Sangu Delle | Entrepreneur, Activist & Fellow
Sangu Delle is an Entrepreneur, Author, Clean Water Activist, Soros Fellow and TEDGlobal Fellow.
Sangu is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Golden Palm Investments (GPI); an investment holding and advisory company focused on building world class companies in Africa. GPI operates companies in high growth industries and funds promising start-ups that can have social impact and generate jobs. GPI has backed startups such as SOLO Mobile in Nigeria, mPharma in Ghana and Stawi Foods in Kenya.
Sangu is the co-founder of cleanacwa, which is a non-profit working in underdeveloped communities in Ghana to make sure that water and sanitation, basic human rights, are provided.
My Definition Of Success | I woke up one day with a thought that terrified me, “what if I die today?” That thought experiment forced me to realize that deferred goals can’t be success. Success can’t be in a future that may or may not be realizable. Success has to be now, in the present. The external validation is nice but shouldn’t matter. It’s your state of mind. If you died today, how would you reflect on your life? Are you happy? It forced me to re-evaluate my priorities. Instead of defining success for example as when we achieve 100% water and sanitation coverage in Ghana (for my non-profit cleanacwa), it’s now did I work today towards a better world? How did I help someone today? I held my nephew Sangu Jr. in my arms last week and looking into his newborn eyes, so pure and innocent, everything became irrelevant. Waking up alive and being able to love him is already winning. We need to count our blessings. In the words of FDR in his famous address to the American public during the Great Depression, “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”
I Am Driven By | Love. Passion. Impact. Remember all those crazy things you did because of your high school crush? It’s like that with life. When you do what you love, you’ll break through any wall to realize your dreams.
A Key Talent | Many young people I’ve spoken to, especially aspiring entrepreneurs struggle to move from idea phase to execution. Here are some tips that can help with that.
- Write down all your ideas and keep track of them. I use Evernote to store my ideas. This is important because you keep going back to some ideas and you can witness the changes and evolution in your thinking
- Once you identify an idea that’s promising, start with online research
- Who is doing this and where?
- What are the most successful case studies?
- What have been some of the failed models?
- How is your idea any different? What’s your competitive differentiation?
- Next, if you still want to pursue your idea, having studied similar models, come up with a list of questions you have, and find people to talk to refine those questions or to get further insight
- Use LinkedIn to find experts
- Talk to your mentors, professors, and others in your network
- Every time you talk to someone, your last question should always be “is there anyone else you would recommend I talk to”
- As you’re doing this, build out a skeleton of an action plan or business plan. Identify your strengths and weaknesses and make note of the human capital holes. Example if your idea is technology related, and you can’t code, then you know you need a developer.
- Build a team to help you execute
- Start small with a prototype/proof of concept
- Set a realistic deadline to hold yourself accountable
The Characteristics Of Success | When I was a kid, my mother taught me that before you pray at bedtime, go and look in the bathroom mirror, and ask yourself “what have I achieved today? And if you’re not happy with your answer, don’t sleep.” That’s a scary thing to teach a 5 year old! But it’s something I continue to do every day to this day — not literally standing in the mirror, but basically holding myself accountable to make sure that every day counts. It can be mentally exhausting, but it propels you to set a high bar and to continuously push yourself to achieve excellence.
Principles I Live By | In Mark 12:30-31, someone asked Jesus what is the most important commandment to live by and he replied:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Even if you’re not a Christian, these are incredible principles to live by. If the whole world operated by this Golden Rule and principle of loving your neighbor as yourself, what a paradise we would live in!
It also reminds me of philosopher John Rawls’ veil of ignorance theory.
Lessons I Have Learnt | I don’t know if I’m even in a position to give advice since my journey is still very early, but if I had to share some nuggets of wisdom that has helped me over the years, I will break it into two buckets: business lessons and personal nuggets.
1. Long Term Focus (Capital, Investor Base, Expectations)
To be successful in Africa, you need to have a long term outlook. The capital you raise, the investors you get money from, and the expectations you sell them all need to be aligned and focused on long term big picture. Doing business in Africa can be uncertain and unpredictable, but the one thing that is almost guaranteed is that things will definitely go wrong at some point. So it’s important to manage expectations and to structure funding such that you have the flexibility and time horizon to work through mishaps.
