The Entrepreneurs I Met in Uganda and Kenya

December 30, 2010

(If you haven’t yet read my last post on investing in Africa you can read it here)

The Journey to East Africa

I left my parents’ home in Bradenton, Florida on Sunday afternoon and after a 30 hour journey through Tampa, snowy-D.C. and Istanbul, Turkey I arrived at 2:15am Tuesday at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda. I was so happy to be back in Africa for the third time.

I got through immigration and customs and by 3am came out of the arrivals area at Entebbe to meet Roey Rosenblith and Abu Musuzza, two solar lighting entrepreneurs in Uganda who run VillageEnergy. They very graciously picked me up at such an early hour in the morning.

Roey and Abu have been working for a year and a half now on bringing affordable solar lighting to the 80% of homes without electricity in Uganda. They began their sales back in September 2010 after a year of R&D and production and are now rapidly building out their distribution model for their $60 home solar lighting systems.

I had invested in VillageEnergy back in January 2010 through a personal investment fund the Humanity Fund. There was much to discuss!

We jumped in Abu’s Corolla at the airport carpark and began the hour drive back to their apartment in Kampala. On the way I got an update on Village Energy’s operations. We arrived a little after four back at their place. After a quick demonstration of the VillageEnergy solar lighting system and a heated cinnamon bun (definitely not the first thing I expected to eat in Uganda), I crawled under the malaria net and fell asleep by 5am. We had a busy day ahead!

Tuesday – Kampala, Uganda

I rose at 9am and after a shower and some fresh chapatti and Kenyan tea the three of us went to the Kabira Club for a buffet breakfast.

There at the Kabira Club I met with tech entrepreneurs in a series of meetings Roey had set up.

Here’s are the entrepreneurs I met with  in Uganda.

  1. Roey Rosenblith and Abu Musuza from VillageEnergy
  2. Charles from Wifi Cloud who is starting a wimax phone routers business in Kampala
  3. Saidi Bakenya from One2Net is setting up a digital internet connection service over the TV spectrum
  4. Peter Kimuli from Carnelian who is building a micro hydro power plan in west Uganda
  5. Peter Benhur Nyeko from Benconolly Pess Ltd, who is in the bus and generator business
  6. Charles Kalema, who run a garbage and disposal business with 24 employees
  7. Dennis from Dmark Mobile, a mobile apps company with 23 employees
  8. Revence Kalibwani, a mobile app developer

Around 4:30pm we went to the Village Energy sales center to meet with their employees Aggie, Alex, Alex, and Charles. We then went to dinner at a local hotel to get feedback from the team on how to improve Village Energy.

At eight we visited Olga, a VillageEnergy customer who lives in area without electricity and has 3 VE units installed.

We capped off the night with drinks at 9:30pm at Cayenne in Kampala with Roey and Abu and their friends Simon, Jennifer, and Dennis. Dennis runs Dmark Mobile, a mobile apps company with 23 employees.

Wedneday & Thursday – Nairobi, Kenya

On Wednesday I woke up at 8am. Roey, Abu, and I drove to Entebbe to have breakfast with Revence Kalibwani, a mobile app developer. Then we went to the airport and I was off to Nairobi on Air Uganda.

Yesterday and today In Nairobi I met with:

  1. David Kuria from Iko Toilet, has 50 environmentally friendly pay toilets throughout Kenya. Has raised funds from the Acumen Fund and works with my friend Amon Anderson at Acumen.
  2. Elizabeth Myyuiyi from EcoBank Kenya to discuss SME loans and credit. Secured loans are going here for 14% per year and group guaranteed microfinance loans are at 25-30%. (Though the annual inflation here is about 9% so the real interest rates on these loans are lower).
  3. Gaita Waimuchii of NetBlue Africa, a web marketing agency, and a 21 employee travel booking company in Nairobi
  4. Ben Lyon and Dylan Higgins of KopoKopo, mobile money backend integrator, API connector between MFIs and multiple platform mobile money solutions. Ben is from FrontlineSMS and Dylan is from They’re received investment from FirstLight Ventures and Presumed Abundance to date.
  5. Jessica Colaco from iHub Nairobi, tech incubator
  6. Wiclif Otieno from Kito International, non-profit that employs street-youth in Kenya
  7. Morgan Simon, founder of Toniic Impact Investors Network

During these discussions a number of other Kenyan and East African tech firms were mentioned that I’ll have to check out.

I’ll be posting next a report and video from my time this afternoon at the iHub, the tech incubator and innovation hub here in Nairobi.

Asante Sana,

Tuesday – Kampala, UgandaIf

A Tour Inside the iContact Durham Offices (And Zappos and Google)

September 10, 2010

iContact will be moving to a new office building in Morrisville, North Carolina next month.

We moved to Durham from a two-room office Chapel Hill in December 2004 when we had 11 employees and were called Broadwick. We actually fit the entire office in one U-Haul truck when we moved!

Now six years on, we’ll be taking 240 employees to Morrisville and have space to grow to 550.

I took an hour today to take a few photos of our current office and put them together with a few older photos from our 2009 decoration contest to create a tour off our current office space. I hope you’ll get a bit of a sense for our fun, creative, and energetic culture as you take a look. We’re not quite Zappos or Google yet in terms of the creativity of our physical environment (see below), but we’re working on it.

For the sake of preserving a bit of our unique culture and sharing what it is like inside the iContact physical environment, here is a tour of our current iContact Space via Scribd. Enjoy!

Looking for some inspiration for the physical environment we want to create in our new space in Morrisville, I also put together a deck of pictures from Zappos office and Google’s office that I figured would be worth also sharing…

The Zappos Offices – Las Vegas, NV

Zappos Offices – Las Vegas, NV

Google Offices – Worldwide

The 10 Most Important Business Lessons I’ve Learned

August 27, 2010

Here are the most important business lessons I’ve learned building iContact from 2 to 220 employees over the last eight years.

  1. Just get started, have a bias toward action, and don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis.
  2. To grow your sales, it is critical to calculate the lifetime value of an average customer, calculate what you’re currently paying to acquire an average customer (total monthly ad spend divided by customers acquired in that month), determine the maximum you’re willing to pay to acquire an average customer, and scale your marketing scientifically by testing relentlessly and finding the channels in which you can acquire customers for less than your maximum acceptable customer acquisition cost and then growing spend within those channels.
  3. Never raise more equity capital than 1x your current annualized revenue (monthly revenue x 12). If you raise too much money too soon you’ll give up too much ownership and control of your company and be tempted to spend the money in ways that aren’t carefully controlled. Wait to raise a large round until you have proven mathematically than $X amount of additional spending with generate $Y amount of additional revenue. (once you figure out #2 this is easy).
  4. If you choose to raise money, raise it from investors you like and get along with well. You’ll have to hang out with these people for the next 3-7 years, make sure you enjoy spending time with them.
  5. After the first year or two, your success is determined by the people you hire, not by you. Stop trying to do everything yourself. Scale yourself by hiring people more experienced than you in their field as soon as you can afford to.
  6. Every member of the team should have a significant portion of their compensation based on the company’s success and their department’s success, quantified and communicated clearly in advance.
  7. Your job as CEO is not to micromanage/tell your team members what to do, but rather to hire experienced people who can do their jobs better than you could, collaboratively set numerical goals, and hold your direct reports accountable for their performance individually and as a team.
  8. Once you get past the start-up phase when you’re responsible for everything, the five parts of a CEOs role are 1) Set strategy and vision 2) Manage the senior team 3) Communicate with stakeholders 4) Oversee resource allocation and 5) Build the Culture.
  9. It is possible to become more socially and environmentally responsible and increase your financial returns at the same time
  10. If you create a great culture (a fun work environment filled with people who are high performers and who care about their work and their impact on the world) you will be able to attract and retain better people who will be much more engaged and productive and create a much more financially successful company.

I’ll be writing more about building a great company culture in the next post.

What lessons have you learned over the years in business? What do you think about these lessons?

iContact, Nourish, and Life Update

June 2, 2010

I’ve been super focused the last six weeks on iContact and Nourish since making it back from Skoll World Forum and the Icelandic volcano.

iContact Update

The baby that Aaron and I started way back in 2003 is now 7 years old (see our company picture below).

