MISAN REWANE, CEO OF WAVE ACADEMY IS OUR APRIL ‘FEATURED AFRICAN’

Featured African Series - Misan

Tell us who Misan Rewane is please?

I am a young Nigerian, young African, passionate about the potential of other young people in this blessed continent. I found myself here through a mix of education, family upbringing, the values and the responsibilities around those values I was brought up with. After spending the first sixteen, seventeen years of my life here in Nigeria, I went to secondary school here, I then moved to the UK and then the US to study. I studied Economics at Stanford University, particularly because I was interested in understanding how to solve problems; problems for individuals, problems for companies and problems for economies, and that’s what Economics helps you learn. Then I went into Management Consulting primarily because of that interest to have a background in problem solving. I describe myself as your constant problem solver, seeking to help people solve their problems. So I studied Economics and moved into Management Consulting, worked with the Monitor Group, a global consulting firm where we focused on solving business problems both in the social sector and the public sector and the private sector. I gained a lot experience and exposure from working both in the New York and London office and then spending some time in South Africa as well. My time at monitor also inspired me to want to apply some of the knowledge and experience I gained to Africa.

After Monitor I decided I wanted to move to Africa full time so I took up a six months volunteer consulting position with TechnoServe, which is an international non-profit organization that works primarily with entrepreneurs in the Agri-business space. I went to Cote D’Ivoire for six months in Abidjan and I was helping to set up a business plan competition to find aspiring entrepreneurs and existing entrepreneurs who wanted to expand their businesses, to inject them with business know-how, help them to define their business plans and do some market research around the viability of these businesses, and then give them seed funding to actually launch their businesses.

Then I spent a year in Nigeria working the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives during my NYSC, there I was helping my boss to launch his public policy think-tank, it was an exciting time, I was able to help with recruiting research analysts, designing training programs for them, and I think during that time just realised that these were young graduates who graduated from the best schools in this country but realising that there were still some level of problem solving, communication skills that were just missing at the core, and realising that I wanted to do something about that.

Parallel to all of these that I’ve told you when I was in College, in University, I set up with my sister and some other friends, a non-profit organization called the IMPACT Initiative, IMPACT stands for ‘Impacting Minds Perceptions Attitudes to Change Tomorrow’. With the IMPACT Initiative our focus was really around Senior Secondary students and University undergraduates trying to help them think about academic and career guidance so that they’re not just focused on getting A’s while they’re in school but really focus on how do you apply what you’re learning to the bigger picture which is employment, employability, what are the sort of careers that are available if you like Maths, if you like English or if you like Arts. We have a one-day youth forum that we started with in December 2006 and now we have a one-week summer school program, an annual summer school program that we run, it’s still running, it’s all volunteer led. Working with young Nigerians throughout the past seven, eight years exposed me to some of the deficiencies in their skills set based on the poor education system that they’ve been exposed to.

I went on to Harvard Business School; I was blessed to win the 7Up Scholarship that allowed me to go to Harvard for free essentially. While I was at Harvard I met with like-minded West Africans who were passionate about doing something about the youth unemployment problem and then started working on the idea for WAVE and so here we are with WAVE.

You and your sister, Jemine, started something called IMPACT, is it right to say that your interest with youth support and development is a family affair?

Yeah, I mean definitely the roots; the seeds were sown as a child. My Uncle, my Grandfather’s brother was Alfred Rewane who was assassinated during the military regime of Abacha, and our family would always meet every Sunday and we would discuss issues with development in Nigeria, and it was just always expected that to whom much was given, much was expected, that’s just how our family always operated extended wise.

In 2011 you got the 7Up Harvard Business School MBA Scholarship, do you want to talk a bit about that?

Yeah, I mean the 7Up Scholarship, amazing initiative. It’s a great opportunity because there’s no strings attached, you don’t have to come back and work for 7Up, if you want to they’ll be happy to have you, but the idea is they just want to encourage you to go out and dream big, and make a difference, that’s their motto, 7Up the difference is clear.

When you outline the causes you care about to be Economic Empowerment, Education and Poverty Alleviation, how do you intend to engage a system like Nigeria to deliver positive outcome?

So everyone should work on what they are passionate about, I believe everything from health care to job creation to agriculture to any sector you can think of, transportation, Infrastructure is important to making this economic engine work. For me my passion is young people and their education and the potential that it has to transform this economy. The way I see it is start small, start by building an educational model that works and transforms the paradigms that people have around educating people, showing that you can educate people in a cost-efficient way, you can educate people in a scalable way, you can replicate that model in different levels of the education system, so not just vocational but eventually primary, basic, etcetera. Showing people that education models work at the micro level, can be scaled, and then you start looking at government, what policies can you influence, now that you have x thousands of people that you have trained and you have placed in jobs, something that you are doing must be working, you start getting government and policy makers to listen to you and see what they can apply from your model to their own spheres of influence.

It’s good that you mentioned policies, I mean you consulted for Center for Public Policy Alternatives; do you have any suggestions for policies that you imagine might increase youth engagement and involvement in economic empowerment processes?

