By Karen Guzman
All of the entrepreneurs who spoke on a panel at the Yale School of Management on February 8 faced a pivotal career moment when they decided to leave corporate jobs and enter the risky startup world. They took the leap, they said, because they were passionate about addressing a gap in the marketplace that was impacting the communities around them.
“These entrepreneurs really are changing not only the lives of people they employ and service but also their ecosystems,” said moderator Linda Rottenberg, a 1993 graduate of Yale Law School and the co-founder and CEO of Endeavor, an investment fund that provides a “global community of, by, and for high-impact entrepreneurs” in emerging and underserved markets.
The discussion, part of Yale SOM’s Colloquium on Entrepreneurship, included Peter Njonjo, co-founder and CEO of Twiga Foods; Mona Ataya, founder and CEO of Mumzworld; and Songe LaRon, co-founder and CEO of Squire Technologies and a 2010 graduate of Yale Law School.
Associate Dean Kyle Jensen, the Shanna and Eric Bass ’05 Director of Entrepreneurial Programs, gave opening remarks. All of the panelists, Jensen said, persevered in the face of the many obstacles that startups face, and they have a lot to teach students. “There’s a special role in entrepreneurship education for hearing from people who’ve lived through the crucible,” he said.
Njonjo, formerly a top executive at Coca-Cola in Africa, left the company after 21 years to focus on his “side hustle,” Twiga, a farming and food distribution company that addresses food scarcity. “If we don’t solve the problem of food, Africa will not modernize,” Njonjo said.
Under his leadership, Twiga has become a leader in the space. “Now governments are starting to look at us as a source of food security,” Njonjo said.
Ataya left a job with Johnson & Johnson to found Mumzworld, the biggest online shop for baby and parenting needs in the Middle East. At the start, Ataya knew nothing about digital retail, but she wanted to make an “ecosystem impact” for mothers in the Middle East.
“I took that leap of faith with the objective of creating something to empower me as a mother to make the most informed decisions for my children.” Ataya said. Today Mumzworld services more than three million households in the Arab world.
LaRon left a position in corporate law with a leading New York City firm to start Squire Technologies, which provides booking software for more than 109,000 barbershops across the U.S. Visiting barbershops, LaRon noticed that these businesses, which can be a staple of the African American community, were underserved technologically. “These are small business that are central to communities,” he said. “So much happens in a barbershop besides cutting hair.”
Panelists answered questions about scaling a venture without compromising on its vision; early signs that can indicate whether a venture is destined for success or failure; and the ongoing challenges of fundraising as a business grows.
“Entrepreneurship is not for everyone,” Njonjo said. “There will always be a certain amount of risk and a certain amount of resilience you’ll need to build… Even when it’s going well, there’s a lot of risk involved.”