From Yale SOM, Growing a Business in Africa

By Matthew O’Rourke

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011, Xavier Curtis ’18  moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, with his partner, Eliza Richman. Working at local nonprofits, they found themselves frequently answering the same question at the end of the day: where do you like to eat?

“We didn’t move to Ethiopia with the intention of ever starting a business, but we soon realized this city had a growing tourism scene,’” Curtis says.

Curtis and Richman launched  Go Addis Tours in January 2013 to provide food tours. They quickly added city and marketplace tours to accommodate growing demand.

“There would be these tourism groups coming through that would tell their clients, ‘Stay at your hotel, eat there, and we’ll get you tomorrow to take you to the countryside,’” Curtis says.

Tourists, he says, were missing the opportunity to really experience the city. “We thought this was crazy. There’s a lot to offer here. Within six to eight weeks of launching our company, we were the top-rated tour company on TripAdvisor.”

Go Addis Tours gained some media attention when it consulted for celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who was in Addis Ababa filming his CNN show Parts Unknown. That brought the curiosity of local investors. What were their plans? How would they move beyond Ethiopia? Could they replicate their success with other services for tourists?

Curtis realized that he didn’t have the skill set to take advantage of the opportunity. When the venture blossomed beyond what he was prepared to handle, Curtis says, he decided that he needed a formal business education.

“We knew very much how to run a day-to-day operation, but we weren’t quite there when it came to thinking strategically,” he says. “We had these good friends who ran some of the largest private equity companies in the country asking us what our valuation was, but I couldn’t tell you how to value any of it. I was clueless.”

Yale SOM’s global ties made the school the best fit for him, Curtis says. Since arriving, he has received the business training he sought and put it into practice almost immediately. He’s learned the fundamentals of accounting, finance, and budgeting. And he’s found help with some of the bigger questions about his business in entrepreneurship classes with Kyle Jensen, associate dean and Shanna and Eric Bass ’05 Director of Entrepreneurship.

Classmates have also lent a hand. In his supply chain management class, Curtis says, his colleagues were able to help him organize an inventory system for a retail expansion of the Go Kigali Boutique, the company’s store at the Marriott hotel in Rwanda.

“Classmates and faculty have been incredible. They’re very willing to sit and talk about some of the struggles we’ve had as a business,” he says. “Any time we’ve had a challenge or if I’ve asked my class for help with a real-world project, they say, ‘Oh great, how can we help?’ That’s just the ethos here.”

Yale SOM’s unique Global Virtual Teams course has helped Curtis manage Go Addis Tours from afar, in collaboration with Richman, who is based in Kigali, Rwanda. He has also learned important lessons about building partnerships that will help as his company expands to other cities across the continent.

“Coming here, in addition to the hard skills, you learn just how crucial cross-cultural communication is,” Curtis says. “Understanding the importance of clearly delivering what our goals are as a company is critical. It’s very easy to be seen as expats somehow looking to profit off of our position, but we want to show that there’s a true interest for all parties, and that we’re actually working to improve the situation in Ethiopia and Rwanda. Thinking strategically and learning how to communicate at Yale has been very helpful for us and what we’re trying to achieve and will help us as we continue to grow the scale of our operations.”