2. Human Capital
The first few years of founding GPI, my biggest worry was financial capital. Today when I think through where I want us to be in the next 10, 20, 30 years, my biggest worry is human capital. If a genie gave me $1 billion tomorrow to expand across the continent, human capital would be my bottleneck. Unfortunately many of the public universities are not producing graduates equipped with the requisite training and critical thinking skills that are needed to grow businesses. That’s why I’m excited about home-grown institutions like African Leadership Academy, Ashesi University and other organizations that are producing critical thinkers and ethical leaders and scholars on the continent.
Business in our parts of the world is all about relationships. You can’t just come in with a degree from overseas and arrogantly think you can figure things out or cut, copy and paste. You need to approach business in Ghana and other parts of the Africa with humility and really spend time forging relationships. Business opportunities will come and go, but having the right relationships will serve you forever.
Relationships do not mean you should engage in bribery and other nefarious acts. In fact, that only serves you in the short term. In the long term, having integrity and being trustworthy, honest and transparent will pay huge dividends. Your investors, business partners, employees and acquaintances will respect you for it. When I interned at Goldman Sachs in college, I’ll never forget the COO telling us that “it takes years and decades to build a reputation, but only a second to lose it.” Guard your reputation with your life, and don’t sell your integrity for any price.
You will face a lot of challenges, especially when you’re young. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “ah this small boy” or other similar demeaning remarks. At the end of the day, the biggest deterrence to racism, sexism, youth-ism, or any type of –ism is excellence. If you produce the very best service or product, and deliver on your promises, you will win in the end. As Aristotle famously said, “excellence is not an act, but a habit.” You do best what you do most.
On a personal level, these are the 3 nuggets of wisdom that have brought me this far:
- Faith. I always remember 1 Timothy 4:12 “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” For me, as a Christian, my faith has played a huge role in my development as a person and any success I’ve enjoyed as an entrepreneur. Every time I feel like I’m in the valley, He somehow figures out a way to lift me back up to the mountains. That’s why I truly believe that the credit for any success really isn’t mine, but His. God has been an amazing force in my life, and I pray everyone gets a chance to experience His love.
- Dreams. GPI was a dream. It still is. Harvard was a dream for me, even though I was discouraged and told I’d never get in. Dream, dream, dream and dream big. Imagine new possibilities and recreate the future. Never stop dreaming.
- Hard work. If dreams are the X on the map, hard work is the fuel to get there. I get inspired by the likes of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan who achieved their success not because they had some special DNA but because they worked HARD. They outworked everyone. They practiced when others were sleeping. I am inspired by my classmate, dear friend and personal hero, Jeremy Lin, whose story, perhaps more so than anyone else’s epitomizes what can happen when hard work meets opportunity.
Dealing With Doubt | I founded Golden Palm Investments (GPI) in 2008. But Golden Palm was not my first brush with business or entrepreneurship, and while it’s been fairly successful in its humble beginnings, I think it is only fair and honest to give some historical context: a history riddled with epic failures.
I’ve always considered myself an entrepreneur. My knack for finding and seizing opportunities manifested as early as I can remember. Whether it was selling iced water at age 6 with my brothers outside our uncompleted house in East Legon to the construction workers paving the Lagos Avenue road who were perspiring under the unforgiving African sun. Or giving my elementary school friend, Nii Amankwa, extra tutoring in the morning in exchange for corned beef sandwiches. Or hosting auctions for my IGCSE notes in order to raise funds to buy my ticket to the United States in 2004. Those early experiences were only demonstrative of my creativity and entrepreneurial spirit but in no way indicative of near future success. Quite the contrary.
My first epic failure was with Bidz.com in 2004. I had moved to the United States in June that year on a full merit scholarship to the Peddie School, a boarding secondary school in Hightstown, New Jersey. I had just completed my IGCSE O-Level exams at Ghana International School with all As. Leveraging that performance, I marketed and auctioned all my study notes and raised US$1,600! I spent $800 on an Alitalia ticket to
the US, and spent a few hundred on winter clothes, dreadful of the transition from all-year tropical summer conditions to notorious east coast winter. I had a balance of $500 of savings which represented my entire life savings at the time. I spent that summer in Washington D.C. crashing on the couch of my cousin, JP while waiting for Peddie to resume in August. While watching TV one day that fateful June, I saw a commercial of the website Bidz.com. Bidz.com claimed to the be the “largest brand name and jewelry auction” in the world with “outstanding jewelry, watches, sunglasses and other accessories from leading brands, including Gucci, Chanel, Roberto Coin, Autore, Disney, etc.” I could potentially bid a few cents on the dollar for jewelry worth hundreds and thousands of dollars! Arbitrage! I did the quick math. I could scoop watches and rings for under 10 cents on the dollar, take them to Ghana and flip them at a material discount to their value of around 50 cents, and make 5 times my money! Money signs flashed all over my head, I was sold. For the next several days, I did nothing but bid and bid and bid. I bid my entire savings of $500, so proud that I was going to turn it into $2,500. I anxiously waited for the delivery of my goods. I kept reinforcing to JP how rich I would become and my plan to keep reinvesting my proceeds in the business and perpetually grow at 500%. When my package eventually came, I was elated and opened up my prize winnings. The look on my face and the subsequent laugh from JP scarred me. My prize winnings were fake. The jewelry was all fake. No one would buy a fake Rolex. I was crushed. My dreams of a perpetual 5x money machine fizzled into the air. And I was broke. Upon this realization, I decided perhaps business was not my strong suit, and I should focus on pre-med and studying to be a doctor like any “good” African child. Losing my savings was a huge price, but a price well worth the lesson. It was a painful, though insightful, lesson on the need to conduct thorough analyses on any product or third party before financially committing to that business.