We’ve hired 45 new team members so far in 2010. iContact has now passed 200 employees and 63,000 customers and are at a $37M annualized revenue run-rate. Here we come $100M.

We’re working to build a ‘great global company, based here in North Carolina, for our customers, employees, and community.’ Our 2020 mission is to be the largest global provider of email marketing software and services to the Small Business and Mid-Sized Business market.

Recently iContact has come out with and announced:

iContact’s Social Responsibility

In May, Matt Kopac  joined iContact, helping us with our social and environmental responsibility work. Matt is helping iContact become a B Corporation (for-benefit corporation), create a system to quantify our social and environmental impact, and prepare for writing our 2010 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Report. Matt is comes to us from Yale University where he finished in MBA in 2009. Matt has worked in the Peace Corps in Benin and for VisionSpring in El Salvidor.

Making iContact a  Triple Bottom Line (TBL) Company

A triple bottom line company is a company that focuses on its financial results, social results, and environmental results. This three-pronged measurement system also goes by the moniker of “Profit, People, Planet.” iContact already measures and report on our financial results religiously.

We are now setting up a system to measure our social results and our environmental results. My hope is that iContact can become a global example of a socially responsible triple-bottom line venture-backed technology company. My strong belief is that by measuring and focusing on social impact and environmental impact, financial results are actually improved and not the other way around. We are just at the beginning of this process.

We’ve got even more exciting things to share that we will announce by the end of July including our first acquisition and something so wonderful I can’t even allude to it…

Nourish Updates

Besides a few days in May at the DC Summit Series and trying to write articles and posts when I can, I’ve been very focused on two things professionally–iContact and Nourish International. I’m the Board Chair this year for Nourish so I was part of a committee to select Nourish’s next Executive Director Ryan Richards, who started on the job last week here in Chapel Hill.

Ryan comes to Nourish from NYU’s Wagner School and has worked with ReadingVillage, StartingBloc, Ashoka, and Asturias Academy previously. Ryan is taking the role from James Dillard, who as ED grew the organization from 8 to 22 college chapters.

Nourish is focused on training US college students to become global citizens. Nourish teaches entrepreneurial skills to college students who then run small businesses and ventures on their campuses, make a profit, and then invest those profits in community-based organizations in the developing world (thirteen countries so far including in  India, Bolivia, Mexico, and Uganda) who work to implement community-led sustainable economic development projects.

Nourish’s Board of Directors now includes…

  • Pallavi Garg, UT- Austin
  • Jud Bowman, CEO of PocketGear
  • Neil Bagchi, Bagchi Law
  • Buck Goldstein, UNC Entrepreneur-in-Residence
  • Jim Kitchen, TUI Travel
  • Lee Buck, LaunchBox Digital
  • Joel Thomas, UNC-Kenan Flagler
  • Chris Bingham, RileyLife Industries
  • Marcia Angle, Intrahealth
  • Ryan Allis, iContact
  • Ryan Richards, Executive Director

If you’d like to learn more about Nourish International, make a financial contribution, or get involved you can visit the Nourish web site or contact Exec. Director Ryan Richards at ryan[at]

Life Update

The past few months I’ve been living in Chapel Hill and traveling a lot for work to wonderful places like San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, D.C., and New York. Our ‘house of entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs’ has grown. We have welcomed Zach and Ryan to our house recently and are up to 6 roommates (Phil, Ryan, Ryan, Joe, Zach, Andy) with Riley the Dog running around. Somehow we keep a good system going.

I’ve not had time to host an Entrepreneur & Social Entrepreneur Meetup for a few months but hope to bring them back in the Fall. I’m hoping to be able to head to Kampala to visit Roey with VillageEnergy in October as well as see Kigali and Zanzibar for the first time.

My girlfriend Jess has graduated from UNC with a degree in Peace, War, and Defense and is now working on both finding a job in the socially responsible investing or international relations field as well as writing a business plan for a new venture called Borderless Books and volunteering for Jim Thomas’ AfricaRising.

If you know of anyone looking for a brilliant UNC grad and social entrepreneur who’s worked in Tanzania, Guatemala, and Uganda to work for their non-profit organization or company, email Jess at jess.shorland[at]!

My parents Pauline and Park moved back to Bradenton, Florida in December. They have now sold their house in Carrboro, NC and this weekend will be the big family furniture move to my house.

Off to do a reference check call…


iContact's Social Responsibility 

In May, Matt Kopac has joined iContact as a 20 hour per week consultant, helping iContact on our social and environmental responsibility work. Matt will help iContact become a B Corporation (for-benefit corporation), create a system to quantify our social and environmental impact, and prepare for writing our 2010 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Report for the Board of Directors. Matt is comes to us from Yale University where he finished in MBA in 2009. Matt has worked in the Peace Corps in Benin and for VisionSpring in El Salvidor. He works in a cube outside Cindy Hays' office. Say hi to Matt (picture below) when you see him! 

What Does a Triple Bottom Line (TBL) Mean? 

A triple bottom line company is a company that focuses on its financial results, social results, and environmental results. This three-pronged measurement system also goes by the moniker of "Profit, People, Planet." We already measure and report on our financial results religiously. Part of the work Matt will be doing is setting up a system to measure our social results and our environmental results. My hope is that iContact can become a global example of a socially responsible triple-bottom line venture-backed technology company. My strong belief is that by measuring and focusing on social impact and environmental impact, financial results are actually improved and not the other way around. We are just at the beginning of this process.

To the Dominican Republic I Go

April 20, 2010

Weddings have been missed. Births have been missed. Babies have been conceived that otherwise would not have been. Lifelong friendships have formed. Serendipitous first romantic connections have blossomed in Hyde Park. Lovers have connected via Skype and Gmail video chat.

Yes, there will be a movie. And no, I still do not know how to pronounce that darn volcano’s name. No one does.

UK Airspace Closed Since Thursday

It’s 5pm GMT on Tuesday 20th of April 2010. I’m writing on a Eurostar train from London to Paris that will soon go under the ocean. I’m trying to get back to work at iContact in Durham, NC and to a loving girlfriend Jess in Chapel Hill.

UK airspace has been closed since Thursday mid-day. My flight home on Sunday was canceled. I had been stuck in London for three days, prior to deciding to stop waiting and head south.

A Plan to Escape

By Monday at noon I had a plan. I had booked a Hertz rental car at London Heathrow and would pick up Nathaniel Whittemore of and two other friends from the Skoll World Forum who were stranded here and drive down for a Friday flight in Madrid. The rental was expensive, but it was something that felt both adventurous and productive, two words that are too rarely aligned.

But then, in the hotel lobby the news came on saying the UK airspace would open. The newsflash scroller said airspace would open at 1800 hours. The lobby erupted with cheers.

My new 42 year old friend, fellow American business-traveler gone-astray Chris, and I jumped in a cab across the street to Heathrow Terminal 3 thinking we might as well go jump in line. He had been stuck since Thursday was trying somehow, someway to meet up with his wife, 9 year old son, and 7 year old daughter who left Boston today for his annual family vacation.

By the time we got back to the hotel with hopes dashed the newsflash scroller had corrected itself, by adding the word ‘tomorrow.’ But alas, there was hope for an opened Heathrow.

So I canceled the rental car and took take my chances staying put. I didn’t really want to learn how to drive on the left side of the road in the UK, anyway. Or for that matter, learn how to drive on the right side of the road in France and Spain with a right-sided steering wheel, regardless of the amount of liability insurance. Back to Plan C it was.

Excitement Until the Fiery Volcano Recast its Ash

After a serendipitous dinner with a new friend and Skoll delegate Darlene from Ikatu, who is setting up for-profit socially responsible businesses in Ghana to scalably employ disadvantaged youth after eighteen years at QVC, I prepared for bed excited at the possibility of going home.

Last night at midnight. I had a confirmed seat on a flight from Heathrow direct to Raleigh leaving tonight (Tuesday) at 8pm and had received the cherished official American Airlines text message telling me so. All was looking promising.