Yeah, I mean for one there’s a National Conference this year and if you look at the average age of the delegates there I don’t think the average age is anywhere near thirty, yet seventy per cent of our population is under thirty-five. We need to get us, people like you and I at the seat of the table so that we can influence some of these policies that are being made on our behalf.

So you recommend much more youth representation?

Yes, youth representation, the same way you’re seeing people around the world advocating for female representation, ethnic minority representation, you need to have youth representation, specific policies within education that need to be looked at, sort of who should be responsible for what, should government necessarily need to be the delivery vehicle for primary education or for vocational education? Traditionally you think so but perhaps there are interesting models that are coming out of the private sector that we need to learn from. Perhaps the private sector that is at the fore-front of innovation in industry should be responsible for the training and then schools work hand-in-hand with them to make sure that the materials that they’re teaching is relevant to what industry wants. But you can’t do things in silo and say we are government we deal with schools and we don’t talk to private sector who deals with jobs. So I think more dialogue, there are a lot of innovative things that are working at the micro level but not many people are dreaming big and scaling, so how can you get players together so that they can collaborate and scale.

So do you have any propositions for that, for public-private sector partnerships?

Well we have PPP offices everywhere I’m sure they’re busy doing things that are adding value but perhaps they can do a bit more. I don’t want to speak from a level of ignorance but what I would say is that for me my plan is taking an entrepreneurship model, proving that it works in the education space, seeing how you can apply that to policy, to scale, for example you’ve got SURE-P, they have a youth unemployment database, hundreds of thousands of youth I would imagine, why should I be running around trying to market to youth on the radio when I can partner with them and say give me your unemployed youth let me screen them for the kinds of people that I am looking for, let me train them, if you want to sponsor some of their training, fine by me, if not we’ll get them jobs so that they can pay retroactively for their training. So let’s look at models that work and let’s invest in them rather than government trying to do it all by themselves. I think we do have some models that are trying to engage with the private sector to deliver some of these things; it just has to be a much clearer, transparent process.

Let’s talk about you for a bit. As a young CEO I imagine you faced a lot of challenges and probably still encounter more as you go along; how have you been able to excel in that capacity and with its peculiar issues?

*laughs* I don’t know that I have exceled yet. I used to joke all of last year, people will hail me and I’ll say I’m a CEO of an idea, until I have a model that works I’m still a CEO of an idea, and now I’m a CEO of a model and over time we want to build this into an organization, a multinational organization that works across countries etcetera. I think challenges that I face are around, one, maybe people thinking that you don’t understand how Nigeria works because you’ve been away for so long, two, yes there are some gender challenges, where people feel that there should be a male at the fore-front and people will be more willing to meet with you, in fact I had this experiment I did once, in the beginning when I was doing job development I was going out to hotels, restaurants, retailers and trying to meet with the CEOs etcetera to tell them about our program and the values we bring with our students etcetera, so we’ll walk up to a place and say “I’d like to see the GM of this establishment”, and they’ll say “Eh what’s his name?” I’d say “I don’t know his name, this is a cold call, I’m just calling to market what we do.” I just would get a lot of hostility.

But I think for me, what has worked, what I strife to do and I tell my students in there is, look for how you can add value immediately, from your very first interaction, look for how you can add value to people before you ask for something. Sure it sounds a bit transactional, I add value then you add value to me, but I think even if it has to be transactional let’s not start it the other way first. So I go into a meeting with an employer and I’m listening to understand what their pain points are? What are the challenges they face with finding good people, with training people, and with retaining good people? If I can add value by bringing you good recruits, if I add value by saving you the amount of time that you normally spend recruiting people, then of course over time you’ll see the economic value and you’ll be willing to pay me.

Talking about you exceling, you were recently featured in Ventures Africa, in the ‘Diary of an Under 30 CEO’, how did that make you feel and what do you imagine got you that recognition?

*laughs* I think for me it was really exciting to have to tell my journey when I was contacted. I saw it as a chance for me to tell my journey so that other entrepreneurs can realise that they are not alone, because it can be a lonely path this entrepreneurship thing, especially when you’re expected to go take a comfortable, cushy job that makes lots of money and then you’re out there doing something that’s definitely not sexy at all. So I thought okay, great, if it’s going to help someone else realise that maybe this entrepreneurship life isn’t that bad, maybe I am not alone with all the challenges I’m facing, if I get to share what my experiences are and not paint it in this glamorous way, because I’m all for not painting things in a glamorous way, but really being honest and humble about the challenges that you’re facing, I just thought it was great platform to share that story with people, so I liked that it was a diary, it wasn’t a showcase to say, O look at this amazing person that’s accomplished, no, it was more about this is just a day in the life of this lady, these are the challenges she’s facing and this is what she’s doing to overcome these challenges, and these is what keeps her going. If one additional person read that and realised that they should keep trying for another year, because a lot of us entrepreneurs just give up in the first two years when we don’t see much results, they call it in America the ‘Hockey Stick’, in the beginning your income is low, you’re making loses but by year two you start picking up and you break even and then there’s a hockey stick and it curves like that; and I think a lot of people give up in the second year when in actual fact they probably needed to wait an extra year. By year two you slowly have your rhythm, your dynamics of how your business works, what are your profits, what are your losses, what are the key things that are driving your costs, what are the key things that are driving your revenues? By year three we’re usually able to just hit the ground running, but I think a lot of us just give up in year two, because all the naysayers have been telling you I told you this thing was not gonna work, how long are you gonna be renting out of your friend’s couch. So, I just thought if it was another avenue to encourage people why not. Very exciting opportunity and I’m thankful for that platform to share my experiences.

