YALI Fellows explore Silicon Valley

Over the last six weeks,  a cohort of 25 African entrepreneurs and young professionals from the 2017 YALI (Young African Leadership Initiative) Fellowship Program, joined the African Technology Foundation (ATF) for a series of events and engagements as part of ATF’s contribution to the YALI Fellows emersion into the Silicon Valley.

YALI was launched in 2010 by former U.S. President, Barack Obama, as a means to support young African leaders as they spur economic growth, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across Sub-Saharan Africa. The Mandela Washington Fellowship, YALI’s flagship program, was launched in 2014. The program brings together 1,000 African civic, business and community leaders aged 25–35 for six weeks of academic coursework, leadership training and networking at U.S. universities and institutions.

This California cohort was hosted by Skyline College, a Silicon Valley based Community College, and the first ever Community College to be awarded the opportunity to host a cohort of YALI fellows.

On June 30th, as an introductory engagement held at Bootup Ventures – a Silicon Valley startup community and coworking space,  ATF exposed the Fellows to the African diaspora’s presence in the Silicon Valley technology ecosystem. The diaspora members in attendance represented a diverse group of organizations and companies including Google, Ernst & Young, the Global Fund for Women and Santa Clara University.

In contrast, the 25 YALI Fellows represented 20 different African countries, and spoke at least 10 unique languages between them. Furthermore, they represented companies and industries that ranged from corporate to startup, social enterprise to non-profit, agriculture to tech, energy to logistics, and everything in between.

To begin the evening, Stephen Ozoigbo, the CEO and Founder of ATF, welcomed the fellows to Silicon Valley and encouraged them to take full advantage of the opportunity they had been given. Following Stephen’s introduction, Mukul Agarwal, the CEO and Founder of Bootup Ventures, shared his journey as a serial entrepreneur and investor. He closed his talk with advice on how to build lasting connections with business partners,  how to be resilient in tough times, and on the need to stay true to one’s values.

Following the dinner and initial pleasantries, each of the Fellows was invited to present their 90 second pitch to the audience of diaspora members and receive feedback. Throughout the pitch session, mentors like Tony Okoro, a Global Innovation Executive at Ernst & Young, coached the Fellows on how they could improve their pitches. The feedback ranged from body language and vocal intonation, to including more information about their traction, and making sure they are explicit about what expenses an investment would be covering. Musimbi Kanyoro, CEO and President of the Global Fund for Women, also provided valuable feedback to the social entrepreneurs in the room, many of whom had ideas focused on helping women in Africa.

The diaspora engagement proved an invaluable exchange for the Fellows. Many of the attendees offered to provide continued support the Fellows over time, others scheduled one-on-one meetings immediately following the event. In addition,some of the Fellows received favorable feedback on their financing requests, and are currently exploring potential investment opportunities. The collective feedback the Fellows received gave them the insight they would need to successfully present their elevator pitches during their engagements in Silicon Valley.

On Thursday July 13th, ATF partnered with Skyline College to host a VENTURE documentary screening with a diverse audience of college students and the YALI Fellows on their campus in San Bruno, California. The Venture documentary follows the journeys of 4 African entrepreneurs who, in 2015, won Africa’s largest pitch competition, DEMO Africa. It was important to share this story with the Fellows because it represented a big picture introduction to some of the work that is being done through a variety of exchange programs to support entrepreneurs like them.

Following the screening, four of the YALI Fellows were selected to participate in a panel discussion. During the discussion, the Fellows shared their experiences with the Skyline College students on venture creation and provided the students with best practices on getting started as an entrepreneur. Specifically, the Skyline student inquired about ways of using technology to solve social issues in their communities, and they also asked for advice on the ways that they can engage in Africa as they progress in their respective careers.

Later that afternoon, ATF hosted a pitch training boot camp with the Fellows as a follow-up to some of the feedback and excitement that was received after the pitch feedback session held at Bootup Ventures. ATF coached the Fellows on what key pieces of information that should be included in their product pitches, and provided guidance on how to pitch to potential investors in Silicon Valley. The change in the quality of their pitches was significant and immediate. For many of them, what started as an unstructured narration of their companies and products became a consistent, specific, and detailed pitch that covered what problem they are trying to solve, why they were specifically well suited to solve the problem, what they have done so far to solve the problem, and how much money they would need to continue doing their work.

In similar fashion to the LIONS Innovation tour, ATF also exposed the YALI Fellows to some of the corporate resources available to African startups. On July 20th and 21st, ATF hosted the YALI Fellows at meetings with some of Silicon Valley’s most popular technology companies to further highlight ecosystem support for African startups. These meetings also gave the Fellows an opportunity to practice their newly refined pitches with an experienced audience.

On the first day, the Fellows met with representatives from SAP, where they learned about SAP’s Startup Focus program and cloud services. Following SAP, ATF took the Fellows to meet with legal advisors from ReedSmith. At Reedsmith, the Fellows were introduced to the legal history of the Silicon Valley, and they were shown what legal structures to consider if they are looking to fundraise from US investors.

On the second day, ATF brought the Fellows to Google Launchpad where they met with the team from Google Developer Relations. Here the Fellows learned about the different ways that Google is supporting entrepreneurs, and specifically, how they are engaging with the African technology ecosystem and supporting African startups. The Fellows  also learned about how Google Launchpad envisions the future of AI as it relates to startup development, and cloud service offerings that are available for startups to use.

Later that evening ATF joined the fellows at the Shark Tank Live pitch competition, where 14 of the 25 startups had an opportunity to pitch their products to an audience of Silicon Valley tech enthusiasts, and bona fide investors.

Intermixed between some local startups, each of the participating Fellows  gave the audience a two minute presentation on their product or service. Watching the Fellows implement the tips and tools they had learned over the course of the program was especially exciting and rewarding, because in a context like Shark Tank, where they do not typically engage with African entrepreneurs, you could see the interest, and shifting opinion of the host, audience, and even the investors change as each Fellow pitched.

At the end of every Shark Tank pitch competition, a winner is selected, and from the entire group of startups that included Mandela Fellows and local startups, Adbuol Khadre,  CEO of Volkeno from Dakar, Senegal, was selected the winner. Between his victory, and all of the other successful pitches from the Fellows, the host closed by encouraging audience members to consider investment opportunities in Africa.

ATF’s last meeting with the YALI fellows was during their farewell gathering at City Slicker Farms in Oakland, California. It was an emotion filled event. Select program organizers and fellows fought to keep down tears as they talked about their experiences, what they learned, the relationships they developed, and their appreciation for the experience.

The farm manager from City Slickers invited some West African drummers to come and perform, and in true African fashion, everyone danced in celebration. The fellows closed the event with an appreciation video for all of the program partners and organizers, highlighting what they were specifically appreciative of for each.

The YALI Fellows’ positivity, humility, intelligence and determination to make a difference was truly inspiring, and everyone left the event with the understanding that this network of 25 individuals from 20 different countries are the future business and civic leaders of their countries.

These Fellows are pioneers of a movement. They are changemakers in the flesh. They are 25 of 1,000 African professionals and entrepreneurs that will return to their respective countries with a renewed sense of purpose, new perspectives and mindsets, and the skills and network to have a transformative impact on the development of the continent.