I forwent the mini-van to Madrid option that an entrepreneurial Skoll delegate had arranged to depart from our hotel at 5am and the Skoll Foundation canceled their rented coach service to Madrid intended to rescue their foundation members and stranded guests. All was looking rosy, and most went to bed happy.

But then, around 1am news spread on Twitter via the creatively coined #ashtag hastag that the volcano had started erupting again. By the 3am NATS update suddenly instead of preparing opening up Tuesday the situation was “dynamic and variable” which seemed to be governmental double-speak for “you’re probably screwed.”

And so the volcano started erupting again in the middle of the night, keeping London shut down for the sixth straight day.

Send in the Navy

British airspace, closed since Thursday, did open for a brief respite this morning in the North of the United Kingdom where a few lucky passengers slipped out. Plenty of planes coming from mainland Europe were flying overhead today as UK airspace was open for planes that flew above 20,000 feet. Unfortunately NATS did not allow planes on the ground to take off.

While the British government had sent in the HMS Albion to rescue stranded British tourists, partly due to political pressure stemming from an upcoming election that remains a toss up, they didn’t seem to be able to do much to get folks out of the UK.

The Queen Mary 2 cruise ship back to New York was fully booked up, the trains were full, the ferries were full, and the French train workers were on strike. Wonderful.

And thus I woke up, for the third morning in a row in a hotel adjoining Heathrow, anxiously awaiting news from the London Volcanic Ash Advisory Service (yes, really) and NATS as to whether they would allow London airports to open.

By noon the answer was a clear no.

Decision Time

After receiving the dreaded flight canceled text message, it was decision time.

And so, rather than waiting for an indefinite period of time, at least until Thursday, for a flight from Heathrow, here I am on a Eurostar train to Paris (the coach seats were all taken so here I am in first class anything for the first time in my life and hopefully the last).

Tomorrow, I have a flight booked to the Dominican Republic and then on to Miami Wednesday night and to RDU Thursday. Today, Paris is open. Tomorrow, we shall see. C’est la vie.

If Paris does not work out, then there is always a bus to Madrid. I have a backup refundable flight booked Friday from Madrid direct to Miami. It may prove difficult to get to Madrid from Paris with the French train workers on strike, but I’ll find a way.

I’m currently working on Plan F, hoping it sticks. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Plan F before, for anything.

Plan A: London to Raleigh by plane leaving Sunday

Plan B: London to Raleigh by plane leaving Monday

Plan C: London to Raleigh by plane leaving Tuesday

Plan D: London to Madrid (in rental car) to Raleigh (by plane) via Ecuador and New York, leaving Thursday

Plan E: London to Madrid (in mini-van) to Raleigh (by plane) via Miami, leaving Friday

Plan F: London to Paris (on the Eurostar train) to Raleigh (by plane) via Dominican Republic and Miami, leaving Wednesday

Plan G: London to Paris (on the Eurostar train) to Madrid (by bus) to Raleigh (by plane), via Miami, leaving Friday

Who would have thought going to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic via Paris would ever be the best option home to NC from London?!

I am sharing a Holiday Inn room tonight by Paris Charles de Gaulle airport with my new friend and fellow traveler from Boston, Chris, who is trying his best to get back to his family as soon as he can.

I’m enjoying the adventure and getting lots of work done.

Who We Should Not Forget As We Tell This Story

As the stories of the inconvenienced well-off are told, we musn’t forget those who are truly suffering tonight.

People like me, business travelers with an EA, who can afford hotels, are doing just fine and can relax and enjoy. I am not in the majority, however. Most here are tourists and families who are stuck and cannot easily afford the $2000 or $3000 extra cost per person to get home per person in any reasonable time frame.

I particularly have sympathy in this uniquely ambiguous situation for those who have truly been hurt financially or otherwise by this situation.

From the family sleeping in the Heathrow arrivals section, waiting now six days for their connecting flight, who cannot afford the jacked-up hotel rates (what was once 29 pounds is now 79, what was once 139 pounds is now 200) to the Kenyan farmer who now has nothing but wilted flowers or a rotten crop that must be tossed or turned into cow-feed, families have been economically devastated due to the decision to close the airspace, some say unnecessarily.

There is a tremendous economic story here, and tremendous economic pressure to open up the air.

Further, I hope that the attention this volcanic incident is getting, with  primarily middle-class and weathly Westerners “stranded” in nice hotels and having an extended European vacation (even if it is an expensive and unplanned one), will not detract from the ongoing much greater crisis in Haiti where there are 750,000 real human refugees who still to this day, 100 days on, are lacking shelter, clean water, and medical care.

As this story unfolds, I hope the global media does not lose touch with the much greater human story happening to folks who may not have as much resources. In our story, we should at least arc back to the other major natural activities of 2010 in this watershed year for strange natural behavior.

When You’re Stuck in a Trap Eat Cheese

The best line of the week was from Peter Greenberg at CBS speaking at TEDxVolcano, “When your stuck in a trap, eat the cheese.”

‘Tis the adventure of globalized commerce disrupted by a fiery Mother Nature.

So here I am in France. The train is now temporarily stuck due to a “problem on the tracks.” Perhaps some brie is called for.

UPDATE 12:53am: I made it to the hotel in Paris by the airport. UK airspace opened as of 9:34pm GMT Tuesday. The flight from Paris to the Dominican Republic is looking good for tomorrow. After waiting in line to see if we could get on an earlier flight and the only option being an outrageous $8000 business class ticket to Miami in the morning. We’re getting up at 6:30am to attempt to fly standby on anything to the U.S.

Volcano Causing Entrepreneurs to Be, Well, Entrepreneurial

April 18, 2010

I’m stuck in London for a few days due to the Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption in Iceland.

I’m looking outside my hotel window at a calm Heathrow airport. It’s filled with parked planes, but nothing and no one is moving. All of the UK and much of European airspace is closed.

Here’s a concerning part–the last time the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted in 1821 the eruption lasted for two years. Oh my! This volcano could affect European air travel for quite some time. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has said airlines are losing about £130m per day in revenues.

Fortunately the forecast is calling for a storm toward the end of this week that should make it safe to fly again, at least for a time.

I’ve looked into taking the 7 day Southampton to New York cruise home (people are actually considering this!) or getting a ferry to Bilbao, Spain and then a train to Lisbon, which is currently open for most flights, but it would take at least three days to even get to Lisbon from London at the moment as the ferry services are mostly booked up.

So I’m going to get comfortable and get some work done. It looks like iContact’s European headquarters will be opening tomorrow :-) .

In the meantime I’m attending TEDxVolcano tonight in London which looks fun! A few hundred entrepreneurial attendees of the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship and OxfordJam remain stranded as volcano refugees–so Nathaniel Whittemore has in 24 hours organized this event to bring us back together in true entrepreneurial fashion.

Also entrepreneurial is a ‘rescue mission’ set up by a local TV host here who is taking Britons stranded in France back to the UK by boat.

Some here are suggesting the UK, French, and US militaries need to get some transatlantic boat services running to get people stranded on both sides of the oceans home and back to work and their families. A lot of people here would take a guaranteed 7 day return at this point.

Anyone have any creative ideas on how to get back to North Carolina?

How I Aligned What I Love With What I Do & Scaled Myself

February 3, 2010

This post will require a certain degree of vulnerability. Sometimes we build a hard shell around us when we’re going through difficult times. This is a story of personal growth.

A year ago I was sitting late at night in my Durham office at iContact wondering if I’d become a corporate sellout.

Was I trading in some of my most productive years of life to build a company I was no longer passionate about?

I had gone from being an entrepreneur to a manager. I was 24 and we had 150 employees and $20M in sales. I was dealing with purchase order forms and paid time off policies. We had achieved all the goals we had ever set out for ourselves. Where was the entrepreneurial passion?

We had gone from #20 to #2 in the market in five years and I had no idea how we’d get to #1. I thought it might be the time to start thinking about finding my replacement.

Even though we were still growing very quickly, we weren’t quite growing at the same percentages as we were before and for the first time in our company’s history we were going to have a year in which we would not double sales.