At Peddie, I got involved with other startups and ventures. I started “SD Clothing” where I would arbitrage the glaring price differential between Timberland boots which were retailing for $40 in Virginia’s Potomac Mills Mall and over 150 pounds in London as well as popular hip hop white tees that sold for $1 in Jamaica, Queens and retailed in London for 5 quid. Sean Drake, an old friend from elementary school who had relocated to London was my partner in the UK. It was a huge challenge growing this business because I had very little money and so could only purchase a few items at a time. This taught me a valuable lesson on the need to have capital to scale up appropriately. Secondly, because we were dealing with two currency markets (US dollar and British Pound), our margins were vulnerable to the foreign exchange swings. Finally, SD Clothing humbled me in acknowledging my personal limitations. It was incredibly challenging balancing the logistics of traveling to Virginia and New York to purchase items and to manage the business, while taking a full load of Advanced Placement classes in high school. I learned first-hand the need to have a team to execute a business – a one-man shop isn’t practical. Ultimately, I closed shop and focused on my studies, non-profit initiatives and college admissions, trying to get into Harvard, my dream school.
During my time at Harvard, the entrepreneurial bug bit me again, and I was involved in co-founding XS Luggage with classmates Kwaku Nyamekye and Steven Lwendo. We complained about how excess luggage was so expensive and transportation times were not adequate with professional services. There was no need to pay overpriced fees with spare overall luggage space from other passengers. Our research indicated that the current solutions were not optimal: airline fees were already expensive, coupled with the additional costs of professional luggage transportation services, and leaving your desired belongings behind wasn’t a great option either. Our solution? XS Luggage: The Craiglist of Travel that would match light travelers with heavy travelers. With international tourism expected to reach 1. 6 billion in 2020, we were excited about the potential. After building a prototype website, and getting ready to launch the business, a series of meetings with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) deflated our excitement and obliterated our business plan. Our XS Solution would apparently be in violation of federal regulations and TSA rules. This business endeavor proved yet another epic failure; however, I gained from this defeat the profound understanding of the need to consider the legal and regulatory framework of any business before jumping in!
Given that every single business endeavor in my life had been a failure, one would expect me to retire from this relentless effort to make this entrepreneurial dream a reality. Maybe this wasn’t God’s plan for me, or maybe my predetermined fate left only the option to become a doctor – the unfortunate, narrow misconception of what it meant to attain success as an African young man.
Disappointed with those losses but determined to reach my goals, I refused to register the reality that maybe business was not meant for me! Instead, I believed all these failures were spiritual learning opportunities preparing me for something bigger and better – at least that’s what I told myself to be able to sleep at night.
Never Give Up.
Resources I Use To Stay Inspired | My networks have been a humbling source of inspiration, particularly the TED Fellows, the Soros Fellows and the World Economic Forum Global Shapers. I learn so much and I am in awe every day by my friends, many of whom are also my teachers and role models. Their passion, dedication and love is a contagious blessing.
My Future Dreams And Ambitions | I don’t think I’ll ever stop dreaming! For 2015, I would love to complete my book by June, start an angel fund targeting female entrepreneurs in Sub-Saharan Africa in the fall and launch Cleanacwa’s 2025 campaign to achieve 100% water and sanitation coverage in Ghana in 10 years. Longer term, one of my dreams is to build the leading healthcare provider in Africa. Oh and my grandmother really wants me to get married and give her some great grandchildren so at some point I probably need to work on that ha-ha.
I Am Inspired By | My mother , Kwame Nkrumah and Mother Teresa
Useful Links |