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These Booth MBAs Are Betting Big On Africa

Lavanya Anand wasn’t an entrepreneur when she applied to the MBA program at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. In fact, her background was corporate — she did audit and tax work for privately held companies before moving into corporate financial reporting at Sony Pictures. But now, after two years at one of the world’s premier B-schools, the recently graduated MBA is dedicated to a new mission: helping startup founders achieve their dreams in the emerging market of sub-Saharan Africa. And she’s promoting a program at her alma mater that will give MBA students on-the-ground experience in helping those companies flourish.

Anand is vice president at VestedWorld, a VC and private equity firm founded in 2014 by Liberia native and Chicago Law School grad Euler Bropleh. VestedWorld invests in African companies that are poised for growth in agribusiness, consumer products, and tech. With a goal of raising $25 million as part of a new push to gain a bigger foothold on the continent, VestedWorld is looking to back innovators in the economic powerhouses of Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya, as well as four secondary countries: Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. The company currently has nine major investments.

Anand is so dedicated to VestedWorld’s mission to nourish the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Africa that she is moving there next month. She’ll be the company’s “eyes and ears on the ground” in Nairobi, Kenya, considered by many to be the startup hub of Africa.

“As part of VestedWorld’s expansion and especially with this new fund, it was critical for us to have a local presence on the ground,” Anand tells Poets&Quants. But she won’t be the only presence on the ground. Earlier this year the company launched a fellowship program in which it sent three first-year Booth MBAs to its three main countries to work with growing startups there.

LAUNCHING THE ‘VESTEDFELLOWS’ PROGRAM

Jeff Stine. Courtesy photo

Instrumental in the launch of VestedWorld’s fellowship program was Jeff Stine, the company’s managing director and a 2013 Booth MBA. He tells P&Q that the program grew out of the company’s summer internship, during which interns spent two to three weeks working in a target market in Africa. The interns came back with stories of MBAs they’d met in Africa that sparked an idea that Stine thought might benefit VestedWorld — and help some enterprising B-schoolers looking for global experience, as well.

“We wanted there to be a really good fit between our intern for summer and the companies, so we would interview companies, try to figure out what kind of work they have and then pair them up with our intern,” Stine says. “And after a number of years of doing this, summers came back and said that, ‘I had a great experience, I enjoyed the work that I did, but we ran into a bunch of MBAs over there who took the first offer they got from a startup, basically signing on the scene without having any idea what they’d be doing because they were just excited to have the opportunity. But they didn’t really know how to source companies, let alone a single company. They just got lucky.’

“So we took that back and said, ‘We’re already de facto an intermediary here, where we have a pipeline of hundreds of companies and we know which ones are going to provide a good experience, so why don’t we recruit a small handful of business school students, put them through an interview process to make sure that they meet our standards and are a good fit for the types of environment we put them in?'”

It didn’t;t take much to come up with a list of companies interested in participating, Stine says, and that also could provide a good experience, including offering fellows the chance to work on a project of “significant scale.” They called it the VestedFellows program. And this summer they sent their first three fellows to Nigeria and Kenya for 10 to 11 weeks. The three first-year Booth MBA students came back with success stories, ideas — and the desire to follow a new career trajectory. “The program was an incredible success and we plan on growing it in years to come,” Anand says.

‘BEING THERE DEFINITELY CHANGES YOUR PERSPECTIVE’

Lavanya Anand. Courtesy photo

Anand is no stranger to Africa. Though VestedWorld is based in Chicago, she and others make frequent trips to the continent as part of their daily operations. Being based in Kenya will just simplify matters, and cut down travel costs.

“East Africa is one of our primary regions,” she says. “We have a lot of great pipelines that are coming in through that region, and Nairobi being the hub for a lot of the startup ecosystem there, we thought that it would be a really good opportunity for me to move out there and establish our local office.

“And so part of my role will include continuing what I do here: sourcing companies, doing due diligence on the ground — but also with the advantages of being able to actually meet with entrepreneurs in person much earlier than we do currently, and then also having opportunities to visit their offices, visit their operations, get a better understanding of what’s going on on the ground, which I think will help our due diligence process in terms of the timing as well as in other areas.

“Secondly, I think it will really help me get a better understanding of the markets. There’s a lot of things that we can read online and hear from other people, but living in those markets, I think you can gain such a richer, deeper understanding, especially when it comes to consumer behavior and purchasing habits, given that one of our key areas of investment is consumer products and services. Something of those things are hard to really get a good understanding of when we’re working out of the U.S. And then, thirdly, we now have approved nine investments on the continent across East and West Africa, and so part of my role also includes portfolio support.”

Having a presence in Africa will make it easier to be more involved, Anand says. Similarly, the VestedFellows program is about getting potential employees an on-the-ground understanding of the realities of working and investing in Africa.

“Yeah, part of the role of VestedFellows is just getting people more exposure to these markets and kind of breaking some of those stereotypes that exist,” Anand says. “Because I think being there definitely changes your perspective, especially if you haven’t been there before.”