My confidence was wavering. I had made some big mistakes:

  • I had waited too long to launch a stock option plan for the whole company.
  • I hadn’t hired a CMO soon enough.
  • I hadn’t built the right ecosystem of mentors that could help me get to the next level as a CEO.
  • I had focused too much on the surrogate-family side of our culture and not enough on the performance-focused side that was needed.
  • I hadn’t created values that people believed in and used every day. I could recall just four of our ten values without looking.
  • I had waited too long to start a formal manager training program.
  • I hadn’t truly aligned my passion for social responsibility into the ethos of the corporation.
  • I hadn’t created any effective mechanism for communicating strategic direction to the company and we had a lot of confusion as to what our focus was and operating choices were being made with different assumptions as to direction.

And these were just the mistakes I knew about!

Was I Right for the Job?

As I sat there in May 2009 I wrote in my journal “I’m not sure I’m the right person anymore to lead the company into this next stage of growth. We need to make some changes to keep the growth and hit our goals. Scary to think about. Terrible to have lost some of my confidence.” I wrote an email to our CFO on May 20th thinking about succession planning for me.

I wasn’t sure whether we should try to get acquired or keep the faith that we’d get to the $60M-$70M in annual revenue needed to go public and stay on track for the 2012 IPO. At certain points I lost the faith.

Finally in July we got the CMO we wanted. And things were looking way up by the end of the summer when we got an investment term sheet with a nine figure PMV. Wow!

But then came October. In the same week my business partner got cancer (he is now doing well!), my mom started having worsening chronic arm pain (she is now doing better), and a company that was looking to acquire us told us they weren’t going forward. I guess they say that difficult times are the foundry from which greatness is cast. But it’s sure not fun being the molten iron!

Through that baptismal fire I came to a critical understanding of self and what I needed to do to align what I love with what I do–something I’ve been preaching atop the mountain for five years in speeches but only half-heartedly living. It helped me discover my authentic self. It helped me find my Csikszentmihalyian flow.

Motivated More Than Ever

So I sit here tonight in my home in Chapel Hill motivated more than ever. iContact is now at a $34M revenue run-rate and growing that by more than $1M each month. We will hire more than 50 new team members in 2010. We had our first ever post-investment EBITDA positive month in December(!!!). We’re well on our way to fulfilling our dream of “building a great sustainable company in NC for our customers, employees, and community.” And we’ve got a plan to go from #2 to #1. We have a plan to win.

I no longer question whether I’m a corporate sellout putting in my time. I’m aligned, I’m focused. I’m learning. I’m surrounded by amazing people every day who know how to do what they do so much better than I ever could.

What I Changed?

So what did I do? Three things (and I’m still working on fully implementing them)…

  1. I worked to align my long term life mission with what I do everyday today. My life mission, the one that’s been on my bedroom wall since May 2007, is to “be a leader of our generation as we work to end extreme poverty in our lifetimes.” While I was learning a lot about leadership and management and being paid to do it, I was somewhat unclear how building a SaaS company aligned fully with a passionate desire to end extreme poverty in the developing world over the next fifty years. The incessant question in my head was whether I’d be better off finding my replacement and either applying to the Kennedy School of Government or moving to Africa to invest in entrepreneurs there. I learned a lot about the integrated 1/1/1 corporate philanthropy model of and wanted to see if we could do that at iContact. On January 8th, 2010 we launched an expanded CSR model, what we call the 4-1s Corporate Social Responsibility Model, at iContact in which we take 1% of equity, 1% of product, 1% of employee time, and 1% of payroll and invest it in local and global non-profit organizations. Since we’ve expanded this CSR program I’ve been able to see the tangible and immediate connection between my passion for social responsibility and what I do going to work every day. In 2009 iContact contributed $109,000 to 63 different 501(c)(3)s and in 2010 we’ll reach $150,000. But it’s not just money anymore. Now, each of our employees has the opportunity to be paid to take 1% of their time (2.5 days off from work) each year to do community service during business hours, which we’re tracking through VolunteerForce. While we’ve got lots of work to do to improve it, the model has real impact and tangible value for us and the community and it’s significantly helped me to a much greater degree see the meaning behind what we do everyday. I love it!
  2. We changed our company values at iContact. I realized in July of last year that we had ten “Corporate Values” but I could only remember four without reading the sheet. At an EO entrepreneurial exec ed program at MIT in June I learned you should never have more values than you can remember and that to be worthy of being a company value you’d have to be willing to let someone go if they didn’t live up to it. Our values fit neither requirement. In December at our two day Senior Leadership Team (SLT) offsite in Chapel Hill we came up with WOWME. WOWME stands for 1) Wow the Customer 2) Operate with Urgency 3) Without Mediocrity 4) Make a Positive Wake and 5) Engage as an Owner. We launched these values last month at iContact and now every SLT member knows them by heart and we’re working toward all managers using them during every performance and coaching discussion. We will hire and fire by these values, live up to them, and hold each other accountable to them. They’ve even inspired me to pick up my game and get it in gear. I love it!
  3. I let go of control. The best thing I’ve ever done for the growth of iContact is let go of control (and I’m still working on this skill). We have a six person Senior Leadership Team at iContact that can all do their jobs much much better than I can. We now have a thirteen person Leadership Team underneath them all of whom have more business experience than I do. When I realized that my job was not to ensure they did their jobs the right way but rather to enable them to do their jobs and hold them accountable for the results, my world shifted. I’m still learning in this area, but this single realization is enabling me to scale. I now focus on 1) people 2) strategy 3) culture 4) investment. Each time we get to a new stage in our company’s growth ($100k, $1M, $5M, $10M, $25M) I have to reinvent myself and my job description. I love it!

And here are some other life changes that are less critical to helping me align what I do with what I love, but are still fun to share…

  1. I made an equity investment in an African company. On January 4th I became a 10% owner of Village Energy Ltd. of Kampala Uganda. For four years I’ve been personally making contributions to non-profit organizations focused on ending global poverty. My philosophy has changed on economic development over the past year. Today I believe that while effectively monitored bilateral aid is an important component of ending extreme poverty and emergency humanitarian aid is morally and critically necessary in many locations, an investment in a local entrepreneur in Africa will have much greater long term impact in terms of job creation, tax revenue base, and constituent-focused democratic institution building. I was very excited to invest in Village Energy which is bringing a $60 solar panel powered LED lighting solution to rural village homes through a microfinance and franchise distribution model for $3-$4 per month per home. The product is a substitute good for kerosene which often costs $5 to $6 per month, causes lung inhalation problems and often burns down the thatch houses. I hope this $15,000 investment turns out to have much greater social impact than a $15,000 contribution. There is SO much opportunity to invest in Africa and so many entrepreneurs and companies poised for growth. And there is a huge gap between the countless MFIs that loan out $50 to $1000 and the Acumen Fund which invests $50k to $250k. Ten years from now I dream of running a socially responsible venture capital firm on the African continent. The challenge will be finding a scalable model of investing $5000 to $50,000 at a time. I think it can be done. I know the pipeline is there.
  2. We started a new entrepreneurial division of Virante. Virante is a 11 person company downstairs in the iContact building that I started as “Virante Design & Development” in 2000 that is now run by CEO Malcolm Young. I won’t say much about this early stage effort now because the team is still acquiring all the related domain names and IP, but it’s a socially responsible ecommerce play that I’m extremely excited about. Fortunately we’ve already got the team to make it happen and it won’t take much time. With the help of the Virante team and a 17 year old intern Aneesh that comes in each Wednesday they’re making it happen. Here I must quote my new New York friend Kim Scheinberg, “Starting a company is like having a baby. By far the most enjoyable part is the idea conception phase.”
  3. I followed my passion for writing and started the next book. This post is the beginning of book #2. My plan–one 5 page blog post per week that by the end of 2010 will be a ready to become a book. The title–”Dare Mighty Things: How Entrepreneurs & Social Entrepreneurs Are Changing the World.”

I have had two wristbands on my wrist since November. The first one says “Make Poverty History.” The second, “$100M in 2012.”

Thank you to everyone who has supported me through this endeavor and to all who are with us in this journey.

Here we go…


Thoughts, comments, suggestions??? Feedback is the breakfast of champions!