WAVE logo

So, WAVE, how is it going to ‘wave away’ youth unemployment in Nigeria?

*laughs* I like that, “wave away”. The thing I like about WAVE that I think has promising potential is that it is market driven. I call myself a CEO, not Chief Executive Officer, but Chief Experimenting Officer. So my job is to experiment with this model and figure out what is the most efficient way to make this work. It’s employer driven in that it’s not people coming for training just for training sake, there’s a job at the end of the training, and that is critical to motivate students throughout the program, but it’s also critical to ensure that we are teaching things that employers want, because employers are not going to hire our people if they are not getting the quality. So everything from the curriculum design, to how we screen for people based on emotional intelligence has been based on what employers told us that they struggle with. Employers are looking for people that have creative problem solving ability, people who take initiative, people who are willing to learn primarily, people who are flexible, because businesses in Nigeria things change overnight so you have to be flexible and be able to go with the flow. So we make sure that we screen for people who have those innate qualities and then we train them in the problem solving, communications, team work, and customer service skills that employers are looking for, and then we’ll place them on all these apprenticeships.

So the idea and the way I think it’s going to wave away youth unemployment is that it’s going to screen for people who are innately self-motivated, it’s going to give them the skills that employers say that they’re missing and then it’s going to place them directly in the job. So it overcomes the major barriers that young people face which are; lack of academic qualifications, because they have degrees on paper that employers don’t inspect anymore; lack of skills, because we are actually providing them with those skills; lack of work experience, because we are there giving them the work experience; and lack of personal networks. A lot of times you have people are really quite qualified but they didn’t know anyone at the Telecom to help them get that first interview in the customer care job. I heard an interesting statistics just a few weeks ago which is that the second biggest indicator after education for someone’s success in life is whether they have had a significant work experience by the age of twenty-five. So if you haven’t had a significant work experience by the age of twenty-five the chances are it’s going to be really difficult to make it.

So, eventually, WAVE is like a matchmaking idea?

Yeah, a skills mismatch. We’re trying to bridge that, there are employers on one hand who can’t find good people, so I don’t believe when people say there are no jobs in Nigeria, there are jobs, you’re just not qualified for the jobs, so we’re trying to get young people the skills that employers want, and we’re trying to get those employers the right people. So we have two sets of clients, unemployed youths and the employers, and we see this scaling across West Africa, we want to be training 25,000 people a year by year 5 which is 2019…

You don’t think that’s being too ambitious?

O, I was going to say it’s not enough, I mean we’ve got about 34 million unemployed people in Nigeria, so 25,000 people a year is not even scratching the surface of the problem as far as I am concerned, so yes it is ambitious but the problem is huge and so we have to be ambitious about this. So the question is how do you then design your organization between now and year 5 so that you can scale and potentially reaching a million people a year. But for now we’ve set our target at 25,000 people a year.

So, what’s the next big thing?

So this year is really trying to improve the model, we’ve done a few training cycles so we understand how we screen for people, we understand what sort of contract do we need to have in place with our students to make sure that they perform well on the work place, what sort of additions to our curriculum need to be included, how do we deal with employers and their vacancies, and managing the information that comes up between employers, vacancies and our own availability of students. So this year we’re trying to train 150 and do that in six training cycles and try to place at least 70% of them in jobs, and then we’re going to continue refining the model with the employers making sure that our students are exceling on the work place, and whatever they’re not exceling at we’ll incorporate back into the curriculum to make sure that we’re teaching them those areas of deficit. I think this year for us is really just trying to scale this model. We’ve got our own space in Yaba now so we’re excited about that and we are more accessible for young people across Lagos. Towards the end of the year or early next year we’ll probably be looking to expand to a second site.

Still in Nigeria?

Yes, we’ve already gotten some interests from some other West African countries actually, so potentially maybe have a pilot nest year just to even see how does this translate to francophone West Africa.

So a pilot programme in another country?

Yeah, maybe a pilot programme in another country next year, just the one-off pilot just to even see does this translate, does this make a difference when we apply it to another country. For us our plan is to be in the 15 countries of West Africa because similar problems with youth and unemployment.

If you were going to say, what country do you think you’ll be hitting next after Nigeria?

We’ve got some keen interest coming out of Mali. We’ve got one of our co-founders who’s from Togo and his family is in education and he’s always said when we’re ready to come to francophone West Africa they’re ready to help us keep the ground running. In terms of population size and need we’ll probably be looking at Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire; Ghana because it’s Anglophone and they’ve got over 20 million people and Cote D’Ivoire because it’s next door and in terms of francophone West Africa it’s one of the major economies. There are several opportunities, no country is not in our list, it’s only fifteen countries so it’s a question of timing and sequencing.

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