Member Spotlight: Mike Quinn
Mike is the co-founder and former CEO of Zoona, one of Africa’s earliest fintech companies. He has a master degree from the London School of Economics and an MBA from the University of Oxford. He’s also won the 2018 Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award, among others. He’s currently living in Cape Town with his wife and two kids, founding a new company and is publishing his first book.
What inspired you to take the path that you did?
MQ: I grew up in Calgary in Canada in a middle-class family with two fairly progressive liberal parents who were high school teachers. So, I was in an environment where social justice and gender equality issues — in the mid-80s to mid-90s — were part of dinnertime conversations. I went into mechanical engineering for university and it just wasn’t a great fit for me. I’m not a very technical person and I learned that. I think after paying all the tuition fees and getting into the program I then discovered a startup organization at the time called Engineers Without Borders, and it had set up these chapters across universities in Canada with a mission to unlock Canadian engineering talent and apply it to solve hard problems in the developing world.
And so, I knew nothing about real poverty issues and development issues. I went to one of the Engineers Without Borders meetings and I met some amazing people. It really, I think, brought together all these engineering students who were trying to find meaning for their careers and apply themselves in a way that could make a difference. When I graduated, I applied for a volunteer placement with them and went to Ghana for a year and never really went home.
That year was a very life-changing experience for me — I lived in a slum in Accra. I then moved in with a Ghanaian family, learned the local language, ate the local food, and worked on a very small scale rural energy and agriculture project. After that, I did a second placement with them for a year and a half in Zambia. It was a similar type of project, but it was a different experience in a different country.
Through those two experiences, I saw both the reality of poverty and the developmental challenges in Africa. But I also saw this tremendous amount of opportunity. To speed up the story a bit, I understood that I couldn’t be a volunteer for the rest of my life and I wanted to make like a lifelong commitment to have a purpose, a purposeful career. So I joined the Development Management Master’s Program at the London School of Economics.
After that, I joined the MBA program at the University of Oxford on Social Entrepreneurship Scholarship. I was just so over-educated and over-privileged and the culmination of all this experience I had was that I wanted to move back to Africa and be a purpose-driven entrepreneur, and help build scalable businesses that could have a systemic impact. For me, the opportunity I saw at the time, this is in 2008, was that there were a number of investors talking about building deal flow and not finding enough investor-ready businesses in Africa.
I said I’ll get on a plane and go build that and move back to Zambia on a consulting contract with an impact investment fund. I started looking around for entrepreneurs that I could work with. I met these two brothers that were starting a mobile payments business that became Zoona. And I ended up working with them for 10 years. So, it was a very much an organic path.
Was there a moment when you realized that you could be successful at being an entrepreneur and make a living out of it?
MQ: I’m still searching for it [the moment]. I’m just trying to start a new business right now, and I’m actually asking myself that exact same question.
You know, entrepreneurship is really hard. So I always looked at it as a career choice.
And I know I come from a very privileged background. I don’t have super-wealthy parents, but I knew moving back to Africa that I had three degrees and I had moved in with my fiancée (who became my wife), so I had and have a great support network and a great family. And I was willing and able to take risks because of that network around me.
So I never worried about it not being viable. And often people tell me, “Wow, that was a huge risk”, but for me, it was actually very calculated. I knew I wanted to make a decade long commitment so it wasn’t a short term risk. But if it didn’t work out I had fallback options, whereas I’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs in Africa who are entrepreneurs literally because they have no other options, it’s their livelihood. If their business fails, they are completely out of luck.
I don’t have one metric of success. I’m not wealthy and I haven’t ever had an exit as an entrepreneur. But it is a purposeful way of living. And I just feel so privileged with everything that’s been given to me that I want to make my life count as much as possible. That’s what motivates me.
What would you say has been the most important skill you’ve developed along your professional journey?
MQ: Leadership. You know, it’s one of these abstract concepts and everybody has different definitions of what leadership means. But now that I have gone on a journey where I started a business, and you know in the beginning, it’s you and your very small team and your co-founders so at first and you’re literally just executing, you’re in the trenches and in front of customers all the time.
It’s quite a transition when you then start raising capital, hiring staff, expanding products and customers and you start making strategic choices and managing boards and investors and dealing with competitors. So I think I’ve really learned how to step up and extrapolate myself from the day to day grind and have the ability to zoom in when it’s necessary, but also zoom out and focus more time and effort on being an enabler of others and thinking ahead.
I think leadership is also like the ability to make tough decisions that you don’t want to make or other people don’t think you should make or aren’t popular. It can be like a very lonely place, especially when you’re growing a company and you have really smart people on your board and you’ve got investors. You have all this weight on your shoulders and you see a path that you should go down and you might not have full consensus. It takes a lot of courage. And I know I haven’t always got that right, but I think it’s something that I’ve learned to appreciate and I now think about a lot more.
As I’m planning the next phase of my career, I’m actually designing my role and what I want to contribute by really focusing on this leadership skill set. I’m focused on being very self-aware of the things that I’m good at and the things that I’m not good at and then building teams of people around me that can do those things. And I’ve got huge respect for people like Fred and others that I think do this also very well.
I think that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learned over the last decade.
What are you looking to learn from your peers?
MQ: So many things. I certainly feel this way, and other people I know do too, that it’s a lonely space being a purpose-driven entrepreneur doing hard things. And I think to have that sense of community and, you know, a support network is really important, and I feel like the community and the opportunity for something like The Room is part of a movement.
Having the opportunity to tap into different networks and skillsets and asset pools — some people are just amazing with fundraising and other people are amazing entrepreneurs or operators. And some people are amazing at building teams.
And you know what I’ve kind of always tried to do is think of myself more like an orchestra conductor, instead of trying to figure out how to do everything myself. How do I find the people who know how to do something better than me and then tap into that? And I think that that’s really what I hope to get out of a community, like The Room, where it is curated group of amazing people who are leading purpose-driven lives and identify ways that I can collaborate and work with people, but also have that support network to draw on when I need it and to be that support network when somebody else needs it.
What is the most exciting thing coming down the pipeline for you?
MQ: So I’ll say two things. One is I’ve written a book and I want to publish it and launch it.
It’s fully written. I’ve got a crowdfunding campaign to fund the upfront costs. And I’ve got an amazing editor and storyteller who’s working with me in the US to do this. So that campaign actually closes at the end of Saturday, March 14th. And then I aim to have the book fully edited by early July and then hope to publish it by the end of the year. So I’ll still be looking for a publisher after the editing is done.
So that’s really exciting. I never thought I’d write a book before. But it’s really my sabbatical. After leaving Zoona, I wanted to reflect on the journey I’ve been on and the ten years of building a company. I’ve gotten to write about the crazy roller coaster experience and everything I learned and also not achieving the outcome that I wanted to. The book is called Failing to Win, it’s called that because I failed to win and we failed to achieve what we wanted to. But also to show the importance of failing so that you can win and just the role that failure plays along the way. So that’s really exciting.
And then I’m also starting a new business with a goal of enabling 10 million informal small businesses to thrive in the digital economy. Very early days for this side. I’m trying to raise the seed funding to get it going, but I’ve got, I think, a good plan and a good team. And I have a pilot up and running at the moment.
I’m so excited to get started on that and start a new entrepreneurial journey leveraging everything that I learned while at Zoona and trying to apply it to do something that has even more impact and can be more successful this time.