2009 By The Numbers

December 26, 2009

In 2009 I’ve slowed down a bit from 2008 and focused on iContact and Nourish International. I had to reduce some commitments to be able to do that and left three other non-profit Boards. After my mom hurt her arm and two of my friends were diagnosed with cancer in October I slowed down a bit at the end of the year and didn’t hold any Entrepreneur or Social Entrepreneur meetups the last three months. They’ll be back in January.

I still ended up racking up some good frequent flyer miles riding in 72 planes in 2009 (down from 74 in 2008) and spoke to about 5700 people this year (down from 8500 in 2008). I very much enjoy public speaking. Most recently I’ve been speaking about how to change the world through business and social entrepreneurship.

I am becoming more and more interested in investing in entrepreneurs in Africa that bring electricity, water, and internet to rural villages in sustainable manners. I hope to complete my first such small investment in January in VillageEnergy a company out of Kampala, Uganda run by a former roommate of mine Roey Rosenblith–who actually was on the Detroit plane that was attacked on Christmas day yesterday. As he wrote me tonight, “I just started to really realize what a gift it is to be alive.” In a year in which so many people close to me had life and death experiences this is a fitting quote to remember.

Congratulations to the team at Virante for hitting its first $1M in sales year and the team at iContact for ‘finishing the marathon’ and growing revenue more than 80% year over year to beat our revenue plan of $26.2M for year!

Per my commitment, I’ve got my running shoes laced and am on track for my training schedule to run a half-marathon in March and a full on April 24th.

Here’s 2009 by the numbers:

  • 6 Billion Emails Sent by iContact Customers
  • $27M in sales at iContact
  • $4.5M in additional capital raised
  • 4.4M unique visitors to
  • $1M in sales at Virante
  • 557,000 iContact users
  • $90,000+ contributed by iContact to non-profit organizations in 2009
  • 59,000 customers at iContact
  • 5790 people spoken in front of
  • 600 Entrepreneur & Social Entrepreneur Meetup Attendees
  • 190 employees at iContact
  • 80 daily Senior Leadership Team huddles
  • 72 plane rides (30 actual trips, avg 2.5 trips per month)
  • 50 weekly Senior Leadership Team meetings
  • 50 new hires at iContact
  • 29 cities visited
  • 20 miles run (10 in the last week!)
  • 19 U.S. States Visited
  • 18 Speaking engagements
  • 16 non-profit Board Meetings
  • 12 monthly all-day Senior Leadership Team Meetings
  • 11 Corporate Overview Sessions
  • 10 Entrepreneur & Social Entrepreneur Meetups in Chapel Hill
  • 9 countries visited (China, India, U.S., Uganda, Kenya, Spain, Italy, France, England)
  • 9 New Monthly Company iNews videos produced –
  • 8 iContact Board Meetings
  • 7 Conferences Attended
  • 6 VC term sheets received
  • 5 Company Offsites
  • 4 continents visited
  • 3 friends diagnosed with cancer
  • 2 Summit Series Attended
  • 2 Spontaneous company parades –
  • 2 Small Private Company Investments (EvoApp and Unblab)
  • 1 Renaissance Weekend Attended

In 2010 iContact’s theme is to Deliver Wow to Our Customers. It is going to be a great year. We have so much to accomplish and go after!

Here’s to doing something wonderful with infectious enthusiasm.

Happy almost New Year from Anna Maria Island, Florida!


What Jess, Bob, and I Did in Africa

July 10, 2009

Print This Article

July 5th, 12pm – I’m looking out the Virgin Atlantic airplane window at Mt. Kenya as we end our twelve day trip to Kenya and Uganda. We’ve begun the twenty-eight hour journey home. East Africa is a beautiful region with substantial economic opportunity, and very worthy of a visit. This was my second trip to Uganda, but first to Kenya.

What Drew Us In

We went to learn. We went to visit some of the non-profits The Humanity Campaign has worked with in the past and those we are considering supporting in the future. We came back changed permanently having seen the juxtaposition of the beautiful rising Africa against the constant suffering of unlistened to and forgotten millions of people just like you and I. In the developing world, 2.6 billion people live under $2 per day (PPP adjusted) according to the World Bank and 49,300 people die each and every day needlessly from preventable disease and starvation according to the WHO.

Some of The Stories That Sear Themselves Into Your Memory

For just a second, imagine 139 girls from your local elementary school have been kidnapped by an armed rebel group and taken to a jungle 400 miles away. One hundred and nine of them are negotiated to be returned but 30 of them stay and are raped, abused, and are forced to be sex slaves for as long as thirteen years. Six of these thirty girls are killed attempting to escape. Imagine hiding in a snake-infested ceiling drop at your high school to avoid being kidnapped by the LRA. Imagine being 17 and living in a slum in Africa with over 1 million residents. Both your parents died of AIDS, then your grandfather was killed, then your pastor who took you in abused you. Now you’re on your own, struggling everyday to survive. These are just some of the life altering stories I’ve heard over the last twelve days.

Day By Day, What We Did

Bob Phoenix, Jess Shorland, and I left the iContact parking lot at 4:30pm on Wednesday June 24. We drove over to Raleigh-Durham International Airport for our flight to London. We arrived in Heathrow Airport on Thursday morning, took the Heathrow Express to Paddington, took the Underground to Waterloo, and were on the London Eye by 10:30am in good tourist form. In our twelve hour layover in London we rode the Eye, took photos on the lions at Trafalgar Square, ate Bangers and Mash at The Clarence, saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham, and visited the London office of Credit Suisse in Canary Wharf to visit some of Bob’s co-workers.

We departed from Heathrow that Thursday night and arrived the next morning in Nairobi. After filling out our Kenya arrival cards and swine flu papers, we made it through immigration in about an hour. Three $25 Kenyan Visas later, we picked up our luggage at baggage claim and excitedly met Mary Muhara from Africa Rising at international arrivals. We had checked into the Bush House and Camp in the South C district, which had a reasonable rate of 4600 Kenyan Shillings for a double room with an en suite bathroom (and hot showers). We left our bags and proceeded with Mary to begin what we we really there for–to visit the non-profits we were working with and learn as much as we could about extreme poverty, hunger, basic healthcare, and conflict resolution.

We visited Nairobi, Kampala, Lira, Gulu, and Mityana over the twelve days. We were there to visit the organizations that The Humanity Campaign has contributed to in the past and to scope out new organizations to invest in the the future. We were also there to learn–to venture another foot into the water of exploring what it will actually take to end extreme poverty and hunger in our lifetime. Jess’ focus was to learn about conflict resolution.

During the trip we visited nineteen social entrepreneurial organizations all told (some non-profit, some for-profit) in Kenya and Uganda. We visited seven schools, four community non-profits, three local businesses who had received microloans, two microlending institutions, one hospital, one clinic, and one technology incubator.

Our itinerary was as follows:

Day One – Fly from Raleigh to London
Day Two – In London, Fly from London to Nairobi
Day Three, Nairobi – Africa Rising, TULIP
Day Four, Nairobi – Carolina for Kibera, Trash Clean Up, Soccer Tournament Fun Day
Day Five, Nairobi – Fly to Entebbe Uganda, Car ride to Kampala to home of Louis Ntale
Day Six, Kampala, Lira, Gulu- Concerned Parents Association, Community Microlending to Young Mothers Program
Day Seven, Gulu – Invisible Children Uganda / St. Joseph’s High School, Gulu High School, MEND
Day Eight, Kampala – Bus from Gulu to Kampala, Appfrica meeting in Kampala
Day Nine, Mityana – Mityana Hospital, Mityana Secondary School, Affinet, Naama Millennium Primary School, Santa Maria Medical Clinic
Day Ten, Kampala – Faula Uganda / Opportunity International
Day Eleven, Entebbe – Bob and Ryan Flight from Entebbe to Nairobi, Jess gets picked up by Juma to go to WOMEDA in Karagwe, Tanzania
Day Twelve – Fly from Nairobi to London to New York to Raleigh

Where We Spent Our Time

Here is a report on each of the organizations we visited with while in Uganda and Kenya the past twelve days.


Africa Rising is a non-profit organization based in Durham, North Carolina that currently supports organizations in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. The organization retains a representative in East Africa named Mary Muhara, a Kenyan residing in Nairobi. Mary’s job is to vet potential non-profit organizations for the group to contribute to and to follow-up with those currently in the Africa Rising network. Mary was very kind to take us around Nairobi on our first day to show us TULIP and a Beacon of Hope store.


