European businesses navigate the complex landscapes of the newly “opened” country. She used her knowledge of both European and Burmese entrepreneurship ecosystems to found a consultancy company.
When describing challenges she identifies, “engagement with government bureaucracy and mapping the local economy to identify better opportunities”, as important factors. Although she has since moved on to become CEO of the EU Chamber of Commerce of Myanmar, this role continues to allow her to facilitate business relationships between the two regions. Karina’s advice:
“No matter the conflict affecting countries, people are resilient and trade still goes on.”
5. Entrepreneurial Consultancy company, Tunisia
Before joining SPARK as Country Manager in Libya, Mazen already had many business ventures in Syria. He describes these ventures as including “a couple of small businesses in the communication industry, and co-owning a French Bakery”. He has since continued his entrepreneurship journey by starting a freelance consultancy agency focused on business development, entrepreneurship and economic resilience in post-conflict affected countries.
He describes the challenge of accessing finance as a major barrier to starting his companies (both in Syria and Tunisia, where he is now located). Luckily, he was able to gather finance from a variety of sources, including family and partnerships. In addition, he mentions the importance of networks when working in consultancy to gain access to clients. Mazen’s advice for entrepreneurs is:
“Go for it, it is quite rewarding once you see the results and impact of your work. Aspiring entrepreneurs should be passionate and ambitious, but see things step-by-step, as a journey, rather than a one-time event”.
A challenging, but ultimately worthwhile experience
The concept of entrepreneurship is often glamourised. For example, the stories of the computing revolution (and fortunes) that began in Silicon Valley garages are inherently compelling and renowned worldwide. However, this glamour glosses over the fact that entrepreneurship is extremely challenging and is born of necessity, rather than choice, in many places..
Each SPARK entrepreneur backed up this assertion, by describing the challenges inherent to the process, the need for preparation, and most importantly, resilience. In this way, their journeys mirror SPARK’s beneficiaries, who also find ways to thrive in the face of adversity. It should come as no surprise that this entrepreneurial spirit drew each of these individuals to SPARK in the first place, and ultimately led them to continue their journey as entrepreneurs themselves.