MEST (Meltwater): Training and Financing Tech Entrepreneurs
Neal Hansch, Managing Director at MEST, openly chatted with us about the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST), the nonprofit CSR arm of the Meltwater Group, a software as a service (SaaS) company founded in Norway. Generally speaking, MEST and the MEST Incubator program provides training, investment and mentoring for aspiring tech entrepreneurs, with the goal of building globally successful companies that create wealth and jobs in Africa. Neal extensively spoke on the MEST training and incubator program, startup culture, the MEST philosophy, and plans to expand beyond Ghana. Read more about the MEST’s journey with software students and entrepreneurs below.
What is MEST, and what was the inspiration/motivation behind MEST?
MEST is the CSR, nonprofit social impact arm of the Meltwater group. The Meltwater Group is a privately owned software company based in downtown San Francisco and started in Scandinavia. MEST is the vision of the CEO, started in 2008, with the belief that talent is universally distributed throughout the world. Our CEO, who is a repeat entrepreneur himself, really wanted to start a program that would train entrepreneurs and would support them as they launch and grow their companies, and dedicated a significant amount of dollars. We’re really similar to a Google.org or Salesforce.org, we’re the Meltwatergroup.org, and we get our primary backing from the Melwater Group.
‘In terms of size and population, Ghana is in the low 20 millions, so it’s just big enough to be relevant but small enough to get our arms around’
Why did MEST decide on Ghana?
When we started this, it was a blank piece of paper as to where in the world to launch this entrepreneurial support program. Obviously we targeted Africa and quickly narrowed in on Ghana as our first beachhead and primary location. I think the reason we chose it has proven to be valid and correct. In Africa, we were looking for a location that had a mix of factors including everything from English speakers, safety, stability, and democracy in the political environment. It’s also very international; there are direct flights from New York, London, Dubai, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, this was very important because we have a lot of flow through of international guest lecturers and speakers and fellows. Ghana also has a highly educated and talented workforce. In terms of size and population, Ghana is in the low 20 millions, so it’s just big enough to be relevant but small enough to get our arms around. You put all of those things into a pot and Ghana felt like the right spot.
How would you differentiate the MEST Incubator Program from others in the region, and do you interact with other regional hubs?
There’s really a collegial environment between the tech hubs. Particularly through Afrilabs, which is an organization that really facilitates, supports and promotes all of these types of organizations. My viewpoint is that we’re all in it together, it’s not some kind of zero-sum game. We’re all trying to establish and build an entrepreneurial and high tech support ecosystem across the continent. There’s just a lack of that so everybody should be and really seems to be helping each other.
How is MEST different? The first thing is that we’re a social impact organization, and we’re not per se, profit driven. Secondly, we have significant backing from the Meltwater group. Until recently, Meltwater was the primary and only supporter of MEST, but as we wanted to look into expanding into bigger markets, we entered into a partnership in Nigeria with Interswitch. We’re certainly blessed with resources. We also have 150 people in Ghana on the MEST campus in Accra. Size and scale is one thing, and also international reach. The companies and entrepreneurs at MEST can leverage and tap into the global network of the Meltwater group, so anything from office space to people. This is pretty powerful because while the MEST outpost is in Ghana, the MEST reach is pretty much anywhere in the world.
Where do you see MEST 10 years from now?
I see MEST hopefully touching hundreds of entrepreneurs per year from countries all across the continent, and having multiple locations, particularly for the incubation portion of our program. We also want to prove out our sustainability model; when the nonprofit foundation invests in these companies, it becomes a minority equity stakeholder and when the successful companies have an exit, the returns from that exit go back into funding the operation of the training program. That’s MEST’s long term sustainability model. We train folks, they build companies, and we own a piece of those companies and when those companies have an exit, whatever dollars are generated go back into funding the future class of 2025. That’s our closed life cycle system which is still being proven out.
‘The most rewarding aspect is working with entrepreneurs, building businesses and releasing into the world products that make a difference’
What is the most rewarding aspect about the work you perform at MEST?
The most rewarding aspect is working with entrepreneurs and building businesses and releasing into the world products that make a difference. I’m completely agnostic about geography, region or individuals. I think that from a rewards standpoint, there’s so much opportunity in West Africa and with the raw talent, right training and financial support, the opportunity is limitless.
What would be the most important piece of advice you would give to entrepreneurs and startups?
Take the entrepreneurial leap! You have to have that drive, that sense of urgency and unwillingness to give up and take no as an answer. But also be prepared to zig and zag, and adjust to what you’re hearing in the market. You have to be ready to really be an entrepreneur.
One of the challenges we’ve seen particularly is that when you’re competing on a global stage, that means you have to really compete on a global stage. You have to work just as hard as the guy who’s working in Berlin and Bangalore. You have to create just as high quality of a product. And so, if you’re going to be an entrepreneur in West Africa and you’re aim is not just to address the local market, where you have local competition, you have to be ready to step up to the global stage.
To keep up with all of the incredible work being done at MEST, follow them on twitter @MESTGhana
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About: Tracy Ayodele
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