The first organization we visited with Mary was TULIP Girls Centre. TULIP is an organization that Africa Rising supports today. TULIP was founded by Mary Munyi. Mary started by taking in five disadvantaged girls from the community around here. Today, TULIP is a private school for sixty disadvantaged girls aged 13 to 16 (form 2, 3, and 4) located just outside of the Korogocho slum, the second largest slum in Nairobi after Kibera and the most dangerous.

We met with Nicera Muriithi the Program Manager. Nicera explained that their operating budget was $30,000 per year. We learned that their teachers were paid approximately $125 per month.

When we asked why we should support a private school in the area Nicera explained that the government had not built a primary school in the area because it was a poor area and that there was no public school nearby. Nicera explained that her biggest need was to get more land so she could expand the school. She indicated it would cost $25,000 to purchase the one acre of land. She also requested textbooks and a computer so she can train the students in typing.

We had a chance to speak with the students. When we asked what they wanted to be in the future, they named lawyer, doctor, preacher, and politician. The reality was however that all these professions required a college degree and that these girls would not be able to afford to attend university.


On Sunday June 28 at 8am we showed up at the office of Carolina for Kibera (CFK). CFK has a girls center, clinic, waster management program, and youth soccer program.CFK was founded in 2001 by Rye Barcott, a friend of mine and fellow Tar Heel. Rye was a U.S. Marine Officer for five years who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rye just finished a MBA at Harvard Business School and a MPA at the Kennedy School of Government.

Kibera is in Nairobi and with 1 million residents, it is the largest slum in Africa. That day in Kibera, Jess, Bob and I walked about 30 minutes to the soccer field with a couple interns from Duke and UNC and some visiting Muzungus (white people) from Vancouver. We grabbed rakes and helped remove trash from the street and sewers in Kibera as part of CFK’s ‘fun day’ in which kids did a couple hours of community service cleaning up the area and then participated in a soccer tournament.

It was an eye opening and life altering experience walking through the dirt paths of Kibera and raking clothes, water bottles, shoes, fruit, corn, and litter out of open drainage ditches filled with brown water and human excrement as part of a team of perhaps 200 that went out in the community to clean up. I had seen rural poverty in Africa before, but this urban poverty was different. The community seemed vibrant, entrepreneurial, alive, musical. Dozens of stray dogs and chickens roamed. The small one-room houses in which 6-8 slept were made of mud with a tin roof. Yet we knew we wouldn’t be safe by ourselves, especially after dark. The lack of sanitation was very visible.

Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia on Kibera, “Kibera is heavily polluted by soot, dust, and other wastes. Open sewage routes, in addition to the common use of Flying toilets, also contribute to contamination of the slum with human and animal feces. The combination of poor nutrition and lack of sanitation accounts for many illnesses. Not only are death by disease and conflict common inside this slum, but it is estimated that 1/5 of the 2.2 million Kenyans living with HIV live in Kibera.”

Kibera was the center of many of the riots and killing that occurred following the contested Kenyan election in December 2007.

At 11:30 that morning we had to leave the soccer field and walk the 30 minutes back to the CFK office. We couldn’t find anyone who was willing to walk with us and were told we should not walk alone due to safety (and we didn’t remember the route). We finally found a wonderful 17 year old young lady to show us the way back. She was the 17 I spoke of earlier in this post whose parents had died of AIDS. She moved in with her grandfather but he shortly passed. She then moved in with her pastor, but he abused her. She was effectively alone struggling to survive and all she wanted was a small place of her own. Stories like this were all too commonly heard.

It was a life changing experience to spend four hours in Kibera, and I know I’ll return. I have a very high level of respect for everyone at Carolina for Kibera. I’d love to work to start a similar program in Korogocho, a slightly smaller but more dangerous slum in Nairobi.

Here’s a video of me dancing with the children in Kibera before a Carolina for Kibera soccer match:


After taking the Post Uganda bus to the Kamdini depot, we were picked up by Richard from Concerned Parents Association, another organization that Africa Rising currently contributes to. We met with Anthony, the Interim Executive Director of CPA. CPA started in 1996 after 139 girls aged six and seven were abducted from a local school by the LRA. Of the 139 that were taken, 109 were returned quickly in negotiations, but 30 remained. Since 1996, 24 of the 30 remaining abductee girls have returns. The other six were killed while attempting to escape. The girls today are all 19 or 20 years old. In March 2009, the last surviving girl returned. To give some perspective, in order to escape successfully each girl had to walk for one month, often alone, in the jungle of Northwest Uganda or the Garamba Forest.CPA helps these returnee abductees with counseling. Almost all of the 24 returnees girls brought with them babies. They had been made wives or sex slaves of the LRA while the bush (forest). These babies were called ‘Bush Babies’ by the local community, and often discriminated against. Today, the LRA still has over 3,000 women and child that they have abducted. July 2006 was the last abduction in Uganda. However, today the LRA is abducting children in the Congo and most recently massacred 600 over the Christmas 2008 holiday in the DRC. The people in Lira still fear the LRA returning to Acholiland (Northern Uganda) according to Anthony.

Today the Concerned Parents Association is focused on improving children’s rights and fighting/reporting rape and domestic violence in their tribe of Lango around Lira, a city of 62,000 people. They have sixty employees and work with over sixty parent groups at schools in the area. They amazingly operate on an annual budget of $350,000 per year. They currently receive funding from Save The Children Uganda, The Mennonite Central Church, the Christian Aid, UNICEF, and the European Union, –although the EU funding is likely to run out in October. They do and can give out condoms in their area as part of their reproductive health and family planning efforts even though they are funded by some Christian organizations. They have four offices including the main headquarters in Lira and branches in Gulu, Kitgum, and Oyam.

Anthony noted that while most of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps have dissipated in Lira and Gulu, there are still people in IDP camps in Kitgum, due to concern about the return of the LRA and an especially ruthless Ugandan tribe of cattle-raiders, the Karamajong.

We asked why Anthony chose to be involved in CPA. Anthony himself was almost abducted by the LRA. He told us that the LRA once attacked his school in 1995 when he was 17. In order to avoid being abducted, he hid in a snake infested ceiling drop.

Anthony indicated that CPA’s needed include additional assistance with report writing and documenting in English and funding.


After visiting with Anthony at the Concerned Parents Association, we were taken to visit one of the programs that CPA supports, the Lira Girl Mothers Microfinance Program (LGMMP). We met with two advisers and eleven young single mothers, who seemed to range in age from about 15 to about 24. We met with them sitting in blue plastic chairs under a tree outside of a primary school about 2km away from the center of Lira.One of the things that struck me immediately was how softly these women spoke. One could literally not hear them from eight feet away. Even their advisers and our female guide from CPA spoke extremely softly. I found it challenging to decide whether to ask them to speak louder and risk offending them. Eventually I did. The women mostly spoke Luo and not English, so our guide translated for us.

The LGMMP had twenty-eight girl mothers involved in its programming and eight advisors. They sang a song for us at the beginning with the lyrics, ‘we will never forget you, please don’t forget us.’ They were involved in five different types of microbusinesses that they had been trained to start. Initially they were given $75 each to start their businesses (as a grant not a loan). They used $17 of this to purchase ‘trading licenses’ so they could start their business legally, so they were left with $58 to begin.

They had started a grinding business, a distillery, a sewing company, a charcoal company, and a bakery. They indicated their biggest challenges were:

  1. Transporting of their goods to the market
  2. The expense of trading licenses ($17)
  3. The fluctuating price of food
  4. Finding space for their businesses and paying rent
  5. Inability to sell their whole product before it goes stale

As an example of their issue with transport costs, the mother running the charcoal business would pay 10,000 UGX ( ~$5) for her charcoal bushels at wholesale, then pay 4500 UGX (~$2.25) and then be able to sell her charcoal 15,000 to 20,000 UGX ($$7.50 to $10). On a bad day she would work all day to make $0.25. On a good day she might make $2.50, depending on the retail price she could negotiate.

When they had the opportunity to ask us questions, their first question was whether we would be able to help financially support them so they could expand the program to other young mothers in the area. They indicated their morale was low as they had held meetings with potential donors before but hadn’t yet received any outside support. They also requested assistance in finishing their formal education.

Their biggest business needs was capital–particularly a grinding machine ($35) and a sewing machine ($75). In the four months the program had been operational, the twenty-eight women had successfully been able to save 800,000 UGX ($200).

I found myself struggling whether to attempt to give the ladies helpful business advice based on my experience (group supplies together in one shipment to reduce transport costs, use savings to reinvest in capital now rather than later, etc.). With Bob as an investment banker from Credit Suisse and me an entrepreneur we naturally wanted to. Yet at the same time we recognized we knew so little about their businesses and environment.

We ended up choosing to use questions to inquire why they were or weren’t doing certain things. They had good answers. We asked why they didn’t use these savings to invest in the capital necessary to reduce their renting costs and earn a higher profit. They responded that they had committed to saving for one year or until they got to 5,000,000 UGX ($2,500), whichever was first. Once they reached this mark they would consider whether to use their savings to allow other mothers into the program and/or invest in necessary machinery.

Overall the ninety minute meeting gave us a fairly good understanding of the business and personal challenges these women faced and left with an appreciation of the work that CPA was doing and an even greater respect for organizations like Opportunity International and FAULA who follow a slightly different model of providing small loans instead of small grants. It is truly amazing what $75 can do, whether as a loan or grant. It can give a woman her freedom.


I first heard about Invisible Children in the summer of 2008 while visiting Uganda. I learned much more about IC while meeting their co-founder Bobby Bailey and CEO Ben Keesey at The Summit Series event in Aspen in April. Invisible Children began in 2003 as a documentary after three young filmmakers from Southern California visited Gulu. They rather courageously filmed and released a documentary about what was happening in Gulu in 2003 (children being abducted, attacks by the LRA, children being forced to walk miles every night to find a safe place to sleep).Today, the Gulu region and the Acholiland region of Northern Uganda is peaceful and relatively safe (and very worth visiting!). However, Joseph Kony and the LRA have moved on to the Garamba Forest in Northeast Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and continue their abductions and raids into Sudan, East Congo, and the Central African Republic. Since 2003, Invisible Children has produced six additional short videos telling the challenging stories of individuals there around Gulu. In 2005 IC registered as a U.S. non-profit organization and in 2007 they registered as an NGO in Uganda. They work primarily in Gulu, Pader, Amulu, and a bit in Kitgum.

In the United States, Invisible Children raises money, mostly through high school and college students, to fund both their on the ground efforts in Uganda and to fund legislative lobbying events and rallies (to encourage the U.S. Congress and State Department to work with Uganda, the DRC, and the ICC to pursue and capture Kony and stop his abductions and mass killings.

In 2008, Invisible Children had an overall annual budget of $7M, of which approximately $2M went to fund projects on the ground in Northern Uganda around Gulu.

Jess, Bob, and I arrived at the Gulu office of Invisible Children Uganda at 9am on June 30th. We met first with Erika who worked in communications. Erika was extremely nice and helpful and share a lot with us about IC Uganda.

In Uganda, Invisible Children has three on the ground programs. These are

1. Economic Development Iniatives (EDIs) including:

  1. Bracelet Making – IC started out their EDI programs by hiring 182 bracelet makers to produce bracelets that would be included in the Invisible Children DVD packs. They now have a surplus of bracelets, so have transitioned this individuals to a training program on income generation.
  2. Savings & Investment Program – These 182 individuals are now part of a savings and investment program which provides a six to eight month curriculum on income generation
  3. MEND – A new for-profit arm of Invisible Children that produces messenger bags and purses with the brand MEND from a nice factory near Gulu that we visited under the director of a talented and energetic designer named Marie. MEND started with 10 women and now has 13. Almost all of them are former abductees.
  4. Cotton – A program to provide organic cotton to Bono’s wife’s organization Eden, to help assist people in moving out of the IDP camps and back to their ancestral homelands.

2. Visible Child Scholarship Program (VCSP)

  1. Secondary Scholarship Program – Provides scholarships to 650 secondary school students in and around Gulu and Pader
  2. University Scholarship Program – Provides scholarships to 59 university students in Uganda and 1 who earned a full-ride to Boise State University in Idaho
  3. Mentorship Program – Providing 24 mentors to local students

3. Schools for Schools (S4S) –

  • A program through which schools in the United States support a school in Northern Uganda. IC provides assistance to ten schools in the area.
  • They work to rehabilitate structures and classrooms, install running water and water tanks, add toilets, and put in computer labs.
  • We visited St. Jospeh’s College (A High School), Gulu High Schools, and another primary school which I cannot recall the name of to see the work that Schools for Schools had accomplished.

Meeting with Jolly, Country Director for Invisible Children Uganda

After meeting with Erika outside under a thatched reception area, we went inside to speak with Jolly Okot, the Country Director for Invisible Children Uganda. Jolly indicated that the LRA was abducting children as a human shield. She indicated many in the LRA had been brainwashed to believe that Kony had spiritual powers. Today, she said, the LRA was abducting many more children in the DRC, Central African Republic, and Sudan. Jolly spoke of the political discussions between the DRC and Uganda about allowing Ugandan forces into the Congo to go after Kony. She indicated that Kony was being supported by President Bashir of Sudan, who also has an ICC warrant out for his arrest.

The other major NGOs I saw represented in Gulu were World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, African Revival, UN, UNICEF, and UNHCR.


Appfrica (on Twitter at @appfrica) is an technology entrepreneurship incubator and custom software development firm run by Jonathan Gosier, an American living permanently in Kampala with clients including Google and the Grammeen Bank. Jonathan currently has 8 programmers. He pays $900 per month for an internet connection of 192 kpbs, equivalent to DSL and about 1/10th the speed of cable broadband we get in the U.S. for $40/month. He spoke to us about the EACOSS, EASSY, SEACOM, and O3B (by Google) initiatives to bring faster broadband access to Africa. Jonathan was a big believer in making change through business. He felt there was a wealth of programming talent (especially with Python, Ruby, Symbian, Java, and C+) but a lack of opportunity in Kampala.

On Thursday July 2 we had the chance to visit Mityana, a town about an hour to the West of Kampala. We visited five organizations that day, the first being the Mityana Hospital.The hospital was built in 1947 and serves the 288,000 people who live in the district and many from surrounding areas. It has 6 doctors, 100 beds and 4 wards: maternity, male, female, and children. It has an HIV/AIDS clinic that serves 4,000 regular patients with the help of Population Services Internatational. It also has an x-ray lab and a dental office.

Funding from the hospital comes from the government, with some additional funds coming from NGOs. According to their Director, their biggest needs are surgical and diagnostic equipment and an ambulance. They have an operating budget of 23,000,000 UGX per month ($11,500).


Mityana Secondary School is one of two high schools that iContact and The Humanity Campaign have started a scholarship program for. I visited the school for the second time on this trip and had a chance to speak to their entrepreneurship class. Their principal indicated their biggest challenges are parents paying school fees, orphan students, and transportation.They indicated building additional dorms for some of the students would be very helpful to the children without parents and those for whom the school is a many miles away. One of their biggest needs is getting internet access to their computer lab, which is currently outside of their budget.

The school has 1,350 students and 70 staff members. The government pays the teacher’s salaries and parents pay school fees, which are 468,000 UGX ($234) per year normally and 900,000 UGX ($450) per year for students who live at the school.


AFFINET stands for the African Friends in Need Network. It is the second school that the iContact/Humanity Campaign scholarship program will be benefiting. It is a vocational school in Mityana, Uganda. It was started in 2000. It has a strong social justice mission. It provides classes on sewing, fashion design, carpentry, and home economics. It has 111 students and focuses its efforts on girls who have been left behind. It has had 195 graduates so far since the first class graduated in 2004.Over lunch with the Bishop, we learned that AFFINET would like to start classes in bricklaying, IT, and livestock. They need computers, sewing machines, and funds to complete their bathroom and ceiling in the girls dorms.

Namma Millennium Primary School was founded in 2000 by Dr. Christopher Kigongo, a Ugandan who now works at Duke University. I’ve worked with Christopher over the past year to set up a scholarship program for students at the school that is providing funds for students who attend Naama Millennium Primary School in Mityana, Uganda to continue on to secondary school at either AFFINET or Mityana Secondary School.I first visited Naama in 2008 and fell in love with the children. Last year, they danced and drummed. This year, students from Duke had developed a play on nutrition and hygiene that the students performed for us, followed by the amazing popping and locking hip hop dancing of a five year old boy (followed by Bob, Jess, and I doing a dance for them).

In 2008, a number of students from Nourish International worked at the school to put in cement floors, windows, doors, and a rainwater harvesting system. The improvements were very visible this year.


Our final stop in Mityana was the Santa Maria Medical Clinic. The Clinic is a for-profit private business, started and run by Dr. Paul Mugambe. The clinic today sees 60 patients per day. They provide more available and better care than Mityana Hospital according to Dr. Mugambe. They most commonly treat malaria, respiratory issues, diarrheah, and HIV/AIDS. They have 30 beds today.The clinic’s biggest challenges are people who need care but cannot afford it and thus do not pay their bills, high taxes, and a lack of surgical room. The clinic charges 60,000 UGX ($30) for a normal baby delivery and 300,000 UGX ($150) for a c-section delivery. Dr. Mugambe would like to expand the clinic but is currently renting so cannot make additions to the property. He is looking to get a loan of 75,000,000 UGX ($37,500) to purchase the property, but loan interest rates are currently too high at 20%.


On our final day in Kampala on July 3 we visited with FAULA and Opportunity International in Kampala. Both are microfinance organizations that are working together in Uganda. Jess, Bob, and I had the chance to meet with the CEO of Opportunity International Uganda.They have 200 staff members in the country, nine branches, and a $6 million microloan portfolio. Their average client takes out a loan of $150 and makes repayments weekly. They have a 2.4% default rate. They work through a group system in which a group of at least ten takes out a loan together (the peer pressure and accountability provides higher repayment rates). Once an individual pays back their group loan they can obtain a larger individual loan.

Opportunity prices their loans at 3% per month interest (compounding to be equivalent to 43.5% per year). While this is high, they indicated that the return from the use of their capital that is otherwise unavailable is much higher. They’ve developed an impressive, sustainable model.

We visited three of Opportunity International’s clients in Kampala, the owners of a banana stand, a metalworking shop, and a small conveyance store.

Opportunity International also has a partnership with Compassion International in Uganda.

After Bob and I left to go back home, Jess was picked up by Juma Masisi who runs WOMEDA in Karagwe, Tanzania. Jess has been at WOMEDA for a few days now. She is studying conflict resolution and women’s rights there.WOMEDA stands for WOMen Emancipation and Development Agency. According to their web site, WOMEDA “promotes the status of marginalized groups by creating and strengthening equal opportunities for women, men, and children through the provision of socioeconomic, legal, and human rights activities in order to attain sustainable development.”

We are hoping that Mary Muhara from Africa Rising will have a chance to visit WOMEDA in the coming days and consider supporting the organization.

Overall we very much enjoyed our time in Kenya and Uganda. I wanted to especially thank Louis Ntale and Rebbecca Ntale who allowed us to stay at their house for three nights and their son Kenneth Ntale for driving us in Uganda. Thanks to all for reading. Comments are very welcome!

Life Update: March Whirlwhind + The Summit Series Aspen

April 15, 2009

Print This Article

I’m in the Chicago O’Hare hotel tonight. I’m so very excited to have 3-4 hours to read and write. I leave in the morning for Aspen to attend The Summit Series, an event that is bringing together 120 of the top entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs in the country. I can already tell from the attendee list I just received that it will be a worthwhile three days on both the business and social justice side.

The last four weeks have been non-stop. It’s been passion-filled entrepreneuring and social entrepreneuring. Love it.

At the beginning of March I had the opportunity to speak at Yale University at the StartingBloc Greater NY Institute. I spoke on “A Vision for Our World in 50 Years.”

In mid-March I spoke at the Montgomery Tech Conference in Santa Monica to present iContact and meet with investors and saw Tim Draper of DFJ do an excellent rendition of The Riskmaster. I spoke at Southeast Venture Conference in Atlanta the next day to present an update on iContact to investors.

On March 6 I had the chance to visit The White House in D.C. to attend a Summit of Young Entrepreneurs and heard Macon Phillips, Yosi Sargant, David Washington, Michael Strautmanis, Jason Furman, Martha Coven, Greg Nelson, and Heather Zichal of the Obama Administration present on what they were working on to make an impact in the areas of the economy, budget, healthcare, energy, the environment, and transparency.

March 20, I hosted Entrepreneur & Social Entrepreneur Meetup #27 at my house in Chapel Hill where Nate Seaman of Bike and Build (he’s biking across the USA this summer to build and raise funds for low-income housing), Gene Nichol of the UNC Center for Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, Dan Moore from Triangle Gives Back, and Michael Kelso from the startup Briteroots presented for 7 minutes each.

The peace activist inside of me was stimulated on March 26 when Betty Bigombe spoke at UNC’s FedEx Global Center on what she learned negotiating peace in Uganda between the Museveni Government in the South and the LRA in the North.

At the end of the month I attended StartingBloc’s NYC Institute at NYU Wagner and Columbia Business School. I heard presentations by the passionate Robert Egger of DC Central Kitchen, Ami Dar of, and environmental activist Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx.

Finally on March 30th, I was inspired to build schools in developing countries as a way toward lasting peace and security when Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea fame spoke at UNC. He has built dozens of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Here are two memorable quotes from Mortensen’s talk:

“Fighting terrorism is based on fear. Promoting peace is based on hope” – Greg Mortensen
“The solution to terrorism is education, not bombs.” – Greg Mortensen

Other notable events in March were the Nourish International (side note: if you’re in Raleigh, Nourish is hosting a fundraiser on April 17 called Brew Local, Act Global at Mosaic Wine Lounge from 6pm to 8pm) and Leadership Triangle Board Meetings, an Entrepreneurs’ Organization Forum, and an EO Raleigh Recruiting Event and Jess Lipson and Brooks Bell’s house. EO Raleigh is working to bring together the largest group of successful entrepreneurs in the Triangle.

On the personal side of life, I fit in visit to the wonderful NC Museum of Art in Raleigh, three ultimate frisbee sessions at UNC’s Carmichael Fields, and celebrated with my mom for her 57th birthday.

In the book world, right now I’m reading An Assault on Reason by Al Gore, Three Cups of Tea by Mortesen, and Mastering the Rockefeller Habits by Verne Harnish.

At iContact, we’re up to 162 full-time employees, 159 of which are based in our Durham office. We hired six new team members last month and are continuing to hire in customer service, sales, and development. We passed the $2M in monthly sales milestone for the first time in March. Because we hit this stretch goal, I’ll be dressing up like Tina Turner (with wig, shaved legs, mini-skirt and all) on April 17th. I was able to extract a few commitments from other members of our Director team…

  • Chuck Hester will sing the UCLA fight song at the April company lunch, wearing a UCLA jersey
  • Ken O’Berry will dress up as Steve Perry, complete with tuxedo tails, and sing Don’t Stop, Believin’ at the April Company Lunch
  • Sarah Stealey will take a $25 gift card, go to Wal-Mart, buy an entire outfit (shoes included) and wear the outfit to work (and yes, the trip to Wal-Mart will be videotaped)
  • Cindy Hays, David Rasch & Brandon Milford will dye half their hair iContact Green and the other half iContact Blue
  • Eric Sternkopf will come to work on day in April dressed as his favorite artist, The Prodigy.
  • Tim Oakley will come to work on a day in April dressed as Michael Jackson.
  • Robert Plumley will auction off the right to put a cream pie in his face at the April company lunch to the highest bidder and donate the proceeds to The Shriners’ Hospital in Greenville
  • Kevin Fitzgerald, Aaron Houghton, Ralph Kasuba, and David Roth will rewrite the lyrics and perform a song parody video of “We are the World” – renamed “We are not SPAM” and put it on YouTube

Whew. What a month!

« Previous PageNext Page »